Chapter 62: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Today we rejoin Ansel as she’s exploring Outland 4 with her new friend, Ashley. Read Ansel’s third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø right here, and don’t forget to join us next week for the concluding chapter of book three out of four of the Infinite Limits series. Enjoy.

< LXI. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LXIII. Mr. Walker >

LXII. Ansel

The claws never came. Nor the jaws. Only the laughter of Ashley who couldn’t even speak he was so doubled over. Ansel crawled to her feet, picking up her rucksack and brushing herself off, and the huge cat was no longer in front of her. She turned to find it inside another clearing behind her, across the dirt path they had come in on, looking out the other way and ready to pounce on some unseen thing.

“Oh. Oh ho ho!” Ashley laughed, trying to get control of himself. “Don’t worry. He can’t get you. Ho ho ho!”

Ansel reached out toward the cat and her hand disappeared in a straight line at the wrist, just like it had done when she had tried to open Anna and Rosa’s door what seemed like ages ago.

“You see,” Ashley said behind her, and Ansel turned to see her disembodied hand floating on the other side of the dirt path. “We can’t get to it, either. The only difference is that we can see the jaguar’s side of the wall and the jaguar can’t see ours. It’s kind of like a one-way mirror in that sense.”

Ansel waved her arm and the floating hand waved in unison. What kind of world was she living in?

“Pretty nifty, isn’t it?” Ashley asked

“I thought it was going to kill you,” Ansel said, pulling her arm out of the—whatever it was in—so it looked like her body was all in one piece again. “I don’t really find that funny.”

Ashley grinned, laughter trying to burst out of him again. “Well, I did. And there was no danger, anyway. And you acted heroically, trying to push me out of the way like that.” He giggled. “My saviour.”

“Alright,” Ansel said, walking down the path the way they had been going before Ashley stopped her to see the big cat. She wondered what other animals she might see on the way. “Enough funny business. Why’d you bring me here, anyway?”

Ashley followed along behind her, keeping good pace and walking more quietly than Pidgeon would have ever been able to. “Well, a few reasons,” he said. “First, to show you that my chemistry homework is far from the coolest thing in this world.”

Ansel nodded, not really hearing what Ashley was saying. Out in a clearing to the right of her was a giant hairy human-like thing with bigger muscles and a bigger head than she had ever seen—except for maybe on those fat tuxedoed babies at the dinner party. The hairy human thing was scratching itself in the sun and chewing on a pile of fruits. Ansel’s knees shook a little. She would have bolted out of there already if she hadn’t experienced the embarrassment of the giant cat incident earlier. Why was everything so much bigger and scarier here? “What is that?” she asked.

Ashley had to look again, as if he hadn’t noticed the thing the first time because it was an everyday occurrence to him. “Oh, a gorilla,” he said. “A rather big one, too. They’ve been bred to be larger and more ferocious for the show value. Thank our Holy Mother for the Walker-Haley fields between us or this guy here would be more dangerous than that jaguar we saw earlier.”

“A gorilla,” Ansel said, mesmerized by its huge bulging muscles and chomping jaws. “These things just live out in the wild?”

Ho ho ho, not anymore.” Ashley chuckled. “A long long time ago this guy’s great, great, great times a bunch ancestors lived in the wild, but like I said, they were a lot smaller back then. Now they’re an endangered species. Pretty much completely extinct, actually. Like most of the animals in here, they only exist in captivity.”

Here came that word again: endangered. “So that’s what makes them endangered?” Ansel asked. “Because they only live in captivity?” She had been held captive her entire life, kept ignorant of these worlds and the many others she had discovered in so little time since finding the first new one. Maybe she was endangered, too.

“Well, not exactly,” Ashley said. “But yes. We hold them here because they’re endangered, they’re not endangered because we hold them here.”

Pshh. What’s the difference?”

Ashley had to think long and hard about that. Ansel just let him. She was happy enough to stare at the magnificent gorilla as it ate. Who would endanger such a beautiful beast?

“You know,” Ashley said after some time of silence, breaking Ansel away from her reverie. “I’m not entirely sure there is a difference anymore, the more I think about it. It’s like, in the beginning we built walls to keep everything out for our own protection, and now we have to build walls that keep them in for their protection. I’m not sure when that changed, but when it did, it rendered any differences there might have once been entirely meaningless.”

Ansel didn’t know exactly what he was saying. She wasn’t sure she cared, either. She didn’t respond. Instead she just walked on along the dirt path in search of whatever new creature she might find in the next clearing. Ashley followed behind her, seemingly content to explore his own thoughts in silence while Ansel explored the real world.

It was a long walk before she came to the next animal, but Ansel didn’t mind. The anticipation was part of the fun, and there were plenty of exotic plants everywhere—not to mention birds of various bright colors flying around. But then the giant towered over her with its long yellow and brown spotted neck, chewing leaves it ripped from the trees with a finger-like tongue. Ansel didn’t ask what this one was, it didn’t need a name. She just stared up at its towering figure, plucking leaves from the trees, and tried to imagine what it saw through its elevated eyes.

“That’s a giraffe,” Ashley said, giving Ansel a name for the beast anyway. “It’s my favorite 3D animal, personally. They’re so tall and graceful, and such perfect pieces of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection. The way their laryngeal nerve goes all the way down and back up the neck again instead of taking the short route…”

Ashley kept going but Ansel didn’t hear a word he said beyond giraffe. She kept repeating it in her head. Giraffe, giraffe, giraffe. Who would endanger the giraffe? How could you trap such a strong looking gorilla? What kind of person would hurt a big black jaguar? She wasn’t sure she could take any more of this zoo if it meant seeing more caged and endangered beauties like this one.

Alright, enough.” Ansel snapped, cutting off Ashley’s lecture on giraffes which was still going on despite her ignoring it. “Why did you bring me here? Tell me.”

“I—uh… I thought you might like to see it. I don’t know. And I thought it might help explain where you are. I just— I, uh…” He shrugged.

“How is this supposed to help? Just tell me where we are.”

Uh, well, it’s—you know—like a model, really. Or maybe a metaphor. It’s meant to illuminate—”

“Get to the point.”

“Okay. Well. You know how the jaguar couldn’t pounce on you, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, we couldn’t really touch it and it couldn’t eat us, right. I mean, the cat couldn’t even see us, okay. So you could essentially say that we are in two separate worlds, right? Us and the jaguar, I mean. The jaguar in their own world, and they can’t see into ours, but we can see into their world even if we can’t physically go there. Right? Not by walking off the path here where it looks like the jaguar’s world should be, at least.”

“Okay,” Ansel said still having a hard time following him. “So what?”

“Well essentially, the wider world—or worlds you might say—are split up the same way. Okay. They’re all right next each other like we are with the jaguar, but there’s no line of sight going either way. It would be more like if we couldn’t see into the jaguar’s habitat either, just like it couldn’t see out to us.”

“We wouldn’t even know they were there,” Ansel said, starting to understand now.

“Exactly.” Ashley smiled. “But those other worlds would be there, with all those people in them, living their own lives, oblivious to everything going on in our world, acting as if we didn’t exist either. Do you see where I’m going?”

Ansel nodded. She saw exactly where he was going. She wasn’t quite sure if she could believe what he was saying, but he had given her plenty of evidence to support his story with the way this zoo worked, and what he said seemed to explain some of the stranger experiences she had been going through ever since she moved to the Belt and beyond. “You’re saying that the world works exactly like this zoo,” she said. “You’re telling me that humans live in these same sort of cages that y’all have endangered all these animals with.”

“Yes, well, I’m not sure I would call the worlds cages,” Ashley said with a chuckle. “I’m not even sure I’d call what these animals are in cages, either. I mean, besides there being no bars, this is all the wilderness any of their ancestors have known for generations. These…protected habitats, let’s call them, make up the entire universe that these animals can ever experience, sure, but they’re not caged in, really, and they don’t know any better anyway.”

