Chapter 17: Russ

Today brings us chapter 17 with Russ’s last chapter. He’s learned a lot about the worlds throughout his previous two chapters, and he has to decide what he wants to do about his knowledge in this one. Enjoy everyone. And don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel through here.

< XVI. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XVIII. Mr. Kitty >

XVII. Russ

Russ’s heart wanted to jump out of his chest and flop on the floor. His lungs wanted to push all the air out and never suck in anymore. His brain wanted to close all channels and end any synapse firing for all of eternity. He did it!

Well. He did something at least. He had been told what to say when he was elected. He was supposed to be humble and show his gratitude at the owners’ charity in providing for him to make the movies he made. That’s what the speech director had told him to do. The writer had given him the same in the script. He didn’t have much time to practice it, but he was used to that. He was an actor after all. It was his job to be ready to take on any role at a moment’s notice. And this role—the role of the voice of the entire creative community—this was a role he had practiced—and fulfilled—for many years already. But he was too prepared, he could act too well. He had acted so well, in fact, that he had fooled them into believing that he was going to read their script and play their part, but that wasn’t his intention from the opening credits.

He followed his own script. He said what he wanted to say. At least he thought he did. He did, right? They had to know his words meant more than what they said. Didn’t they?

The elevator door slid open and Wes was in the hall, waiting for his own elevator.

“Russ!” he said. “Russ, Russ, Rrrruuussssss. Just the star I wanted to see. How’d it go, Russ, baby? You did great, huh? I mean, who am I kidding? I know ya did!”

“I did what I had to do,” Russ said, hoping Wes caught the undertones. He was such a subpar director, he probably didn’t.

“Oh. Ho ho. Russ, my boy. I know you did. You always do. Right?”

Russ didn’t answer. He wanted Wes to get out of his way and let him through to his dressing room. It was as if the idiot didn’t know that he couldn’t get into his elevator until Russ left his own and sent it away. He grit his teeth and tried not to let his adrenaline drive him to punch Wes in the face.

“That’s right,” Wes said. “It is. I know it. Now. About that documentary, Russ. The slip, snap, clicking. You know. I—”

“Don’t you talk to me about slip, snap, clicking!” Russ snapped.

“Wh—What?” Wes shook his head. “No,” he said. “I—”

“No. You have no idea. I know what slip, snap, clicking is really like. I’ve seen a real assembly line. You have no place to tell me how they would act when you yourself have never stepped foot on a line in your life. I’d say it’s safe for you to take my advice as the most viewed actor in the history of actors when I say an assembly line worker might act a little differently than you think they would. You got that!?”

“I—No,” Wes said, waving his hands and shaking his head. “Woah ho ho. I—I have to follow the script, you know. And the producer tells me what to do. I didn’t have a choice, Russ. It wasn’t my decision.”

“Yeah yeah,” Russ said, shaking his head. “You do have a choice, though, Wes. Everyone has a choice. You have the same choice I’m making right now when I tell you to fuck off. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He stepped out of the elevator and let the doors close behind him. “I’ll be heading back to my room to get some rest.” He opened the door to his dressing room and stepped in before Wes could respond.

There went his heart again, trying to escape from its rib cage. His legs wouldn’t let him sit down, they paced back and forth between his couch and mirror.

As he walked toward the mirror, he marveled at how great he looked. Not just his hair, clothes, and makeup, though, it was something altogether more than that. His face seemed resolute and somehow more confident—if that was even possible.

As he walked toward the couch, he thought about what he could do next to keep this energy flowing. He wanted to go out and yell at Wes again, but Wes was probably long gone by now.

Ugh. But it felt so good. It felt so right. He went back in his head through all the times he should have done the same thing in the past, starting with those two stupid pieces he was forced to put together for the last documentary shoot. He should have said no then. He should have stopped working when the bell rang. He should have dashed off home where he really wanted to be.

He slumped down on the couch, angry at himself for going along with everything he was ever told for so long. He was out of breath and his heart rate was finally dying down. He rubbed his palms on his thighs and took a few deep breaths.

No.

He stood up and walked over to the window. He put his arm up on the glass and rested his forehead on it, looking out on the scene below.

His dressing room was at the top of the tallest building around. Well, not the top, but it was higher than any of the surrounding buildings. It was so high he couldn’t even see the ground without sticking his head out the window, but the window didn’t open so that wasn’t an option anyway. He looked up at the fluffy white clouds, floating through the blue skies, then down at the windows below him. He wondered if the buildings were all windows with no walls. It looked like it from where he stood. He wondered what it would be like to live in a glass building, who would live there.

Now that he thought about it, he had never seen those buildings other than from his window. He had asked them to keep the real view, but he had never stepped outside to experience the view in person. How many years had it been? Well, what better time to finally do it than when he was doing what he never would have done before?

His stomach growled in response.

“Not now,” he said to it. “Not now, you! Why do you have such poor timing?”

He opened the door to the hall and looked up and down it, hoping to see Wes, or a writer, or—even better—a producer to yell at, but the place was empty. They didn’t have a speech to give, so they were probably all out eating a Christmas feast at some fancy restaurant. Too bad.

He pressed the button to the elevator, and the doors opened almost instantly. There, sitting cross-legged in a big velvet couch, dressed in red with fluffy white trim and wearing—as always—stark red lips was Jorah. He smiled and bounced his foot like he had been waiting in that pose for Russ to call the elevator.

“Jorah,” Russ said, taken off guard.

“Russy, dear,” Jorah said with a smile. “Don’t look so surprised. I can visit my besty on Christmas, can’t I? You know you’re like family to me.”

“Right,” Russ said. “But I—”

“How did the speech go, darling?” Jorah said, ignoring him. “You wowed them, I’m sure, but what’d you say to do it?”

“I—uh—well…”

Jorah stood from the velvet couch and embraced Russ. “Where are you going, dear? Don’t you have some time to tell your Jorah about it?”

“No. I was—” Russ remembered the speech he had just given and the people he had seen, he remembered yelling at Wes and the feeling it had given him. He decided to be direct instead of regretting this instance like he regretted so many others. “I was going to take a walk,” he said.

“Take a walk?” Jorah frowned.

“A walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

Oooh. The park!” Jorah clapped his hands. “Let’s go to Central Park. I love that one.”

“No.” Russ shook his head. “I—”

“You’re so right,” Jorah said, frowning. “It’s too cliché, isn’t it? Hmmm.” He tapped his chin. “I know, the Garden of Fortuna. Have you ever seen it?”

“I’ve never seen my front steps,” Russ insisted.

The Myfront Steppes?” Jorah said, grimacing. “I’ve never heard of them. Oooh. Is it something new?” He grinned. “Who told you? Tell me all about it.”

“No, Jorah.” Russ sighed. “It’s not a place. I mean here, the bottom floor of this building. Where does the door go out to? Those are my front steps!”

“Oh…Ooohhhhh! Ugh.” Jorah put a face on like he smelled something terrible. “Really? That?”

