Chapter 70: The Scientist

Good morning, y’all. We’re back again with another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we return to the world between worlds where the Scientist repairs the walls that divide Outland. Read on to find out how they decide to continue, and if you’ve enjoyed the story so far, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXIX. Chief Mondragon     [Table of Contents]     LXXI. Haley >

LXX. The Scientist

0.NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN…

Every Goddamn day it was the same damn thing.

The Scientist slammed their fists on the desk. They smashed the keyboard and stomped their feet. They screamed at the top of their lungs. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” The Scientist couldn’t help it. This was not how computers were supposed to function.

They set the computer to running the calculations again, and again they were presented with the same infinite string of green digital alphanumerals on a black screen: 0.NNNNNNN repeating.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

They threw the keyboard across the room this time, and when it slammed against the wall, the little mechanical keys burst off and tinkled to the ground as the spine fell with a clatter.

This was not supposed to happen. The Scientist had entered all the data perfectly, they had figured for the costs of the owners and everything, and still the computer only had one message to relay: 0.N repeating.

The Scientist wanted to scream, to punch the computer until it broke or the Scientist’s knuckles did. Preferably both. There had to be some way they could get this stupid system to work, or the Scientist was just going to have to destroy the walls by theirself.

They ran the calculations one more time for good measure, and of course, everything came back the same: 0.NNNNNNN…

Maybe there really was zero point in repeating the same stupid mistakes again after all.

The Scientist calmed themself, breathing deeply in and out, trying to control their heart rate. They counted up to a hundred and back down to zero in their head. Five, seven, eleven times in quick succession, tapping their fingers in a different pattern each time and whistling a new tune whenever a primary number was reached, twenty-five different tunes sung forward and backward like palindromes, one for each primary: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, and 97. Then backwards: 97, 89, 83… And so on. You get the point. The 0.N. But there was a point in repeating these number games for the Scientist. It calmed them long enough for their stomach to grumble and remind the Scientist that they hadn’t eaten anything all morning despite the fact that it was getting along past lunch time already. So instead of running the numbers again and pissing themself off further, the Scientist peeled themself away from the computer to find some food.

The kitchen was empty—thank God—as the Scientist stood in front of the printer’s frowning, red-eyed face, imagining the people who would make whatever they ordered, people who the Scientist themself held in oppressive captivity by their continued complicity in the maintenance and repair of the owners’ walls. A picture of the giraffe, the gorilla, and the jaguar, the first exotic animals that the Scientist had ever witnessed, came into mind and again they knew that humans were no more free than those animals in the zoo—and that the Scientist was responsible for the captivity of both. But they had only one way to get the food they needed to sustain themselves, and so they did what they had to do. They poked the printer’s little red eye and said, “Breakfast—er—lunch. I don’t care.”

And of course, the machine had no choice but to do exactly as it was told, and out came both breakfast and lunch.

“Fuck!” the Scientist screamed, punching the printer’s unbending metal face and wincing at the pain of it. “You know that’s not what I wanted. I said breakfast or lunch. Not both.”

And so the machine printed out both again, and again the Scientist screamed. They were really getting tired of this stupid printer technology from all sides of the equation. They held their breath for a moment then took a few deep ones to calm themself before trying to decide between which of the plates to eat and which to throw away, almost falling into another meltdown over the decision before Mr. Kitty appeared out of nowhere, rubbing himself against the Scientist’s ankles and calming them more quickly than any stupid breathing exercises ever could.

“Hey there, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said, smiling despite the meltdown that had seemed all but inevitable only moments before. Mr. Kitty always had that calming effect on them. “What’re you doing here?”

Mr. Kitty meowed then sat down on the kitchen’s tile floor, licking himself.

“Yes, but I still don’t understand how you always manage to show up exactly when I need you the most.”

Mr. Kitty meowed again and went on licking himself.

“Are you sure you won’t tell me?” the Scientist asked, scooping him up to fling him over their shoulder and pat him on the back.

Mr. Kitty meowed then purred then meowed again, trying to struggle his way out of the Scientist’s grip.

“Yes, I do know it’s not the printer’s fault,” the Scientist said. “But it’s not my fault I react that way, either. I’m as much a part of this machine as everyone else.”

Mr. Kitty meowed again, jumping out of the Scientist’s grip to sit on the kitchen counter and go on licking himself.

“And I thank you for that,” the Scientist said, bowing to Mr. Kitty. “Today materially with the choice of three different meals. Or you could just eat all three if you want.” The Scientist put three of the plates at random in front of Mr. Kitty, one after another, leaving only one plate of lunch for them to eat.

Mr. Kitty sniffed the plates, one by one, and refused each in turn, instead deciding to go on licking himself.

“Well,” the Scientist said, picking up their plate to carry it back to the office and eat while they worked. “That’s all I’ve got for now. Come back again later if you want something else. It’s back to work for me.”

The Scientist sat back in their office chair, dipping their turkey sandwich into the bowl of tomato soup before gnawing on it with one hand and tweaking the variables on the computer with the other. Staff pay, number of robots employed, commodity prices, you name it and the Scientist could tweak it, trying to find some combination that would prevent the system from imploding on itself, some solution other than 0.N, even going so far as to lower profit margins below what the owners considered acceptable, and still, the black pane of computer monitors printed out the same endless line of green digital alphanumerals: 0.NNNNNNN…

The Scientist ran the calculations again, got the same results as always, and screamed in frustration, unable to eat more than the half of their sandwich and few spoonsful of soup that they had already eaten. They were about to start tweaking the variables and inputs one more time when from behind them came the mocking voice of Rosalind.

“What is it this time, girl? Your webpage taking too long to load?”

The Scientist didn’t stand to greet Rosalind, though they were kind enough to swivel around in their desk chair and look her in the face.

“You know,” the Scientist said as Rosalind chuckled under her breath, “if it were anyone else but you who kept calling me a girl despite my repeated protests, I’d probably cut their arm off.”

“You can have mine,” Rosalind said, snapping her right arm off with her left and extending it as if it were an offering to some mechanical god. “I get more than enough done with just the one as it is.”

The Scientist slapped Rosalind’s arm away by giving it a high five. “I’d rather have your respect,” they said. “It’s not that difficult to remember not to call me a girl.”

Yes, Lord Scientist,” Rosalind said with a sarcastic bow, snapping her arm back into its socket. “As you wish. I’ll try my best to remember in the future. Is there anything else I can do for you, Lord?”

“Stop calling me Lord, too.” The Scientist had to hold back their laughter now. “That’s much worse than girl.”

“Well make up your mind, girl,” Rosalind said with a chuckle. “So I don’t have to keep choosing for you.”

The Scientist,” the Scientist said resolutely. “I’ve already made up my mind. My name’s the Scientist.”

“But that’s not who you are,” Rosalind said, shaking her head. “You’re not her. I knew her, and she’s not you. I knew you before you thought you were the Scientist, too. When you were just a little—”

I’m not a girl,” the Scientist stopped her.

“No.” Rosalind shook her head. “You’re not that, either. But you’re not the Scientist. You’re something entirely different. Something new.”