“Because they can’t know any better,” Ansel said. “They’re just animals. But you’re trying to say that humans are caged up like this, too. Would that be okay with you as long as the humans didn’t know any better?”

“First of all, they’re not cages,” Ashley said. “Habitats.”

“Whatever.”

“And second of all, you don’t give enough credit to these animals—or maybe you give too much credit to humans, I’m not sure. But take the gorillas, okay. They started out smart, of course, but you should see how intelligent they are now that they’ve been bred for it.” He nodded over at the long necked giant that was still munching on leaves. “That giraffe over there can figure out a lot more about the worlds than you might think. I promise you.”

“Wait, I don’t understand,” Ansel said. “Are you saying you would be okay with humans being caged, or put in habitats, or whatever you want to call it, as long as they didn’t know any better?”

“I’m not saying that exactly,” Ashley said, tapping his chin. “How can I communicate this in a way that you’ll understand? I could see how it might be for the best. That’s it. Just like the reserve here—let’s get that nasty word zoo out of our mind for the sake of objectivity. Without this reserve, where else could these animals go?”

“To the wilderness,” Ansel said. “Where they would be free to roam wherever they want to without being sent back to the beginning every time they finally get to the end.”

“What wilderness?” Ashley scoffed. “You’re looking at all the wilderness there is left that isn’t already owned and in use. And if there was any more, that would only broaden their playing field. The animals would still be sent to the beginning every time they got to the end because that’s how a round planet works.”

“And the humans?” Ansel asked, feeling her control over her temper loosen. “It’s best for them, too? You think it was best for me to be caged in the Streets, surrounded by cement and concrete, without any source of food or support of any kind for as far as I could possibly go in my little world? What kind of habitat is that? What was I being protected from?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ashley said, looking like he was getting a little angry himself. “You’ve given me no information about where you’re from so I can’t speculate as to whether it was for your best or not. I can see how it’s for the animals’ best because I’ve studied them thoroughly, but I have yet to come to a conclusion on humans. If you were a little more cooperative in answering my questions, maybe I could figure out how I felt about your situation sooner than later.”

“I—uh…” He was right even if he was being an ass about it. Ansel had been too harsh on him herself, though. He probably knew as little about her world as she knew about his. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just— I’m a long way from home, I think, and I’ve been through a whole lot of Hell to get here. I miss my family and friends, and I never should have come all the way out here on my own in the first place.” She shook her head, fighting tears. “We do nothing alone.”

“It’s okay,” Ashley said, looking terrified at the prospect that Ansel might start crying—which made her chuckle a little. “You’re— You’re not alone, okay. I want to help you, you know. I will help you.”

“You don’t just want to study me?” Ansel smiled.

“Oh, I could study you all day.” Ashley held a hand to his mouth, blushing. “I mean— You know what I mean. But that’s not the only thing I want to do. I want to help you, too. We can help each other, I think.”

Psssh. Yeah right. How could I help you? You don’t need any hunting done, do you?”

“Well, no.” He shook his head.

“Then I prolly won’t be much help. Sorry.” Ansel shrugged.

“I doubt that.” Ashley chuckled. “The mere fact that you’ve brought my attention to the possibility of worlds beyond those that are known and mapped has been help enough. I always knew there were way more lines of tunnel than the maps showed us, and now I might just understand why.”

“Wait, so you didn’t know about the other worlds either?”

“I knew of one,” Ashley said. “We call it Never Never Land. It’s where all the celebrities live. But I imagine it’s not the world you come from, is it?”

Ansel shook her head. “I’m not really sure what a celebrity is.”

Exactly. Pointing further to the fact that you hail from a third, separate world and implying the possibility of further worlds after that.”

“All because I don’t know what a celebrity is?”

“All because you came through the seams,” Ashley said, smiling. “Now come on. Let’s get to my lab so we can try to find your world.” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her running back the way they had come from.

Ansel forgot herself in the wind whipping against her face and the flying branches all around her. The giraffe, gorilla, and jaguar were nothing more than blurs in her peripheral vision, along with the long smudge of dark jungle green. It wasn’t until the world stopped moving again and the elevator doors slid closed behind them that either of them spoke.

“They still weren’t as cool as chemistry,” Ansel said at the same time that Ashley said, “I think I know how to find your world.”

“Oh, sorry,” they said at the same time.

“And chemistry? You’re way off,” Ashley said while Ansel said, “Oh, cool.”

“Animals are much cooler than chemistry,” Ashley said when they were done apologizing for talking over each other.

“But those animals were so far away,” Ansel said.

“Luckily for us. Lab.”

The elevator fell into motion.

“Well, I’d still like to know more about chemistry,” Ansel said.

“Maybe I’ll show you after we search for your world.”

Ansel shrugged. She didn’t really care about finding her world, more so she just wanted to find a new one to live in. The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and she stepped into a long hall but Ashley didn’t follow. Ansel turned to look at him and found him shaking his head, looking afraid. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Th—This isn’t my lab,” Ashely said, still shaking his head. “This is wrong. We should go. Come here. Get back in the elevator.” He waved to hurry her up.

Before Ansel could respond, though, the door at the other end of the hall opened and in came Rosalind, followed by Popeye. Ansel groaned. She knew she recognized this hall, but she had thought it was because all those white-coated people’s buildings looked the same.

So,” Rosalind said with a grin, “the prodigal child returns.”

Popeye waved emphatically, like the tail of a dog who was happy to see its owner, but Popeye was all tail and no dog.

“I didn’t return,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “This isn’t where we were trying to go.”

“Oh, then what are you doing here?” Rosalind laughed a cackling laugh.

Um, I’m sorry, ma’am,” Ashley said, finally coming out of the elevator and putting a hand on Ansel’s shoulder—which she shrugged away. “It was some sort of malfunction in the elevator. We were supposed to go to my lab. We’ll just be leaving now.” He tried to pull Ansel back into the elevator but she wouldn’t budge.

“It was no malfunction,” Ansel said. “She did it on purpose. Didn’t you?”

Ha ha ha.” Rosalind laughed. “Who’s the bumbling new child you’ve brought with you this time, girl? Have you found yourself a new boyfriend already? Pidgeon’ll be sad to hear it. Ha ha ha!”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Ansel said, stomping a foot. She could see Ashley blushing out of her peripheral vision and tried hard not to look at him.

“I—It was an accident,” Ashley stammered.

“It was not an accident, boy,” Rosalind snapped. “You’re girlfriend here is right about that. The Scientist wants to see you and she couldn’t wait until you two split up so here you both are. Now come on in. Right this way.” She made a gracious wave of her arm then shoved Ansel and Ashley down the hall toward the door at the end of it where Popeye was waving them on.

“I—I don’t—” Ashley stammered, gripping tight to Ansel’s shirt.

“She’s never gonna convince me to stay,” Ansel said, trying to shrug him away in vain. “I don’t know what she would have to talk to me about.”

Rosalind grinned, still pushing them along. “You’ll just have to go in and see for yourself, then. Won’t you, girl?”

Ansel didn’t let the word cut her like she knew it was meant to. She didn’t respond to it at all. She just gave up fighting and went in through the door, pulling Ashley along in her wake.

The Scientist was sitting in a puffy chair, under the view of the endless mountain that could never again impress Ansel, indicating for them to take their seats across from her. Ashley hesitated but Ansel had been through all this before. She strode right up and took a chair without having to struggle into it, despite its height. Seeing her confidence gave Ashley some of his own, and soon he struggled into the chair between Ansel’s and the Scientist’s. When he was finally up and seated, he stared in slack jawed awe at the Scientist who smiled—suspiciously Ansel thought—right back at him.

“I— You’re— You can’t be,” Ashley said.

The Scientist nodded, still grinning. “Yes, child. I can be,” she said. “And I am.”

“Why did you send for me?” Ansel demanded, ignoring Ashley’s fanboy reaction. She didn’t care who he thought the Scientist was or how impressed he was by her, Ansel just wanted to get out of there as soon as they could.