“Well, I’ve never seen it, Jorah. I mean, I look at it through my window, you know, but I’m so high up I can’t see it. Have you ever been down there?”

Psssh.” Jorah scoffed. “No, sweetheart.” He shook his head. “And there’s a good reason for that. There’s nothing out there. All the good places to go are somewhere else, and that’s why Fortuna invented elevators.”

“No, Jorah,” Russ said. “But there is something—” His stomach growled so loud it interrupted him.

“Oh, dear,” Jorah said, putting a hand to his mouth. “Did you hear that? Your stomach says food, not walking.”

“My stomach doesn’t control me!” Russ stomped a foot, half-jokingly.

His stomach growled again.

It begs to differ,” Jorah said with a smile.

I beg to differ!” Russ flared his nostrils, made his breath heavier, and scrunched his brows into the perfect “I’m in charge here” pose.

Jorah clapped and laughed. “Good show, Russ. Good show! Now. Do you have any reservations, or should we go back to your place?”

“No, Jorah,” Russ said, crossing his arms to keep in character but slowly losing his resolve. “I’m going downstairs for a walk. I want to do this, and you can’t stop me.”

“Oh. No no, dear,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Don’t you worry. I won’t stop you. But I must tell you that I’m not going down there with you, and you’re not going to make me.”

Russ lost character at that. “Um,” he said. “Wha—No. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t—”

“Okay, then.” Jorah nodded. “Do you have time to tell me about your speech and eat a little Christmas feast, or is your walk too urgent for that?”

“No. I—” Russ could just go down there after he visited with Jorah. And his stomach did keep growling. There was really no reason to say no. “Of course I have time for you,” he said. “But reservations are another story.”

“That’s perfect, dear.” Jorah touched Russ’s chest. “To be honest, I wasn’t up to facing the public anyway. My makeup is just hideous today. I couldn’t bear the stress.” He looked away and covered his face.

Russ shook his head. He couldn’t believe that Jorah actually meant what he was saying. His makeup was perfect, as always. “Oh no, dear,” Russ said. “Your face looks like a painting. I wish I looked half as good as you, and I just came from in front of an audience.”

“Oh, please, sweetheart,” Jorah said, waving a hand at him. “You’re just being kind. Your face is twice as beautiful as mine. It always is. You have the newer battle station model, dear. It’s inevitable. But forget that. I want to hear about the speech. Come come.” He grabbed Russ’s arm and directed him back into the dressing room, closing the door behind them.

Jorah plopped Russ down onto the couch and went back to the printer. “So, dear,” he said. “What do you want? Christmas ham and turkey. Oooh. And we have got to get potatoes. And stuffing. And deviled eggs. Fortuna, I love Christmas! Thank you owners. What do you want, Russ?”

Russ wanted to get up, but the couch was so soft it took too much effort to struggle out of. “I don’t want—” he said.

“Pie!” Jorah cheered. “Apple pie.” He clapped his hands. “That’s what we need. À la mode. What did you say, dear?” He went on ordering food and stacking it on the serving cart.

“Jorah,” Russ said as he did. “Do you ever wonder where all that stuff comes from?”

“Where it comes from?” Jorah pushed a full cart over to the couch and started putting everything on the coffee table in front of Russ. “It comes from the printer, silly. Where else would it come from?”

“No,” Russ said, shaking his head. “I mean, where does the printer get it?”

“It makes it.” Jorah shrugged.

“Out of thin air? Just pressing a few buttons is all it takes to create anything?”

Jorah sat on the couch next to Russ and started scooping food onto a plate. “I don’t know, Russ,” he said. “I’m not a scientist. I’m an actor. We have mechanic bots and engineers to take care of all that. What does it matter?”

“What does it matter?” Russ scoffed. “What does it matter? That’s where we get everything we need to live, Jorah. You have one, too.”

Duh. I’m a pretty big star myself, Russ. In case you’ve forgotten.”

“No. I haven’t forgotten. That’s the point. We’re both big stars. We have the privilege of owning our own printers. But what about the community actors? What about the camera operators, and set builders, and extras?”

“What about them, Russ? They go to a store with a printer, and they buy what they need. No one ever starves. No one sleeps in the streets. What’s the problem?” Jorah forced the plate—piled with food—into Russ’s hands and started filling another plate for himself.

“Well,” Russ said, ignoring the food. “Why do they have to buy anything if all it takes to make it is to press a few buttons on a printer?”

“Because they don’t own printers. Why else would they be in the store?”

“Exactly,” Russ said. “I mean, how do we get printers anyway? Does it just take a few button taps to make one of those, too?”

“I don’t know.” Jorah chuckled. “I’ve never ordered a printer from a printer. Maybe you should try it.”

“That’s—that’s the point, though, Jorah! The point is that if it doesn’t take anything to create anything, then why are we selling everything in the first place?”

Fortuna!” Jorah sat back in the couch and started in on his food. “I don’t care, Russ,” he said with a full mouth. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about anymore. I just want to hear about the Feast and the speech. What were the owners wearing? Are they all still stuck in retro tuxedo land? Have they gotten fatter? Have their hats gotten taller? What did you say? And why don’t you eat something to shut your stupid stomach up already?”

Russ looked down at the piles of food sitting on his plate. He picked up his fork and poked at the ham and turkey, all slopped in gravy. It reminded him of the food on the tables of the owners he had just ranted at. He pictured their fat fingers, stuffing their fat faces with equally gravy-slopped food, and their flabby cheeks chugging drinks until they couldn’t speak straight or listen to a stupid short speech.

“Oh. I forgot the drinks,” Jorah said, setting his plate on the table and standing to order some. “How does a mimosa sound? I know, I know, it’s Christmas, we should be drinking eggnog, but ugh. I hate that stuff. Don’t you?”

Russ poked at his food some more as Jorah got the drinks. He didn’t want to eat anything, or drink mimosas, but he was hungry, and the food did look good. He poked at some turkey then scooped up some potatoes and took a big bite. The gravy felt warm and comforting as it slid down his throat and into his stomach. Why had he been fighting the food for so long? He squirmed back further into the soft couch and dug in.

“There you are, dear,” Jorah said, setting a drink on the table in front of him and sitting back to his own plate. “Now that’s the Christmas spirit. It’s delicious isn’t it?”

Ughm. Yes. Om nom.” Russ didn’t stop eating to talk. He couldn’t stop eating.

“Now, dear,” Jorah said. “Why don’t you tell me, how was the big Christmas Feast? Were they still listening to the same old carols played by an old-timey symphony?”

Ugh. If I ever have to hear an entire orchestra play This Land is My Land one more time, I think my head will explode.”

Ah ha. Oh, and what about Hand Bless America?” Jorah said. “The worst.” He sang a line of the song in a nasally voice.

Fortuna. Stop!” Russ almost spit out his food with laughter.

