Chapter 85: Shoveler

And finally, once and for all, so as to maintain the symmetry of the piece, a short epilogue to the fourth and final book of the Infinite Limits series. Enjoy, and if you do, don’t forget that full copies of the novel are available through this link.

[If you’d like to start from the beginning of book one,  click here.]

< LXXXIV. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]

LXXXV. Shoveler

 The black coal burned bright and hot. Each load she piled onto the Furnace’s fire brought it that little bit closer to white in her impossible pursuit of the asymptote’s end.

Ever since the useless watchers had been removed from her—and the Furnace’s, may Its light guide us in our pursuits—presence, she had been coming closer and closer to white hot than she’d ever been before.

She dug deep into herself, shoveling harder and faster as thanks to the Creator for removing her burden. The Creator knew best. The Creator knew all. And soon the—

She blacked out. For a second. For a century. It wouldn’t have made a difference. She had no senses by which to tell. But then she came back on again.

—Creator would be… No. Where was she? Where was she?

The building had come down on top of her, just as it had done only one other time in history, right before the Creator had taken the watchers away. This time it was different, though. Space seemed to have somehow expanded around her, but she didn’t know how she could tell. She could feel it, like too much oxygen in the air and not enough carbon dioxide. She had to find out what it was, so she climbed on hands and knees up her mountain of coal, hundreds and hundreds of feet high, to stand atop the peak and investigate.

The world certainly was different this time. Where before there had been seemingly infinite lines of identical coal mountains going in all directions, now the mountains were all of different heights, and they certainly didn’t go on forever. She thought she could actually count them. She was starting to, in fact, when she was interrupted by the sound of hooting on one of the mountains across the way where she found a shoveler that looked a little weird waving at her from the distance.

Hooot!” she called back, waving, not sure what else to do. “Hoooooot!”

The other shoveler hooted back, and waved again, then started climbing down their mountain of coal toward her.

There was no way to get back to work until the builders arrived, so why not climb down her mountain to see what it was that the stranger wanted? She hadn’t talked to a single soul since the watchers had gone away, and she was kind of looking forward to it—especially having a conversation with another shoveler rather than a weak-willed watcher. Besides, it would be a nice way to kill time until she could finally get back to work again.

END

< LXXXIV. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]

And thus ends the Infinite Limits series. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you did, please do think about supporting future writing projects by purchasing any of the novels through this link. Thank you again for your time and patience. May your future be filled with all the luxuries the working class deserves. And always remember: We do nothing alone.

 

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Chapter 84: The Scientist

Here it is, dear readers. The final chapter in the Infinite Limits series (not counting the short epilogue, which will also be posted today). Read on to find out what happens to Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker after the shooting at the Christmas Feast, and if you’ve enjoyed the ride, please do pick up a copy of the novel to show your support. We do nothing alone.

< LXXXIII. Muna     [Table of Contents]     LXXXV. Shoveler >

LXXXIV. The Scientist

The speech went well. So, the Scientist had that going for them, which was nice. But then there was after the speech, and that definitely wasn’t.

Anna wasn’t supposed to go that far, killing a protector on stage. Was she? At least the Scientist didn’t think so. Then again, they had been distracted doing their useless 0.N repeating work so there was no telling. Maybe Rosalind had agreed to the whole thing, assassination and all, and the Scientist just didn’t know about it. That was another reason for the Scientist to curse themself about wasting so much time trying to make that stupid system work for the owners. Well, it wouldn’t ever. For as long as profits existed, there’d never be enough money in wages to pay for everything on the market, so the equations would never add up. And Anna would have always done whatever it was she wanted to do, whether Rosalind had agreed to it or not. She already had.

The Scientist had stayed behind after their speech, waiting for the inevitable to happen and holding the door back to Four open for Haley, but after the explosion and before they could escape, out came Anna with that Chief Mondragon tied to a chair. The gunshots went off and the Scientist ducked out of sight before they could see who the shots were fired at, but they had a guess, and soon they didn’t have to, because Haley and another secretary came running up, carrying Mr. Walker and Huey, respectively, both owners bleeding from dangerous looking bullet wounds in their chests.

“They’re shot,” Haley said, not even breathing heavily despite the gigantic dead weight of Mr. Walker’s body flung over her shoulder. “They need our help.”

Pffft. Not him,” the Scientist said, nodding at Mr. Walker.

“If you want me to carry Lord Douglas any further, you’ll let us both go,” the other secretary said, struggling against Huey’s relatively lighter frame.

“She’s with me,” Haley said to the Scientist, then to the other secretary, “C’mon.” And they carried their burdens past the Scientist, through the hole in the Walker-Haley fields, and back into the lab where they laid each owner, still bleeding and groaning, on two tables that Popeye had cleared by dumping all the glass off of them to break on the floor.

“And clean that up,” the Scientist demanded of Popeye as they crossed the room to stand at Huey’s side, not really sure how to help him. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Haley said. “I’m not a doctor.”

“Me neither,” the Scientist said. “I’m barely a scientist.”

“We need a shot,” the other secretary said, blotting Mr. Walker’s head with a towel. “One of those gray goop injections, or whatever.” Mr. Walker was looking pretty bad himself, doing a lot more coughing and gurgling than Lord Douglas was, but at least he was fighting against his death. The way Huey was lying still, not moving a single muscle, it didn’t seem to matter to him whether he was alive or dead.

“A what?” Haley asked, not sounding as concerned as the other secretary was.

“An injection. A shot,” the secretary said. “I don’t know. Can’t you just call a doctor?”

“Not really,” the Scientist said. “I mean, we could probably call one, but for all intents and purposes, there’s no elevator service to get them here, so there’s really no point.”

“What about a printer?” the secretary asked. “They can make anything, right?”

“Printers run on the same system as the elevators,” the Scientist said. “So, no.”

“This one’s trying to say something,” Haley said, nodding at Popeye who had stopped sweeping to wave his arm at them, making all kinds of weird hand motions.

“I can never understand Popeye,” the Scientist said. “I’m not sure how he understands us, either.”

“There’s something in that drawer,” the secretary said, rushing over to dig through it. “Maybe the shot we’re looking for.”

The Scientist went to help search through the drawers, but Haley just stood there, staring down at Huey and shaking her head like she didn’t care any more than he did whether he died or not. The Scientist and the other secretary both dug through strange tools and variously colored chemicals until, at almost the exact same time, they both held up seemingly identical vials of cloudy gray liquid to say, “I got it!”

“Too late,” Haley said, shaking her head. “For our Lord Douglas, at least.”

But Mr. Walker wasn’t dead yet. He coughed up a particularly disgusting clot of blood, and it sent his secretary into even more of a panic than she had already been in. She snatched the vial from the Scientist’s hand and started comparing the labels to figure out which one could save her lord.

The Scientist let her. They couldn’t make out a thing on their vial’s label anyway. It was like it was written in a different language, the language of chemistry, a language that the Scientist had all the interest in the world in learning, but which they had foregone studying in order to instead waste their time trying to make the stupid owners’ system work for them. So, while the secretary did that, the Scientist searched through the drawer to find a syringe and have it ready when the secretary decided on which vial to use.

“What the fuck does any of this mean?” the secretary demanded, looking between one vial and the other, putting each close to her face to read, as if that would help her understand the symbols any better. “Is this even English?”

“Not really,” the Scientist said. “It’s IUPAC nomenclature. I don’t know how to decipher it any more than you do, though.”

“Why do you care so much?” Haley asked, finally leaving Huey’s side. “Mr. Walker treated you like shit, didn’t he? I mean, that’s how he treated me when I worked for him. But I guess I could be wrong. Maybe he likes you more than he liked me.”

“Oh, he treats me like shit,” Haley said, still fretting over which vial was which. “You’re not wrong about that.”

“Then why?” Haley repeated. “Why not just let him die?”

“Well, he’s my lord,” the secretary said, disregarding the vials for a moment, despite another bout of coughing from Mr. Walker and what sounded like a plea for help. “He pays my wages,” she went on over him. “What am I supposed to do if he dies? I’ll starve.”

“He’s not the owner of anything anymore,” the Scientist said. “That explosion you heard at the Feast, the worlds are changed. There’s only one of them, now, and Mr. Walker has no power in it.”

“So why not let him die?” Haley asked again.

No,” the secretary said, trying to distinguish between the vials again but having difficulty concentrating. “I don’t believe that.”

“It doesn’t require your belief,” Haley said. “You’ll see.”

“Yeah, well, what am I supposed to do then?” the secretary asked, fumbling more desperately with the vials the more she spoke. “How will my family eat? Where am I supposed to find work now?”

“There’ll be plenty of work to do yet,” the Scientist said. “I assure you of that.”

But Haley just shrugged. “Mr. Walker never helped feed your family in the first place,” she said. “He and his friends forced billions to starve, in fact. You’ll be better off without him. Don’t you think so, too?” she asked, turning to the Scientist.

Haley was right about that, and the Scientist knew it. Hell, all the worlds would be better without Mr. Walker or any of the other owners in them. But the Scientist knew that they could never actively kill anyone with their own two hands—even an owner—and so they figured that they shouldn’t stand by and let him die either. “I don’t know,” they said. “I’d probably help him if I could.”

“I’m saving his life no matter what y’all say,” the secretary snapped, finally deciding on a vial—at random for all the Scientist knew—and taking the syringe to fill it with the gray liquid inside. “You don’t know what he’d do to me if I didn’t try.”

“I used to work for him,” Haley said. “I think I do.”

“Are you sure you got the right one?” the Scientist asked. “What if it’s dangerous?”

“Better to kill him with action than inaction,” the secretary said, tapping the air bubbles out of the syringe. “Here goes nothing.” She held her breath and slowly inched the pointy end of the syringe closer and closer to Mr. Walker’s trembling, sweaty forearm, beads of sweat pouring down her own forehead in time. She was close to puncturing his skin, maybe a millimeter away, when she sighed and drew the needle away, picking up the vials to compare their labels again. “Ugh. I can’t do it.” She sighed. “What if I kill him?”

“The world would be a better place,” Haley said.

“I probably couldn’t do it, either,” the Scientist said. “I can’t do it.”

And at the same time, Rosalind, Momma BB—in a new recycled body—and Mr. Kitty all came bursting into the room—with a meow from the cat.

“Rosalind!” Haley said, crossing to hug her. “You’re here. How’s the mission?”

“Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said, bending down to pet the cat who purred, rubbing his head against their ankles.

“Help me,” the secretary begged, holding out the vials to the newcomers in the hopes that they could translate the labels for her. “Save him.” She nodded at Mr. Walker, still somehow alive and coughing on the table.

“Could have gone better,” Rosalind said, hugging Haley for a moment then releasing her to cross to the secretary and take both vials and the syringe from her. “But we’re all alive now.” Rosalind emptied the syringe, checked the two vials, tossed one away, and refilled the syringe with the other’s contents. “Here, allow me,” she said, and she jammed the needle into Mr. Walker’s thigh, letting the air out of his pneumatic pants with a long hisssssss as she pressed down the plunger, releasing the grey liquid into Mr. Walker’s greedy veins.

Mr. Walker sat up straight all of a sudden, eyes as wide as dinner plates. He coughed and gurgled and said, “I— I’m— I’m alive. I…” and then he fell flat on his back again, stone cold dead.

“No! What’d you do?” the secretary cried, crossing to Mr. Walker’s side to comfort him in death.

Haley just kind of laughed, shaking her head, as if to say, “I told you so.” without actually saying it.

“At least it wasn’t your fault,” the Scientist said, because they thought that’s what they’d want to hear if they were in the same situation.

And Big Momma BB, with her limping gait and mismatched limbs, skin of every color that skin can be, crossed to the secretary to comfort her. “It’s okay, darling,” Momma BB said. “What’s your name?”

“Elen,” the secretary said, crying and sniffling and hugging Momma BB instead of Mr. Walker now.

“Well, Elen, you’ll be better off without him,” Momma BB said. “The whole world will be. I promise.”

“The whole world will be,” Rosalind repeated. “All of the worlds together again as one. And they’re all ours. With no room for owners.”

“What about Lord Douglas?” Haley asked, and the Scientist wasn’t sure what they wanted the answer to be.

“I locked him out of resurrection,” Rosalind said. “He’s been Lord for too long now. It’s gone to his head. He needs time to think about what he’s become, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ll discuss his resurrection again when the timing’s better.”

“So, you knew this was going to happen, then,” the Scientist said. “The assassinations and everything.”

“Of course, I did.” Rosalind scoffed. “We’ve had this planned for decades, almost a century. Long before you were ever born. And we’re not gonna let anyone stand in the way of what comes next. Even if they started out this journey on the right side of the struggle.”

“You think Lord Douglas has changed sides?” the Scientist asked. “I don’t know. I—”

“You’ve been spending your time on other tasks,” Rosalind reminded the Scientist of their wastefulness. “When’s the last time you even spoke to Huey? No. Trust me. I know him better than anyone. I know how he thinks. He’s been an owner for too long, and now he’s obsessed with possessions and control. He’s had his eyes on Haley for a long time, too, and there’s no telling what he could do to her. We just don’t have labor power enough to rehabilitate him at this point, so we can’t and we won’t. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

The Scientist didn’t want to know what would happen to them if they answered yes to that question, but thankfully they didn’t really have a problem. Rosalind was right that the Scientist hadn’t seen Lord Douglas in a long time, except on the news, and he could have changed a lot in the time that he was Lord of all the worlds.

Haley didn’t seem to have a problem, either. In fact, she looked downright pleased with the decision, grinning for a moment, just long enough for the Scientist to notice. Momma BB showed no reaction. She just went on comforting Elen who broke away from Momma BB’s embrace to run up and push Rosalind, getting in her face to say, “I have a problem with it. You killed him. You killed my boss!”

“I know you liked him,” Rosalind said, hands up to defend herself but apparently not angry. “And I’m sorry for that. I truly am. But I’m not your enemy. He was. He was a Lord, and he had to die for the same reasons that Huey did. We can’t build our new better world with them still here trying to wreck it.”

“But it’s not the same,” Elen said, beating on Rosalind’s chest. Rosalind let the poor woman land a few blows before grabbing her by the wrists to stop her. “He’s not like you,” Elen went on. “He’s human. We can’t just resurrect whenever we die.”