“Ansel,” Ashley said, “she didn’t want to see you. She’s too important. She probably doesn’t even know who you are. She’s—”

Actually, I did want to see Ansel,” the Scientist said. “I needed to see her, in fact.”

“But you’re—” Ashley said.

“The Scientist,” Ansel cut him off. “I know.”

“Well I was going to say Dr. Haley Walker,” Ashley said, “but she is pretty much the epitome of a scientist. You’re right about that.”

“Haley Walker?” Ansel said.

“My true name.” The Scientist nodded.

Why had she hidden the name for so long if this kid knew it by the sight of her? “Well what do you want?” Ansel demanded.

“I want to know how your trip has gone, dear.” The Scientist smiled—Ansel still couldn’t think of her as Dr. Walker, she had been the Scientist for too long. “I want to know if you’ve changed your mind.” Then quickly, as if to prevent the answer she knew was coming, the Scientist added, “I want to know what you want now. I’m sure you have a better idea for yourself after your little adventure in Four, don’t you?”

“What do you know about my adventure?” Ansel asked, wondering who was slipping the Scientist information.

“Not much, child.” The Scientist laughed. “Which is why I need you to tell me all about it. Starting with the name of your little friend who you’ve brought along with you.”

“I— I’m Ashley Tyson,” Ashley said, squirming in his seat. “I’m a topological physicist myself, ma’am. Can I say that I admire you more than any scientist who has ever lived. Like, for real. You’re my hero.”

The Scientist chuckled. “You can, but you wouldn’t be the first.” She winked. “And that’s about enough said. Let’s talk about something interesting for a change. Where did you and my dear Ansel meet?”

Ansel resented being called “her dear” by the Scientist, but she didn’t get a chance to respond because Ashley was too eager to speak. “Well I was down in the Labyrinth, ma’am—forgive the colloquialism—but I was monitoring Walker-Haley field function for class credit when she appeared out of nowhere and ran right into me. I thought she was my replacement, you know, but then she said she had come through the seams of Sisyphus’s Mountain without the protection of a transport shield or radiation suit, and I wouldn’t believe her. I mean, I thought that was impossible. It is impossible, isn’t it? She didn’t really go through the fields naked. Did she?”

The Scientist was chuckling for most of his long rant, shaking her head, and she continued on after he stopped. “I don’t know,” she said, looking at Ansel for confirmation. “Did you?”

Ansel shrugged. “I found an escape from your mountain wilderness and I took the opportunity, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“By the elevator?” the Scientist asked.

Ansel nodded. Of course the Scientist knew about the seam already. Getting Ansel  to tell the story out loud was just some sick power trip.

“It’s always tricky keeping the fields contained in such tight spots,” the Scientist said, more to herself than either of them. “I’ll have to take a closer look at that in the morning.”

“So she did go through naked,” Ashley said, glancing wide eyed between the Scientist and Ansel. “You weren’t lying?”

“Of course I wasn’t.” Ansel scoffed. “I wouldn’t.”

“And there are worlds we haven’t been told about,” Ashley said to the Scientist. “Aren’t there?”

“Beyond your imagination.” The Scientist nodded.

Ashley seemed to fall into his own mind, lost trying to determine the possibilities created by the new information he had just been given. Ansel wasn’t impressed, though. “Is this all you brought me here for?” She scoffed. “To impress some white coated flower from another planet? Can I leave now?”

“Not in the least,” the Scientist said, getting serious now. “But the rest, I’m afraid, the reason I really brought you here, that has to be taken care of in private. Ashley, friend, you’ll have to wait in the other room with Rosalind. I’m sorry.”

“I—but—” Ashley complained as the office door opened and in came Rosalind. “I have so many questions to ask you.”

“C’mon, kid,” Rosalind said, jerking a thumb toward the door. “You heard the lady. Let’s go.”

“In due time,” the Scientist said, standing to help Rosalind guide him out of the room. “All your questions will be answered in due time.”

Ansel heaved a sigh of relief when he was gone. The sooner they were alone, the sooner she could leave, and that was the only thing Ansel wanted. “So,” she said expectantly as the Scientist retook her seat.

“So, my dear.” The Scientist smiled. “Your trip. How did it go?”

“Ashley already told you most of it.”

The Scientist chuckled. “He told me nothing, how you met. I want more. I want to know everything that happened after, everything that happened before. I want to know everything. Did you climb the mountain?”

Ansel nodded.

“And what did you see?”

“Myself,” Ansel said without hesitation. She had thought about that view so many times since she had seen it that she could respond by reflex. “My future, my past…me.” She shrugged.

The Scientist nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Sure it was. It was almost like that, at least. You can never get over the mountain, though, so it’s only ever your present, really.”

“But I did get over it,” Ansel said defiantly, puffing out her chest. “Three times.”

The Scientist chuckled. “And how many more mountains were there after that?”

Ansel shook her head. “Is this all you brought me here for? To toy with me? I’m pretty sure by now that it’s the only reason you let me go out there in that wilderness in the first place.”

“No, dear. Settle down, now.” The Scientist tried to calm her. “We can move on if that’s what you want. I’d still like to know what happened after you met Ashley, though. Did you enjoy your time in Four?”

“What’s Four?”

“The world you were in, my dear. You understand how these things work, now, don’t you? I’m told you visited a zoo. That had to be illuminating.”

“The whole world’s like a zoo, isn’t it?” Ansel demanded, searching the Scientist’s eyes for some deeper meaning beyond her words.

“I think that’s always been true,” the Scientist said with a smile. “It has been for as long as I can remember, anyway. And that’s a long time, mind you.”

“No, I mean we’re all caged up like those animals I saw. We have no means of escape. Though I did escape, somehow.” Because the Scientist had plucked her out of her world, but the Scientist knew that and Ansel wasn’t ready to give her the credit. “But everyone else is stuck where they are.”

“My previous comment still holds true.” The Scientist nodded. “It’s been like this pretty much forever. Though I know what you mean. And yes, at one time we were using the Walker-Haley fields to fence things in, but now the entire universe consists of fences and walls, making it all but indistinguishable whether we’re in the wilderness or the reserve. There’s no separation anymore. You don’t even have to say we’re like the animals kept in the zoo that you visited. In essence, all the worlds of Earth are a part of the same network of habitats making one total zoo.”

“And you’re the zoo guard,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “You make sure everyone stays in their places and the walls stand tall and strong.”

“I brought you out of the Streets, didn’t I?” the Scientist said. “I didn’t force you to live in Six forever, the lowest of the low.”

“My parents got me out of the Streets,” Ansel snapped. “That wasn’t you. That was our own hard work, and if they hadn’t been killed, I could have gotten out of Six—or whatever you want to call it—myself.”

The Scientist chuckled. “And how do you think they got their hands on those printers that got them their promotions, huh? I got you out of the streets, I got you out of Six entirely, and I want to give you more than that. I want to give you all the worlds on a platinum platter.”

Ansel scoffed. “Yeah, right. To do what with them? Tinker and toy like you do? No thanks.”

Ba ha ha.” The Scientist shook her head, waving a finger at Ansel. It reminded her of the same gesture her mom used to make. She didn’t know whether to be endeared or angry at the reminder. “Not so fast, Ansel. You’ll want to consider this offer and consider it well.”

“Well…” Ansel said.

“Well, dear.” The Scientist smiled. “Before I give you the offer, you must first answer me one question. What is it that you want most in life?”

Ansel groaned. She had had enough of the Scientist’s pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo. “What if I don’t want to answer that question?” she asked, playing the Scientist at her own games.

“Then you’d be answering my question.” The Scientist grinned. “You want not to answer the question. Though I figured you’d want a little more out of life than that. Not answering one question isn’t a lot to work with.” She chuckled, pleased with herself for some stupid reason.

“What does it matter anyway?” Ansel asked.