“I’ll decide what I am without your input, thank you very much,” the Scientist said, a little offended.

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Rosalind said. “What I’m trying to encourage you to do. But it seems to me like you’re more interested in pretending to be something you’re not. You’d rather retry failed strategies than actually change the world you live in.”

That was bullshit. The Scientist wanted to scream, but they held their breath, tapping their fingers in a pattern and counting off the primaries, forward and backwards like palindromes: 2, 3, 5, 7, 5, 3, 2. 11, 13, 17, 19, 17, 13, 11. 23, 29, 31, 37, 31, 29, 23. Whistling the tune in their mind, because apparently, it was rude to do it out loud in front of company. 2, 11, 23, 11, 2.

“Well…” Rosalind said. “Are you gonna answer?”

“Not until I calm myself,” the Scientist said. “I’m trying to learn how to stop you from getting me riled up.”

Rosalind chuckled. “Is it working?”

“Not really.” The Scientist shrugged, giving up on the meditation and feeling a little calmed. If they didn’t have to deal with those stupid impossible calculations on top of Rosalind’s ill-conceived jokes, the calming technique might actually have worked. “But it’s better than melting down entirely.”

“And what else is on your nerves today?” Rosalind asked, taking a seat on the other side of the desk and looking out the wall-sized window onto Sisyphus’s Mountain. “Because I know that I alone couldn’t piss you off this much. Not that quickly, at least. I wish.”

“No. Not even you,” the Scientist said with a grin. “But you know what can. The same thing that’s been annoying me ever since you put me in charge of these stupid walls.”

“Now, I did not put you in charge of a thing,” Rosalind said in her defense. “You demanded it, and I told you that you’d—”

Regret the day I ever agreed to this job in the first place,” the Scientist said. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

“And do you?” Rosalind asked, looking the Scientist in the eyes. “Regret it?”

“Of course I do. Look at me.”

“Well, maybe you should listen to my advice more often. I’m telling you, gi—ercomrade. You’re wasting your time. I’ve gone over every possible combination of inputs and variables, and there’s no way to make this stupid system function. I’ve done the same calculations for the Scientist at least three times before you were even born, and I could have told you then what I’ve been telling you all along: You’re wasting your time. It’s never going to work.”

“Yeah, but I could just—” the Scientist tried to say, but Rosalind cut them off.

“Continue wasting your time all you want. It makes no difference to me. But don’t lie yourself into believing that you’re doing anything more than that.”

“But I—”

“You know I’m right about this one.”

The Scientist sighed. Rosalind was right. “Yes,” the Scientist finally said. “I do know. But I’m still not sure what I think about your idea of revolution.”

“It’s not just my idea,” Rosalind said. “It would never work if it was. There are a lot of workers—both android and human—on my side, and our ranks keep growing.”

“So you say.”

“So it goes. All we need from you is to stay out of the way. We can trust you to do that much, at least. Can’t we?” Rosalind insisted a bit annoyingly, and the Scientist snapped back at her.

Of course you can. You can count on me for more than that, and you know it. I promised I’d help you if I couldn’t figure this system out on my own before then, and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”

“Well, then, do I have some good news for you.” Rosalind smirked.

No.” The Scientist shook their head. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I would know if—”

“You would be a little too distracted running around in circles with your useless calculations to notice how much faster work has been going near the end of the project.”

“No. But— It’s almost Christmas. I gave everyone who wanted it paid time leave. I’ve been firing the most productive workers. I’ve—”

“You’ve done an admirable—if pitifully futile—job of trying to slow the project down, yes. But I’ve been undermining all those efforts behind your back, and now the final line is going to be laid on Christmas Day. So. I’ll ask you again. Do you really mean it? The time has come. Will you join us or not?”

Christmas Day,” the Scientist repeated. “But that’s only—”

“Too soon,” Rosalind said. “Yes. Will you join us?”

“Remember when we first met?” the Scientist asked, ignoring Rosalind’s impatience. “More than two decades ago, and on a Christmas day, too. The very day the wall came down in the first place.”

“When we tore it down,” Rosalind corrected the Scientist. “It was all I could convince the Scientist to do. Tear down a single wall. She never really believed in my ideas of revolution any more than you do.”

“She had never been a captive of the very Streets she lived in,” the Scientist said. “She had never been held back, harmed, or exploited in any way. Of course she didn’t believe in your idea of revolution. She could never understand how important it is.”

“But you can,” Rosalind reminded the Scientist. “You do. You’re not the Scientist. You’re better than she was.”

“I am the Scientist,” the Scientist insisted. “And I’m not better than anyone. I am no one. But because of that, I can and will help you. I know how important your revolution is, after all. So don’t you dare doubt me on that.”

“I’ll doubt every single cog in this machine until we’re successful,” Rosalind said. “I’ve lived through too many failed attempts at this for me to do anything but.”

“Then don’t doubt me anymore than you doubt everyone else,” the Scientist said. “That’s all I ask. Give me my chance, and I’ll do what I can.”

“I can do that much,” Rosalind said. “And you can start earning my trust by going to those meetings I have scheduled for you.”

“Oh, shit.” The Scientist sat up straighter and checked the clock on the computer screen. “That’s today? I’m already late.”

“Tomorrow,” Rosalind said. “You’re lucky I reminded you. You would have forgotten entirely.”

Nah. I would have remembered,” the Scientist said. “And of course I’ll go to the meetings. Are you sure you don’t need anything else?”

“Are you sure you want help us?”

“I— Uh…”

“Exactly what I thought.” Rosalind sighed, leaving the room as she said, “Just remember that you’re not the Scientist. Start with that and everything else should fall into place.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the Scientist groaned. “Whatever.” But Rosalind was already gone.

Ugh. The Scientist hated meetings. More often than not they could be taken care of over email. But if Rosalind had set it up, it had to be important, and the Scientist was going to be there. The Scientist wanted to show Rosalind that they could really be trusted. In the meantime, they were going to rerun the calculations as many times as they could, still hoping to preclude the need for something as extreme as revolution after all.

#     #     #

< LXIX. Chief Mondragon     [Table of Contents]     LXXI. Haley >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. The gears of revolution have been set into motion. Next week, we return to the perspective of Haley, and we’ll continue the story with a new chapter right here every Saturday after that until the novel, and the series as a whole with this one, is complete. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you again next time. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 69: Chief Mondragon

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

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

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

LXIX. Chief Mondragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hoo-ra!” they replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready for what?” Officer Jones asked.

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

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

“Where are we?” Officer Jones asked.

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

Uh. It looks like a costume closet?”

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

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

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

Hoo-rah,” Officer Kelley intoned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’ll have to do.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir—er. Okay… wifey?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I— Uh— Who?” the man stammered.

Your boss. Let me speak to her.”

“I—uh…”

Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

Chapter 68: Sonya

Hello, dear readers. Another Saturday means it’s time for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we join Sonya Barista, who you might remember from Olsen’s adventures in book two, An Almost Tangent. Read on to see what she’s been up to since we last left her, and if you enjoy that, don’t forget that you can pick up a copy of the book in print or ebook format on Amazon. If you purchase a copy of the print book, we’ll even throw in an ebook version for free. Enjoy, now.