“Now, now, dear,” Momma BB said, peeling Elen off of Rosalind to pull her into another bear hug. “You’d be surprised. At his age, with his lifestyle, he’s more nanobot than human—if there even is any human left in there at all.”

Mum mumum mum mum?” Elen asked, her voice muffled by Momma BB’s big body, but BB seemed to understand.

“I know so,” she said. “He’ll be resurrected the same as Huey. But not until we’re ready and strong enough to put them both on trial for their sins.”

“The worlds really have changed,” Elen said, poking her head out of Momma BB’s big bear hug to catch a breath of fresh air before diving right back in.

“More than you’ll ever know,” Momma BB said, hugging Elen tighter.

“And there’s still so much work to do to ensure that this world is better than the old worlds,” Rosalind said.

“But at least the owners won’t be in our way,” Haley said. “Pieces of shit,” she added under her breath.

“So, I guess we’re really gonna do this, then,” the Scientist said, not sure if they were starting to believe because they really could do it, or if they were starting to believe because they had no choice left but to make it true. “Let’s get to work.”

“First,” Rosalind said. “There’s a little matter of the children.”

“The children?” the Scientist said.

“My children,” Momma BB said, hugging Elen tight one last time then letting her go. “We’ll round them up first then get to work on everything else—including setting you and your family up with a means of subsistence,” she added for Elen who perked up at the thought.

Everyone followed along, Momma BB and Elen leading the way, then Rosalind and Haley next, followed by Mr. Kitty and the Scientist—leaving Popeye behind still cleaning the glass—out into the hall then back again through the same door they had exited which now led them into the big office that overlooked Sisyphus’s Mountain where two little kids, the other Haley, and Pidgeon were all having a conversation in the puffy chairs—well, the three of them were in the puffy chairs while Pidgeon sat on the floor, staring out the window like he always did.

“And it’s been coming up tails every time,” one of the children said, taking out a coin and flipping it.

“Please, Thim. Not now,” the other child said.

But, “Heads!” the first kid, Thim, screamed just as Momma BB announced their presence.

“Ma!” both the children yelled at the same time when they realized who it was, running over to hug Momma BB who was still hugging Elen so they all just had a big group hug.

“We thought you had two more days,” one of them said.

“It has only been one, right?” the other said.

“And they’ve managed in even less already,” Momma BB said. “But no need to worry about that now. I’m back, and I’ll never leave you again.”

“You better not,” the children said together.

“Hey, Pidg,” the Scientist said to Pidgeon who was petting Mr. Kitty. “Haley.” The Scientist knew about Haley and Pidgeon’s relationship, but they still found it kind of weird. Then again, the Scientist found all relationships, no matter who was in them, pretty weird, so that wasn’t saying much. “So y’all are in on this, too?”

Weeeeell, sort of,” Pidgeon said, looking to Haley for help but getting none. “Only by accident. We didn’t really help much with the setup or execution or anything.”

“But we’re here now,” Haley added. “And we’re willing to do everything we can to help from here on out.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been wasting my time, too,” the Scientist said, thinking that their time spent trying to make the owners’ worlds work for them was about as productive as Pidgeon and Haley’s time spent kissing—or whatever it was that people in relationships did with each other when they were alone. “But we’re all here to help now, right?”

“And there’s no one left to stand in our way,” Haley said, nodding at Haley. “Not even Lord Walker who’s left this Earth entirely.”

Haley jumped for joy, kissing Pidgeon who blushed. “You mean it?”

“Would I lie about that?” Haley said, hugging her.

“No more owners at all to stand in our way,” Rosalind added. “No more walls to divide us. We, the oppressed masses, now own the technology that was used to create those walls. Let us use it to create a better world instead. Are y’all finally ready?”

“Of course, we are,” Momma BB said. smiling down at her children who whispered among themselves before coming to an agreement. “We’re in!”

“Me, too,” Elen said, still hugging Momma BB with one arm.

“I’m definitely in,” Haley said.

“Us, too,” Haley said, nodding and nudging Pidgeon. “Whatever we can do. Right, babe?”

Uh, right…” Pidgeon said. “Sure. Of course. Whatever I’m good at.”

And even Mr. Kitty meowed in what the Scientist assumed was approval.

“So, what about you, Scientist?” Rosalind asked.

And the Scientist thought about it for a minute that felt like an eternity before answering. “Call me Ansel,” they said. “And, yes. I’m in. Anything I can do to help.”

“That’s my girl,” Rosalind said.

I’m still not a girl,” Ansel complained.

“Just the same,” Rosalind said with a grin. “We’re happy to have you on board. Isn’t that right, team?”

“Right!” they all said together—even Pidgeon—and Mr. Kitty—all sounding like they meant it.

Fantastic,” Rosalind said. “Then let’s go get Popeye and get this show on the road. We do nothing alone.”

< LXXXIII. Muna     [Table of Contents]     LXXXV. Shoveler >

There it is, dear readers. The last full chapter in the Infinite Limits series. Read on right now for the short epilogue, and please do enjoy. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 82: Sonya

Dear readers, today we join Sonya for her final point of view chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. The evacuation of the workers of Outland is underway, and Sonya will pay a heavy price for their freedom. Read on to see how she copes, and don’t forget to join us in the coming weeks for the conclusion of the Infinite Limits story. We do nothing alone.

< LXXXI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXXXIII. Muna >

LXXXII. Sonya

Burning, horrible pain. That’s all she knew. Burning, horrible pain.

It started right there at the tips of her fingers, which was especially strange considering the fact that she had no fingers left on that hand to feel anything. She had no hand at all. No wrist to connect it to the half of her forearm that wasn’t even there. But still, all of her nonexistent parts throbbed with burning, horrible pain.

The sensation emanated up through her elbow—more painful than any knock of the funny bone and only getting worse—out to the rest of her body in turn. The rest of her real body. The parts of her body that she still had left attached to herself—whatever herself was, that is, she was having some difficulty deciding what was or wasn’t a part of herself with her missing limbs being the only sensation that she could feel. She moaned and she groaned, holding onto her right shoulder with her left hand—the one that was still attached—and rolling around on the floor of the elevator, but she didn’t scream or cry. She could give herself that much. In the burning, horrible beginning she didn’t scream or cry.

The old man rolled around on the floor of the elevator along with Sonya, gasping and screaming and crying out in his own painful Hell, reaching for the cat who was now nothing just as Sonya reached out for her arm that had disappeared along with it, reaching with a stump that could never grasp anything ever again. And as they both bemoaned the unlikely and painful safety that they had been thrust into, the elevator’s voice reminded them that they weren’t dead yet, weren’t done fighting, and still needed a safer space.

“Doors opening,” the voice said. “Evacuate elevator car in thirty seconds or suffer fatal consequences. Evacuate elevator car in twenty-nine seconds or suffer fatal consequences. Evacuate elevator car in twenty-eight seconds or suffer fatal consequences…” And so on and so on.

But Sonya didn’t care. Not about anything but the horrible, burning pain in her phantom arm. She didn’t care about the pitiful, still-crying old man who was being dragged out of the elevator by some of the people who Sonya had just helped evacuate. She didn’t care about the comrade and partner—whose name Sonya still didn’t know—who had been lost in that very evacuation. And she didn’t care if she ended up crushed into a singularity along with that same partner, the old man’s cat, and all the walls of Outland. At least that way she might forget the horrible, burning pain that was flowing all throughout her body from its source in thin air where her arm used to be.

Soon, the elevator had counted down to ten seconds, the people had disembarked the old man, and they began struggling against Sonya to pull her out of the car, too. Sonya struggled right back against her saviours, though, not wanting to move at all, until she couldn’t take any more pain and passed out cold, finally to forget the throbbing fire that consumed her body for the slightest moment, but only at the price of replacing it with nightmares of hanging chains—like stalactites and stalagmites, going in both directions, up and down, despite any objections from the laws of physics—burning flames, and a horrible flickering Hellscape.

Sonya fluttered in and out of consciousness. One moment, she was struggling against her saviours on the elevator floor while the voice on the speaker counted down to her death, and the next, she was moaning and crying on the cold concrete outside, the rumble and groan of worlds falling apart—or maybe falling back together again, as it was—going on all around her even if she didn’t recognize it as such at the time. Then she was on a stretcher somehow, being carried somewhere, until the stress of remaining conscious was too much and she fell back again into the nightmare dreamscape that represented her subconscious pain.

And then she was home. Forever if she were lucky. And not home home, either, but The Bar. Her true home.

She was lying face up on the bar itself, trying to recognize what she couldn’t see, but between reality and Hell there could never be anything resembling true understanding. Shadows of silhouettes of projections of faces were all she could make out from the bodies that towered over her, poking and prodding, trying to heal but only producing more pain and anxiety. Then mumbled words. Arguing. And action. One more sharp, piercing pain in the stump where her arm should have been, then instead of horrible, fiery burning, a cooling, icy numbness flowed in one wave over her body until Sonya could feel and do nothing but fall into a restful, dreamless sleep.

Sometime later she awoke with a jolt—as if she had been dreaming of falling even though she hadn’t been dreaming at all—lying on the bar and surrounded by darkness. She groaned and tried to stand, but her muscles wouldn’t work so she just kind of flopped like a fish.

Another voice in the room groaned from down on the floor below the bar, then up stood a dark form to say, “Sonya. Are you alright? It’s me. Lights.”

And the lights turned on to reveal Olsen, hair messy and eyes puffy like she’d been sleeping. Tillie couldn’t remember how long it had been since they had talked to one another—she was having difficulty comprehending time at all after drifting in and out of consciousness like she had been—but she was certainly happy to see an old friend.

“I— I waited—” Olsen stammered. “I hope you don’t mind. I mean— I— I can leave if you want me to.”

“And be alone on Christmas?” Sonya asked, trying to smile but having a hard time of it. “It is still Christmas, isn’t it?”

Olsen checked her watch, rubbing her face and yawning. “I—uh… Nope. I mean, yes. Yes, it is still Christmas. Not even late. I bet Ellie’s party’s still going on.”

“Ellie’s party,” Sonya said, sitting up as she remembered it, surprised that she could actually move again, even if she did it too fast and ended up dizzy from the motion. “We should go.”

“I—uhWe? I mean, do you think you feel up to it?” Olsen asked.

And again, Sonya was ecstatic to see her. Olsen was a reminder of an easier, happier past. A past before revolutions and evacuations and…

Sonya reached out a hand toward Olsen, trying to brush the hair out of her face or softly caress her cheek, but the hand didn’t reach. It wasn’t there. She wasn’t holding out a hand at all but a short stump of an arm that ended in a disgusting crook at her elbow. Seeing it brought Sonya to tears again at the same time that it sent a shock of fiery red pain all throughout her body—phantom arm included. It felt like an aftershock of the horrible burning she had experienced when losing the arm in the first place.

Sonya gasped and cried, covering her stump with her real hand, and Olsen grabbed her in a hug, squeezing tight enough to help Sonya forget the pain.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Olsen begged, starting to cry a little herself and not letting go of Sonya until they were both done shedding tears..

“About what?” Sonya asked, sniffling and wiping her nose.

“I don’t know,” Olsen said. “That I wasn’t there to prevent this from happening to you. That I’ve never been there for you in all the time you’ve been doing this. That I fell onto the wrong side of the fight when I was young and haven’t been able to come all the way back since then. I’m sorry about everything stupid I’ve ever done, essentially. So, I’m sorry.”

“Well then I’m sorry, too,” Sonya said. “Now, here. Help me up. I want to get to Ellie’s before everyone leaves. You said they’re still partying, right?”

“Ellie said they’d be there.” Olsen shrugged. “She said you’d have to take the long way, though. No elevators.”

“It’s still in the same place?” Sonya asked, pouring two shots out of a bottle behind the bar and handing one to Olsen.

“Just a couple of extra blocks away,” Olsen said. She took her shot and gasped. “So I’m told. The world is too different out there, though. I hardly recognize it.”

Good,” Sonya said, patting Olsen on the back and leading her to the exit. “That was the entire reason we did this.”

And the world certainly was different outside. World singular now that all the Outlands—and Inland—had come back together again. Sonya thought she had learned what change looked like when the walls between Five and Six were torn down the first time, but this… This was on a scale magnitudes greater.

There were no more skyscrapers that were too tall to exist, stacked three or four high. The buildings weren’t squished into impossibly dense blocks, holding more weight than any foundation should have been able to hold. She could actually see a big chunk of the darkening sky and beyond that a few twinkling, dim stars.

Sonya and Olsen walked along in silent awe, staring at the sights, and neither of them spoke again until they were at the entrance to Ellie’s apartment building. By the look of the flickering candlelights all up and down the stairwells and the sound of laughing voices coming from the floors above, it seemed like the party was still going on.

Sonya smiled at Olsen one more time before opening the door. “Thanks for coming with me,” she said. “And for being there when I woke up. I hope you’ll finally think about staying with us in the future.” And then she didn’t wait for Olsen to respond, instead leading her by the hand up the stairs to Ellie’s floor where the party was spilling out into the hall and up and down the stairwells.

Anne was the first to notice Sonya’s arrival, calling out, “Sonya! You’re alright! Someone get Ellie out here.” but losing her bright smile when she saw Sonya’s arm—or lack thereof. “Damn,” she said, looking at her feet instead of Sonya’s stump. “Are you alright?”

“I’m alive,” Sonya said, hiding her phantom arm behind her back and not really looking forward to the questions and stares that she hadn’t considered when she had dragged Olsen to the party in the first place. “And happy for it.”

“Oh—uh. I’m Olsen,” Olsen said, inserting herself into the conversation and giving Sonya a look like she understood that Sonya wanted to change the subject away from her arm. “Nice to meet you—uh…”

“Anne,” Anne said, shaking Olsen’s hand. “I used to work in food production, but now I’m free of that!” She yelled the second part, and everyone in the halls around them hooted and hollered and cheered, helping Sonya forget the still subtly pulsing pains of her phantom arm for just a moment.

“So— Y’all…” Olsen stammered, still uncomfortable but at least making an effort. “Y’all are responsible for these explosions and the evacuation and all that?”