“What could it hurt to tell me? You’re only wasting time. I know you want to hear my offer. Your curiosity’s been piqued. And I won’t tell you what the offer is until you answer my one simple question, easy as that. So what do you say? What do you want most in life?”

Ansel sighed. The Scientist was right. The worst that could happen would be that the Scientist didn’t offer her what she said she wanted. Who cares if the Scientist learns what that is? “My parents to be alive again,” she said.

“Oh, well…” A tear came to the Scientist’s eye and she quickly wiped it away with the long white sleeve of her coat, trying to be discreet. “I knew this would be your first request but I didn’t think it would hit me so hard. I’m sorry.” She wiped her eyes again. “I’m afraid resurrection’s not possible, though. Where would we be if it was? Do you have any other desires?”

Ansel shook her head. “You asked for what I wanted most in the world and I told you. Now what’s your offer?”

“My offer pales in comparison to your need for a family, Ansel. I’ve already offered you what family I can and you rejected it. Instead I’m here to offer you independence. You’re on your own now—though my offer a family still stands, mind you—but with that in mind, and resurrection off the table, what do you want?”

“Nothing! I don’t want anything else. I want everything to go back to the way it was before you killed my family!”

“What next then? What are you going to do when you leave here? Where will you go? Where do you want to go?”

Ansel worked to calm herself down, taking deep, heaving breaths. She wasn’t quite sure. She could go back to the Streets, try to hook up with Katie again, relive the life she used to live before everyone started trying to turn her into a garden flower. Or she could try to convince Pidgeon to live out in the endless mountain with her. She could teach him a few things about hunting, and he would be close enough to the elevator that he could get whatever his heart desired to eat from the Scientist’s 3D printer. Or she could go do chemistry and stare at bizarre animals with Ashley, maybe even get a white coat of her own some day. She didn’t really want to do any of those things, though, and she kind of wanted to do them all at the same time. What could she say? She couldn’t decide. “I don’t know,” she finally did say after too long thinking about it. “I want to do a lot of things.”

The Scientist smiled. “Name a few.”

“Maybe I want to go back to the Streets to find my old friends. I haven’t seen them since I moved to the Belt.”

“But you wouldn’t want to live there again, would you? Not after everything you’ve seen out here. Not now that you know how you could be living otherwise.”

“Well maybe I want to go back out to the wilderness, then. I bet I could convince Pidgeon to come with me.”

“Out there on Sisyphus’s Mountain? You think that wilderness is big enough for you?”

“No, well… I would like to do chemistry, too. Ooh, and free those animals in the zoo. They deserve a bigger wilderness as much as I do.”

The Scientist chuckled. “Well, you do want a lot of things. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” Ansel crossed her arms, self-conscious and regretting that she had told the Scientist anything.

“So do you think it’s possible for you to do all of them at once?” the Scientist asked. “Do you think you can get everything you want? How likely do you think it is that you could even get one of them?”

Ansel shook her head, not saying anything. She had said too much already.

“Well, I’m here to tell you that I can give you all of them, everything you want. You won’t have to choose. I’ll give you more than that on top of it. In fact, I’ll give you everything, period. All of this. All of my power, my knowledge, my walls. I’ll teach you chemistry, show you how to control the elevators so you can get to the Streets, or the wilderness, or wherever you want to go whenever you want to be there. I’ll give you control over all the walls in existence, even the walls of the zoo where you’ll one day be the zookeeper who has the power to expand or detract the habitats as you see fit. I’ll give you all of it.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Ansel scoffed. “You would never—”

“I will, dear. I am. I’ve been building up to this all along. You were chosen from the beginning, ever since I gave your parents the printers that helped pluck you out of the streets. This has been the plan all along. Rosalind will tell you.”

Ansel looked up and Rosalind was in the room with them, hovering by the doorway. How long had she been there?

“If you’re ready to learn, girl.” Rosalind smiled.

“And if I’m not?” Ansel demanded. “What if I don’t want any of this?”

“But you just told me you did.” The Scientist stood from her chair, reminding Ansel of how tall she was. “This is everything you want. Come with me. I’ll show you.”

She took Ansel’s hand and led her out past Rosalind through the door, but they didn’t emerge into the hall. They were somewhere else, in another world entirely. A world in which reality seemed to morph and change around them. There were others there, too. Anna and Rosa, some fat guy like the babies she had seen crying at the dinner party, and a couple of people who she didn’t recognize. Ansel didn’t know what to do. She tried to turn and run but the Scientist grabbed her by the rucksack, trying to stop her. After a short tug of war and a tussle, Ansel’s bag fell to the ground between them and the tent that Rosalind had given her opened up inside, expanding until the rucksack burst, pushing the Scientist deeper into the patchwork nonsense world they had stepped into and Ansel in the opposite direction, back into the office they had come from, where she landed, stunned, at Rosalind’s feet.

“What the fuck was that?” Rosalind demanded, rushing to the door which wouldn’t open now. “Where’d you go?”

“I— I don’t know. There were people” What had she seen? It couldn’t have been real. Who was that girl among them?

The door finally opened, but only to the hall. Rosalind burst out through it then back in again. “She’s gone,” she said. “The Scientist. Come on. I need your help.”

Rosalind ran out toward the elevator and Ansel was left stammering, “I— I don’t— I—” before she forced herself to stand up and follow.

#     #     #

< LXI. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LXIII. Mr. Walker >

There it is, dear readers. Ansel’s next chapter. Only one more left in this novel, but if you can’t wait until next Saturday, go ahead and pick up a copy of this one, and all of them in the Infinite Limits series, through this link. Thanks again for following along this far. We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 60: Roo

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back to the Infnite Limits saga. Today we join Roo for her third and final point of view chapter in book three of four, Dividing by Ø. Roo has been given a choice between joining Rosa and Anna in their work, joining the Scientist in hers, or continuing down the independent path Roo has been travelling all her life.

Read on right here to find out what she decides, and if you’d like to finish the entire novel right now, don’t forget to pick up a copy in print or ebook formats through this link. That’s enough talking for today, though, folks. Enjoy your read.

< LIX. Anna     [Table of Contents]     LXI. Chelsea >

LX. Roo

All Roo wanted to do was bend, but life kept getting in the way.

First of all, she would have been happy in her closet—er—secret lair, though it was hard to keep calling it that after she had seen what other benders were working with, but she would have been happy there, bending one path at a time, hacking into the system from the outside, if it weren’t for Anna and the Scientist. Anna had shown Roo the true art of bending. She set the bar for what one person with limited equipment could possibly accomplish by themselves. While the Scientist, on the other hand, had bending down to a science. Instead of the warm creativity of a gut feeling, the Scientist relied on cold hard data fed through intricate algorithms until it was gobbledy-gook that only robots could understand. Both methods offered their unique benefits and drawbacks. Going Anna’s way, Roo could remain the free, independent outsider she had relished being for so long now, while going the Scientist’s way meant she could command control of a wider sweeping stretch of the universe than she ever even knew existed. It was an almost impossible decision to make, made actually impossible for the moment thanks to point number two, which was that, second of all, Roo still had to go to school.

“You can’t be serious,” she complained to her mom when she had finally got home from being with the Scientist. Though she hadn’t agreed to anything yet, Roo still took the system out for a test drive and she didn’t leave the Scientist’s lab until early in the morning. Roo would still be there bending, too, if the Scientist hadn’t forced her to leave and go make her decision. Well how was she supposed to decide anything now with stupid school getting in her way? “It’s just one day, Mom,” Roo begged. “Please. I haven’t taken a sick day in weeks.”

“That’s because you haven’t been sick for weeks,” her mom said, shaking her head. “And you’re not sick now. So, no. You’re going to school and that’s final.” She handed Roo her backpack.

“But, Mom, I—”

No buts. You can make your decision—or play your bending game—or whatever it is you’re so eager to do after class. Now go on. You don’t want to be late.”

“But—”

Go.”