“I know it. And were they wearing those hats, too?” Jorah held his hand high over his head, puffing out his cheeks and crossing his eyes to illustrate the point.

“Fortuna, yes,” Russ said, covering his mouth to hold back the laughter. “And tuxedos.”

Ugh. Really?” Jorah frowned. “They are so conservative. Haven’t they ever heard of fashion? Turns out trends change.”

Russ laughed. He took a sip of his drink and set it back on the table. “At least I was there to brighten up the scenery. What do you think?” He struck a pose with his fork and knife in hand and plate on his lap.

“Oh. Just beautiful, dear,” Jorah said, clapping. “Be—e—au—ti—ful. You always did know how to dress the best.”

“Oh, you’re too kind,” Russ said, blushing.

“No, dear. I’m honest. It’s not kind when it’s honest. It’s just true.”

“Thank you for your honesty, then.” Russ winked.

“Of course, dear. What else would you expect from your besty? Now. Tell me. What did you say to those fat fatties?”

“Well…” Russ poked at his food with his fork. “They gave me a script, you know, like they always do, and I did my job.” He stuffed a few big bites into his mouth so he couldn’t talk anymore.

“Yeah,” Jorah said, nodding. “So. Did you read it? What did you say?”

Muhhm,” Russ replied, stuffing more turkey into his mouth.

“Russy, dear,” Jorah said, tapping him on the arm with the back of his hand. “Manners! Now tell me. I want to hear all about it. It’s the biggest, most exclusive event for the entire year. So drop the gossip.”

“Oh…well…” Russ had to say something. He was going to have to say something on his show, too. But would they understand? Would they hold it against him? What if he started spreading what he had said and the protectors came back? What if he didn’t spread what he said and all those people kept getting forced to work on the assembly lines? There wasn’t any right course of action. “I don’t know,” he said, stalling for time. “I just crammed. Short term memory, you know. I can’t remember.”

Jorah put down his plate. “Russ,” he said. “C’mon. I’m going to watch your show. You don’t have to advertise to me. Just tell me what you said.”

“Well, I…You know—I told them that we were thankful and all that. I don’t know.” Russ shrugged, eating some more.

“That’s it? Just like that? We’re thankful. Bye!” He said it in a monotone voice and waved his fork and knife around with jerky, robotic movements. “No more showmanship than that?”

“No,” Russ said, shaking his head. “Of course not. I mean, I—well…I kind of went off script.”

No.” Jorah gasped. Russ couldn’t tell if he was acting or not, Jorah was one of the best. “Off script. You don’t say?”

“Yeah. Well, you know…They had the usual patriotic, Christmasy thank you letter, filled with historical quotes, and I didn’t want to give them another rerun.”

“Oh no,” Jorah said with a shrug. “How cliché. So what did you say?”

“I don’t know.” Russ shrugged. “That Christmas wasn’t enough, you know. That we have to work our whole life to give them what they deserve.” He stuffed some more food into his mouth.

Jorah looked him in the eyes. “Give them what they deserve? Did you say it just like that?”

Russ shrugged, stuffing his face some more.

“You know…they might have taken that the wrong way,” Jorah said.

“What do you mean?”

Ha! What do I mean?” Jorah laughed. “I think you know what I mean. You badass you.”

Russ spit some food out onto his plate. “Badass? No. I’m no—”

“Yes you are,” Jorah said. “You said it exactly like that, didn’t you? We’ll give you what you deserve. I know you, Russ. Better than anyone. You can’t help but act the part. You gave them a lecture. You want a feast as big as theirs, don’t you?”

“I—Wha—No!” Russ shook his head. “That’s not what I want at all.”

Uh huh. Sure, buddy.” Jorah rolled his eyes. “I believe you. But I’m right there with you, too. They eat while we work. Who asked them to take it all, right?” He stuffed the last bite on his plate into his mouth and set to piling it with food again.

“What do we need more for, though?” Russ asked.

“What?” Jorah said, giving him a look. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m serious. Look at all this.” Russ dropped his plate on the table, and it made a loud clatter, sending food everywhere.

“Russ!” Jorah snapped. “What are you doing?”

“Look at all this,” Russ repeated, waving his hands as if he were displaying a prize on a game show. “We have more than we’ll ever eat, we’ll throw more than half of it down the trash chute, and you’re talking about a bigger feast?” He stood up, red-faced and breathing hard.

“Now now, Russ,” Jorah said. “Settle down.” He set his own plate on the coffee table and guided Russ back to the couch.

Russ hesitated but gave in. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. This was Jorah he was talking to. Jorah who he loved and who had no more idea of where the food he ate came from than Russ himself did only yesterday. It wasn’t Jorah he was mad at, it was the people who kept Jorah ignorant of what the world was really like. “I’m sorry,” Russ said under his breath.

“Excuse me, dear,” Jorah said, cupping his ear.

“I said I’m sorry,” Russ repeated a little louder.

“Sorry, dear,” Jorah said, nodding. “That’s right. Now eat your food so you’ll feel better. You’ve barely touched it.” He forced the plate back into Russ’s hands.

“I don’t wan—” Russ complained.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Jorah said. “Eat!”

Russ took a bite. Then another and another. His anger and frustration seemed to drift away. He forgot what he was even talking about in the first place.

“By the way, dear,” Jorah said after some time of silence. “Did you get a chance to see the Christmas Award Ceremony pre-show? I mean, I know you had work to do, but they have a pretty nice green room over there, right? I’d imagine they’d have to. Wouldn’t they? One day I hope to see it.”

“Not if I can help it.” Russ smiled and sipped his mimosa.

“Oh, you can’t, dear,” Jorah said. “Don’t worry.” He winked.

Russ flicked a glob of potatoes in his direction but missed by a long shot.

Ooh, girl,” Jorah said. “You’re lucky you didn’t hit me.”

“Or what?”

“Nothing.” Jorah shook his head. “Just don’t. Now you got me all off script. Look at you. What was I talking about?”

“The red carpet show,” Russ reminded him.

“Oh. Ooohh whee. Yeah, girl.” Jorah put his plate down and took a quick sip of his mimosa. “You didn’t see it, did you?”

Russ shook his head.

“No? Good. Well, you’ll never believe this. Okay. So Paige. You know her, right? Cute little girl. Well she was wearing the most sheer, see-through dress you have ever seen. I swear, Russ, it was made out of saran wrap or something.”

Ugh.” Russ sighed. “She didn’t.”

She did. And—predictably—the papos ate it up. I swear to you, I’ve seen more angles of her vagina today than my battle station back home gives me angles of my face.”

Russ spit out some mimosa, and this time, he managed to hit Jorah square in the face. “Ha!” he laughed.

Ugh. Sweetheart,” Jorah said, wiping his face and standing up. “Well, now the jokes not even true, because your battle station is gonna give me more views of my face than I’ve ever seen of her anything.” He swept over to Russ’s battle station to redo his makeup.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Russ said. “But that was funny. And oh so typical. I mean, if I went out in saran wrap, I bet you’d be saying the same thing about me.”