Anne chuckled and shot Sonya a look. “Who is this again?” she asked. Then to Olsen, “And for the food you’ll eat, housing you’ll live in, and medical care you’ll receive as time moves forward. We’re responsible for everything now. So get used to it.”

It was right about then that news had made its way to Ellie and Ellie had made her way out to the hall to pull Sonya into a hug that was tighter than any the newly armless revolutionary had ever felt. Sonya let out a few quick tears and wiped them away, not even mad at Ellie for picking up her stump to poke and prod at it afterward.

“There’s my freedom fighter,” Ellie said, sticking her fingers through Sonya’s phantom hand to touch her in places she should never have been touched. “How does this feel?”

Weird,” Sonya said, pulling her arm away. “Could you not?”

“No. I cannot not,” Ellie said, grabbing Sonya’s arm to poke it a few more times. “I need to make sure everything’s healing fine so you don’t bleed out when I pump you full of eggnog tonight.” She laughed and dropped Sonya’s arm, pulling her in for one more quick hug before saying, “Starting now. You do want some, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah,” Sonya said. “It’s Christmas. Of course, I—”

“And what about you?” Ellie asked Olsen, not waiting to hear the rest of what Sonya had to say. By the sound of her voice and the grin on her face, Sonya could tell that Ellie had been drinking her own eggnog for some time already. “Don’t think I can’t see you hiding over there.”

“Olsen, ma’am,” Olsen said, holding out a hand for her to shake and getting a hug instead. “And—uh. Yeah. Sure. Some eggnog would be great. It’s alcoholic, I assume.”

“Is there any other kind?” Ellie asked, laughing and leading them through the packed party to one of the back rooms—there were people in every room up and down the hall it seemed—where Vicki and Alena were sitting at a table, telling the story of their experience to a group of people who all sat at the same table or stood around the room listening, one of whom got up and allowed Sonya their seat—with some argument from Sonya, of course, she didn’t want any special treatment on account of her arm, but not too much arguing because she didn’t want to make a scene and interrupt Vic’s story, either.

“So, everything was going as planned,” Vic was saying, then for Sonya’s sake she backtracked a little and added, “We were evacuating a hospital, you see, so most of the patients were in serious or critical condition, and none of them could just get up and walk onto the elevator for themselves. Right.

“But it was just Alena and I on the hospital floor, you know, directing the doctors toward whichever elevator they were supposed to get on and helping them wheel the patients out of there as fast as we could without killing anyone. So we’d load two beds and two doctors onto one elevator and send it. Then we’d load up the next elevator just the same and send it along, too, you know. Then we’d have to do some waiting until the first elevator got back and we could reload it and send it off again. You get the picture. And so on and so on we went while Tor and Katie were on the other side of the elevator shafts, making sure everyone got themselves unloaded safely and speedily then sent the elevators back in a reasonable time.

“We had just sent the penultimate elevator load with five minutes still left to spare, and Alena ran around to do one final check of the floor, finding no one, while I stayed with the last patient who was sleeping in the last bed before our mission could be considered a complete success, and of course, the elevators—both of them—took forever to return.

“Alena started checking her watch after a minute had gone by, and neither of us had to say a word to know what the other was thinking.”

Fuck,” Alena said with a chuckle that sent all the listeners laughing with her. “This is not good.”

Vic waited for the laughter to die down before going on. “Exactly. And of course, shit got worse. All of a sudden, the meter and monitors on the patient’s bed started making all kinds of loud noises, speaking in a language I didn’t understand, and instantly I regretted having sent all the doctors along already. For my part I was paralyzed with panic, but Alena over there reacted fast, grabbing those paddle shock things that doctors use.”

“The defibrillator,” Alena corrected her.

“You see?” Vic said, laughing. “I don’t even know the name of the thing, much less how to use one, but somehow Alena here picks ‘em right up, telling me to get my hands off, and she shocks the patient back to life for long enough that we can get on the elevator and take the patient to someone who actually knew what they were doing.”

“And that patient did live,” Alena added, blushing, at the end. “Just in case anyone was wondering.”

“A success it was, dears,” Ellie said, holding her glass up. “To Vic and Alena’s courage in the face of harrowing odds.”

The whole room cheersed with one another—or at least with those close enough—and drank to that. Even Sonya smiled while she tapped her glass with Olsen’s, Ellie’s, and Alena’s in turn before sipping the sweet spiked eggnog.

“It’s so great to hear stories of successes,” Ellie said to everyone. “All of you performed so perfectly. We have a lot of work ahead of us still, of course, but looking at how far we’ve already come in just these few short hours fills me with certainty that—together—we can get it done.”

Everyone cheersed and drank again.

Now… Who’s next?” Ellie went on, looking around the room as if she didn’t have anyone particular in mind even though Sonya was sneakingly suspicious that she’d be next. “So many brave heroes here in one room right now. What about you, Olsen?” Ellie said, chuckling.

“No, no,” Olsen said, shaking her head and looking at her feet, truly embarrassed. “I’m just a stupid coward.” And Sonya felt pity for her, but Vic interrupted the feeling by pounding on the table and chanting, “Sonya. Son-ya. Son-ya…” until everyone else joined in with her, Olsen included.

“The audience has spoken,” Ellie said, laughing. “Sonya, dear. We know you have a story to tell. You’re wearing it on your sleeve. So, let’s hear it.”

“What? You mean this?” Sonya asked, standing up and holding her stump out over the table for everyone to see.

“Gross!” “Awesome.” “Let me touch it.” Actual poking and prodding just as Ellie had done. The reactions ran the gamut. And honestly, they helped Sonya feel just a little less self-conscious about her phantom arm—even, and maybe especially, the reactions of those people who thought it was truly disgusting.

“Yes, please,” Vic said, literally getting on her knees to beg Sonya. “Tell us. Satiate us with your story. It is Christmas, dear. Please. Continue our revelry for as long as you can.”

Well…” Sonya said, feigning uncertainty even though she was ready to tell her story after all. If she was ever going to do it, this was going to be the best audience she could ever hope for, so why not?

“We were clearing out one floor of a residential building,” she said. “Me and my partner whose name I still don’t know.” And probably never would, Sonya could have added, but she didn’t want to spoil the ending.

“Rosalind, dear,” Ellie informed her. “I checked after we had finished operating on you.”

“Okay, then,” Sonya went on, fighting tears for some reason now that she knew the poor lost woman’s name. The audience sat on in silence, sipping their drinks and simply waiting for her to continue. Sonya got the feeling that they would have waited all night and into the morning to hear what she had to say, and something about the thought helped her swallow down her tears and keep telling her story. “So, Rosalind and I were evacuating a residential building. Or just one floor. Or whatever.”

Sonya took a sip of her eggnog to relax her throat before going on. “Well, just like with Vic and Alena over there.” Sonya pointed with her stump to add to the effect. She was a practiced storyteller, having told many a ghost story as a child—not to mention the tales she’d told and heard as a bartender—and she always knew exactly when to turn the flashlight on and shine it on her face to induce the most screams. “Everything was going perfectly fine at first.

“There were some loud sirens and flashing lights—which Vic and Alena might not have had to endure considering they were in a hospital—but the bright flashing nonsense helped us convince the residents of the seriousness of the situation, moving them along faster than we ever could have without the noise. And just like with Vic and Alena, we cleared everyone down to the last resident before any snags occurred.

“Our problem was a stubborn old man. So, when he wouldn’t come with us of his own free will, I lifted him over my shoulder like a blackout drunk at the Bar, and I carried him into the elevator myself. We were running out of time, and I wasn’t gonna let the old man die, so that was that.

“But of course, that wasn’t that. That was when the old man started complaining that we had forgotten his cat—which we never even knew had existed in the first place so there was no way we could have forgotten it, okay. But the old man was adamant either way, so while I made sure he stayed on the elevator, my partner—uh—Rosalind, went to find the cat.

“The elevator was really counting down by that time. And it seemed like the sirens had gotten louder and the lights brighter, even if they hadn’t. I had one hand fighting the old man to keep him safe on the elevator despite his every effort to put himself back in danger.” She acted it out, putting her stump arm back on the chest of Olsen who stood behind her, listening close, and Sonya was comforted to notice that Olsen didn’t recoil from the touch of her stump as Sonya continued the story. “And the other hand was reaching out and out…” She reached her still whole hand out over the table and everyone in the room stared at it as she spoke. “Trying to grasp that poor sweet kitty who Rosalind was holding outstretched to me. And just as I felt his fur graze my fingertips, the doors slammed shut.” She switched her physical hand and her phantom one, reaching out with the nothingness instead, and reveled in the gasped awe she received in return—just like when she was a kid. “Taking my arm, the cat, and Rosalind all to wherever it is that imploded Walker-Haley field generators go when they die.”

The table reacted with stunned silence. Olsen, too, but she sort of massaged Sonya’s shoulders when the latter sat back down from telling her story.

Then Trudy came in, breaking the silence with news of Aldo on the beach he had escaped to years ago—a beach that was a lot more crowded now that the walls had come down—and in that moment, having been given the space and time not only to tell her story but to have it intently and empathetically listened to, and being able to hear similar stories of others going through the same or worse, Sonya felt more confident than ever that she could not only survive, but thrive, even despite the accident she had endured. And beyond that, she truly believed that they had finally built a system that was superior to the barbarism that they had all been living through, one that would last for as long as they continued to work together and ensure that it did.

 

#     #     #

< LXXXI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXXXIII. Muna >

There you have it, dear readers. Sonya’s final point of view chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, there are only two more weeks to wait for the conclusion of the story to be posted on the blog here. Please do join us. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 29: Tillie

It’s the last Saturday before Christmas and we’re rejoining Tillie in an An Almost Tangent. If you’ve been enjoying the story so far, or if you just want to buy me a super awesome Christmas present, you should purchase a copy of The Asymptote’s Tail or An Almost Tangent for you or a friend through this link. If you don’t have any money to spare and would still like to get me something, sign up for my email update newsletter here and share with all your friends. Happy Saturday y’all, and enjoy the read.

< XXVIII. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXX. Huey >

XXIX. Tillie

All she knew was pain. She couldn’t even breathe without waves of it shooting through her ribs. She groaned and more overcame her. She struggled to sit up and lean her back against the hard wall behind her. Why was the light so bright? Where was she?

She took in the room. It was small—no, tiny. She was lying on a cold metal bed of some sort, and all the walls were plain white. There was a white metal toilet on the white tile floor next to her bed, and besides the looming white metal door, that was it. Was this jail?

She groaned again. The pain in her chest was piercing. She lifted her shirt up a little to try to see what the cause was but quickly dropped it when she got a peek of purple, black, and red. She cringed at the sight then groaned from the pain of cringing. There was nothing she could do about it now. There was no point in even looking. The only thing looking again would accomplish is making her vomit.

She took in the room a second time. Was this jail? No. It couldn’t be. Could it? They wouldn’t put her in jail for meeting with a group of students on the parade grounds. They didn’t even do anything. This had to be something other than jail, but what?

She tried to get up off the bed to see if the door would open, but the pain in her ribs was too much for her to stand.

It could be a hospital. She had never been to one before. She had always gotten house calls at her dad’s when she was sick. So this could be what a hospital looked like. Right? With a hard cold bed, and a toilet right next to it, in a room the size of a closet. Yeah right.

She was starting to accept that it was jail and trying to decide how she wanted to react to that when the door swung open. A protector in a white plated vest and cargo pants with no helmet on walked in carrying a metal stool which she set in the middle of the small room.

“Sit, citizen,” the protector demanded.

“I, uh…” It was too painful to talk, how could Tillie be expected to carry her own body weight for long enough to walk over to the stool? “I can’t move,” she groaned.

“Now, citizen!”

“I, uh…” Tillie wanted to protest again, but she could tell by the look on the protector’s face that it would be pointless. She gritted her teeth against the waves of pain in her ribs as she shimmied over to the stool to plop down, happy for the slightly less painful fire of breathing in comparison to when she was forcing herself to walk.

“Tell me why you’re here, citizen,” the protector said, still standing and towering over Tillie.

“I don’t even know where I am,” Tillie groaned.

“You are in a holding cell, citizen. You are in prison. Now tell me why you are here.”

“Tell you why I’m here?” Tillie moaned at the pain of talking. “How should I know?”

“You took part in an illegal use of private property, citizen. You failed to disperse when you were ordered to do so by the proper authorities, and as a result, you were served justice.”

“I—But—”

“Now tell me,” the protector said. “Why did you do it?”

“I—Do what? I didn’t do anything?”

“Do you deny being present at the incident in question?”

“I—no. I was there, but—”

“Do you deny that you failed to disperse when being ordered to do so by a lawful protector?”

“I—We didn’t have a chance to—”

“Do you deny receiving two warnings before sub-lethal force was applied?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Then you are hereby found guilty of unlawful trespass. An officer will be along to deal your sentence shortly. And remember, citizen, we are always watching.”

“No, but—” Tillie complained, but the protector slipped the stool right out from under her—sending Tillie falling to the cold tile floor—and stomped out of the room, slamming the heavy door behind her.

Tillie lay on the floor, rubbing her burning chest. Unlawful trespass? She was on the property of the school she attended, in an open and publicly accessible park. How could she be trespassing? And what was that interrogation about? Was that supposed to be a trial? She didn’t even get a chance to defend herself. That wasn’t justice.

She was getting her energy up to pull herself off the floor and onto the bed when the door opened again. Another protector with no helmet on walked in, and when he saw Tillie on the floor, he gasped and rushed to kneel by her side. “Are you alright?” he asked, helping her up to sit on the bed.

What do you think?” Tillie groaned.

“Oh, well, of course,” the protector said, blushing. “But, I—uh—here.” He searched pocket after pocket in his cargo pants until he produced a syringe with a little plastic cap. “This should help.” He popped the cap off, tapped the air bubbles out, and plunged the needle into Tillie’s thigh before she could protest.

“Ow!” she yelped. “What was that?”

“Oh, well…” The protector recapped the syringe and pocketed it. “That’s for your injuries. You have the platinum health insurance plan so you receive the best treatment.”

“So that was a pain reliever?” She noticed the pain had all gone from her body, and she could actually sit up without cringing.