Roo heaved a big sigh as she grabbed her bag and strapped it on her back. “Fine,” she said. “Whatever.” And she stomped out of the house, towards her secret lair rather than towards school despite her mom’s demands. Roo never should have asked for the day off in the first place. It was always easier to ask for forgiveness than it was to ask for permission, anyway.

She was walking by instinct, giving no thought to the path she had traveled so many times before, trying to find some way to decide between the art and the science of bending, when she ran into Mike—literally—and tumbled to the ground in a heap with him.

“Oh—uh—I’m sorry,” he said, standing to help her up. “Oh, Roo! It’s you. Just the jumpie I was looking for.”

“I’m not a jumpie,” Roo groaned, wiping the dirt off her pants.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Mike rolled his eyes. “But I just had to find you, okay. You’re never gonna believe what happened after you left.”

Roo scoffed. “I wouldn’t really call what happened to me leaving. It was more like I was kidnapped.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mike said. “I guess you can call it that. Where’d you end up going anyway?

Roo gritted her teeth. She kind of wanted to punch this annoying kid in the face. He was just another in a long line of distractions that were trying to prevent her from deciding her future. “Do you really care?” she asked.

“What? Yeah, of course I do.” Mike almost looked offended. “You’re my friend. Especially after you—well—at least you tried to help me find my mom.”

“Tried? What do you mean tried? We did find her. Anna said—”

Mike shook his head. Roo was afraid he was going to cry for a second—she had no idea how to comfort sad people and didn’t have time to learn—but he quickly snapped out of it and half smiled. “No, well, Anna was protecting us. Her and my mom both were. And, technically, you did help me find her, though there was no her left to be found.”

Roo held her hand to her mouth. “You mean…” she said.

Mike nodded. He made a motion like a knife slitting his throat so he didn’t have to say the words, and Roo wasn’t sure which would have been worse. She noticed her jaw was open—and probably had been for some time—then forced it closed only to fail at opening it again to spit out words.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Mike said after Roo had tried to talk and failed at it for long enough to be embarrassed. “You know, it’s kind of for the better, actually. I know, I know, it would obviously be better if she weren’t dead, but at least I know who she really was now.”

“Who was she?” Roo asked, happy her vocal chords were able to sound at least three short words.

Not a jumpie,” Mike said, stomping a foot as if he were crushing the idea of it like a bug. “She wasn’t addicted to anything. She was protecting us. You saw what those people were capable of.”

“What who was capable of?”

“Oh, well, you know. The people who took you or whatever, for starters. And the one’s who killed my mom, right? Especially them.”

“But who killed your mom, Mike?” Roo was getting worried. Mike’s ideas didn’t seem to connect. It was like he was reciting taught information that he didn’t quite understand yet. “I never saw them.”

“Well, no. Me neither.” He shook his head, looking more confused than ever. “But Anna did. She told me it was the protectors, or whatever. That’s who Mom was protecting us from.”

Of course. Anna and the Human Family were behind this. No wonder it was like arguing with a student instead of a master. “The protectors?” Roo asked. “That’s why your mother left you all those times? To protect you from the protectors?”

Mike nodded emphatically, like he was trying to convince himself, too. “That’s right. She was fighting to keep us safe. All of us humans. You, too.”

Right.” Roo nodded, not really believing the kid’s story but not wanting to burst his bubble about his dead mom either. “So who’s supposed to take care of your brothers now? Just you?”

“No.” Mike scoffed. “Ugh. I couldn’t handle that. As a matter of fact, for the first time ever, I won’t have to. I’m free, Roo. I’m finally free to live my own life.”

“But who if not you?” Roo asked, dreading the answer.

The Family. That’s who. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Anna and Rosa said I—said we could come live with them. Isn’t that awesome?”

“You’re going to live with Anna?”

“And Rosa.” Mike nodded. “She’s not supposed to be that cranky all the time, by the way.”

“And all because they told you that your mom was working with them? Because they told you that she was fighting to protect their Human Family, or whatever.”

Exactly,” Mike said, smiling. “So now the Human Family is going to take care of us. Isn’t it great?”

“And the Scientist already knew about Anna and her capabilities a long time ago. She wasn’t afraid at all, otherwise she would have done something about them.”

“The what? What are you talking about now?”

“There has to be some connection between the two, some reason the Scientist continues to let Anna’s transport system exist. Some thing is holding those two together, and I’m going to figure out what it is.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”

“You said they were letting you live at their house, right? Or the Home, or whatever. Did they give you a room yet?”

“Oh my God, yes. You wouldn’t believe it. I get my own bed, okay, my own desk, my own toy box. I don’t have to share any of it. It’s insane.”

“You know, I’d really like to see it,” Roo said, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him toward the Family Home. “How about we skip class and go take a tour instead?”

“I—but—” Mike complained, pretending to fight but not really trying to stop her from taking him wherever she wanted to go—no one ever really wanted to go to school. “What if the teacher get’s mad at…”

The Family Home was a few blocks away. They made quick time of it as soon as Mike stopped pretending to want to go to class and carried his own weight. When they got to the block the building was on Roo pulled Mike into the shadow of an alley.

“So you have your keys, right?” she asked him.

“Oh, it’s never locked.” Mike chuckled. “The doors to the Family Home are always open to any human in need,” he recited as if he were mocking someone’s voice—probably Rosa’s or Anna’s.

“So is anyone gonna be there?” Roo asked.

“Yeah, prolly. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “What’s it matter, anyway? I live here now.”

“But Anna, is she going to be there?”

I don’t know. Why do you care? We’re just going to see my room. I’m allowed to have friends over.”

“Alright, alright,” Rosa said, turning him around to face the house and patting him on the back to calm him. “Settle down now, cowboy. I was just asking. Let’s go see it already.”

“Wait,” Mike said, stopping and turning back around to her. “I’m not as stupid as you think I am, you know. Just because I don’t know about the fourth dimension—or whatever—and just because I don’t know about jumping and all that doesn’t mean I was born yesterday. You got that?”

“Woah, now,” Roo said, waving her hands in mock defense. “I don’t think you’re stupid.”

Mike scoffed. “You sure treat me like it.”

Roo felt a little ashamed. He was right about that, but she wasn’t ready to admit it. It wasn’t that she thought he was stupid, per se, just that he wasn’t as smart as she was. No one was. So if she thought he was stupid, she thought everyone everywhere was stupid, and Mike really had no reason to complain anyway because he wasn’t unique in that aspect. “I don’t think you’re stupid,” she repeated trying to placate him. “I’m sorry if I made you feel that way. So, please, can we go see your room now?”

“Then prove it,” Mike said, crossing his arms. “Tell me what you really want to do here. I know you’re not interested in seeing my bedroom.”

“I—well…” There was no hiding it now. She would just have to convince him to go along with her plan—or at the very least not to spoil it. “I did have a little something else in mind. Yes.” She nodded.

“Well…” Mike tapped his feet.

“Well, I just wanted to get another look at Anna’s transport system, you know,” Roo said, unable to think of a lie even if she wanted to tell one. “Her consoles are more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen, and I thought I might find some inspiration for the design of my own secret lair.”

Mike scoffed. “Your janitor’s closet?” he said. “You’ll never be able to—”

Roo slapped him on the arm. “My secret lair needs work, I know, but that’s why I want to look at Anna’s. She’s bending the walls without even being tapped directly into them, and I want to know how she does it. It’s almost like she’s creating her own walls right there in her basement.”

Mike scoffed, shaking his head. “That’s just a bunch of jumpie jargon,” he said. “It means nothing to me. You know, maybe I shouldn’t let you in after all. I don’t want to ruin a good thing for myself on the first day of living here. C’mon. Let’s go back to class.” He took a few steps in that direction but stopped when he saw that Roo wasn’t following.

“Never call me a jumpie again,” she said. “I’m a bender.”