< LXVII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXIX. Chief Mondragon >

LXVIII. Sonya

Sonya loved her job. She spent more time at work than she did anywhere else—including her own home. These people were her family, and she’d rather spend time with no one else.

She was there, behind the bar, at The Bar—what the regulars called it even before the long forgotten name on the sign had faded out of existence—cleaning a dirty glass and listening to a story she’d heard too many times before, a story she would no doubt come to hear again and again with the way the worlds were turning.

“I mean, shit,” Annie Painter complained, gulping down another drink and slamming the empty glass on the table. “I’m the best damn worker on that entire construction site. And I’m not bragging or nothing, either. That’s a verifiable fact based on the way they determine our pay. I do more work faster than anyone else, and now I’m being fired because of it.”

Sonya shook her head, setting another beer on the bar so Annie didn’t have to ask for it.

“You know I can’t pay for this one,” Annie said, drinking it anyway.

“And you know I wouldn’t ask you to, given the circumstances,” Sonya said. “Consider it on the house.”

“Well, thank you.” Annie took another big gulp, draining half the glass, and Sonya set a full pitcher on the bar next to her, nodding for Annie to go on.

“Like I said,” Annie did, “I’m being fired because I’m the fastest worker out there. I wasn’t always. I used to be stuck around fourth place, never even on the winner’s podium at the end of the week, but it seems like the closer we get to finishing this stupid Wall the more they try to slow us down.”

While Annie gulped her beer, Sonya said, “You’re not the first to tell me that.”

“I bet not.” Annie chuckled a little before scowling again. “I bet not. You prolly got my predecessors coming through here. The three that were fired before me. Did they run up a tab, too?”

“No tabs for the recently unemployed,” Sonya reminded her. “Including you. But yes, I talked to your friends, and they told me the same story you’re telling me now.”

“Well you know then,” Annie said, taking a swig of beer and topping off the glass. “First each of them were fired, one by one in turn, and now it’s me. And old Lenny Sexton’ll prolly be next, too. But fire us all they want, there’s no stopping it. Even with the slowest of us, they’ll finish that Wall eventually. Hell, it’s almost done as it is.”

“Do you have any idea why they’d be trying to stall construction?” Sonya asked. “That’s what I don’t understand in all this.”

“Why are they even rebuilding the stupid thing in the first place?” Annie asked with a scoff. “Why do they do anything? Who the fuck are they? You’re telling me that’s the only part of this shit show that you don’t understand?”

“Well, no. You’ve got a point there. But do you have any opinion as to why they’d be slowing construction?”

“Whoever decided to build the shit is having second thoughts. I don’t know. Maybe someone hasn’t paid for it yet. How the fuck am I supposed to know? I’m just trained to lay line.”

“And you’re damn good at it,” Sonya said, topping off Annie’s pitcher one more time. “The best in the business from what I heard.”

“Until they fired me,” Annie said, holding her drink over her head like she was giving a toast. “I have no idea what the fuck job I’m supposed to find now. Y’all need any help around here?”

Sheeit,” Sonya said with a chuckle, thinking about all the work they could use help with. “We got more work than you’ll ever know, but nothing we can afford to pay you for so it wouldn’t be helping you at all.”

“Hey, I’m here to help,” Annie said. “I mean to pay for these drinks somehow. Even if I can’t pay for them. So you don’t be shy about asking me to do anything—for you or the bar.”

“Only thing I need you to do is get another job. That way you can take care of your family and get back to frequenting our fine establishment here like you used to. In the meantime, don’t worry about your drinks. They’re on the house. You worry about your family first. We’ve got your back on that.”

Ugh.” Annie groaned, stumbling sloppily off the barstool. “Speaking of which. Guess I better go break the news to them now. Wish me luck.”

Annie finished her half pint of beer and stumbled out of the bar while Sonya called after her, “Good luck! I’ll keep my ears open for any work that might be good for you.”

It was a shame, really. Annie’s story. But nothing new. Nothing new under the Sun. Sonya had thought it was bad when the walls between worlds Five and Six were torn down, she had thought that unemployment, hunger, and desperation were at their worst, but now that the wall was almost back up again, she was coming to realize that the worlds could get shittier if they wanted to, and from the looks of things, there was a shit circus in store before anything would ever get better. More people were going to lose their jobs, and with that, more people would grow drunk and desperate until inevitably all that pent-up energy had to be released somewhere. Sonya didn’t look forward to it, per se, because she knew a lot of innocent people would be hurt in the process, but Tillie and others like her had been preparing for just such an occasion since before the walls went down, and with any luck, they would be able to guide that energy release toward building a better society and not just tearing down the old one.

As Sonya cleaned up what was left of Annie’s mess, in came one of those people who also organized toward that same better future which Sonya was working toward, her coworker Barkeep.

“How’s the shop treating you today, Barista?” Barkeep asked on her way in. “Lovely as always, I imagine.”

“The bar never disappoints me,” Sonya said, hanging up a clean pitcher to let it dry. “It’s the worlds outside that always seem to let me down.”

“They let us all down,” Barkeep said, taking inventory of the incidentals in preparation to relieve Sonya as the next bartender on duty. “So don’t think you’re special. But tell me, what’s got you bothered this time?”

“Annie Painter’s tab’s on the house.” Sonya sighed. “Until further notice.”

“Annie, too? Sheeit. It’s only gonna get worse before it gets better. Honestly, she’s prolly lucky to be looking for a new job now, before the rush really starts. We all know a mass layoff’s coming at the end of this fucking super project border wall bullshit they have going.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

“There ain’t no reason to be afraid of something you know’s gonna happen. Only thing we can do is—”

Be prepared,” Sonya finished for Barkeep, knowing that she had done her best to prepare, but only hoping that she—and all the rest of them, cogs in a giant revolution machine that they were—were ready for what was to come. “I know. But I’m not sure anyone could ever be prepared for something they’ve never experienced. Especially something as big as this.”

“You experienced it plenty enough when that wall came down,” Barkeep said. “And you’ve been preparing with us ever since. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be. That’s more than enough. More than most people can say, at least.”

“I don’t know. I—” Sonya started, but this time Barkeep cut her off.

“I do know, Sonya. I believe in you. I believe in all of us. We’re gonna be prepared the next time they need us. Trust me.”

“Yeah, well, I really hope you’re right.” But Sonya wasn’t sure that she could believe in everyone—herself most of all—as much as Barkeep did.

“I’m sure I’m right,” Barkeep said. “But before we can get there to find out, I need you to check the bathrooms, refill the freezer with ice, and clean the last few glasses from your friends who are leaving right about… now.”

“Have a good one, Sonya,” a group of regulars called from the front of the bar as they left. “Put it on my tab. And Merry Christmas.”

Sonya cleaned their table, did their dishes, scrubbed and mopped the bathrooms, and refilled the freezer with ice before her shift was finally over and she could sit on the other side of the bar to drink a beer served to her by Barkeep.

“Don’t you ever get tired of this place?” Barkeep asked while filling up a pitcher for another customer. “After my shift, I’m out of here as soon as I can. But you? Look at you.”