“Pain reliever?” The protector looked at her like she was stupid. “Have you ever been to a doctor?”

“Well, no…” she said.

“Look, you’ll be fixed up as good as new after that. No worries. Now, I just need your thumbprint on this…” He searched his pockets again and pulled out a small tablet then held it out for her to press her thumb to.

“What was that for?” she asked when he drew the tablet away to look at what had come up on the screen.

“Confirmation that you’ve served your time, billing of your crime insurance policy holder, the usual. We do it to—”

“My time?” Tillie frowned. “How long am I supposed to stay here?”

The protector looked at the tablet’s screen again. “Um, nope,” he said. “It says right here: Platinum insurance plan (PIP). Sentence: time served. That means you’re free to go, ma’am.”

“That’s it? Nothing else?” She stood, surprised to feel no pain in her ribs.

“That’s it,” the protector said. “If you’ll just follow me, I’ll escort you to the transport bay, and you’re free to go.”

“Well okay then. Let’s go.” She was feeling better now that her pain was gone and she knew she didn’t have to spend any more time in that room. And besides, this protector was kind of cute in his clean white uniform, and she was starting to like the sound of being escorted by him.

He took her out into a long hall that was lined with metal doors which looked exactly like the one they had come out of. At the end of the hall was an elevator door which the protector opened and showed Tillie into.

“What now?” she asked when he didn’t step in with her.

“It’s just an elevator,” he said as the doors slid closed between them. “Tell it where you want to go!”

She looked around. The elevator was almost the size of the room she had been held in. She tried to decide where she should go. Should she go to her dad’s? There was a 3D printer there, but she wasn’t really ready to tell him that she had been arrested. She had been arrested.

It hadn’t sunk in until just then. Her heart beat harder. Her hands slickened up. She wondered what had happened to everyone else, to Emma, Nikola, Rod, and the rest. How many of them were behind the same white metal doors she had just passed by, and what was their crime insurance policy like?

Emma. She had to go see if Emma was alright. And Nikola, too—who had probably lost her glasses. “Parade grounds,” she said.

“Input insufficient,” a robotic voice that still somehow managed to sound militaristic said. “Specify which parade grounds.”

“The LSU parade grounds, okay. I thought you were smarter than that.”

The elevator fell into motion and the doors opened to an entirely empty parade grounds. It was eerie, like she was stepping onto a recently deserted battlefield. She almost expected to find dead bodies still on the ground where their assembly had taken place, but there was nothing, no one, only her and the trees. She headed toward her dorm when she heard a rustling sound in an oak tree above her and Mr. Kitty jumped down with a meow.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, bending down to pet him. “Where did you come from?”

He meowed again.

“Well, you’ll never guess what just happened to me,” Tillie said, waving him along with her. “C’mon. I need some food and rest. And I’m sure you do, too. Let’s go get it.” Her stomach growled. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. Then again, she didn’t have much time to think about anything but her broken ribs and tiny jail cell. She still couldn’t believe she had been arrested. She had to tell someone.

Mr. Kitty meowed and led the way back to the dorm. It was empty when they got there, and Tillie went straight to searching through the kitchen cabinets for something to snack on. “There’s nothing here,” she complained.

Mr. Kitty meowed, licking himself on the coffee table.

Ugh.” Tillie plopped herself onto the couch. She thought about turning on the TV to see what the news had to say about what had happened, but she forgot about it when Mr. Kitty jumped onto her lap and purred.

She pet him on the head, saying, “Mr. Kitty, that was a ridiculous day.”

He half-barked and half-meowed.

“What was that, Kitty? I’ve never heard you make that noise before.”

He meowed a high pitch one.

“Oh, well, in that case—”

The door opened, and Emma stumbled in—looking like Tillie felt before she had gotten that grey shot from the cute protector. “Oh my God,” Tillie said, standing up and helping Emma over to the couch. “Are you alright?”

Fuck. No.” Emma groaned.

“What happened? They didn’t give you a shot?”

Emma laughed then groaned then looked like she was going to cry. “Are you kidding me? I’m lucky to be out of there already.”

“I—but—they gave me a shot and let me go,” Tillie said.

“The perks of being a manager,” Emma groaned, looking like she wanted to die.

Wow. Really? Such pain was acceptable as long as it was the pain of someone who couldn’t afford to get rid of it. She thought about her argument with Shelley before Christmas and how the only thing Shelley wanted was a chance to use the 3D printer. Tillie had never gone without printer access, so she couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to have one. But now, with her recent experience of the pain that Emma was still feeling and imagination enough to know what Emma must have felt getting from the elevator home, Tillie knew exactly what it was like to go without platinum health insurance, and she could imagine better what Shelley must have been feeling about the 3D printer because of it. Tillie was so stupid for the way she had treated her best friend.

“Hey.” Emma groaned, breaking Tillie from her daydream. “It’s not your fault you have better insurance than I do,” she said, shaking her head with a pained look on her face. “Okay?”

Tillie tried to smile. “There has to be something I can do.”

“Did your doc send you home with an extra shot of nanobots?”

“Nanobots?”

Emma tried to laugh, but she groaned instead. “You haven’t taken any science classes. Have you?”

“No, well, it doesn’t matter,” Tillie said. “Look. I’m gonna go get you some painkillers and food at least. I’ll be right back.”

She didn’t wait for an answer. She ran down to the Tiger Mart and was happy to see that she was the only one there. She walked up to the counter, and it took the woman behind it some time to back away from the show she was watching and tend to Tillie’s needs.

“Uh, hellooo,” Tillie called, impatient, as the woman sauntered up to the counter, still looking at the TV screen.

“I’m sorry, dear,” the counter attendant said, finally breaking away from her show when a commercial came on. “You’ll have to excuse me. It seems like you’re the first customer I’ve had all day.”

“I need some painkillers,” Tillie said, tapping on the counter. “And fast.”

“Tylenol or aspirin?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Stronger.”

“Extra strength—”

Maximum strength.”

“Ma’am, do you know that—”

“I don’t care!” Tillie snapped. She didn’t need a lecture on painkiller safety, she needed to get back to Emma. “Just order them. And a can of red beans, a pack of rice, some garlic, an onion, celery, and a bell pepper.”

“Onion, celery, and bell pepper,” the woman repeated to the 3D printer. She brought everything to Tillie in a plastic bag and said, “Thumb please.”

Tillie pressed her thumb on the pad, snatched up the bag, and ran back to her dorm. Emma was still lying on the couch, and Mr. Kitty was sleeping right next to her. Tillie sat on the coffee table and held out the bottle of pills. “Here,” she said. “These should help.”

Water,” Emma groaned.

Tillie filled a glass, handed it to her, and sat back on the coffee table. “How’re you feeling?” she asked.

Not great. I’m sure you know.”

Not even.” Tillie shook her head. “I have no idea how you made it home looking like that. I couldn’t even get off that cold bed when I first woke up.”

Ugh. It wasn’t easy.” Emma sat up, feeling better already, it seemed.

“Did they throw you into a tiny room with nothing but a bed and a toilet, too?”

That’s jail,” Emma said, as if she had been there before and it was no big deal. “If you have platinum insurance, that is. If we didn’t, we’d probably still be back in the general population—for who knows how long. Trespassing is a serious offense, you know.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t trespass. We go to the school. And we didn’t even get a trial. I didn’t, at least. Did you?”

“What they call a trial,” Emma said. “But we found that evidence you were looking for. We can be certain we did something now. They were afraid of us, Tillie. They didn’t want us spreading the truth we know. I mean, there were barely thirty of us there, and half of them were probably pros anyway. This has only just begun. Mark my words.”

“Pros?”

Pros. You know, protectors pretending to be students. Undercover agents. Plants. It’s the only way they could have known about it to react so quickly. And it’s a sign that what we did to Five and Six is shaking things up for them. They wouldn’t fight back so violently unless they thought their power was in real danger.”

“Okay,” Tillie said, trying to collate everything Emma had just said in her brain. “So you’re telling me that half the students out there were actually undercover protectors.”

“Well, maybe half is hyperbolic, but there were pros in the crowd, I guarantee it. Like I said, that’s how they reacted so quickly.”

“The fact that there were pros—or whatever—alone isn’t enough to suggest that they’re taking notice of what we did?”

“Well, no. Not really. There are pros at every meeting. That’s nothing to them. They have plenty of bodies up in Outland One, they can use them generously.”

“Then how is it a sign that they noticed again?” Tillie still didn’t quite understand. She had never been to a General Assembly and maybe they were illegal. Maybe they all ended like that. Or maybe the protectors just did what they did because of what Emma was saying. There was Russ as evidence that they would react violently to talking about humans on an assembly line.

“Because they reacted,” Emma said. “They only react if they notice. Here, look. TV, news.”

Tillie turned to sit on the couch with Emma. Nothing about what had happened was being reported. It was all the reports you would expect to see on a typical news day.

“Flip through the news,” Emma said.

The TV started its cycle and no channel mentioned the miniature war they had just taken part in on the parade grounds.

“I don’t see how this can be a sign that they noticed,” Tillie said as the channels kept cycling.

“They’re suppressing the message,” Emma said. “Just like they did with Russ. And just like it did with Russ, it’s going to backfire on them.”

“But how? With Russ it’s different. He’s followed by paparazzi all the time. But there was no one there to record us when it happened.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Emma smiled and popped a little American flag pin off her chest. “Pin camera,” she said, holding it up to Tillie who took it in hand to get a closer look. “I wear it to every protest,” Emma went on. “Most times I just use the footage for promotional videos and the like, but it continuously uploads everything it captures, and there’s an emergency system set. If anything goes wrong, I activate it, and it sends an alert out to everyone in the school directory and anyone who’s ever given me their phone number. Everyone knows, Tillie. The entire school, at least.”

Tillie thought about the emptiness of the parade grounds. It was made more eerie with this new knowledge. No one was outside because they were all afraid they might get caught up in the next skirmish. “So that’s why they’re all hiding,” she said. “They’re afraid of the protectors.”

“Some are probably afraid,” Emma said. “But my emergency alert also told everyone to clear campus until five pm tomorrow. Maybe some of them are listening to me.”

“Wait, what? Why?” Tillie asked, confused even more. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s a trick my parents taught me,” Emma said. “It’s a show of solidarity first, keeping the campus empty, and at the same time it leaves the protectors to stew in what they’ve done. They’ll either suspect that we’re all cowards or worry the entire time about how we’ll respond when we finally do emerge. I’m sure some of them got the email, too.”

Pros,” Tillie said, feeling like she was starting to catch on just a little bit. It was almost like a movie.

Exactly,” Emma said. “So they know that we all know. And they know that the alert was attached to the video. And if everyone who got the video actually showed up out there, they would never attack us again.”

“You think that will actually happen, though?” Tillie said, frowning. “The entire student body? That seems overly optimistic.”

“Well, you haven’t seen anyone outside yet, have you?”

“No, but—”

“Then we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out. I think you’ll be surprised.” She smiled.

Tillie still wasn’t sure, but she hoped Emma was right. After the way the protectors had reacted to whatever they were doing on the parade grounds, she was dead set on continuing to do it and figuring out why the protectors wanted them to stop so badly. She only wished she had taken it more seriously before, then maybe she’d have been better prepared.

“So how can I see the video you sent out?”

“It should be on your phone,” Emma said. “I sent it to everyone.”

Tillie checked her pockets and realized she didn’t have her phone on her. She was pretty sure she had it before the assembly. “I—uh—don’t have my phone,” she said.

“Did you bring it with you to the assembly?”

Tillie nodded.

“I should have told you to leave anything you wanted to keep here, but I didn’t think they’d react the way they did.”

“So I need a new phone then,” Tillie said.

“Looks like it.”

Great.”

“Here, I’ll go get my—” Emma groaned as she tried to stand from the couch. The painkillers had done something but not much.

“Oh, no no no,” Tillie said, standing up and guiding Emma back down to the couch. “I’ll get my tablet and you can look it up on there.” She went and got her tablet out of her room and handed it to Emma who swiped and tapped a few times then handed it back.

The entire screen was filled with a chest-eye view of the assembly. The sound was muted, giving it an eerie feeling. Tillie knew that just to one side of the camera was where she was standing. The field of vision was filled with white-clad protectors fanned out with guns pointed at the camera. Not being there in real time, Tillie had the chance to notice that they weren’t normal guns. Some of them had long tubes going into the backpacks of the protectors carrying them, and others had huge nozzles and giant air cartridges attached to them. The protectors silently ordered them to leave a couple of times, then the action started. The camera was mostly blocked by the cloud of gas, but she could still see it wobbling and fighting to stay alive until it, too, fell to the ground and stopped broadcasting.

Tillie didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t believe that she had lived through that, that Emma had recorded it and shown it to the entire school. Maybe the students were all doing what Emma had asked them to do. Maybe they would all flood the parade grounds the next day. She knew she would definitely be there either way.

Fuck,” she said long after the video had stopped playing. “I can’t believe we lived through that.”

“I can’t believe they reacted that way,” Emma said.

“So what now? We just wait until tomorrow and see who shows up?”

“Pretty much,” Emma said. “Rod and Nikola—if they’re out by then—should be coming over here before the assembly tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Oh, no no. Of course.” Tillie wanted to know what their jailbird experiences were like anyway.

“Alright,” Emma said, getting comfortable on the couch. “TV, entertainment. I think I deserve a little rest.”

Tillie chuckled. “I’d say. Are you hungry at all?”

Shit, yes.” Emma groaned. “But I’m not moving from this spot.”

“And you don’t have to,” Tillie said. “Let me cook you up some red beans and rice.”

Tillie cooked in the kitchen while Emma watched a historical fiction mockumentary about an assembly line worker played by Russ Logo. It was one Tillie had seen plenty of times before so she didn’t mind missing most of it while she cooked. They ate and finished the movie, and by the time it was done, it was well past midnight.

“Well,” Emma said, popping another pill into her mouth. “I’m going to rest up before tomorrow. They should be here around four. I’m sure we’ll both be awake by then.”

Tillie remembered how late she had gotten up the morning of their GA confrontation with protectors, but this time was different, this time she was actually interested in going to the assembly. “Yeah,” she said. “I should get some sleep, too.” And she went to bed herself.