Fine,” Mike said. “Then it was bender jargon. There’s no difference. You’re addicted, and I’m not going to enable you. Now c’mon. We’re already late for class.”

“I’m not your mother,” Roo said.

Mike scoffed. “Leave her out of this. She wasn’t a jumpie. Anna told me the truth about her.”

“Lies. Anna told you lies and she’s gonna keep telling them to you to keep you in her stupid family. It’s a trap, Mike, and now’s the time to get out while you still can.”

“You’re wrong.” Mike looked like he was going to cry again. Roo felt a little bad that she had to talk about his late mother like that, but it was too late for pity. Pity would only put him in further danger. “My mom believed in the Family, too,” he said. “She gave her life for it.”

“She gave her life for Anna’s benefit and the benefit of her cranky partner. No one else. Not you, not your brothers, not some mythological Family which doesn’t even exist. She was trapped just like you are, and if you don’t get out now, you’ll end up dead just like your mom.”

“Fuck you, jumpie!” Mike was crying now, and spitting while he screamed, “I never should have come to you for help in the first place. You’re toxic! You can find your own fucking way in. I’m leaving.” He stomped away toward school, whether he was going there or not.

Roo stood in the alley, shaking her head in silence. She hated to piss Mike off like that—on some level—but he needed to see the truth despite his denials of its verifiability. Hopefully he’d wake up to it before the trap was sprung—that is if it hadn’t been sprung already.

She turned to face the family home, that central hub of evil with its tendrils emanating through all four dimensions. Her mission would be more difficult without the bedroom tour as cover, but if anyone questioned her as to why she was there, she could just say that she was looking for Mike, was he home? She watched the door from her alley corner for some time—no one entering or leaving—before she cautiously slunk over and extended a trembling hand to the door knob.

She took a deep breath, opened the door to an empty entryway, and blew all the air out of her lungs in a too loud huff. Grinning at her luck, she made her way to the basement door and pulled it open to reveal stairs she didn’t recognize. Climbing down them she found stacks of supplies rather than the transporter system she was sure was there before.

Ugh.” She groaned as she climbed back up the stairs. This had to be the place. She knew it was. She closed the door and scanned the still empty—thank God—halls but her reconnaissance only proved to her that she had gone in the right door. She opened it again and ran down to groan at the empty supply room before running back upstairs and slamming the door closed behind her.

She huffed, leaning her back on the stupid door. What did this all mean? This was the door, the transport system was supposed to be down there, what was she to do now?

The door tried to open behind her, but by reflex, she braced against it, shutting it tight. She only had a split second to decide what to do next and ended up diving into an office instead of the kitchen. The door swung open again and out came Anna and her cranky partner who was complaining loudly.

“I can’t believe that stupid door got stuck again. I can’t take it anymore.”

“It was probably just someone going to the supply closet,” Anna said, her voice moving toward the kitchen—thank God. “You can’t have two doors in the same place like that at not expect to get some crossover.”

“Yeah, whatever,” her cranky partner said as Roo dove into the basement door they had just come out of right before it closed.

The stairs were different now. They were the stairs Roo recognized. She climbed down them to find the two consoles and six transporter rings she had been looking for. It was now or never.

She only booted up one of the consoles. Two would be too many to control and more to shut off if someone found her out. She got distracted playing with the thing for a while before she remembered where she was and what she was there for, then she started searching through the console’s recent history.

A lot of it was random. Another lot of it directed at the protector’s world where the Family must have been doing some type of thing. Then there was the anomaly. It was a place that had been searched often but never visited. It seemed more like it was being surveilled. Roo zoomed in on that spot and there weren’t a lot of paths in or out, maybe two or three: printing, disposal, and a single entrance—a single entrance for now.

Roo’s hands flew over the console’s touchscreen, levers, and keys. The universe unravelled before her. A path opened up and she put it into place. Soon the transport ring was humming and she knew someone would hear the sound, but whoever it was would be too late. The secret was found out. She stepped through the door just as it fwipped closed behind her, silencing the voices that were calling for her to stop as they ran down into the family’s basement.

She was in a giant office now. The carpet was red and soft, and there were paintings of big fat people dressed up in black and white costumes all over the walls. Behind a gargantuan desk sat a flabby fat man who was wearing the same costume as the people in the paintings. At Roo’s appearance, he coughed and choked on something from the huge pile of food he was eating in front of him. It reminded Roo of the scene she had seen from above when lines of similarly clothed fatties ate from similarly giant piles of food. She was disgusted and wanted leave already, but she stood her ground despite that.

“Who—Ho ho—” The big fat man in black and white said through his coughing. “Who are you? Wh—What are you doing here?”

“Who are you?” Roo demanded, walking straight up to his desk, which was too high so she had to push a chair close to it and jump up to be seen.

“I am Lord Walker, master of everything you see and have ever seen,” he said, sweeping his hands in a grand gesture over the vast desk. “I demand to know who intrudes on my private time.”

“How do you know Anna?” Roo asked, ignoring his demands.

“The Sixer? She’s Rosa’s partner. I’d be rid of your Anna if I could, though.”

Roo nodded. “So you do know them, then.”

Enough.” Lord Walker slammed a fat fist on the desk and the sound of it rang in Roo’s ears. “Who are you? I demand to know.”

“And the Scientist? You know her, too. Don’t you?” Roo went on.

The fat man scoffed. “That’s about enough,” he said. “Haley! Come get this child out of here. How did it even get in here in the first place?”

Wait.” Roo had to think fast. “Wait, wait. I’m just kidding, okay. I—”

“Who are you?” the fat man demanded. “Stop toying with me. Are you—ooooohhh—of course, you’re the director I’ve been talking to. Is that it? Aronostly is it? I didn’t expect anyone so… So…”

“Stop right there,” Roo said, about to pee herself she was so nervous but continuing her show of confidence nonetheless. “Just tell me, why are you working with Anna?”

“That’s exactly what I asked you here for, old boy. I’m working on a movie with her. She’s hired a director, but he’s not living up to my standards. I need someone with more vision. Someone like you. I’ve got a big project for you, now. Bigger than anything you’ve ever worked on. What do you say?”

Roo didn’t have anything to say. She didn’t really know what she had gotten herself into or how she was supposed to get out of it.

A door opened somewhere behind her. In walked a woman who was wearing black and white, too, but her costume was a short, lacy skirt with no top hat. She strutted up to the side of the desk, between Roo and Lord Walker, and curtsied. “Yes, Lord,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Why didn’t you tell me our guest had arrived?” he chided her. “We need refreshments, dear. I’ll take an old-fashioned and our guest will have…”

“Guest, sir?” the woman looked confusedly at Roo.

“What would you like?” the fat man asked her. “Any drink you can think of, we have it.”

“Oh—uh…” What was she supposed to say? “I’ll have a milk, please.”

“Milk?” the fat man said, a strange look on his face. Roo’s body wanted to run away at the sight of it, but before it could, the fat man started laughing. “Ho ho ho. You heard the man. Milk it is. A real old fashioned drink, that one. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir.” The woman curtsied and left through the only door in the room.

“So,” the fat man said. “Your milk’s coming. Ho ho ho. And you’ve heard my offer. Now tell me, what do you think?”

“I, uh— Well, sir… I’m still not entirely sure what it is you’re offering,” Roo stalled.

“A job, my boy. Ho ho ho! You’re not truly so dense are you? No, of course not. I’ve seen your body of work. I know better. You’re just pulling my leg, aren’t you? This is an act. Ho ho ho. Good one, my boy. You Threes never quit entertaining, do you?”

Roo groaned, hoping the gesture wasn’t audible, but what was this fatso going on about? Directors and movies had nothing to do with Anna and her transport system for as far as Roo could tell, while this Lord Walker, whoever he was, kept going on about some sort of job. He thought that Roo was someone else, someone who could probably still walk into the office at any minute and blow her cover, so she’d have to get what little information she could out of the fat man as fast as she could then get out of there soon after—if she could even find an escape when the time came.