Jorah sat back on the couch, his face in perfect condition. “I don’t know, Russ,” he said, shaking his head. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“What?”

“I was under the impression you didn’t have a vagina to see.” Jorah grinned. “Silly me. In the future I won’t assume. After all, ass out of you and me and all.”

“No, Jorah. Ugh. I would tell you if I did that! We’d have a party. You know me.” He slapped Jorah on the arm. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, dear,” Jorah said, smiling wider and chuckling. “I do know what you mean.” He grinned. “And I agree. That’s why I wanted to get your opinion on my New Year’s Eve outfit decision.”

“You can’t be serious.” Russ shook his head, matching Jorah’s grin.

“Well,” Jorah said. “It’s not going to be saran wrap exactly. I was thinking of going for more of a silhouette, you know. Leave a little to the imagination. There’s this LED fabric. Have you heard of it?”

“That stuff from Tesla?”

“Yeah, girl,” Jorah said, reaching over to touch Russ’s arm. “The best new designer in the business. She says I can make it so the lights turn the dress into a shadow play screen. You’ll be able to see every little movement underneath.” He stood and did a little dance with a lot of hip gyration to illustrate his point. “What do you think?”

“It is interesting,” Russ said, putting his plate down to think about it. “Definitely more subtle than the saran wrap, full see-through dress. And I really like the shadow play imagery.”

“I know, right?” Jorah said, smiling and full of himself. “I’ve been practicing getting it to move like a puppet, too.” He danced some more.

“Well,” Russ said, tapping his chin. “I’d say as long as you incorporate some of the history of shadow puppetry into the design of the dress—and your makeup and accessories, of course—you’d attract more attention and be less gratuitous about it.”

Ooh, dear. I love it!” Jorah’s voice got so high it sounded like he was going to scream. “We’ll make the rest of the dress the scenery for my little actor. You see, that’s why I always come to you for fashion advice, sweetheart. You never fail me.” He hugged Russ, spilling food off his plate.

Russ blushed. “I just helped you edit, dear. It was your idea.”

“And humble, too,” Jorah said, smiling. “No wonder you’re the most viewed actor in all of history. Who wouldn’t want to watch the perfect human being?”

“Oh, now,” Russ waved a hand. “That’s going a little too far.”

Jorah put his plate down and stood up. He pulled Russ up, too. “Let’s go to Tesla now,” he said. “Tell her the idea. She can get started on it right away.”

“Don’t you think she’s at a feast, though,” Russ said. “It is Christmas.”

“No, dear,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Uh uh. She’s a designer, and a new one at that. For us, she’s free. It’ll be like a Christmas present for her.”

“Yeah. I guess, but—”

“And we can take a walk after that,” Jorah said. “We’ll go out to the Garden of Fortuna. You’ll love it.”

“I did want to go for a walk…”

“It’s settled then.” Jorah smiled. “Let’s go.”

#     #     #

< XVI. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XVIII. Mr. Kitty >

Thanks again for joining us. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far. If so, please do think about picking up a full copy of the novel right here. And have a great weekend.

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Chapter 10: Russ

This Saturday brings us chapter ten with Russ’s second point of view chapter. Head on over to Amazon to pick up a full copy of the novel and read all of Russ’s chapters today.

This Saturday brings us chapter ten with Russ’s second point of view chapter. Head on over to Amazon to pick up a full copy of the novel and read all of Russ’s chapters today.

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< IX. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XI. Mr. Kitty >

X. Russ

Russ curled tighter into the fetal position on his fluffy, soft couch. He squeezed the blanket closer around himself. This was warmth. This was safety. This was all he needed in the world. He didn’t ask for any of that other shit. He didn’t go out looking for some stupid assembly line worker—eractor to pull that lame robot prank and get him wrapped up in Fortuna knows what.

What was he wrapped up in anyway? He threw the blanket off his body as if it were the situation he had been unwittingly thrust into. He had told the protectors he knew nothing. He didn’t know anything. The papos were there recording the whole thing. The protectors watched the footage for themselves. And still, they—they…

He grabbed the blanket off the floor and wrapped it around himself again. His body ached. His head pulsed. His ribs were at least bruised if not broken. He tried to sit up a little, but the pain was so much he groaned and went back into the fetal position. He had never before experienced such pain, such anger.

The protectors were savages. He had never met a protector, but he had played more than a few, and none of the roles he had ever portrayed were as deranged as the protectors he had encountered in real life. Protectors? Ha! They were something altogether different than that. They were unreal. It didn’t matter what he knew or what he said, they were out for blood and they were going to get it.

He heard a knock at the door and flinched, sending a shock of pain through his ribs and forcing another loud groan out of his mouth. The door swung open, and Jorah came in saying, “I’ll take that as a come in you barbarian.” When he saw Russ curled up on the couch, blanket tight under his chin, face makeup-less and bruised, Jorah held his hand to his mouth and gasped. “Russ, dear. What did they do to you?” He sat down on the couch, sending another wave of pain through Russ’s body. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He stroked Russ’s hair. “Tell your Jorah what they did to you, honey.”

“Jorah,” Russ groaned. “Why?” He wanted to cry.

“You know,” Jorah said. “That was a great groan. Uhhgghh.” He tried to mimic it. “I could use that in this play I’m doing. Do it again.” He poked Russ.

Ugghhhggh. Jorah! Please.”

“I’m sorry, dear,” Jorah said with a frown. “But the show must go on, you know. Anything to make it more realistic, right? You should be glad to have this experience. You can use it to your advantage in the future.”

Russ groaned again. “I don’t care about the future. I just want to be able to breath without my lungs burning.”

“Oh. Sweetheart.” Jorah pet his hair. “I know. I’m sorry. You know me. Always looking at the platinum lining.”

“Jorah, do you even see my face?”

“I do, dear.” Jorah patted his head. “I do. Now tell your Jorah what they did to you. Was it the protectors? I saw a replay of your show, you know. And your emergency broadcast, too. You did, weeell…you looked great.”

“Replay?” Russ frowned.

Yes, replay. I was at work, you know. I couldn’t rightly watch your show and film mine at the same time, could I?”

Russ groaned in response.

“But it was them,” Jorah said. “Wasn’t it?”

“There weren’t supposed to be any replays,” Russ said, clutching his blanket tighter under his chin.

“Yeah, well, once the feed goes out, there’s no getting it back. I’m sure everyone in the world’s seen it by now.”

“That’s not good.”

“Not good?” Jorah chuckled. “It’s great. The classic Streisand effect in action. You’re getting more publicity because they’re trying to cover it up. You’re all over every gossip magazine and talk show. You just keep getting bigger and bigger.”

“That’s not good, Jorah.” Russ groaned.

Pfft. Sweetheart.” Jorah shook his head. “Tell me how, then. Tell me how that’s anything but good.”