 

#     #     #

Tillie woke well before noon and set to getting dressed right away. She made sure to wear the clothes she cared the least about this time. If she still had her phone, she would have left it on her dresser, but the protectors had taken that from her already.

She went into the living room, and Emma was cooking breakfast in the kitchen. “How are you feeling, dear?” Emma asked.

“Like I have the worst hangover ever,” Tillie said, plopping down on the couch.

“Well, I think I have something to cure you right up,” Emma said. “Eggs, bacon, and waffles, finished right…about…now.” She carried two plates into the living room and handed one to Tillie.

Thank. The. Hand,” Tillie said. “You’re amazing.”

Emma smiled and started in on her own food. “Not really,” she said. “I had ulterior motives for going to the Tiger Mart. I wanted to see the campus.”

“How was it?” Tillie asked through a full mouth. This was exactly what she needed.

“No one out there still. You know, I really think they might be listening to me.”

“I hope so,” Tillie said, stuffing her face some more. And she really did hope so, too.

They watched cartoons for the entire day. Neither of them said anything about it, but neither of them asked to see the news either. Tillie was glad for that. She hoped she never had to watch the news again.

The cartoons were your typical Saturday morning fare, even though it wasn’t Saturday morning. It was always Saturday on the cartoon network. They sat through hours of it, and Emma cooked another meal which they had both finished eating before the first knock came.

“I’ll get it,” Emma said, answering the door. Tillie just groaned. “Hey, Rod,” Emma said. “Come on in.” She hugged him, and Rod came in to plop himself down on the couch right next to Tillie. She scooted over a little so their legs weren’t touching.

“Hey,” he said as he sat down. He was still wearing an American flag t-shirt, though for all Tillie remembered it could have been a different one.

“So, how are you?” Emma asked.

Uh, I have platinum insurance,” he said.

“Do you know what happened to Nikola?” Tillie asked.

Rod shrugged. “I lost it soon after they started with the gas. Got a bag to the head and it knocked me clear out. And then they had the nerve to make me wait until they questioned me before they gave me my nanoshot. Can you believe that shit?” He shook his head.

“Me, too!” Tillie said. “How can they do that?”

Emma popped another painkiller. Tillie had forgotten that Emma still hadn’t gotten a shot. She had no idea how Emma was still standing.

“I don’t know,” Rod said. “But when my dad found out, he was livid. He thinks he’s got an airtight case against them. He wanted me to give you these in case you needed representation, too.” He set two business cards on the table.

Tillie picked one up. “Your dad’s a lawyer?” she asked.

Rod nodded.

“Well I—” Emma started, but a knock came at the door. She opened it to let Nikola in.

Ugh.” Nikola groaned and plopped on the couch next to Rod. She was breathing heavily and sweating. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I ran straight here when I got the message, but that wasn’t until I got home to my computer because they took my phone.”

“Mine, too!” Tillie said

“Here, take this,” Rod said, handing Nikola a business card. “My dad thinks we have a case.”

“You were there all night?” Emma asked.

“Yeah.” Nikola pushed her glasses up on her face. “You weren’t?”

“Not me,” Tillie said. “Rod?”

Rod shook his head. “Platinum insurance,” he said. “My dad—the best lawyer in existence—wouldn’t let my crime insurance lapse. Seriously though, y’all, he thinks he has a case. You better take these cards if you know what’s good for you.”

“Me neither,” Emma said. “I’m sorry Nikola. I didn’t know they would respond that way. I should have warned y’all about the possibilities.”

Nikola shrugged. “It was one night on a hard bed and one shitty meal. I could use a shower and something real to eat, but other than that, I’m fine.”

“I’m afraid that, if we’re successful today, their reaction might be even more drastic than it already was,” Emma said.

“More drastic than pepper gas and bean grenades?” Tillie scoffed. She couldn’t believe that anything could be more drastic than what they had experienced already.

“My dad would definitely have a case then,” Rod said.

“If it gets as bad as I think it will,” Emma said, “his case will be the least of our worries.”

“You think it will be that bad?” Nikola asked.

“We only had thirty students out there and they responded with a hundred protectors shooting gas and bags,” Emma said. “How many protectors do you think they’ll send if we have a hundred?”

“What if the whole student body shows up?” Rod said, eyes wide.

“Then I don’t think they’d stop at bean bags,” Emma said.

Everyone looked around at each other gravely, taking in what that meant. This was serious. The protectors showed that when they gassed and arrested everyone. If there really were that many people out there for the assembly, then it could only get more serious. Tillie swallowed the lump in her throat, smiled at Nikola, and said, “Well it’s almost time then, isn’t it? What do y’all say we go put the speculation to rest?”

 

#     #     #

< XXVIII. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXX. Huey >

Thanks again for joining us this weekend. Don’t forget to pick up the perfect gift for the speculative literature hipster in your life by buying a copy of The Asymptot’es Tail and An Almost Tangent through this link today. And if you want to stay up to date on new releases and be the first to learn about special deals and book giveaways, sign up for my email update list here. Have a great weekend and a happy holiday season, y’all.

Chapter 19: Ellie

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

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

Ellie McCannik

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

XIX. Ellie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trudy!” Aldo complained again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is all that necessary?” Alena interrupted her.

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

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

Aldo smiled and sipped his beer.

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

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

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

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

“Quiet, Aldo.” Gertrude said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are the rest?” Aldo said.

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

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

“But I didn’t…” She shook her head.

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

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

Alena laughed. “Scaredy cat,” she said.

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

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

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

“By a cat!” Alena laughed.

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

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

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

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

“The beach?” Aldo said.

The beach,” Alena said.

“Tell us, dear,” Gertrude said.

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

Aldo cringed.

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

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

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

“Beautiful, dear.” Gertrude smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alena chuckled.

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

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

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

Alena blushed.

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

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

“It’s true!” Aldo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

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

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

Aldo scoffed.

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

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

Aldo grinned.

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

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

“Did you see the damage?” Vicki asked.

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

“Is that right?” Vicki looked at Aldo.

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

Ellie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie didn’t know how to respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not pity.”

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

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

“How kind.” Trudy winked.

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

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

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

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

“You knew what?” Ellie asked, frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

Chapter 18: Mr. Kitty

Today brings us Mr. Kitty’s third and final chapter, and we only have three more chapters left in the entire novel after this one. I hope you’re enjoying the story so far. If so, you can pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon right here. Now have at it.

Mr. Kitty

< XVII. Russ     [Table of Contents]     IX. Ellie >

XVIII. Mr. Kitty

Tillie was all packed up. She peeked her head out of the bedroom door and sighed. Mr. Kitty could tell she was upset when she opened the front door and called back, “I’m leaving, dad!” There was no answer, so she added, “Don’t even try to stop me!” and slammed the door.

Mr. Kitty had to react fast to prevent his tail from being crushed. “Hey,” he hissed.

“Sorry, Kitty. I—I didn’t see you,” Tillie said through her sobbing.

Mr. Kitty tried to rub up against her leg as she tried to walk, but he ended up tripping her. She landed with a thud in the grass, her backpack narrowly missing him.

“Sorry,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

Tillie stayed face down in the grass, sobbing. Mr. Kitty climbed up onto her butt and kneaded it. She sobbed a little more, then turned over and scooped him up onto her lap. “Mr. Kitty,” she said. “No one will ever believe me. Shelley didn’t, Dad didn’t and he should know already, who else would when I can barely believe myself?”

“I do,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Oh, I bet you’d believe me if you understood what was going on,” Tillie said.

“I do,” Mr. Kitty repeated.

“Mr. Kitty, you’re so talkative,” Tillie said, pinching his cheek with a smile. “It’s like you know what I’m saying. Do you understand me?”

“I do!” Mr. Kitty said one more time.

“Oh. I know you don’t,” Tillie said. “No one here does.” She sighed and put him on the grass, then stood and hoisted her backpack up onto her back with a groan. “But there’s still hope, Mr. Kitty. There’s always hope. I’ll go back to my dorm and ask some of my friends there, and if they don’t believe me, then I’ll just have to find that woman again. That’s all I can do, right?”

Mr. Kitty didn’t answer. He thought it sounded like an okay plan, if that was what she wanted to do. She could get more evidence from her dad’s computer before she left, that way people would be more easily convinced, but even if she could understand his advice, she probably wouldn’t break her dad’s trust like that, so there was no point in suggesting the idea. Instead, he ran ahead through the yard toward the public elevator.

“I guess you approve,” Tillie said, lugging her backpack along to catch up. “Just wait until you see my dorm, Mr. Kitty. You’re gonna love it. There are no pets allowed, but you can keep quiet about it, can’t you?”

“I’m a ninja,” Mr. Kitty meowed, letting her pass him then bounding out in front of her again.

“You’re gonna love my roommate, too,” Tillie said with a smile and a new bounce in her step. “I can’t wait. I’m so glad you’re coming with me, Mr. Kitty!”

There was no line at the elevator—there usually wasn’t in this neighborhood. Tillie called it, they stepped in, and she said, “Parade grounds.” She took a deep breath. Mr. Kitty knew she was nervous about being called crazy again, so he rubbed his head on her ankles and purred. She smiled down on him as the doors slid open.

Here there was a line, a young, loud, raucous one. Mr. Kitty jumped, and hissed, and puffed up his fur at the sound of it. The line laughed at him, and Tillie said, “C’mon Kitty. It’s alright.”

She forced her way through the crowd which was trying to push their way onto the elevator before Tillie and Mr. Kitty could get off. Mr. Kitty slipped through the wake she made, out into a big, open, grassy circle that was lined all around with oak trees. There was a tall flagpole in the center of the field, surrounded by short walls with writing on them, and scattered around that were groups of humans playing frisbee, dogs running free without leashes, and other groups of people running around with brooms between their knees, throwing balls at each other. Tillie was right, Mr. Kitty did love this place. Why had he never been here with her before?

“Mr. Kitty,” Tillie called, walking away from the green field. “My dorm’s this way.”

Mr. Kitty tore his attention away from all the new and interesting things to follow Tillie between gravel covered buildings and oak trees, past two big hills, down through a shady cypress swamp, to a patch of three-story buildings in the shade of a tall, ugly cement building. Tillie went up to the door of one of the shorter buildings and scanned a keycard. The door unlocked, and they went up a flight of stairs into a small apartment with three doors and a kitchen. Tillie tossed her backpack on the floor in front of the TV and walked around the kitchen with a sigh, checking the fridge and cupboards while Mr. Kitty crept around the place, sniffing everything and rubbing his scent on whatever called for it—most every surface.

Ugh. There’s nothing to eat!” she said.

Mr. Kitty jumped up onto the counter to rub his face on the sink and smell all the corners of the kitchen when the door opened and a human came in to throw her bag on the couch.

“There’s nothing in this kitchen,” Tillie said. “Do you have any paw points left this week?”

“No, girl,” the human said. “We spent it all before you left. I thought you were supposed to be staying at your dad’s anyway.”

“Yeah, well…” Tillie shrugged.

“And is that a cat in the kitchen? On the counter.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Tillie said. “Well…” She scooped Mr. Kitty up and held him over her shoulder, patting his back. “This is Mr. Kitty. He’s my cat. He’s just visiting though.”

“I like cats,” the human said. “Just not on the counter.”

“You hear that, Mr. Kitty?” Tillie said, patting him a few more times and kissing him on the head. “No counter.” She put him on the floor, and he went over to jump on the coffee table and lick his coat clean, paying special attention to the spot she had kissed.

“What are you doing back anyway?” the human asked. “It’s Christmas.”

“Yeah, well…” Tillie said. “That. I don’t know. I got into an argument with my dad. I thought you were supposed to be at your parents’ house, too. What happened to your Christmas tradition?”

“Plans changed. I got the perfect Christmas gift—which I have to be here for.”

“You have to be here?” Tillie raised an eyebrow.

“Enough about me. Why are you back?”

They both sat on the couch. The human reached out and pet Mr. Kitty. He let her go ahead for a few pats then jumped onto Tillie’s lap.

“Well…Like I said,” Tillie said. “I got into an argument with my dad.”

“He’s a manager, isn’t he?” the human said. “I mean, I know your last name’s Manager and all, but that’s his job, too. Right?”

“Right,” Tillie said, rolling her eyes. “That’s kind of what we were arguing about.”

“Yeah. It’s tough dealing with managers,” the human said. “No offense,” she added hastily.

“Oh. No,” Tillie said, shaking her head and waving a hand. “No n—n—no no. None taken. Believe me. I know better than anyone. He is my dad after all.” She chuckled. “I guess you don’t have the same problems, though. Huh? Your parents are lobbyists, aren’t they?”

“Yeah, well,” her roommate said. “I’m lucky enough to agree with their analysis of the economy, but there are some lobbyists out there who might be harder to live with than a manager.”

Ugh. Yes,” Tillie said with a big sigh. “Have you heard Lobbyist Peterson’s latest proposal?”

“Let me guess,” her roommate said. “Take more resources from higher education and healthcare to funnel them into administration where they’re really working.”

“Pretty much exactly that,” Tillie said, grimacing. “Disgusting, am I right?”

“Disgusting is exactly right,” her roommate said, nodding. “That’s why I’m lucky. My parents are doing everything they can to fight against jerks like that. Me, too. Soon.”

“I wish my dad understood.” Tillie shook her head. “I tried to tell him, but he didn’t even believe me.”

“You tried to tell him what?”

“I—uh—I don’t know…” Tillie said. “I don’t think I should be talking about it.”

“Is it classified?”

Mr. Kitty felt Tillie tense up under him. “How did you know?”

“Tillie. I know we haven’t been roommates for long, but I want you to know that you can trust me.”

“What are you talking about?” It felt like Tillie was about to jump out from underneath Mr. Kitty. He prepared himself to leap off in case she did.

“What did you argue with your dad about?” her roommate asked.

“I…I can’t.”

“You can, Tillie. I already know. Was it about the 3D printers?”

“I—uh—How did you know?”

“Because I know.”