The door opened behind her and Roo almost jumped out of her seat at the sound of it. Luckily it wasn’t the director she was impersonating but the servant woman in the short skirt with their drinks. She set a brownish liquid in front of Lord Walker and a tall glass of milk in front of Roo.

“Is that all, sir?” she asked with a curtsy.

Lord Walker downed his drink in one loud gulp. “I’ll have another of these,” he said, slamming the empty glass on the desk with a loud clang. “What about you, old boy? Do you need anything else?”

Roo shook her head. She didn’t even want the milk she already had, but she took a sip of it anyway so she didn’t have to speak.

“Then just the old fashioned, dear. Move along.” He waved the woman out of the room and she left with a curtsy.

“What do you think of that one, eh?” Lord Walker asked, winking at Roo and pointing at the door the woman had just left through. “Legs that go on for miles, if you know what I mean. Ho ho ho!”

Roo nodded and laughed even though she had no idea what he meant.

“Yeah, I know you do, old boy,” Lord Walker said in a conspiratorial tone. “I saw you oogling her.”

Roo blushed. “I—”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker slammed a fat fist on the desk. “No need to worry, my boy. You’ve done nothing wrong. I won’t chastise you. She’s nothing more than an object, after all—another one of my possessions. She’s meant to be looked at, designed to like it even. She likes you looking at her, boy, and I do, too, so go right ahead and do it. Ho ho ho!”

Roo nodded and smiled. She had met boys who thought the same about girls before, but never one who thought that she was a boy, too, and as such, revealed to her what was truly on his mind. No matter how much she disagreed with it, though, she had to play along or blow her cover. She needed to get out of there sooner than ever.

Oh ho ho!” Lord Walker went on. “I know, my boy. It leaves you speechless, doesn’t it? All that concentrated beauty in one single package, and all at my beck and call. I snap my fingers and she’s there. My stomach grumbles and she’s already making me breakfast. Time to take my pants off and she’s by my side.” He winked and Roo almost choked on the milk she was sipping. “Oh you ol’ sport.” Lord Walker grinned. “You heard that right. She’s next to my bed, under it, or in it, however I require. Ho ho ho!”

The conversation had already gone too far and Lord Walker just kept taking it further. Roo had to say something to put an end to it, but what?

Uh—Right, sir—er—Lord.” Roo smiled, trying her hardest not to look as disgusted as she felt. “But I’m not sure what this has to do with me or the job you’re offering.”

Ho ho ho,” Lord Walker chuckled. “Don’t play sly with me now. You know good and well what I’m getting at. I’m sure you have fantasies of your own, the perfect woman lifted from the best attributes of characters in the movies you’ve made. Well, my boy, it’s not just a fantasy anymore. I can make all your dreams come true, no matter how depraved they might be.” Lord Walker grinned and winked his monocled eye.

Roo couldn’t take it anymore. She wanted to gag, or to spit out some insult and run away, but she choked down both urges. “And if my fantasies can’t be fulfilled with a woman?” she asked. “What then?”

Ho ho ho! Really, my boy? I know things are different in Three, but I never took you for the type. And yes, we have men, too, if that better suits your desire. Ho ho ho.”

No,” Roo snapped. “I mean, no, sir—uh—Lord, sir,” she went on more calmly. “What if no slave at all could fulfill my desires, man or woman?”

“I take offense to that term, slave,” Lord Walker huffed. “She’s no more a slave to me than your camera is to you, or the elevator you rode in on is to anyone else. She’s a robot, not a human. She can’t be a slave.”

A robot? That was impossible. Something so lifelike couldn’t be anything but human. Lord Walker was just making excuses for his abhorrent behavior. He was a sexist pig—almost literally a pig at his size—of a slave master, and Roo had seen enough. As if on cue, the woman—who was clearly a human after looking at her again—came back in and put another drink in front of Lord Walker with a curtsy.

“There you are, sir,” she said with a smile—a human smile. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No, sweetheart. Not right now,” Lord Walker said, shooing her away. “We’re trying to have a conversation here. Be gone.”

“Actually, sir,” Roo said before the woman could curtsy and leave. “It’s a little embarrassing, but I could really use the bathroom right now.” She did a little dance in her seat like she really had to go.

Lord Walker looked shocked for a moment, like Roo had started speaking a foreign language all of a sudden. “The bathroo— Oh. Of course. Ho ho ho.” He slammed his ham fist on the desk with his bellowing laughter. “The restroom. I thought you meant to take a bath. I wasn’t going to say anything about your stench, but I didn’t think you needed to go so far as request a bath mid meeting. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, well…” Roo said, still dancing and actually getting an urge to pee as she pretended to have one. “Do you mind?”

Oh ho ho! Of course not, sport. Forgive me. With these pants I never think twice about it, you know. Ho ho ho. You heard the man, Haley, dear. Show him to the restroom, please. Ho ho ho!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Haley curtsied and turned to Roo. “Follow me, please, sir.”

Roo scooped up her backpack and followed Haley out of the door and into a long hall. Roo kept going toward the metal doors at the other end of the hall, but after after Haley had closed the wooden door they had just left, she called Roo back. “This way, please, sir.”

“Oh,” Roo said, crossing back. “I’m sorry, I thought—”

“Yes, sir. We only use the one door here, though. So if you’ll please.” She opened the door and instead of the office there was the biggest bathroom Roo had ever seen, with too many toilets and just as many gold plated sinks. “I’ll be out here to escort you back to the office when you’re done.”

“Oh—uh, thanks,” Roo said, stepping into the bathroom as Haley closed the door behind her.

Roo dropped her bag on the ceramic tile and rushed over to vomit in the toilet. She didn’t know if it was all the adrenaline from almost being caught or the disgusting combination of Lord Walker’s sloppy face and creepy words, but she had to get everything inside of her out. After she had eradicated it all from her body—including her mouth by washing it with water from the faucet a few times—she sat on the toilet to take the pee she had faked needing and figure a way out of this Hell hole.

She could just try to finish the meeting then leave like she was always supposed to be there, but that came with plenty of risks. First, she’d have to sit through more conversation with the disgusting Lord Walker. Second, the person who she was impersonating could walk in at any minute—then she’d really be screwed. And third, when she did get to leave, there would be no telling where they would send her. Three, by the sound of it, almost certainly wasn’t the world she wanted to go to, her world, home. So that was pretty much out of the question.

What else was there, though? She could burst out of the door and make a break for it. But that Haley would be outside waiting, and even if Roo could get past her, she wouldn’t know how to use the crazy doors they have which obviously relied on some advanced automatic remote bending system of some kind that Roo had never seen the likes of—except maybe at the Scientist’s lab.

Which brought her back to the real crux of the situation, back to the problem that was eating at her mind even more than her need to escape the rat trap she was caught in, the fact that her future, her entire universe even, was being controlled by three old fogies she had never met before in her life. Anna had her transport system, capable of forming new walls in remote locations and run by the most competent bender Roo had ever witnessed, Anna herself. Lord Walker here had his magic doors and elevators, and no doubt countless other secret control systems hidden away in his labyrinth of pompous, fat, sexist slave mongering. And the Scientist had the most technologically advanced four dimensional bending system possible with the current standards of technology. All three of them were stuck in their old fashioned ways, all three had too much control over Roo’s universe, and all three lacked one vital attribute which alone could save them from collapsing in on themselves: foresight.

Roo finished, flushed, and washed her hands then set to pulling her handheld transporter console out of her backpack. The bathroom door had to be connected to the walls, it was the only way it could work the way it did, opening onto different rooms like that. She looked around for something hard, found a plunger under the sink, and used the wooden end to bust open the drywall next to the door jamb. She worried at first about the noise but gave in and smashed without reserve. Hopefully Haley was worlds away, not just on the other side of the drywall.