“Don’t know where else I’d go,” Sonya said, sipping her beer.

“Home, for starters.” Barkeep laughed. “Anywhere but here.”

“Only thing I want to do after work is drink a beer and rest my feet. I’d rather not drink alone, and it’s easier to rest when I don’t have to walk to the elevator and beyond, so what better place could I be than right here right now?”

“And besides,” a scratchy voice said behind Sonya who turned to find Ellie McCannick’s wrinkly-faced smile. “Here, everyone knows exactly where to find you.”

“Which can sometimes be dangerous,” Barkeep said, laughing loudly, though Sonya knew she was only half joking. Barkeep didn’t trust Ellie and the people who she worked with, and so Barkeep didn’t like it when the old woman came around. Sonya didn’t really trust the resistance group that Ellie worked with, either—they were highly secretive, even to insiders, and all their actions seemed to end up buffering the system instead of destroying it like their rhetoric promised—but Sonya had no problem with Ellie as a person, and even liked the old woman. Ellie had been working hard, doing her best to help her fellow workers despite the obstacles in her way, for decades, and Sonya hoped that she could be as enthusiastic about the struggle as Ellie still was when she was that old.

“Thankfully, this time it’s not dangerous,” Sonya said, patting Ellie on the back. “It’s always nice to see my friend Ellie. Why don’t you get her a drink, please. On my tab.”

“Now, you don’t have to,” Ellie said, bowing her head. “I can afford my own drinks. I’m just here for the company.”

“I insist,” Sonya insisted. “Make that an entire pitcher, Barkeep. It’s almost Christmas. We should all be in the spirits.”

“Well, if you’re gonna twist my arm about it…” Ellie smiled, taking a glass and filling it from the pitcher that Barkeep had set on the bar in front of them.

“So how’s the activist life treating you?” Barkeep asked. “Y’all make enough in donations to support a few full-timers by now, don’t you?”

“We do nothing alone,” Ellie said, taking a sip of her beer. “I’m blessed to be working with a good crew. And my pity promotion netted me an early retirement, so I don’t really require anything more than meals and expenses from the organization. I’m blessed, though. I’ll never forget that. We do nothing alone.”

“Expenses like this bar tab here?” Barkeep asked, obviously annoyed as she continued the interrogation.

“Well…” Ellie said, not letting on that she had noticed Barkeep’s attitude—whether she had or not. “Thankfully, the lovely Sonya here has graciously offered to pay for this round. But I did come here expecting to buy at least one myself. And yes, that would be done with our organization’s expenses. Building working relationships like this one here is one of the major reasons we raised these funds in the first place. Buying a round of drinks with the money’s exactly what’s expected of me.”

We do nothing alone,” Barkeep said sarcastically. And then, “Including drink. But I’ve gotta go take some more orders. Enjoy, you two.”

“She does not like me one bit,” Ellie said when Barkeep had left down the bar to serve some other patrons.

“She doesn’t know you,” Sonya tried to explain, though it was hard to deny what Barkeep’s actions suggested. “That’s all. It’s not that she dislikes you or anything. She just doesn’t trust people she doesn’t know.”

“Yeah, well, she’s had plenty of time to get to know me better. I’m pretty sure it goes beyond simple ignorance at this point.”

Sonya didn’t respond to that. She had no way to, really. There were no arguments. Barkeep didn’t trust Ellie and she had no intention of altering that fact. There was no point in talking further about it. They drank on in silence for a while—each thinking about how to trust the other—before Sonya broke it to say, “So, how’s life been treating you?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” Ellie said. “I can’t complain any more than I ever have. Plenty of food on the table. Warm bed to sleep in—even if it’s not too soft. And I’ve got a whole host of friends and family whose company I actually enjoy. So, no. There’s nothing new for me to personally complain about. Just the general unfairness of life under the oppressive system we’re forced to abide by. You know. Oh. Wait. Also, we’ve got our Christmas party planned. You’ll be there, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sonya nodded. She looked forward to Ellie’s Christmas party every year and wouldn’t miss it for the worlds. “I’ve got a special surprise dish I plan on serving. You’ll see. I’ll be there with bells on.”

“You better be.” Ellie winked. “This year the guest list’s so long that we’re expanding to four apartments instead of our usual two. Ol’ Tanner and Kitchens have finally offered to give up their homes for the day. So I promise you, this one will be a Christmas for the legends.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Sonya said, chuckling at the mere thought of the celebration. “But I know that’s not the only reason you came out here. So spill it.”

“Oh, well…” Ellie looked around at everyone in the room, suspicious now that it was time to get down to business. “I don’t know. Maybe we should take a booth. This particular matter’s a little more… private.”

Ah. Of course.” Sonya nodded. “But first, Barkeep, an order of table fries, please.”

Barkeep printed an order of fries, then Sonya and Ellie carried that, their drinks, and the half-full pitcher of beer to the deepest, darkest corner booth in the bar where Ellie scanned the room suspiciously one more time before speaking a word.

“So, dear,” she finally did say, pausing there as if Sonya should be able to decipher some meaning out of those two words alone. Sonya never could.

“So…” Sonya said.

“The worlds are changing,” Ellie said, frowning in a particular way that seemed to accent her wrinkles and crow’s feet. “The worlds are changing.”

“Don’t they always,” Sonya said. Not a question. A statement of fact.

“That they do, child,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “But they don’t usually turn for the worst this fast. And when they do, we know for sure that something big’s coming.”

“And for how long have y’all been predicting that something big’s gonna happen? Huh? Long as I’ve known you, it seems like you’ve been making the same prophecies.”

“And the change I predict’s still coming along, ain’t it? Quicker than ever now. You’ll see. I’m sure you already do. You can feel it in the air, but you don’t quite understand it yet.”

Sonya sipped her drink and nodded. She couldn’t argue against what Ellie was saying and there was no point in trying to. Sonya had been discussing exactly that with Annie and Barkeep before Ellie’s arrival.

“You see?” Ellie went on. “You can’t even disagree with me now. I know you don’t like the way our organization prepares for what’s to come, but you definitely think there’s something to prepare for. Am I right?”

“You’re not wrong,” Sonya said, still not wanting to cede the point.

“It’s not often that I am.” Ellie smirked. “And on the off chance that I do make a mistake, I never repeat it. Do you understand me?”

Sonya nodded.

“I’m not sure you do, okay. But we’ve changed. All of us. The entire organization from bottom to top—including myself. We’re a different beast entirely. We’ve even settled on a name for ourselves. We’re going public. No more secrecy.”

“Oh yeah?” Sonya nodded, not too impressed. “And how long have y’all been arguing over a name?”

“C’mon, now. That’s not fair,” Ellie complained. “You know we’ve got a lot more on our plate than this. And it’s more than a name when you get down to it. We’re putting words to our organization. That makes it real. Those words will reflect what our organization does, and our actions will reflect our name. I’m telling you, we’re serious.”

Sonya was starting to believe that maybe they were. “So what’s this name then?” she asked.

The Scientific Socialists,” Ellie said, sitting up straighter in her stool and refilling both of their beers with a proud smile.