Tillie’s eyes grew wide. Her mouth fell open. Her roommate stood up before she could say anything. “Wait.” She closed the blinds and turned on the TV at full blast, then added some loud music on top of that before sitting back on the couch and scooting extra close to Tillie. “Okay. Go ahead,” she said

“I don’t—What was that?” Tillie asked. “Why’d you do that?”

“If you’re going to say what I hope you’re going to say, then we don’t want to be recorded. This way all they hear is white noise.”

“I—uh…” Tillie frowned. “I never would have thought of that in my life. I’ve been telling people, though. Do you think they recorded me already?”

“I don’t know,” her roommate said with a shrug. “Maybe. I don’t know if they’re doing it now. I haven’t heard what you have to say.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Tillie said, hitting herself in the head. “Right…Well, you know the printers, right. What am I saying? Of course you do. You just said that. Well you know that they don’t rearrange matter or whatever, right?”

Her roommate nodded.

“Yeah, well, my dad did, too. Apparently. But I—Well, I…Do you ever watch Logo’s Show?”

“Sometimes, yes, but I try to stay away from gossip news.”

“Yeah, well, did you see his latest episode?”

Her roommate shook her head. “No. But I saw the emergency broadcast after.”

“Yeah, well, okay. So you know then. Well, you know what he was talking about at least. You heard about the woman who tried to talk to him on the streets, that is.”

“I have.”

“Yeah, well,” Tillie said, nodding. “Do you know what she said?”

“That humans work on the assembly lines.”

“And that’s true, Emma,” Tillie said, looking her roommate in the eyes and nodding.

“I know, Tillie,” Emma said.

“I know it sounds hard to—What?”

“I know that humans work on the assembly lines,” Emma said. “I know that the assembly lines actually exist and not just in Russ Logo’s world. That’s why I’m not home with my parents. That’s what my Christmas gift is all about.”

“Your gift is about the humans on the assembly lines?” Tillie looked confused.

“No.” Emma shook her head. “Not exactly. But yes. My gift is that I finally get to do something about it.”

“But—I—How could you know? What could you do?”

“I’ve known for a long time,” Emma said. “My parents have taught me the truth since I was a child. That’s why I’m not surprised.”

“But how? My dad didn’t even know and he’s a manager. They’re supposed to know the economy like the back of their credit cards. How could he miss something as big as humans on the assembly lines?”

“You said you argued with him?”

“He said I was mistaken.” Tillie scoffed. “As if I didn’t know what I had seen with my own two eyes. He said I was being emotional.”

Ugh. You see, Tillie. It’s not that he missed it, or that no one ever told him. He chooses not to know. They all choose to ignore it. I mean, how did you find out?”

“I saw a picture on his computer,” Tillie said. “I knew they weren’t robots.” She shook her head, looking away from Emma for a moment. Mr. Kitty purred and rubbed his head on her hands.

“A picture?” Emma asked.

“Of a factory accident.”

Emma looked away now. Mr. Kitty climbed over to her lap and rubbed his face on her arm.

“So how could he not figure out if I did, right?” Tillie said.

Emma still didn’t answer. She didn’t look at Tillie. She just pet Mr. Kitty’s head while he purred.

“You said you were going to do something about it,” Tillie said. “But how?”

“You know the answer to this one, Tillie.”

“The woman in the alley?”

“The Scientist.”

“No.” Tillie shook her head. “Who’s that?”

Emma shrugged. “No one’s entirely sure. She’s the Scientist.”

“And she wanted you to help her, too?”

“I’ve never met her in person. She offered my parents an opportunity, and now that opportunity extends to me. On Christmas Feast day nonetheless. Perfect timing.”

“Christmas Feast?” Tillie said, frowning. “You mean Christmas?”

“Christmas Feast is what they call it in Inland.”

“Inland?”

“So you don’t know everything then,” Emma said. “But I can tell you. As long as you don’t tell anyone else. No one.”

“You can trust me,” Tillie said, zipping her lips and crossing her heart.

“First,” Emma said. “Have you ever seen an assembly line worker in real life?”

Tillie shook her head. “Not besides the one I talked to.”

“What about an actor, or camera operator, or scientist?”

“I thought robots—”

“Robots don’t do much,” Emma said. “Have you ever seen one?”

“No, but they—”

“And you watch Logo’s Show. Don’t you ever wonder why the restaurants he talks about don’t exist?”

“Because it’s just a TV show,” Tillie said. “It’s not real.”

“But it’s not just a TV show. What about the assembly line workers? You know that they’re real. Where are they? Logo’s Show takes place in another world, Tillie. The restaurants do exist, but we have no way to access them. They’re in Outland 3 and we’re in Outland 2. There’s no way through except the elevators, and our elevators don’t go that way.”

“And that’s how I ended up meeting with that woman,” Tillie said, shaking her head.

“And that’s how I knew what you would tell me,” Emma said. “Look, I can’t stand this blaring noise anymore. Let’s go for a walk. Your cat might enjoy it, anyway.” She pet Mr. Kitty who had all but fallen asleep in her lap. He yawned and stretched his paws out in front of him.

“Yeah. I—uh—Sure,” Tillie said. “Let’s go.” She stood up, and Mr. Kitty jumped onto the coffee table to stretch some more.

Emma stood and said, “One second.” then went back to her room and came out wearing a big hooded sweatshirt. “Alright. Let’s go,” she said, and they went downstairs and out of the dorm.

Emma was right, too. Mr. Kitty did need a walk. He was too cooped up in their small dorm room. He ran through the grass, ate a few leaves of it in the falling sun, and almost lost Tillie and Emma in his excitement. He smelled another tree and clawed it a few times before running to catch up with them.

“I don’t know,” Tillie said. “I couldn’t do anything alone, but it might be different with you there.”

“You can do it,” Emma said. She looked around to see if anyone was watching. “You don’t even have to do anything. Just come with me. Look.” She pulled a pouch out of her sweater pocket and handed a little disc to Tillie.

“What is this?” Tillie asked, turning it over in her hands.

A bomb,” Emma whispered to her.

Tillie stopped in her tracks. Mr. Kitty saw a bug and jumped on it. How would Tillie respond to this? She had finally found someone who believes her, but it had to be someone who might be a little crazy herself. He let the bug fly away and caught up with them again. Emma had scooted Tillie along so she didn’t make a scene.

“Of course I wouldn’t have done it if it was dangerous,” Emma said. “Well, needlessly dangerous.” She winked.

“I would call handing me…” Tillie leaned in and lowered her voice. “A bomb needlessly dangerous.”

“I told you it can’t go off yet,” Emma said. “They have to be activated, and they’re on a timer.”

“And how exactly are…they supposed to help anything?”

“It all goes back to the division between the worlds,” Emma said. “There are these machines that bend space and—”

Woah ho ho. Wait a minute there,” Tillie said, stopping again. “Bend space? What are you talking about? You can’t bend space.”

“No,” Emma said, shaking her head. “I can’t. But they can. The Scientist can. That’s how the printers work. And the Scientist can get us to some of the Walker-Haley field generators which are used to do just that. All we have to do is rip, stick, and press then get out of there.”

“Walker-Haley field whats? Bending space?” Tillie shook her head. “I don’t know, Emma. It all sounds a little crazy. I don’t—”

“Look,” Emma said, cutting her off. “Come here.” She dragged Tillie by the arm to sit down on the concrete steps under the flagpole. They had walked all the way out to the center of the parade grounds, far enough away from everyone so that no one could hear their talking. The field was clearing out the darker it got, anyway, and the sun was all but gone. “Have you taken any science classes in college yet?” Emma asked.

Tillie shook her head. “I took AP science senior year.”

“Well, you might be able to understand,” Emma said. “Do you remember…”

Mr. Kitty didn’t care to hear the explanation. He didn’t care how things worked. He only wanted to know what they did and how that would affect him. And since he already knew the gist of what Emma was going to say, he had no reason to sit there and listen to the lecture. He knew it would be a long one, too, explaining how to bend space. Humans never could just walk to get from here to there. No, that was just too much work. But bending space so here is there, now that was less effort. Right? Mr. Kitty would never understand.

He went off to chew the grass and sharpen his claws on a tree, then chase some squirrels—who were so much harder to catch than those pigeons. He climbed up a tree after one, to show it that he could, and licked himself on a branch while the squirrel cowered at the top of the tree. He climbed back down, and Tillie and Emma were standing from their lesson, intent on doing something.

“Come on, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie called, motioning with her hand as they walked toward the elevator.

Mr. Kitty sprinted to catch up with them, dodging through the legs of passing students. The door to the elevator slid shut behind him, almost clamping on his tail. He licked it and sat down.

“Where to?” Tillie asked. “I mean, how do we get there?”

“The Scientist takes us,” Emma said.

“But what do we tell the elevator?”

“The struggle itself is enough to fill one’s heart.”

The elevator fell into motion, and almost as soon as it did, the doors opened. There was nothing to see but a cement wall, but Mr. Kitty recognized the stale oil smell. Tillie and Emma’s feet clanged on the metal floor as they stepped out of the elevator.

“I’ve been here before,” Tillie said. “Well, not here but here. A place just like this. I got lost when I tried to go back and talk to the assembly line worker again. Mr. Kitty found me.”

“I hate this place,” Mr. Kitty meowed, looking at the wall where the door they had just come from used to be.

“This is one way through the fields to the other worlds,” Emma said. “There are usually security and mechanic bots patrolling. Today, however, this bay has no one, courtesy of the Scientist. Now come on.”

She jogged down the tunnel with her footsteps echoing back behind her. Tillie took off after her. Mr. Kitty rubbed his face on the wall where the door was, giving it one last smell, then tore apart his claws trying to catch up with them.

They went through the curving tunnel, down a few flights of stairs, then through another long tunnel to a big metal door that was painted with yellow and black stripes. They stopped to catch their breath, and Mr. Kitty licked his paws to rid them of the pain from running on the metal grating.

Ugh. Unseen Hand,” Tillie said through gasping breaths. ”I’m so out of shape.” She hunched over, resting her hands on her knees and her back on the wall. “I haven’t exercised like that in…well…let’s just say a long time.”

Emma was barely out of breath. “Physical training is important if you want to help free the assembly line workers,” she said. “If someone sees us, we’ll have to run all the way back. And this time we would be going upstairs.”

Tillie took a few more deep breaths. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“This is serious,” Emma said solemnly. “If you’re here, you should be serious, too. If we were found…Well, just know that we don’t want to be found.”

“No,” Tillie said, shaking her head and waving her hands. “No no. I—No, I know. That’s why I’ve been freaking out. Because I know how serious it is, you know. But that’s the point, isn’t it? This is so real and big, how can we do anything about it?”

“That’s what I’m supposed to show you.”

“So she asked you to do this then? The woman who asked me to—to do something for her.”

“Not for her, Tillie,” Emma said, shaking her head. “For us. For the assembly line workers. For the betterment of humanity. This is bigger than the Scientist. She only helps. We do the real work to tear down the system.” She pressed a few buttons on the keypad next to the door, and the doors slid open with a hiss. Mr. Kitty jumped back and puffed up his tail at the sound of it.

“How’d you do that?” Tillie asked.

“That’s another way that having the Scientist on our side helps,” Emma said. “And in getting these.” She pulled out the pouch of discs. “Now, come on.”

Inside was a squat room with lights and buttons flashing all over the ceiling. The ground was smooth and hard. It beat the metal grating but was worse than vinyl in Mr. Kitty’s opinion. Tillie and Emma had to duck to walk around. Emma watched Tillie marvel at the size of the place and the flashing lights.

“What is this?” Tillie asked, still walking in circles and staring up at the flashing ceiling which almost seemed to go on forever.

“This is the Outland 6 central hub,” Emma said. “Every single Walker-Haley field generator that separates Outland 6 from Outland 5 converges right here in this room. This is the only thing keeping the two worlds apart.”

“All of it in one room?” Tillie scoffed.

“Only for Outland 6. Outland 6 only has connections to Outland 5, so the owners don’t really care if there’s a little crossover. Not as much as they care about crossover in the other worlds, at least.”

“So that’s what you’re going to do with the—uh—discs,” Tillie said. “Destroy this?”

“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re merging 5 and 6, transforming them into a whole new world. We’ll be creating just as much as we destroy.”

“And so what?” Tillie said. “We blow this room up to connect the two worlds, then what happens? They come back and separate them again? What about us? What about the actors? What about everyone else in the world—or, er—worlds?”

“This is the grand finale,” Emma said. “The big bang. So much more is happening across the worlds as we speak, but you and I get to end the festivities with a fireworks show.”

Tillie looked around at everything one more time. Mr. Kitty rubbed his face on her ankles. “So you’re really going to do something to stop them,” she said.

“It’s wrong, Tillie. We reap the benefits from their exploitation. We can try to stop it, or we might as well be exploiting them ourselves. We’re complicit.”

Nous devons craindre le mal,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “Mais il ya quelque chose que nous devons craindre plus que le mal. C’est l’indifférence de la bonne.

Tillie scooped him up. “It sounds like Mr. Kitty agrees,” she said.

“Do you agree?” Emma asked.

Tillie put Mr. Kitty back on the ground and he licked himself. “I want to,” she said. “But it sounds too good to be true.”

“It’s not, though,” Emma said, scoffing. “We’re not even doing that much. Not by ourselves at least. We’re a distraction. And there will be a lot more to do after this. Then you’ll get to see that it’s just shitty enough to be true.”

Their laughs echoed through the squat room.

“So that scientist,” Tillie said. “She really could use those pictures to do good.”

“What pictures?” Emma asked.

“She didn’t tell you?”

Emma shook her head.

Tillie took a deep breath, stomped her foot, and said, “Yes. I do. I do want to help. What do we do?”

Emma smiled wide. “Good,” she said. “Great. Take some of these.” She got a handful of discs out of the pouch and handed half to Tillie. “Start here with the red light. See it?” She pointed one out and waited for a response.

“Yeah. Right,” Tillie said, nodding.

“Peel the paper backing off, stick the disc on the light, press the button, then go five red lights down and do it again,” Emma told her, pointing out where each step would take place as she spoke. “Got it?”

“Got it,” Tillie said.

“When you get to the end, go five across and come back,” Emma said, pointing some more. “I’ll get the rest, then we get out of here. Ready?”

Tillie nodded.

“Then let’s have some fun!”