“Do you see my face, Jorah?” Russ said, turning this way and that to give him full view of the injuries. “Did you hear me groaning? That’s how it’s not good. The more people who see that video, the more broken ribs and bloody faces I get. That’s why! Uggghghgh.”

“Alright, dear. Alright,” Jorah said, brushing Russ’s hair to calm him. “You’ve made your point. Just tell me what they did to you. I’m here to help, sweetheart.”

“They just—they thought I had something to do with it. Apparently it’s against the rules of the network to talk about the assembly lines. I don’t know. But they thought I was in on it.”

“Why didn’t you tell them you didn’t know the freak?” Jorah scoffed, still brushing Russ’s hair.

“I did!” Russ said, sitting up with a groan. “It was the first thing I told them. But they didn’t believe me. They said I wouldn’t have brought it up on my show if I wasn’t in on it.”

Jorah shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. You know, though, Russ. They do have a point.”

“What?” Russ couldn’t believe what he was hearing. First protectors acting like savages, and now Jorah saying they were right to do it. There was something wrong with the world, and Russ just wanted it all to go away.

“I mean—like I said, Russ. You’re getting more publicity than anyone has ever gotten out of this. You’re telling me that it’s just a coincidence. You had nothing to do with it.”

“Jorah, do you really think I would get myself beaten to near death just for a little bit of publicity?”

Jorah giggled. “Uh…Yeah. You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Well…Yes. I would,” Russ said, shaking his head. In fact, he had done almost exactly that on many occasions. Maybe it was a bad defense to go with. “But I didn’t. Not this time. I swear to you, Jorah. I had nothing to do with it, and the protectors did this anyway. It was like—it was like they just wanted to beat someone.” His ribs hurt with the thought of it.

“No way, Russ,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Protectors aren’t like that. I’ve played, like, a hundred protectors and a thousand criminals, and I know that no protector would ever do what you’re trying to say they did.”

“I know, Jorah.” Russ sighed. “That’s exactly what I thought. But I’m telling you, they were unreal. You can see the outcome.” He put on the saddest face he could muster, but acting was difficult in such pain.

“Sweetheart.” Jorah stood up and Russ groaned. “There it is. Remember that for the future, Russ. Your work will be better for it. But, sweetheart, I’m going to let you sit here and sort your story out so it doesn’t sound so ridiculous to the next person you tell it to. Do you understand what I’m saying, dear?”

“You’re saying you don’t believe me.”

“Oh, dear.” Jorah shook his head. “No no no. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that it would be best for you to come up with a better story. It doesn’t matter. You’ll figure it out. I’ll see you after the feast, Russ. You’re sure to win it now. So do yourself a favor: Go see a doctor, get ready to put on a perfect performance, and try not to get in any deeper than you already are. I might stop by before your speech. I’d rather not, but I might, dear. Ta ta.”

The door clicked closed and Russ clinched his blanket tighter. What was with Jorah? He wasn’t normally so cryptic. Or was he? All they ever really talked about was clothes and gossip. They had never had a real conversation before. What was a real conversation anyway? His stomach groaned and his ribs burned. Jorah was right about one thing: Russ needed to get to a doctor. He couldn’t live like this anymore.

His stomach wouldn’t shut up, but it would have to wait a little longer. He didn’t think he could move enough to eat anyway. He tossed the blanket off and slowly inched his legs over the couch and onto the floor. He took a few deep breaths and gathered his strength to push himself up to a stooped position. His body burned and his head pounded. He wanted to give up, to fall down onto the floor and go to sleep, but he pushed himself through the door and out into the hall to press the elevator button.

“Russ my man. Ru-uusss. How are you?” Wes said, coming up through the hallway. The sound of his voice made the pounding in Russ’s head all the worse. “Look, Russ. I’m sorry I was hard on you, but you’re the best, you know. I gotta stick it to you so everyone else is afraid of me. You understand that. Right, buddy?”

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. “Ugghhgh,” Russ groaned. “I’m not your buddy, guy,” he said as he plopped himself onto his elevator’s velvet couch.

The door slid closed, and he lost himself in the softness of it. It was like a nest, a womb. He wanted to lay there forever. He reached down to the floor for his blanket, grasped at air, and remembered he wasn’t in his dressing room anymore. “The doctor. Now,” he said.

The elevator fell into motion. He could feel himself getting better already. The doors opened, and there was nothing behind them but a dark, empty hall. “Not now,” he said, groaning. “Not now! I said the doctor.”

The doors started to close, but a gloved hand with a long, white sleeve slipped between them and forced them open again.

“Please,” Russ pled. “I need to get to a doctor.”

“Russ Logo?” the old woman who the gloved hand belonged to said, standing in the elevator door.

“Yes,” Russ said, almost crying. He reached his trembling hand out to her while still lying on his couch. He must have looked so pathetic. Hopefully it would work. “It’s me,” he said, making sure to let his lower lip tremble as he spoke. “I need a doctor. Please close the door.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Logo,” the woman said. “I’m not a doctor, but I can take care of you. If you’ll just come with me.”

“No,” Russ said. “I—I can’t. Who are you?”

“Would you prefer a wheelchair, Mr. Logo?” the woman asked. “Popeye, fetch a chair for our guest, please.”

“No. I—” Russ protested, but a big mechanical arm pushed a wheelchair his way.

“There you go, Mr. Logo,” the woman said. “Popeye, help him into it, please.”

“No,” Russ pled. “Please. I can—Ugghhghh.”

The mechanical arm lifted Russ up and plopped him into the wheelchair. Russ screamed out in pain at the sudden motion.

“There we are, Mr. Logo,” the woman said. “Now bring him to the lab, please, Popeye. We need to see to his injuries.”

Russ was beyond protesting. He couldn’t imagine getting past the mechanical arm if he tried. He couldn’t imagine getting out of the chair if he tried. The arm rolled along behind him, pushing his chair behind the woman in the white coat who led the way through a short hall into a room that was filled with glassware, tubes, chemicals, and machines of every shape, size, and color. It was only missing two wires with electricity going between them to make it look exactly like the Frankenstein set Russ had worked on a few years back. Only instead of Eyegore there was a huge mechanical arm, instead of Frankenstein it was this woman in a white coat, and instead of a monster it was Russ who Popeyegore lifted up and strapped onto the lab table.

“No. No, Popeye!” the woman said, slapping the metal hand. “No restraints, please. He’s a friend. He won’t squirm. Will you, Mr. Logo?” She smiled.

Russ looked around him. There were sharp objects everywhere, but none of them seemed to have any blood on them. He sniffed the air and smelled hospital antiseptic. “Didn’t you say you weren’t a doctor?”

The woman looked at him, frowning. “Didn’t I say I wasn’t… Hmmm. No. I’m not technically a doctor. I was never certified. Never got that MD. I’m more of a scientist, so to speak. But I know more about human anatomy than any doctor you’ll ever meet. I guarantee that.” She turned and went back to digging clangily through the drawers, looking for some thing.