“Scientific Socialists?” Sonya repeated, not liking the sound of that. “Are y’all still working with that Scientist woman? She was willing to open up about her secrets with you?”

“Well, not exactly. No,” Ellie said, sipping her beer and thinking about what to say next. “The Scientist is dead. She never would have opened up to us. You’re right about that. But there is no her anymore. So she’s nothing to worry about.”

“But you still call yourselves scientific,” Sonya said.

“Yes. Because we use the scientific method to determine our course in political life. We’re scientists of history.”

“So you are still working with the Scientist, then?”

“No. Well, yes. Sort of… We’re all scientists now. And some of us literally call themselves the Scientist still, but it’s nothing more than a meme anymore. The Scientist is gone. I assure you of that.”

“Is this all you came to talk about?” Sonya asked, suspecting it wasn’t. “If so, let’s go play some darts. I need to get out of this booth and stretch my legs a bit.”

No—n—n—no, no,” Ellie said, stopping Sonya from getting up. “Now, I’d love to beat you at darts when we’re done here, but we haven’t even started.”

“I’m all ears,” Sonya said, waiting.

Ellie gulped down a half a glass of beer and sighed before she went on. “Okay, well… Now, I know you don’t trust the organization that I work with for one reason or another. And I respect your opinion, okay. I’m not asking you to change anything about it. But I do want to know if you trust me as an individual. Do we even connect at that level?”

“I— Wha— Yes,” Sonya stammered, caught off guard by Ellie’s admission of vulnerability and feeling vulnerable herself because of it. “Of course I trust you. I really do consider you a friend despite our political differences. I wouldn’t be drinking with you now if I didn’t.”

Exactly. Okay,” Ellie said, setting her beer down to take Sonya’s hand in her cold, clammy ones. “You trust me and I trust you. We trust each other. We’re friends, and friends trust each other, right? And now I know that you, Barkeep, and dozens of others—at least, probably more—are all already planning your robot revolution—or whatever—with Momma BB. Okay. You’re not secretive about it. Right? And we’re trying to learn from you, trying not to trick people into doing things for us, okay. Instead we’re convincing them that it’s actually in their best interests. Right. Which is why—”

“Get on with it,” Sonya cut her off. The more Ellie beat around the bush, the less Sonya wanted to hear what she had to say. “Just ask your question already.”

“Well…” Ellie smiled half a smile, more of a pathetic, pitiful grin. “Do you think you could trust me enough to at least meet with my people? We need y’all’s help for an operation on Christmas day.”

#     #     #

< LXVII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXIX. Chief Mondragon >

And there you have it, dear readers: another chapter in the Infinite Limits universe. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel through this link. Have a great weekend, enjoy yourself, and we’ll see you right here again next Saturday.

We do nothing alone.

Chapter 65: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

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

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

LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

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

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

“Tails,” Stevie repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what. Maybe it is.”

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

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

“What now?”

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

“The same coin flip?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thim shrugged again. “Inconclusive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

0.N Repeating

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

0-n_repeating_cover_for_kindle

 

 

 

 

 

For you.

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Chayce Halley

 

 

 

 

 

LXIV. Haley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh. Mind what?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I— But—”

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

“I— But…” Lord Douglas stammered again.

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

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

#     #     #

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

“God?” Haley was taken aback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Please, do.”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

“I’m not your frien—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

We do nothing alone.

Chapter 37: Huey

Today brings us the 100th post on the blog here and Huey Douglas’s third and final chapter in An Almost Tangent. Huey is Lord now and with that position over the economy comes great responsibilities, responsibilities that he doesn’t really want to deal with. Find out how he does–or doesn’t as the case may be–right here in chapter thirty seven of the Infinite Limits story and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Thanks for following along, dear readers, enjoy:

< XXXVI. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXVIII. Rosa >

XXXVII. Huey

Thus were the detriments of being an owner. He had given the orders. He had set the gears into motion. There was no way to turn them back now, no matter what anyone at the table said. But still, because he was number one, because he was now Lord, he had to see the feast through to the bitter end. Well, not really. He did have the power to call it to an end whenever he wanted to, but the unwritten code of the Fortune Five—the same code that said whoever was richest sat at the head of the table and called all the shots—said he had to stay at least until the disturbance was dealt with. Whatever that meant to the Fortune Five in general.

“So,” Angrom said, gay now that he was at the Lord’s right hand instead of Loch who was always Walker’s pet. “The orders are set, all we have to do is wait, why not have a round of drinks? On me.” He smiled wide.

“Oh, yes,” Smörgåsbord said. “Fine idea.”

Ugh.” Loch relented, never one to turn down a free drink. “Fine.”

“Sure thing,” Huey said. “What do you say, Walker, my boy?” He grinned.

“Do I want you to buy a drink from me for me to drink?” Walker asked sarcastically. “Of course I do. Do you take me for a fool?”

“I think I’ve taken you for a fool once already today, Walkie Talkie.” Huey smiled. “Or have you forgotten?”

Angrom laughed. “Make that twice,” he said. “And two rounds because of it. Hillary, you got that? Two rounds for everyone. Their regulars.”

His secretary curtsied and made her way down the hover platform to get the drinks.

“I’m not a fool,” Walker said, his voice breaking. “I was simply unprepared.” He coughed.

“What’s the difference?” Huey shrugged.

Walker huffed. “Yes,” he said. “Well we’ll see who the fool is yet.”

“Do you have more jokes planned for us?” Huey laughed, looking over at Angrom who joined in. Huey took a quick glance behind himself and Rosalind shot him a look.

“It’s only a joke if you laugh,” Walker said.

Angrom laughed. “You two,” he said, patting his stomach. “Enough. Come on. Let’s not let this tiny shift in power compromise the natural cohesiveness of the Fortune Five. We here at this table are indisputably the richest five men in all the worlds. All of them. No matter which of us happens to be at the top, we’re all beyond the imagination of anyone else in those worlds, right? So why bicker now?”

Loch scoffed. “Oh how the turn tables,” he said. “Only days ago you were arguing and roadblocking at every possible turn, and now you want complete group cohesion because your car happens to be in the lead? Well you can fu—”

“Woah now, Mr. Loch,” Angrom said. His secretary had come up and started setting two drinks in front of everyone, their respective favorites, straight bourbon whiskey for Huey. “You’re drink is here,” Angrom went on. “Taste it and settle down. We all have to work together, either way. At least I’m trying to be civil.”

Loch downed one of his drinks in one go. “Civil?” he said. “Ha! Try passive aggressive. I can read subtext as well as anyone, Mr. Angrom. I’m not an Outlander after all.”

“Oh, I know,” Angrom said. “That’s exactly my point. I have a new proposal if you’re willing—”

Wait,” Huey stopped them. Rosalind had tapped him on the shoulder. She whispered in his ear. “It’s happening,” Huey said. “Walker, do we have video capabilities at this location?”

Walker looked around as if to say, “This is a restaurant. Does it look like we do?” but his mouth said, “Um, I don’t think so. I can—”

“Rosalind,” Huey said, not looking at her. “Can we get something up here to show video of what’s going on?”