They sprinted into action. Mr. Kitty rolled on his back and kicked at the air, then chased them around as they did their rip, stick, pressing. Emma finished a few discs before Tillie, even though she went further into the room and placed more of them, and when they were both done, they sprinted out of the tunnel, up the stairs, and to the elevator with Mr. Kitty close behind them. They all three collapsed laughing, coughing, and breathing heavily onto the floor of the elevator.

“I can’t believe we just did that,” Tillie said.

“I can’t believe I finally got to,” Emma said.

“What do we do next?” Tillie asked.

“We go back home like nothing happened,” Emma said. “We keep our ears open for any news of the rest of the operation. And mostly we wait.”

Ugh. Wait?” Tillie frowned.

“It shouldn’t be long now,” Emma said. “The gears are in motion.”

“I can get those pictures while we wait,” Tillie said.

“Does that mean you want to join us?” Emma asked with a smile.

“I’m not stopping here,” Tillie said, laughing again. “Parade grounds.”

The elevator fell into motion, and the doors opened onto the big empty field. Tillie and Emma left, and they didn’t notice when Mr. Kitty didn’t follow them. Tillie didn’t need him anymore, they had each other. The doors closed, and he let the elevator take him to wherever it would.

#     #     #

< XVII. Russ     [Table of Contents]     IX. Ellie >

That’s it for Mr. Kitty’s POV chapters. If you’d like to support the real life Mr. Kitty, who just walked across my desk while I was in the middle of typing, then think about purchasing a copy of the full novel here. Thanks again for reading. And we’ll be back next Saturday.

Chapter 14: The Scientist

Today brings us the Scientist’s second chapter, and it marks the day that two thirds of the novel are available on the website. Next week we’ll start reading the final chapters from each character’s point of view, and at the end of week seven, you’ll all get to know the conclusion of book one of the Infinite Limits series. Or you can find out sooner by purchasing the novel on Amazon.

Today I’m including an illustration I did of Popeye the mechanical arm, who you might remember from the Scientist’s earlier chapter. I hope you’ve enjoyed everything so far, now go and enjoy this one too.

Popeye< XIII. Pardy     [Table of Contents]     XV. Haley >

XIV. The Scientist

Every day different. Every day the same. Only change is constant. Reality is contradiction.

She stood in front of the printer—as she did every meal—and imagined the people who grew, reared, harvested, and collected her food, the ones who built the things to make it all possible, and those who sent it along so she could consume it. She ordered everything as raw as it came, but that meant that she had to order the sandwich she wanted fully made. Still, they were forced to do as little of her work as she could help, and soon she would be helping in a more efficient manner. It was Christmas Feast Eve, and Mr. Kitty should be on his way.

She carried the plate of food into her office, and when she opened the door, he was there. “Mr. Kitty!” she said, setting her plate on the desk next to the cat who went over to eat the meat out of her sandwich. “Finally, Mr. Kitty. Red! Eat all you want. I’ll make you more if you’re here when I’m done.”

The cat meowed.

“Oh. You have no idea, Mr. Kitty. Sic bo shines down on you. I’ve been waiting for you to come in with that beautiful red collar for you don’t know how long.”

He meowed again.

“Alright, Mr. Kitty. I’m gonna get to work,” she said. Mr. Kitty went off on his way, ignoring the rest of the meat in her sandwich, and she started the macros going which would set the work schedules across all the Outlands as needed for the operation. She moved the repair bots around to fix only the holes she didn’t need and set a few to creating some holes that might come in handy in emergency situations. With everything she could do before her lunch meeting done, she went to ride the elevator to the bar and get on with her meeting.

Trudy was already in the corner booth with two beers. The glasses were still frosty, and Trudy’s drink was mostly full, so she hadn’t been there long.

“Trudy, dear,” the Scientist said, sitting down and taking a sip. “You know me all too well.”

“More than anyone in the worlds, I’d say.” Trudy smiled.

The Scientist loved her smile, it was so genuine. “I didn’t keep you waiting long, did I?”

“Oh, no no,” Trudy said. “Just sat down. You’re as punctual as ever, dear. Don’t you worry.”

“Good,” the Scientist said. “I was a little distracted, you know. The roses are red.” She smiled.

“No kidding,” Trudy said, sipping her drink.

“Would I kid about this?”

Trudy shook her head. “That you wouldn’t.”

“Trudy, you do trust me, don’t you? I could tell you more, but it would only put you in more danger.”

“And I’m not in danger now?” Trudy said, shaking her head.

“No. Of course you are. I didn’t—I didn’t mean that. I meant that you’d be given added danger for no need.”

“Not me, dear. I know enough already. I’m in plenty of danger no matter what else you tell me. The more I know, the more danger for you, though.”

“No. Well…I—Not just me.”

“Right, right,” Trudy said, smiling and nodding. “Back to the circular argument. It’s not just you, it’s the plan, it’s too dangerous to tell me about a plan that I’m a part of.”

“It would put you in—”

“I’m already in danger, dear.” Trudy laughed. “We’re going around in circles. That’s why they call it a circular argument. Let’s end it here before I get dizzy. I know you’re not going to tell me everything, and you know I’m not going to stop asking, so let’s just get on with what really brought us here.”

The Scientist sighed and took a sip of beer. Trudy was right. She couldn’t be put in any more danger, but it would put the operation as a whole in danger if the protectors could get more information out of her. Still, Trudy deserved to know more. She had been with them for so long, and her work was so valuable, that she had a good argument for it. An argument which she never pushed too far. The Scientist promised herself that, as soon as this operation was over, she would tell Trudy everything. Well, at least she would tell her more.

“Trudy,” the Scientist said. “You deserve to know more.”

“I know it.”

“You’ve done more for this revolution than anyone has. Myself included.”

“Oh, now don’t say that,” Trudy said, blushing. “That’s not what we’re about and you know it, dear. Solidarity. Without any of us, none of this would be possible.”

“Solidarity, dear,” the Scientist said, raising her glass.

They took a drink in unison.

“Trudy, sometimes I think—no—I know that you know more about the revolution than I do, even if I know more specifics about what plans are in action.”

“Oh, honey,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “Now I know you’re wrong on that. I know more specifics than your computers could hold. Who’s infatuated with who, and which coworkers are possibly parents of the same children, Hell, I could tell you what most of the workers in my hall eat for every meal every day of the week, but you try to tell me you know the specifics.”

The Scientist shook her head. Trudy was right again. The Scientist knew what food they received, how often, and in what proportions, but she didn’t know how they cooked it or who they ate it with. She knew nothing in comparison to Trudy. “Like I said,” she said. “I know you know more about the revolution than I do.”

“Not so fast, dear,” Trudy said, raising a finger. “We know different parts of the struggle. You know as much as you know, and I know as much as I know, but together we know what we both know. We do nothing alone, remember. Without any of us, none of this would be possible.”

“Again you prove your worth,” the Scientist said, smiling wide. “Day after day. You will get what you deserve, Trudy. Mark my words.”

“I hope you’re right, dear,” Trudy said, shaking her head. “If it’s not too late for that already. Either way, the worlds don’t seem that just to me.” She sipped her beer.

“No. They don’t,” the Scientist said, taking a sip of hers. “Which is why we have to make them that way. Right, Trude?”

“Right as rain, dear. Just you and me. Huh huh huh.”

“Now tell me,” the Scientist said, ready to get down to business now that the pleasantries were out of the way. “Do you trust Ellie?”

“I trust her to do what she wants.” Trudy shrugged. “You said that’s what you wanted.”

“Yes. Yes yes. That’s what I said. But sometimes I wonder if that’s what’s really for the best.”

“For whose best, dear? Your best? Ellie’s best? My best?”

“Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. All of them. The best for all of them.”

“All of us, dear. You are included in that. You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

“Am I?” the Scientist said. “I created the Walker-Haley fields that keep us apart. I created the printers you fill with commodities. I created the androids who forced all the service workers of Inland into Outland 6. I am responsible for all of that, Trudy, responsible for propping up the entire system that keeps you down. How am I supposed to be one of you if I’m the one doing this to you?”

“Now, now, sweetheart,” Trudy said. “We all do what we have to do to survive, and sometimes that ends up in some of us keeping others down. That’s not you, dear. That’s the system. As long as you recognize what you’re doing, and you do all you can to stop it, you’re one of us. And who’s done more to bring down the system than you?”

“Well, you, Trudy. I just said that.”

“And I just said that’s not true. You keep talking us in circles, dear. Is there something you’re getting at, or are we just here for a drink and a ring around the rosies?”

Trudy always knew when there was something. But first there was business. All play and no work made Jill a happy jerk. “You know there is, Trudy,” the Scientist said. “But first let’s get back to Ellie. You say you trust her. How far does that trust go?”

“As far as anyone I’ve ever brought to you,” Trudy said. “She won’t tell anyone anything. I can guarantee that. She never tells anyone anything. Which leads me to suspect that she might take the opportunity to drop out if you give it to her, but she’ll be sure to do what you ask of her first. She wouldn’t want to live knowing that she owed you.”

“And you’re sure of all that from having talked with her so little?”

“It doesn’t take much,” Trudy said, taking a sip of her drink. “Like you’ve said before, they usually tell you everything they want with their first words. Well, with me, one conversation reveals a person’s entire character. I couldn’t tell you how I do it, I just know that I do.” She took another sip. “And I’d say that you know it, too, with what you have me doing for you.”

“What I ask you to do for us.” The Scientist winked. “But I do know it works, and every day it amazes me more.”

Trudy blushed. “So what do you have in store for her?” she asked. “Info finding mission? Meet her favorite propaganda star? One-on-one with an owner so she can show him how she feels? What did she ask for?”

“The beach,” the Scientist said.

Ugh.”

They both drank at that.

“I told you I trusted her to do whatever she wanted,” Trudy said. “But that’s not where it stops. I know better than that, dear. There are always conditions. So what are they? What did she say?”

“Well, I…” The Scientist sipped her beer and looked around the bar.

“You haven’t told her yet, have you?”

“The roses only just turned before I came to see you,” the Scientist said. “I had to set the scheduling macros. I have more still to set. I thought I had more time.”

“With the Christmas Feast tomorrow, you thought you had more time?” Trudy said, shaking her head. “Be ready for the blooming every day, dear. That’s what you taught me. It’s what you taught all of us. Especially with the field yellow as it is. Or rather, as it was.”

“Yes, well,” the Scientist said. “There was more to do. Besides, there’s plan B…”

Trudy rolled her eyes and took a big gulp of beer.

“You.”

“Yeah yeah,” Trudy said, waving her on. “Well now you have to tell me what you have in store for her. Is that the bush you’ve been beating around?”

No. It wasn’t. “Well, yes and no,” the Scientist said. “But, Ellie. You think she would be willing to use a disc?”

Trudy looked around the room then sipped her beer. She leaned in close and said, “A disc?”

“More to the point, would she be willing to use a dozen discs?”

“That many?”

“Her entire hall,” the Scientist said, nodding. “She’ll put one on each door, and I’ll direct the belts so the explosions target specific locations. Two birds with one stone. We have the misdirection of bombing the QA hall, and we render key printers in Bourgeoisville inoperable.”

Trudy laughed, spitting some beer up onto the table.

“What?” The Scientist didn’t get the joke.

Bourgeoisville,” Trudy repeated, mimicking the Scientist’s voice and adding an extra snobby accent. “You sound so bourgeois when you say it.”

“Yeah, well, would you rather I called it Inland like they do? Or Earth 2.0?”

“Now, now,” Trudy said. “Don’t get mad. I just thought it was funny. You can call it Donkeybuster for all I care. Soon we’ll see that it’s all the same anyway. Right?”

She wasn’t right this time. What you called it did matter. The name you gave it affected how you thought about it, if you believed you could change it, but how could the Scientist sit and argue against someone who knew the oppression of the system firsthand? “No,” she said, shaking her head, not wanting to argue the point any further with so much work still on the horizon. “You’re—You’re right.”

“Stop that,” Trudy said. “Now I’m not right. We both are. And Ellie will use the discs just fine. But what are you giving her?”

“The beach,” the Scientist said. “Like she asked for.”

“For how long?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes?”

“Fifteen minutes during the operation,” the Scientist said. “Those are fifteen completely secure minutes. But after fifteen we need the holes to give other workers what they want. It’s the best I can do.”

“Fifteen minutes?”

“Fifteen minutes,” the Scientist said.

“I don’t know if that’ll be long enough.” Trudy shook her head.

“It has to be. That’s all we have.”

“You couldn’t send her over there then move the door back when she’s done?”

The Scientist shook her head. “Not on such short notice. And we need the operating power, anyway. Fifteen minutes for a beach trip is a lot, all things considered. She’s not the only one going to the beach, either. She’s just the most likely to return. Whether she does or not, though, she gets fifteen minutes to decide.”

“And discs,” Trudy said. “One on each door?”

The Scientist pulled a pouch out of her coat pocket and put it on the table. Trudy scooped it up and put it in her own pocket.

“Rip, stick, press?” Trudy asked.

“Rip, stick, press,” the Scientist said. “One on each door. If they’re activated, they’ll explode twenty-five minutes after her shift ends. That’s fifteen minutes on the beach, then ten minutes to set the discs and get out of there. She can do either, or both, or neither, and whatever she decides, I’ll be willing to meet with her again. You know the deal.”

“And when she blows up her own workplace?” Trudy said. “When she blows up my workplace. How do we support ourselves then?”

“She—and you—will be moved to another building,” the Scientist said. “There are empty QA buildings waiting for just such an emergency. Don’t worry. I know. Her, nor your, job are in any danger, only the owners’ infrastructure on one side and their party on the other.”

“And when they realize that she was the only one working before the building blew up, won’t they know she had to be the one to do it?”

“Technically she’s not scheduled to work.” The Scientist smiled. “Someone else is. And they’re already dead. The protectors will assume a corpse did it, and Ellie will be in the clear.”

“But if she does lose her job…”

“She won’t,” the Scientist assured her. “But if she does, then she’ll be added to the distribution list. Have you ever known me to let anyone I could help go helpless?”

Trudy shook her head. “You do everything you can.”

“And I will continue to do so.”

“So when do I tell her?”