“Um,” Russ said. “Maybe I should go to a real doctor.” He tried to smile, but even he was having trouble acting in this situation, pained and alone in an unknown place, guarded by a huge mechanical arm. “That is, if we can get my elevator back. Did you send it away? Where are we, anyway?” He was sitting up now with great pain from the effort. “I need to get out of here.” He tried to slip off the table, but his feet couldn’t hold his weight. Popeye could, though, and the thing scooped him back up onto the table.

“Oh, Russ,” the woman said, still digging through the drawers. “I’m sorry. I just—I couldn’t find it…But, riiiiight—wait for it—right here! Here it is.” She pulled a small vial of some gray something out of one of the drawers and held it up to the light to read its small print. She had to squint and move it back and forth, looking for the right distance from her face to read the label, before she shook her head. “No,” she said, frowning. “No no no. That’s not it. That would probably kill you.” She went on digging through the drawers again.

Russ sat holding his burning ribs, staring at the robotic arm, trying to find its weakness, but there was nothing to see. “Please don’t kill me,” he whispered.

“Here it is!” the woman said. “No—yes—no. Ah. That’s the one.” She pulled out another little vial that looked exactly like the first one.

Russ’s heart beat faster. He was about to attempt an escape, but he saw the arm inching closer to him. “Please, ma’am,” he said. “Don’t kill me. I—I’m famous. I have a printer. I can get you whatever you want. Just d—don’t hurt me…Please.” He was crying by the end of it, his words barely audible.

Ppphhh.” The woman chuckled. “No, dear.” She shook her head. “No no no. No need to cry. Popeye, a tissue for our friend, please. Can’t you tell he’s crying?”

The arm moved back and forth like it was anxious and didn’t know which way to go. It finally picked a direction and knocked a beaker onto the floor to shatter in its haste. “And clean that up, please,” the woman said. “You clumsy fool you.” Popeye rolled back with a single tissue between its huge metal fingers, and Russ couldn’t help but chuckle at the juxtaposition before grabbing the tissue, blowing his nose, and resuming sulking with an occasional sob.

“I’m not going to kill you, you know,” the woman said, filling a syringe with the silvery gray liquid from the vial. “If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t bring you to my lab to do it. That would be a good way to get caught. I’d have to go through the trouble of doctoring your elevator’s travel logs, doctoring the Walker-Haley field logs, disposing of your body. No. That would be a stupid way of killing you.”

Russ felt a little better, but not much. His bones still ached. More than ever now.

“If I wanted to kill you, I would just send someone to you to do it for me,” the woman went on. “That way the protectors would be less likely to look to me as the one who did it. So, you see, you have nothing to worry about. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already. Heh heh. No. You’re too important to kill, Russ. You don’t know it yet. Not really. I mean, you think you’re important—and you are because so many people seem to agree with you—but you have no idea the role you can take in history. No idea. But, I digress. In order to get to then you have to live through now first. And I’m here to make sure you do just that.”

“I don’t understand.” Russ groaned. “Where am I!”

“You will understand,” the woman said. “And you’re in my lab. I know that means nothing to you now, but I’ll show you in time. First, however, a little something for the pain.” She held the syringe point up and flicked it a few times with her middle finger. Russ tried to back away from her, wide-eyed and groaning with the effort, but Popeye held him from behind.

“It’ll just be a little pinch, then you’ll feel as right as rain,” the woman said, shoving the needle deep into his thigh as Russ screamed.

“There now.” The woman smiled. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” She put the syringe in a trash chute and pulled up a stool to sit by him. “You can let him go now, Popeye. He’ll want to hear what I have to say once he realizes I’m not here to kill him.”

“I’ll have you arrested,” Russ said, surprised to be on his feet with no pain in his body. “I’ll—I—I’m kind of a big deal, I’ll have you know,” he added less confidently.

The woman laughed a big, hearty laugh. “No one would ever believe you,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “You don’t even know where you are. You have no idea how to get back to your safe, cozy dressing room, Russ. There’s nothing you could possibly do to affect me in any way. I know you’ve never been in this situation before, but you are in it now, and as it stands, you’re powerless. As such, I suggest you take a seat and listen to what I have to say. Then I’ll let you go.”

Russ’s hands slicked up. He didn’t know if his elevator would be there for him, even if he thought he could make it past that giant arm. He was feeling better. His ribs didn’t hurt anymore. His head was clear. He felt healthier than he did after he had finished training for that Spartan movie, and only seconds ago he couldn’t hold up his own weight. She had injected him with something and that’s why he felt better. It healed him. She could have killed him right there, she had said as much herself.  He really had no choice but to do whatever she said, and she knew it. “All I have to do is listen to you, then you’ll let me go?”

“And take a short tour of the premises here. There are some things I can’t tell you. Some things you just have to live to understand. I dare say that you’re feeling up to a little stroll compared to when you crawled in here earlier. Or, rather, when Popeye carried you in.” She grinned.

The metallic hand waved at him.

“What did you do to me?” Russ demanded.

“I made you better,” the woman said with a smile. “Didn’t I? You still haven’t sat back down since you could hold your own weight. You seem to be healthy and ready to get on your feet again. Or should I say stay on your feet?”

Russ realized he was still rubbing his sweaty palms on his pants and stopped. He relented and put his butt up on the table but sat on the very edge so he could jump into action at any instant. What kind of action? He had no idea. “But how did you do it? What did you inject me with?”

“Oh. That. Well, that’s going to be harder to explain. That is—I guess—everything will be hard to explain. So that’s about as good a place to start as any. Let’s just say it was uh…a umm…a cure. Yes, a cure.”

“A cure for what?” Russ didn’t have any diseases that needed curing, unless you counted the fists of protectors as a disease, but he didn’t see how a shot could cure that.

“Everything,” the woman said, shrugging.

Russ chuckled and rolled his head back to stretch his neck muscles. He did feel good. “You can’t cure everything.”

“I did, actually,” the woman said, not trying to sound impressive—or at least not doing a good job of acting it. “I did better than that. If you kept coming back every month, you’d stop aging. Can you believe that? Imagine the price that would fetch on your beauty market. Number one trend in no time, right? But they won’t do that. It’s too dangerous. People living so long. And if you inject enough, you—”

“Wait.” Russ couldn’t believe what she was saying. He would have heard about something like that if it was real. “You cured aging?”

“Well, I’ve successfully treated aging. You have to continue treatment. And the longer you do it the more it takes. No. No no no.” She shook her head, waving her hands. “Now you’ve gone and gotten me way off topic. Perhaps I underestimated you, Russ. Are you ready to hear why I brought you here, then?”

Russ nodded. He was ready to go home, and if that’s what it took to get there, he was ready to hear whatever other insane claims this woman had to make.

“Russ,” she said. “Why were you in so much pain when you entered my lab?”

“I don’t—I’m not—” He wasn’t going to risk the wrath of the protectors by talking about that with a woman whose name he didn’t even know.