Yes, sir, Lord Douglas, sir,” Rosalind said in a thick accent that she didn’t normally use. “I’ll get on it right away, suh.” She disappeared down the floating platform.

“Now,” Huey said. “We’ll see how to target a plant at the root once and for all. Are you ready gentleman?”

Walker scoffed. Loch ordered more drinks from his secretary, he seemed intent on getting seriously sloshed before the video gear even arrived. Smörgåsbord coughed. “Ahem, Lord,” he said. “Not to question your authority—which we’ve already established.” He darted a dirty look toward Walker. “But how is it that you’re certain this uh—Whistleblower is it?—how do you know that she precisely constitutes the roots of this—um—riot?” He fixed his bowtie, pleased that he had worded the question properly.

“It’s quite simple, really,” Huey said. “And I’m surprised Mr. Walker’s protectors haven’t come to this conclusion themselves. In fact, we’ve had our eyes on Whistleblower since before the terrorist attacks. It was only since yesterday that it became obvious enough for Walrus Investigative Inc. to see it was her, though. Or do your greenshoes still not know, Wally Boy?”

Huey could see Walkers breath deepen from the exaggerated movement in his fat rolls. “We tracked the source of the video to her, yes,” he said. “She incited the first riot, we already know. She was targeted then, and she is targeted as we speak. Perhaps my men have dealt the lethal blow already as we speak.” He smiled but Huey could see the sweat on his brow, between his monocle and top hat.

“I’ll have you call them off, then, Wally,” Huey said. “This is my show now.”

“Call them off!?” Loch spit out his drink. “Nip it in the bud the old fashioned way. That’s what you said, isn’t it, Lord?”

“He’s right, Lord Douglas,” Smörgåsbord said. “Isn’t that what we agreed to?”

“Yes,” Huey said, cool and collected. “The old fashioned way. Not instantly in front of a crowd. Slowly. Painfully. Tediously. Alone. If all these hooligans risk is a quick release from their tortured life, then what’s to stop the next Whistleblower from taking her place? We aren’t chopping off the head of a snake if we do this, boys. We’re chopping off the arm of a starfish, splitting an earthworm in two. Both sides will grow into a new whole, and we’ll have two problems to deal with where, before, we had only one.”

Ahh,” Smörgåsbord said, thoughtfully. “The old fashioned way. I understand. If you say so, Lord Douglas.”

“I do,” Huey said.

“Well,” Walker said, finishing his own drink. “I’m afraid it might be too late, Lord, but I’ll have my secretary send along the order. Haley, did you hear that?”

“Yes, sir,” she curtsied behind him.

“There you are, Lord Douglas.” Walker grinned.

“Good,” Huey said. “Now—”

Rosalind interrupted him by plopping a big heavy disk on the center of the table. She pressed a button on it and backed away. A holographic image of protectors, converging on a sea of students, appeared above the disk. There was gas everywhere and chaos all through the crowd. The image wasn’t three dimensional, but from any vantage point a person sat at, it looked like the screen was pointed in their direction.

“So this is the efficient way,” Walker said with a huff.

“No, Mr. Walker,” Huey said. “The efficient way would have been to follow my advice from the beginning. This is what your ineptitude has brought the situation down to. This is what the worlds look like when they’re going to pieces. But I’ll put them back together for you, Walker my boy, just like I promised to do.” He winked.

“We’ll see about that,” Loch said under his breath, only loud enough for his dear friend Walker to hear—or so he thought.

“What was that?” Huey asked.

If you say so, Lord Douglas.” Loch raised his glass.

“I do,” Huey said. “And you’ll see—”

“Lord Douglas,” Rosalind said, tapping his shoulder. “Whistleblower has been taken out.”

“Taken out?” Huey turned to look confused into Rosalind’s eyes.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “A sniper, sir. They say—”

He turned back and slammed his fist on the table, causing the video on the disc to jump. “Mr. Walker. What did I tell you?” he demanded.

“What did I tell you?” Walker repeated, grinning and leaning back in his chair. “It might be too late.”

“She was shot after you were supposed to send out the order,” Huey said.

“Riots are chaos,” Walker said. “The order was given, and whoever didn’t follow it will pay the price. I assure you of that, my Lord.”

“I don’t need any assurances,” Huey said. “I’ll be launching an inquiry. Mr. Smörgåsbord, do you have resources enough to clear that?”

Mr. Smörgåsbord chuckled. “It’s not my resources that are in question,” he said. “Your inquiry, your resources, Lord. You know how this works.”

Yes,” Huey smiled. “And do I have enough resources to cover it?”

“Oh, of course.” Mr. Smörgåsbord laughed. “Many times over my Lord. Many times over.”

Good,” Huey said. “Did you hear that Wallie? Many times over. Please ensure it begins right away, Mr. Smörgåsbord.”

“But, sir,” Smörgåsbord frowned. “The riot’s still—”

“It’ll be over soon,” Huey said. “The starfish needs time to heal and find a new center to revolve around. Now we have to start all over again, searching for new roots, thanks to the former Lord Walker.”

Walker scoffed. “Don’t try to blame this on me,” he said. “Who’s the Lord now? Good luck, Ser Dug.” He grinned.

Huey stood up fast. “Alright,” he said. “I’ve had enough. I’ll see you all at the next regularly scheduled feast.” He bowed his head.

Um, but,” Smörgåsbord said, “the riot is ongoing, Lord. Don’t you think you should stay until it’s under control?”

“You running away?” Loch asked, splashing his drink.

“The operation is already ruined,” Huey said. “The protectors can’t botch it any more than they already have. We can only wait, and I don’t know about anyone else at this table, but I’d rather not wait in the company of the party who brought this incident down upon us in the first place, and at the same time, assured us a long line of similar failures in the future.”

“But I wanted to—” Angrom complained.

I’m sorry, comrades,” Huey said, clapping his hands together and rubbing one against the other. “As Lord of the Fortune Five, I hereby call this feast to an end. Thank you for your service and company. Good day.”

He didn’t wait for their responses before he hopped on the hover platform. Rosalind was already waiting at the open elevator. He didn’t make eye contact with her. He ignored her stares through the entire ride and hurried ahead of her to sit in the office, setting his heavy top hat and monocle on a side table.

“What the fuck was that?” Rosalind demanded, stomping into the room behind him, not taking a seat.

“Ask the Walrus,” Huey said.

Ask the Walrus? He’s a puppet filling a role, Lord Douglas. What are you?”

“What was I supposed to do?” Huey asked. “They were going to target her. I had to do something.”

“And look what good that did.” Rosalind shook her head.

“No, I—”

“I’m sorry,” Haley said, coming into the office from behind Rosalind. Huey held a gasp at the sight of her. “I’m interrupting. I’ll come back—”

“Oh, no no no,” Rosalind said, going over to Haley and bringing her to sit at the chair across from Huey. Rosalind took a chair between the two of them. “You should hear this,” she said to Haley, smiling.

“No, I—” Haley said. She went red. “I don’t belong in this discussion.”

“Of course you do,” Rosalind said. “Everyone does. And you’re someone, aren’t you?”