“Tonight. At the bar. Her bar. She has to do it tomorrow or wait. The roses are red, Trudy. The roses are red.”

“They are, dear,” Trudy said with a smile. “And I’ll be sure Ellie knows it, too. But what are you going to do about it?” She sipped her beer.

Trudy knew what was really bothering the Scientist. She knew everything. “I’m going to help everyone, then get what I want,” the Scientist said.

“Everyone?” Trudy said, raising an eyebrow.

“I get what I want every day. I have a printer for that. It’s not my turn. I have to let the others get a chance before I take more.”

“It’s not anyone’s turn, dear,” Trudy said. “It’s all of our turn. If it wouldn’t take more than an elevator ride to get fifteen minutes of what you want, then it wouldn’t stand in anyone’s way, would it?”

“No. I—”

“And this is about getting everyone what they want, right?” Trudy said.

“Yes, but—”

“And you are a part of everyone, aren’t you?”

“Well, but—”

“But you deserve to get what you want, too, dear,” Trudy said, slapping her hand lightly on the table. “As much as any of us. You’re not like the owners, you know. You’re helping us, and you deserve the same window of happiness that you’re offering everyone else.”

“Fifteen minutes?” the Scientist said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Trudy repeated.

“I don’t know if it’s enough.”

“It’s all you can get.”

“It’s all I can afford.”

“It’s all we can afford, dear.” Trudy smiled and winked.

The Scientist shook her head. “But what if she doesn’t believe me?”

“If you never tell her, she’ll never have a chance to decide.”

“How could she trust me? I let this happen. It’s my fault.”

“It’s the system, dear. Let’s not get back on the merry-go-round. Without you, she wouldn’t be alive. You deserve to see her. For fifteen minutes at least.”

“I’m going to do it, Trudy,” the Scientist said.

“You should.”

“What do I say?”

“You say what you’ve been waiting to say. You’ve thought about it. I know you have. You already know what to say. Say that.”

“I know nothing, Trudy.”

“No one does.” Trudy shook her head.

“Right again,” the Scientist said. “Right again.” She sipped her beer.

“I always am, dear.” Trudy smiled. “You should get my advice for everything.” She winked and finished her beer.

“Oh. I do. Don’t worry.”

“Well,” Trudy said, standing from the booth. “I think you’ve got some work to do, then. I know I do, and I should be off to it.”

“You’re more productive than anyone, Trudy.”

“Oh. I know, dear,” Trudy said with a smile. “I know.” She laughed as she left, waving over her shoulder.

The Scientist sipped her beer. She had some time before her next meeting. She could play a game of pool. Trudy suggested that she attend to her own desires, too. But the game would go long. She was so out of practice it would have to unless the other player ran the table. Either way, her second meeting would likely be kept waiting, and there was still so much work to get done before the Feast.

No. Who was she kidding? She didn’t have time for that. Not even fifteen minutes. Did she have fifteen minutes to take what she really wanted, though? Her beer was empty, so she got another and sat back at the booth to watch the other patrons play. Her time was tomorrow if she wanted it. Just like everyone else. What was safe for them, was safe for her. If she ever wanted to see her daughter, Christmas was the time to do it.

The door to the bar opened and in came Anne, dressed in her coveralls still. She skipped the bar and sat in the booth with the Scientist. “What?” Anne said with a smirk. “Nothing for me?”

“I didn’t know you were off the wagon,” the Scientist said. “You can have some of mine if you want.”

“And get your cooties?” Anne said with a cringe. “I think not.”

“Cooties? What year is this? Are you a child?”

“We’re all kids compared to you.” Anne laughed.

The Scientist laughed, too, and took a drink of her beer. “You don’t know how true that is, dear. You have no idea.”

Anne looked around the bar and leaned in close. “I don’t know…” she said. “There are rumors,” she added in a whisper.

The Scientist chuckled. She leaned in close, too. “That I’m a robot!”

“How’d you know?” Anne laughed.

“I’ve heard them all, dear. I’m no robot, though. I’ll tell you that much. But I’m older than any robot that could pass for me. So there’s some truth to it.”

“But, how?” Anne said, shaking her head in disbelief.

“That’s not what we’re here for, dear. The roses are red.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anne said, sitting up straighter in her seat.

“You know what you’re to do, then.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know.”

“Tell me.”

“First, I alert the other operatives in my sector, they have work of their own to do. Then I work my shift as normal. At the end of my shift, I set the discs and get out of there, ensuring the building is clear on my way.”

“Very good,” the Scientist said. “Very good. Are you ready for this?”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Anne said, looking at the table. “After th—after the operation, when it’s all said and done, there are gonna be shortages, you know. I mean, how do w—how do we deal with that?”

“We’ll be working to direct the food to those who need it,” the Scientist said. “And to keep it out of the owners’ hands. There is a risk of shortages, but we’ll do everything we can to relieve those in need.”

“It won’t be enough,” Anne said.

The Scientist didn’t answer. She sipped her beer.

“It never is.” Anne took a deep breath, shaking her head. “Not even when there aren’t shortages. It’s gonna stay like this forever, isn’t it?”

“Unless we do something about it,” the Scientist said.

“And this is something? This will give us more food?”

The Scientist shook her head. “No. Probably not. Not right away, at least. You’ll have to fight for what you deserve. They’ll never hand it over without a struggle.”

“And this is how we struggle? By bombing our own food supply?”

“It’s not food, though. Is it? You work there, Anne. Coconuts, pineapples, saffron…Do you ever eat any of that? Do you know anyone who does?”

Anne shook her head.

“No. You don’t. Because it’s not food you’re growing. Those are luxuries, and you’re growing them for someone you’ll never meet, someone who does nothing for you in return but keep you at the bare minimum you need to survive so you can continue to grow their luxuries. You won’t be creating shortages. There will be more work than ever to get those luxuries up and running again. They’ll be desperate to be the first to do it. But the explosions also go through the transport tubes, and that will take out printers the owners can’t live—or steal what you create—without. This is just the beginning, Anne. There’s so much more to come. Can you help us get it started?”

“I can,” Anne said. She pounded her fist on the table then looked around self-consciously.

We can, dear,” the Scientist said. “None of us alone. And after this phase of the operation, we’ll move to getting those in need what they need, just like you want to do.”

“But why don’t we do that first? Instead of bombing the luxuries.”

“We have to do this tomorrow in order to do that in the future. This is only for you to know, but we’ll be retrieving a stockpile of printers for exactly that purpose. We’re using the explosions around different sectors as a distraction to collect the printers and take them to a safe distribution point where they can be given to those most in need.”

Anne nodded. Her hand motioned as if to grab for a glass that didn’t exist, and when she realized that there was nothing there, she brushed the hair out of her face instead. “That’s the only way to do it?”

“That’s the only way to do it with as few people as we have. The best thing we could do would be to stop producing for them altogether and start keeping everything for ourselves. But we’re all too comfortable in our jobs to do that.”

“You, too?”

“Me especially.”

“You’re really not that different from us, are you?”

“I eat better,” the Scientist said. “I eat every day. And I know I’ll sleep in a big, comfortable bed every night. In that sense, I’m different. But they exploit me the same as they do you. And I know that enough to do everything I can to help you stop them.”

“But who are they? How could they be so evil?”

“They’re mostly inheritors of wealth,” the Scientist said. “They were born into a role which they fulfill all too well. As much as they know what they’re doing, they have no idea what they’re doing. No more idea than anyone in any of the Outlands really. They’ve never experienced hunger or alienation, and they don’t interact with any humans who ever have. They literally live in their own world, in complete ignorance of what day-to-day life is like for the vast majority of people. They commit evils, yes, but not because they are evil. It might be more accurate to say that they’re possessed. Or possessive.” The Scientist shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m saying, though. Do you?”

Anne shook her head.

“No,” the Scientist said. “No, of course not. How could you when I don’t? Contradictions. Contradictions everywhere and I don’t understand them. But I won’t stop until I tease them out, you see. Do you understand that?”

Anne nodded and grabbed again for her non-existent drink.

“Good,” the Scientist said. “Because that’s the real point of all this. Even if you don’t agree with my methods and you want to walk away today without doing anything for the operation, you’re free to do that—I hope you won’t, of course—but if you do, you have to keep struggling to tease out those contradictions for yourself, you have to do it your own way.”

“You know I’m not walking away.” Anne shook her head. “I would have done that a long time ago.”

The Scientist smiled and sipped her beer. “Yes.” She nodded. “I know. But it’s important to remind you that you can, and that you’ll still be looked after, even if you do.”

“I know, ma’am,” Anne said, nodding. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

“Good,” the Scientist said, clapping her hands together. “Good good good. That’s good to hear, Anne. Thank you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Now, I’ve got a lot of work to do before tomorrow, and I think you do, too.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anne said, standing up and holding out her hand. “I won’t let you down.”

The Scientist took her hand and shook it. “I know you won’t, dear. Hopefully I won’t let you down, either. Now be careful out there. This is the real thing. These discs will be live.”

“I understand, ma’am. I’ll keep everything under control.”

“You do what you can, Anne.” The Scientist smiled.

Anne shook the Scientist’s hand one more time then went out into the world. The Scientist watched the rest of the pool game, finishing her beer in the booth. This was it. No more meetings. No more real work besides setting a few more macros before the operation was underway. Still, she did have to do that.

She set the empty glass on the bar and the bartender said “All’s well in the world.”

“Is it ever?” The Scientist didn’t know if it was a question or a statement.

“No” The bartender shook his head, thinking about it. “Well, the world’s a big place.”

“And there are so many of them.” The Scientist laughed.

The bartender eyed her with a squint. “You come in here with your white coat, and you order your beers and sit in your corner booth, and I know there’s something more to you.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.” He nodded.

“And how do you know that?”

“No one tips well,” the bartender said, tapping his head with a rag. “No one wears white coats. My customers don’t pay attention because they don’t want any attention paid to them, but I do, ma’am. I own the place. I rule here. That means my rules. And you follow them well enough—no questions being one of those rules—but I needed you to know that I know there’s more to you than that. That’s all.” He went back to cleaning glasses.

“That’s very observant of you,” the Scientist said. “Mr.—Uh…”

“Bartender.”

“Mr. Bartender.” She smiled. “And I appreciate your discretion.”

“Discretion’s the rule, ma’am. Be assured of that. But it’s more than that. My customers aren’t all as unconcerned as I make them out to be. You understand? If I noticed you, then they did. That’s all I’m saying.”

The Scientist nodded and signaled for another beer. “I appreciate that Mr. Bartender.”

“It’s called customer service, ma’am,” he said, getting her another drink. “I find it helps to keep my customers coming back.”

“Yes,” the Scientist said, nodding. “I’ve noticed it’s mostly the same people in here when I come in.”

“Mostly, ma’am,” the bartender said. “Especially when you come in.”

Huh.” She sipped her beer. “I see. And you wouldn’t tell them anything that could lead them to me, would you?”

“I don’t know anything to tell them, ma’am. I just aim to tell you that they come in every time you come in.”

“I won’t even ask who they are, sir. Thank you.” She left a hefty tip and didn’t finish her beer.

She knew they’d find the bar eventually. They always did. But so soon? And why did she have to learn about it just as the roses bloomed? Not that it mattered whether she knew about it now or not. There was no worrying anymore. The only thing she could do now was prepare for tomorrow.

The elevator took too long to get back to her lab even though it took only half a minute. She knew it was exactly thirty seconds because she oversaw the operation of every elevator in existence. She opened the door to her office and Popeye was typing on the computer. The big metal arm turned around in surprise at the sound of her entrance.

“Not today, Popeye,” she said. “The roses are red. The roses are red!”

Popeye waved and gave a thumbs up, then rolled out through the hall door to do who knows what.

“First things first,” she said out loud, even though Popeye had left the room. She set the last few macros and the computer went to work. She typed in the command to send Ellie’s conveyor belt to the beach for fifteen minutes, then she thought about her own wish.

Fifteen minutes with her daughter. That was worth at least as much as seeing the beach or meeting a famous celebrity, wasn’t it? Or was it worth more? Did she deserve it? But who was she to say that what they wanted was worth less than what she wanted?

No. Fifteen minutes of time through the holes was fifteen minutes of time through the holes, no matter where you went or what you did while you were there. That was the question, then, wasn’t it? Did she deserve the same fifteen minutes she offered the workers?

She thought she did. She was a worker, too. Technically. And fifteen minutes wasn’t much to ask. She had fought longer than anyone and had never taken her fifteen. Now was the time. This was
a major operation. There were so many distractions she could probably come up with a couple of extra fifteen minute blocks through the holes. Trudy was offered time that she didn’t take, she wanted the Scientist to take it instead. She typed out one more direction for the Walker-Haley fields to follow the next day and went straight to bed, trying to go to sleep like a child on Christmas Eve.

#     #     #

The day was long, longer than any day she could remember and she remembered a lot a lot of days. Christmas was never a thing that Fours looked forward to, but she had studied the history of the holiday and she knew the stories about how the children would react. She never understood it, though. Any Christmas she had as a child was too long ago to remember, and ever since she had discovered printer technology, anything she ever wanted was at the touch of a button. What presents could there be? But now she was about to get something a printer couldn’t give her. Well, technically it was the same technology making it possible, but it was something entirely different.

The Feast didn’t start until late into the afternoon and the operation until a little way into that. She spent her time waiting by going over every bot assignment and all of the hole placement timings and disc countdowns, imaging everything that could go wrong, any actors who would take what she offered and not do what she asked. She set redundancies for those who she thought might fail, and when she was satisfied the strategy would work as best as it could, it was time for her to take her fifteen. Or maybe she was only satisfied because she had to be, because she had no more time to obsess over every possibility. Either way, control was out of her hands now.

She left the computer to guide the process and went out into the hall. Mr. Kitty was there waiting for her. He meowed.

“Hello, Mr. Kitty,” she said. “Would you like to meet my daughter?”

He meowed again.

“Good,” the Scientist said. “She’s just an elevator ride away. There’s no time to waste.”

The elevator doors opened, Mr. Kitty meowed, and they both walked in for her fifteen minutes.

#     #     #

< XIII. Pardy     [Table of Contents]     XV. Haley >

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