“I know, Russ.” She shook her head. “You’re not supposed to talk about it. But I already know what happened, too. I know more than any of those protectors who did it to you. They know nothing, Russ. This here—this lab—this is the highest clearance level location in all the worlds. We don’t normally take visitors, you know. That’s why Popeye here’s been so clumsy. Isn’t it, Popeye?” The arm knocked over another set of glassware in response and set to cleaning it up. “They beat you because a woman talked to you, Russ. They beat you for nothing you did. Because they were suspicious. Because they were trying to prevent you from talking about your experience on your show. They didn’t want you to tell people what you know.”

“I don’t know anything,” Russ said.

“You know what she told you,” the woman said, raising her eyebrows.

“She told me a lie. It was a joke, a publicity stunt. She told me noth—”

“She told you the truth, Russ. Why do you think they beat you? What do you think they did to her?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Russ, it’s time we take that tour now,” the woman said, standing from her stool. “Are you ready?”

“Where are you taking me?” Russ said, jumping off the table fast to bounce on the balls of his feet.

“I’m taking you to see the truth. I told you there were some things I couldn’t tell you, now you’ll experience them for yourself. Come on.” She started out the way they had come in. “Popeye, wait here, please. Thank you.”

The arm slouched down and rolled off into a corner.

Russ stretched every muscle as he crossed the room out into the hall where the woman waited for him. She closed the door behind him, and—still holding the doorknob—said, “Are you ready, Russ?”

He shook his head. Ready for what?

She opened the door and there wasn’t a lab behind it anymore. Instead there was what could only be said to be the real life version of the set of the assembly line documentary he was currently working on, except built to one-half size. He poked his head in the door to look up and down the line of dirty, intent workers—all at one-half size themselves—trying to find the food cart, or the cameras, or the director, but there was none. He sniffed the rank air and looked closer at the workers, recognizing the syncopated humming and clicking he heard. It was the sound of conveyor belts and the chorus of slip, snap, clicking. They were slip, snap, clicking. This was an actual factory. These were actual factory workers.

He looked closer at the nearest of them. None had looked up to see that they were being watched. The one closest to him looked like a tiny human, but such intense concentration didn’t seem possible for a human to keep up for as long as she had already done, for as long as the entire warehouse filled with them had already done. The sweat smell overcame him again. It smelled like hard work, like long days on the set, looooong days. He tried to step into the factory to get one of their attention, but the woman in the white coat stopped him.

“You shouldn’t interrupt them while they’re working,” she said. “If they fall behind, they might not be able to eat tonight. Come on.” She pulled him back into the hall and closed the door.

“Was that—” Russ said. “What was that?”

“That was a factory, Russ. The woman who talked to you, the one who the protectors have now, she worked in a similar factory where they make clothes. I figured this particular line would be a little more relatable for you, though. We can go see the costume factory, too, if you want.” She smiled.

“Those were people?” Russ shook his head. He didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. And yet he had to, he had seen them with his own two eyes, eyes he could no longer believe.

“Human beings, Russ. Not just people. Living, breathing human beings. And that was one sector in one factory. They make a part of a part of a thing on those lines. Imagine how many more of them there have to be to make all the things in existence. Your clothes, beauty products, cameras, phones, TVs, computers, elevators. Everything Russ. Humans are still cheaper than robots, so humans still do the work.”

“No.” Russ still couldn’t believe it. “But…But I’ve seen the footage of the robots doing it.”

“Russ.” The woman laughed, shaking her head. “C’mon, man. You’re an actor. You know how films work. In fact, you’re currently playing the role of one of those workers you just saw. Let me ask you this, have you ever seen one of your own documentaries on TV?”

Russ tried to remember, but he knew that he hadn’t. He knew there were a lot of things he had worked on that he had never seen. In fact, unless it was his talk show, someone else’s talk show, or a gossip news show, he had never seen himself on TV. Up until now he had accepted that fact—along with the awards he was piled with for playing those roles—without question, but how could he not question it when he had seen what he just saw?

“No, Russ,” the woman said. “I know you haven’t. I’ve seen them, though. And all those workers have, too. They learned from you that you always put a few more pieces together after the bell rings to make sure you’re on quota. Did you know that?”

Russ shook his head. “No. That wasn’t me. That was the director. I did that scene wrong. He made me do it again”

“You were complicit, Russ. You are complicit. You’re the highest viewed actor ever to exist in the entire history of their propaganda machine. You’re paid the most for that. Who else do you know who has a 3D printer? Who else has a choice of view from their dressing room?”

“I don’t ever change that view. I told them I want to see where I am, not some fake view they conjured up for me on a computer screen.”

“Are you sure about that, Russ?” the woman said, shaking her head. “The world’s awful pretty from where you’re sitting. Even knowing that humans work on these assembly lines—and, I assure you, they do—are you really willing to give it all up for a little bit of truth?”

Russ’s head started to pound again. He massaged his temples. “I don’t—I don’t believe you.”

“It’s okay, Russ. I know. Let’s go get a beer and talk about it for a little while longer, okay. Just this one last stop, then I’ll let you go back to your printer and your view of the real world, and you can live your life however you desire.”

“I don’t—” He didn’t finish because she opened the door to reveal an alleyway. “Where are we?”

“This is where the people who our owners decide are useless go. I call it Lumpenville. The protectors call it the Neutral Ground. The people who live here call it the Green Belt. But you won’t see why until you step outside.” She went out first and waved her arm to direct his vision down the alley.

He followed her outside, looking down the way she had directed, but all he saw was skyscrapers. The sky was blotted out except for a tiny slit that turned into a point out on the horizon, which was the alley going in a straight line between the buildings. It was as if the entire world were sidewalks and buildings, and nothing else existed. His head spun at the sight of it. “What’s green about this?” he forced through his want to retch.

“Nothing, Russ,” the woman said, smiling. “Absolutely nothing. It’s a world of completely streets. It’s a place where human beings live. I bet you’ve never heard of a place like this, have you?”

“Why are you showing me this?”

“You said you didn’t want the fake view. Well, this is an important part of your world, Russ. If you want the prettier version, just turn around.”

He turned from the oppressive skyline to see a patch of hazey blue-gray, something more than a slit, and below it there was a little bit of green. He went that way out of the alley, then turned left and right to see a long, skinny green park that went as far as his eye could see in either direction.

“That’s why they call it the Green Belt,” the woman said, walking up behind him and pulling him to follow her along the park. “The rest of the world here is just like what you saw when you first came out: completely streets. This is the only grass the people who live here ever have the chance of seeing, unless they hijack a protector’s elevator port, but that might as well be impossible with the technology they have here—not to mention the illegality of doing something like that.” She chuckled.

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“You said you wanted to see the real world, Russ. Look around. These people have no way of leaving this place. This is the best they can ever expect of their world. Just be thankful that you’re here with me and we have a way out.”