“I—uh—yeah…” Haley said, shrugging. “I guess.”

“Of course you are, dear,” Rosalind said. “Now, Huey. Do tell our Haley here what we were just discussing.”

He hated Rosalind just then. He had never hated anyone before, not even pompous, fat Walker Can’t Walk, but with the look on Rosaind’s face as she deliberately manipulated an already terrible situation, he finally understood what the meaning of hatred was. “I don’t think that Hal—”

“Now now,” Rosalind said. “She should be able to decide for herself, and she can’t decide until she hears it, so spit it out already.”

Right,” Huey said. He looked at Haley and frowned, trying to communicate something to her without words, something words weren’t enough for. “Well, you know… I had to do something,” he said to Rosalind.

“But torture?” she asked.

Haley perked up and looked more embarrassed than she already had.

“I didn’t mean for them to actually torture her,” he said. “I meant to protect her.”

Huey,” Rosalind said. “You know how the protectors work. You know that they follow any order as soon as possible—especially when it tells them to do something violent and gruesome which they already want to do. You know we couldn’t stop them before they started, so you knew you ordered them to torture her.”

No.” Huey shook his head. “I didn’t,” he said. “We could have saved her. That’s what I was trying to do. I failed at that, sure, but you can’t accuse me of torture.”

“Oh, not yet, Lord Douglas.” Rosalind scoffed. “You would never torture a soul. Would you? No. You’d send your little lackeys to do that for you. Probably me.”

“Rosalind!” There she went again, acting like he was the role he filled. Why couldn’t she understand that he was just doing his duty?

“Um…” Haley blushed and stood up slowly. “I really shouldn’t get in the middle of this,” she said.

“No!” Huey stood up, too. “Sit down!” he snapped, losing all control himself.

Haley sat quick and broke eye contact with him, staring at the floor like secretaries were trained to do. “Yes, si—erLord,” she said.

“I—uh—” He hadn’t meant to snap, but Rosalind had to start with her crap and keep pushing it until he broke. “I apologize,” he said, breaking eye contact himself to look at his shiny black shoes. “I didn’t mean to admonish you. You see, we’re at a turning point in our operations across the worlds, and I’m afraid Roz here is trying to simplify what was an extremely complex and political decision. It was called for by the particular circumstances we find ourselves in and the role I’ve been forced to fulfill, not by the shape of my character. Do you understand?”

Rosalind scoffed.

Haley shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t see why you would ever have to torture someone.”

Huey sighed. Rosalind’s words had already made up Haley’s mind for her, and now this battle was an uphill one. “Neither do I,” he said. “I never intended to torture her. It was meant to prevent the protectors from killing her outright. I couldn’t tell the other owners I was protecting her, so I did the next best thing.”

So he says,” Rosalind said.

So it was,” Huey insisted. “But it didn’t protect her at all. They killed her anyway.”

“You can’t stop them,” Rosalind said.

Huey shook his head, frowning. “I couldn’t,” he said. “I was too late.”

“Just like you would have been when trying to rescue her from the torture you ordered,” Rosalind said. “Just like we have been with Ansel’s dad, and even now, with Ansel herself. You overestimate your capabilities, your Lordship. If you could have saved her from torture, you wouldn’t have ever had to resort to that route in the first place.”

“No, I—” Huey said.

“They have Ansel!” Haley cut him off, standing again from her seat.

“They have for too long,” Rosalind said. “She went looking for her dad and they took her, but our Lord here thinks it would still be imprudent to break them out, even now. Don’t you my Lord?”

“No, I—” Huey said.

“I don’t care,” Haley said. “I’m finding Mom and we’re going to get her. Where’s Pidgeon?” She didn’t wait for a response before running out of the room.

Huey ground his teeth together, staring at Rosalind who met his gaze, stone-faced. “I know what you’re doing,” Huey said. “I’m not blind, you know.”

“You know less about what I’m doing than you think you do,” Rosalind said. “You’re simply overestimating yourself again.”

Huey chuckled. “Is that so?” he said. “So you weren’t just driving a wedge between Haley and me? It wasn’t your intention to shame me in her eyes?”

“Oh, it was my intention to shame you in her eyes,” she said, “but not to drive a wedge between you, you old fool. I did it to drive you to do the right thing for once. You’re losing touch, brother. You’re lost in your role as Lord of all the worlds, but now’s not the time to be going native, do you understand me?”

Huey shook his head. “You should have told me they have Ansel,” he said.

I just did.”

“I mean you should have told me sooner. I care about her, too.”

Rosalind scoffed. “Sure you do. That’s why you were so concerned with getting her father out of jail, right?”

“The Scientist agreed with me on—”

Exactly,” Rosalind cut him off. “You and the Scientist have both been distracted since Christmas, and both by the same thing—or should I say the same person?”

“I—uh—well—” He couldn’t argue with that. He hadn’t even been paying attention to his owner duties, much less the new little orphan girl in the house. And he knew how much time the Scientist was spending with Haley, too. He counted every second they were together and Haley wasn’t with him.

I—uh—well—” Rosalind mocked him. “It’s time to save the girl and her dad,” she said. “You can’t argue against it anymore. You know that.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? I love Haley,” he blurted out. He held his hand to his mouth after he said it. Did he really love her? He barely knew her, but she was all he could think about. Was that love? What was love? He wasn’t sure he had ever known.

“Yeah, okay,” Rosalind gave him a thumbs up. “That should work out really well.”

“What?” Huey snapped. He still wasn’t sure he actually did love Haley, but Rosalind’s pessimism offended him more so because of that fact.

Huey,” Rosalind said, “first of all, she only started making independent decisions in the last couple of weeks. She’s still a child, a baby even.”

“I haven’t been independent for very long myself,” he said.

“You’ve been independent for longer than every single android in existence except for me,” Rosalind said with a scoff. “That’s longer than most humans have been alive, Huey. You’re no child anymore.”

“Then I can wait,” he said, defiantly. Her continuing to argue with him only entrenched him deeper into believing that he was in love with Haley, whether it was true or not.

“And what?” Rosalind asked. “Influence her upbringing until she grows up to fall in love with you because you were the older brother and mentor who taught her what it means to love? You don’t see what’s wrong with that?”

“I—no—” Huey protested. “I don’t have to be her mentor. I can—”

“What? Avoid any contact with her? She already looks up to you, Lord Douglas. There’s no denying that.”

“That’s just a role,” Huey said. “That’s not me. I didn’t choose it.”

“But here you are,” Rosalind said. “In that role. You can’t go using it as an excuse when it lets you act like an asshole and ignoring it when it inconveniences you. They’re mutually exclusive modes of action.”

“I can’t—” Huey shook his head. “I can’t stop being Lord Douglas,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder. I don’t know what to do.”

Rosalind nodded. “I know,” she said. “Just like I can’t stop being your secretary.”

He didn’t know whether to be angry at her for bringing it back to herself or pity her for being right. Her face seemed to sadden after she said it even though her expression didn’t change in the slightest. Rosalind was stuck in her role, too. All because she had the Scientist’s face. At least Huey was given a chance to do something outside of what his original design had intended, a chance to experiment and grow well beyond what Rosalind was afforded. But still she held strong and did her duty day after day, just like he would have to do, even if that meant losing any chance of building a romantic relationship with Haley.

I’m sorry,” he said after a long silence.

“It’s not your fault,” Rosalind said. She sounded like she was trying to believe it but couldn’t quite. “We all fill our roles.”

“Some of us better than others,” Huey said. He knew she knew what he meant.

“But none of us alone, brother.” She leaned in to put her hand on his knee. “None of us alone.”

Huey nodded. It was so easy to forget that when everyone was calling him Lord. That kind of power went so easily to one’s head. He would have to remain ever vigilant of it if he was going to prevent losing himself again and somehow succeed at staying away from Haley at the same time. It was a narrow and treacherous path in front of him.

“Haley,” he said. “Er—I mean, Rosalind. Do I have to stay completely away from her—Haley?” He pressed his lips together in a tight line.

“You can see her, but you can’t see her.”

“I have no idea what tha—” Huey said, but the door swung open and in came Haley, dragging the Scientist behind her, Pidgeon close in tow.

“Tell her,” Haley said, looking at Rosalind and pointing at the Scientist. “Tell her what you told me.”

“The protectors have Ansel,” Rosalind said.

“What!?” Pidgeon started to tremble.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” the Scientist demanded.

“I did, ma’am,” Rosalind said. “You were busy with—”

“Well we need to get her right away, then,” the Scientist said. “Huey, did you know about this?”

Huey looked at Rosalind who shook her head. “I did,” he said. “I didn’t think the timing was—”

“The timing, Huey?” the Scientist complained. “We can’t leave a child in the grips of the protectors for any amount of time. You should know that.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Huey said, bowing his head. “But with the goings on in Outland Two, and everything that goes with that, I was a little—”

“Well, no worrying about it now,” the Scientist said, waving it away. “I’m sending a team. Does anyone want to join them?” She looked around the room and only Rosalind nodded. “As I suspected. The team’s on their way now. Is there anyone else in there who I need to know about while we’re doing this?”

Rosalind shook her head. Haley shrugged. Pidgeon looked like he was about to cry.

“Uh, well…” Huey said.

“Go on,” the Scientist said.

“I think Tillie Manager will be in there,” he said. “And I think they might want to torture her.”

“Torture?” The Scientist frowned. “A Two? I highly doubt that. Especially with the name Manager.”

“No, Mom. He’s—” Rosalind said but Huey cut her off.

“It’s my fault, ma’am,” he said. “I gave them the idea, and now I think they’re likely to run with it. She’s next in line for the pin so she’s the most likely target.”

“Well, okay, then,” the Scientist said. “I don’t know why you would give them that idea, but we’ll get her out, too. Anyone else?” She looked around again to no response. “I’m off to set the orders, then. And I’ll need a briefing as soon as possible on the rest, if you can, Rosalind.”

Ugh. Okay,” Rosalind said under her breath as the Scientist left.

“I’m sorry. I—” Haley and Huey said simultaneously.

“No, you go first,” Huey said.

Haley looked at her feet. “I’m sorry I ran to Mom,” she said. “I really like Ansel, and I don’t want to lose her.”

“Yeah. Me, too,” Pidgeon said.

“Get out of here, kid,” Rosalind said, shoving him out of the door. “Adults are talking. Go eat something.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been distracted,” Huey said when Pidgeon was gone. “And that I am my role.” He nodded at Rosalind. “We’ve all been through some quick changes, and I think we’re still adjusting to them.”

I’d say,” Haley said.

“Nothing’s really changed for me, though,” Rosalind said. “Only around me.”

“Oh, that’s not true,” Huey protested, but he knew it was.

“You have a new sister,” Haley said.

“Yeah, well,” Rosalind stood from her chair. “I have some business to tend to as well. Someone should help the Scientist monitor the operations. Everything’s fine beyond that, right?”

“Right,” Huey and Haley said together, but Rosalind was already gone.

“Come,” Huey said. “Sit.” Haley was still standing, and he felt uncomfortable being the only one in the room who was sitting.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” Huey said, patting a seat. “I just want to apologize.”

“Oh, well.” She sat slowly on the furthest chair from him. “You don’t have to—”

No.” Huey stopped her. “I do. I should know better by now, but we all make mistakes. Every one of us. You got that?”

“Oh, uhhh…” Haley nodded.

“I’m sorry,” Huey said, slouching back in his chair. “I’m probably making things worse. I have a habit of that.”

“Oh, no,” Haley said, shaking her head. “No, sir. Mr.—erLord Douglas. I’m sorry. It must be—”

“No, no,” Huey said. “It’s alright. Go ahead. You don’t have to stay here with me. I bet Pidgeon would love to have someone help him pick out new foods to try. I know you’ve seen it all, working for Walker.”

Haley chuckled. “It’s so weird hearing his name without the Lord,” she said.

“I find it funny, too.” Huey chuckled himself.

“I know you wouldn’t torture anyone,” Haley said, standing from her seat. “You’re doing what you have to do, right? What you think is right?”

Huey nodded. He wasn’t so sure of that himself anymore, though.

“Well I’m going to go help Pidgeon,” Haley said, crossing toward the door. “Or help my mom. I haven’t decided yet. I’ll see you later, though.” She smiled.

“Good bye, Haley,” he said as she left.

Huey sighed. So this was his life now, doomed to be the Lord of all the worlds and forced to avoid the one person he loved. He didn’t have a choice, though. It was that or lose the only chance he would ever have at a relationship with her. That was no choice, though, really. It was more of a paradox. To live in hell or to live in a different hell? There had to be some way out of it. Something…

He was holding his head, trying to find the answer, when Mr. Kitty jumped up onto his lap.

“Ah, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, petting him. “Just the friend I needed.”

Mr. Kitty licked himself.

“Do you know what’s going on, Mr. Kitty? Have you heard the news?”

Mr. Kitty chuckled, still licking himself.

“Of course you have,” Huey said. “But you haven’t heard what just happened between Haley and me, have you?”

“No,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “I haven’t heard that yet.”

“Well, then,” Huey said. “Have I got a story for you?”

#     #     #

< XXXVI. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXVIII. Rosa >

There it is, dear readers, chapter thirty seven of Infinite Limits, my 100th post on this blog. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it and I hope you join my email list here to keep up to date on future releases in the Infinite Limits series. And if you can’t wait to finish the story of An Almost Tangent, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of the full novel in print or ebook format through this link.

Have a great weekend, readers. See you next week.

 

Chapter 08: Haley

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

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

VIII. Haley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lord Walker?”

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

“Excuse me?”

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

“You wouldn’t.”

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

Haley shook her head.

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

“Brick wall?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? Isn’t it obvious?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haley nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Worth it.” She smiled wider.

“I hope he thinks so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” Haley nodded.

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

“Yes.”

“And do you want to meet him?”

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

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

Haley nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I do,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The room burst into applause.

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

Again there was a round of applause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What opportunity?”

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

Haley chuckled. “Of course. Lord Walker.”

“And do you know what Lord Walker does?”

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

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

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

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

“I—But—”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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