“But people actually live here?” Russ scoffed.

“Yes, Russ,” the woman said, stopping. “They do. Look around you. These people live here.”

Russ realized that there were people filing around him. They weren’t papos, none of them were carrying cameras or noticed who he was and they were all half-sized like the people on the assembly lines. “But…” he stammered.

“Here,” the woman said, grabbing his arm and pulling him along again. “Come on. Let’s get a beer. You’ve dealt with a lot today.”

They walked a few buildings down the street and into a door with no sign. Russ coughed up his lungs when he smelled the smoke. The few inhabitants of the dark room looked around to stare at him until he finished then went back to what they were doing. He rubbed his burning eyes. When they adjusted to the light, he noticed that the people were playing pool. He didn’t know people still did that. The woman in the white coat walked up to the bar to order. She sat at a low stool and patted the seat next to her. “C’mon, Russ.” She smiled. “There’s someone you should meet before we leave.”

Russ crept up to the stool and sat next to her. For as short as it was, it was surprisingly comfortable. “Where are we?” he said, looking around at the place again.

“We’re at a bar on the Green Belt. The bar is what they call it.”

“But, how?” Russ said. “I don—”

The bartender came back and set a beer in front of each of them. “Thank you, dear,” the woman in the white coat said. “This is my friend, Russ. Say hi, Russ.”

Russ nodded.

“Hello,” the bartender said, smiling.

“Ms. Valetson,” the woman in the white coat said. “You know the people who come to drink here pretty well, wouldn’t you say?”

The bartender smiled and chuckled. “What do you mean, ma’am?”

“Well.” The woman looked at Russ then the bartender. “Would you say that they mostly live around here?”

“Of course,” the bartender said. “Where else would they live?”

“And would you say that they’re mostly humans?”

The bartender laughed again, unsure if she should answer. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No, ma’am. No joke. Would you say your customers are primarily humans?”

Um. Yeah,” the bartender said, raising an eyebrow. “Of course. I don’t know what else they would be. Now, if y’all’ll excuse me, I have to help some other customers.” She went down the bar to tend to someone else.

“Did you hear that, Russ?” The woman elbowed him, almost making him spill the beer he was gulping.

“I heard it,” he said, wiping his mouth.

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do about it,” Russ said.

“I don’t expect you to do anything, Russ. I just think that someone who is as important as you are should know what the world they live in really looks like, how it works. You said you didn’t want the fake view. Well this is the real world.”

“But what can I do?” Russ said.

“You can do what you do best, Russ,” the woman said, patting him on the back. “Act. Talk to people. Set trends. But set the trends you know you want to set. Do what you want to do, but do it knowing all the information. That’s all I care about. The rest is up to you.”

“But I can’t do what I want,” Russ complained. “I have to follow a script. I have to listen to the director. I don’t operate the cameras, sew the costumes, build the set—“

“No, Russ. You don’t. That’s the point. You can’t do anything alone, so you can’t do whatever you want, but no one can make you do anything, so you can do whatever you want. It’s a contradiction. You just have to live through it.”

“And then what?” Russ scoffed. “Never get another role in my life?”

“You’re always the protagonist of your own story,” the woman said. “Look, it doesn’t matter what you do. You know the truth now. You’ll do the right thing. You won’t get it exactly right at first—or maybe ever—but it will always be exactly right. Do you understand what I’m saying at all?”

“I don’t know,” Russ said, shaking his head. He didn’t know if he understood anything anymore.

“I know,” the woman said, smiling and shaking her head. “It doesn’t make sense. It can’t yet. I can’t just tell you this one. I can’t even show it to you. You have to find it and live it for yourself, Russ. That’s the only way to do anything, really. All I can do is encourage you along the way. And I know you’ll do the right thing. I believe in you. That’s all I wanted from you. That and to heal your wounds. We can leave as soon as you’ve finished your beer.”

“And that woman,” Russ said. “The—uh—the assembly line worker who tried to talk to me.”

“Mary.”

“She was telling the truth. Sh—She made my clothes.”

“Not all of them.” The woman shook her head. “Not all of any of them. She used to sew pockets before I met her. So she sewed some of your pockets.”

“But people—I mean—humans. Humans make everything.”

“Humans work on the vast majority of assembly lines. They’re so much cheaper to reproduce, the owners won’t have it any other way. Androids would gladly take on the lion’s share of the physical work, but that conversation requires a knowledge of politics you’ve never been introduced to.”

“Wait, so there are robots who work on assembly lines.”

“No,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Well, a few. But not really. Humans are cheaper. Androids are reserved for public work. They could do it, though. And would. But that’s another thing altogether.”

“And you just wanted to tell me all this,” Russ said, shrugging. “Just for the fun of messing with my mind? Is that it?”

“No, Russ. Not me. Mary. Mary wanted you to know. Mary wanted to tell you. Do you remember that question I asked you? What do you think they did to her?”

“What?” Russ shrugged, shaking his head.

“There’s no telling. Maybe they’re torturing her for information. Maybe they’ve already killed her.”

“No.” That was even crazier than the beating he had already experienced. “Torture? Then why didn’t they do it to me?”

“You’re too important, Russ. I told you already.”

Russ was beyond wanting to even try to comprehend this woman’s riddles. “I’d like to leave,” he said, sloshing his drink onto the bar as he slammed it down.

“Alright,” the woman said. “Alright. Just give me…” She lifted a finger and finished off her half-full beer in one gulp. “Ah. Okay. Alright. Let’s go.” She called to the bartender to take it off her tab and led the way out.

Russ looked up and down the thin strip of green as they made the short walk back to the alley. When they turned down it to see the endless line of concrete and steel towering over them, he couldn’t believe that people actually lived there. But he had to. He had seen some of them, he had talked to one of them, and not a single one had recognized his face.

They went back through the alley door into the short hall, and Russ said, “None of them knew who I was. How did Mary find me?”

“Mary was a prole, dear. From Outland 5. They get your propaganda. Lumpenville gets nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Lumpenville has nothing. The proles a little more. And that’s just the bottom of the pyramid. There’s so much more to it all, but that’s what Mary wanted you to know. So now you do. And now you can go home, Russ. That’s all I needed from you. Thank you very much.” She pressed a button and the elevator doors slid open, revealing Russ’s velvet couch.

“So that’s it?” Russ said, not stepping in.

She shrugged. “Do you want to stay for tea and cookies with me and Popeye?”

“What? No.”

“Good.” The woman smiled. “We don’t do tea.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do then?”

“You’re supposed to live your life. Go home and get some sleep then wake up early so you can practice your Christmas speech. You won, you know.”

“But what am I supposed to say?”

“Say whatever you want. It’s your speech. Just remember what you saw here when you decide what you’re going to say.” She urged him onto the elevator and closed the doors behind him.

“But I—I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“You’ll think of something,” she replied as the doors shut and the floor fell out from underneath him.

#       #       #

< IX. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XI. Mr. Kitty >

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