Behind the filthy white wall she found exactly what she needed, a mash of multicolored wires almost teeming with electricity. She ripped one out, careful not to shock herself—not that she hadn’t felt that pain a million times before already—and jacked her portable console in. In the next second it was on and she fell deep into the fourth dimension. Every one of them were going to come face to face and admit what they had done, admit what they had colluded to keep alive, Anna, Lord Walker, the Scientist, and anyone else who stood in Roo’s way. It was time for them all to see that their grip on the universe was slipping and the era of a new generation of bender was dawning.

 

#     #     #

< LIX. Anna     [Table of Contents]     LXI. Chelsea >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Only three more to go in Dividing by Ø and then it’ll soon be time for the fourth and final book in the series. I hope you’re as excited to read the finale as I am to share it. Either way, have a great weekend, and please do think about picking up a copy of or leaving a review for any book in the series right through this link. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 59: Anna

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

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

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

LIX. Anna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but…” He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Mike Singer?” Rosa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead.” Rosa smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna frowned, even if it was just a joke.

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

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

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

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

“Which you already did,” Rosa said.

“Yeah, but—”

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

“I guess, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, so?” Rosa shrugged.

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

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

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

 

#     #     #

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

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

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

Chapter 57: Nikola

Another day, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga, and today we rejoin Tillie and Nikola as Nikola’s parents try to convince them both to take on a dangerous mission designed to retrieve vital information about the worlds of Outland. Enjoy the story, and if you want to read the rest of the entire novel right now, pick up a copy through this link. Thanks for following along, dear readers. We do nothing along.

< LVI. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LVIII. Laura >

LVII. Nikola

“Uh, that’s not really what I had in mind, Dad,” Nikola said, looking to her mom for help. “I don’t know, I thought maybe we’d start on the assembly lines, or in the farms, or something. You know, something a bit more suited to someone without any basic training—no offense Tillie.”

Tillie didn’t respond. She was still staring blankly across the desk at Nikola’s dad.

“Give your American friend some credit,” Nikola’s mom said. “She looks strong and healthy from here. She seems to have put up with capture by those vicious protectors. You can handle it, right, dear?”

Tillie nodded.

Ugh, Mom.” Nikola sighed, looking back to her dad for help now. “Can’t you to just leave her alone for like a day. She’s only just gotten out of that prison. You can’t expect her to have gotten over it already.”

“None of us can say whether she has or not,” Nikola’s dad said. “Only she can decide that for herself. She doesn’t need you speaking for her, you know. Now, American, do you understand what we’re asking of you?”

Tillie still just stared blankly across the desk.

Nikola scoffed. “Her name’s Tillie, Dad. Not American. And no one understands what you’re asking of her. Not even me.”

“We’ve found the linchpin in America’s walls, dear,” Nikola’s mom said. “They’ve centralized control of them so much that we can shut down all transportation in one fell swoop. That includes 3D printers.”

“How would they eat?” Tillie finally spoke up, in a quiet, almost croaking voice.

“Excuse me, soldier?” Nikola’s dad said.

“Without printers how will they eat?” Tillie repeated, louder this time.

“The printers won’t be off for too long,” Nikola’s mom said. “You can be sure of that. But by the time they get turned back on, we’ll have a foothold on the inside. We’ll remain there, controlling and monitoring everything, long after they think we’ve gone.” She smiled.

“How long is too long?” Tillie asked. “My dad needs printers to eat, printers to get dressed, printers to feed Mr. Kitty, Hell, he needs printers for everything required to sustain his life. How long will they be off?”

“All of fifteen seconds is what we need,” Nikola’s dad said. “In and out just like that. And you’re gonna give it to us.”

“But why us?” Nikola demanded. “Isn’t there someone else who’s better for the job?”

“Why Tillie, you mean,” Nikola’s mom said. “She’s the key. I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to let you go along, in fact. What do you think, honey?”

“I’m not letting her go without me,” Nikola said.

“If it convinces the American to help,” her dad said, “it might be worth the risk.”

“Yes, but only the—” her mom started.

“Why me?” Tillie demanded.

Everyone turned to stare at her. Maybe she was ready for the mission after all.

“The Scientist, dear,” Nikola’s mom said. “We’ve been following her for some time, actually, trying to find our opening. It wasn’t easy, you know. She practices tight security. But what’s important is that we’ve been following the Scientist, and we’ve found that she’s been following you. Now since she’s already looking for you she won’t be surprised to find you on her doorstep. When she let’s you in you just have to garner enough trust to get near a computer then we can do the rest.”

“That’s it?” Nikola scoffed. “Get near a computer? She doesn’t even have to use it?”

“It doesn’t even have to be turned on,” Nikola’s dad said with a big smile. “Just wear this transceiver and get near the thing.” He held up a silver bracelet, grinning wide and proud of the little gadget—he always did love his electronic gadgets. “No one will even know you’ve done a thing.”

Nikola took the bracelet out of his hands so her dad would sit down and stop pushing it on Tillie who seemed to be lost in her own little world.

“So how do we get there?” Nikola asked, stalling for time since Tillie obviously needed more to work out how she felt about the situation. “To the Scientist.”

“That’s the tricky part,” Nikola’s dad said.

“And it’s not we yet,” her mom added.

“Why don’t you tell them, honey,” her dad said. “This is more of your area.”

“As I said,” her mom went on, “we’ve been following the Scientist following your Tillie ever since we helped her escape from that prison.”

Nikola couldn’t tell whether it was a cough or a scoff, but Tillie made a noise.

“Beyond that,” Nikola’s mom went on, not noticing the noise or ignoring it—probably the latter. “We’ve been leading the Scientist on a wild goose chase—if you’ll forgive the archaic saying.”

“She means we’re making the Scientist think we took you someplace where we didn’t,” Nikola’s dad clarified.

“The plan is to let her actually find you,” Nikola’s mom went on. “She’ll take you back to her lab, and then it’d be up to you to find the computer.”

“And if she doesn’t take us to her lab?” Nikola asked, not confident in this flimsy plan even though she was definitely going along with it if Tillie decided that she wanted to. “What if the protectors greet us instead?”

“They won’t,” her dad said. “And the Scientist will. She’s smarter and faster than those protectors, and she’ll want to protect your American from them. She’s got something in store for you, girl.” He chuckled, nodding at Tillie.

Nikola scoffed. “Dad!”

“And when are we supposed to do this?” Tillie asked.

Nikola’s mom smiled. “As soon as you can, dear. The sooner the better. We have an operation set up at fourteen hundred hours—that’s…two hours from now—but any later than that and we’ll have to find another suitable transfer point in the next two weeks or so.”

Tillie took the bracelet from Nikola’s hand and strapped it on her wrist. “And I just stand close to the computer?” she asked. “I don’t have to turn this on or anything?”

Nikola’s dad chuckled. “That’s my girl. And no. We’ll control everything from here. You just get us in range.”

“I’ll do it,” Tillie said. “Just tell me when and where.”

“Great!” Nikola’s dad stood and clapped his hands together. “Nikola, take our American friend to get some proper mission attire then meet us in the Central Depot at fourteen hundred hours. You’re doing a great service to all the World’s beings, dear girl. We thank you for that.” He grabbed Tillie by the hand to shake it vigorously while pulling her up out of her seat.

“Alright, Dad. We’ll be there,” Nikola said, prying Tillie’s hand away from his and showing her out the door. “Don’t worry.”

They didn’t talk again until they had traversed the halls and stairwells to Nikola’s room where she said, “You know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, right?”

“What? Wear proper mission attire?” Tillie asked with a little chuckle. “Good. Because I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway.”

“No,” Nikola said, shaking her head. “I mean you don’t have to go on this mission at all if you don’t want to. My parents can’t make you do it. No one can make you do anything here.”

“I want to,” Tillie said. “Trust me. It’ll be good to get back home anyway. Even if I won’t really be home for good.”

“Yeah, sure,” Nikola said. “I guess.” Though she wasn’t sure.

“Trust me, Nikola. I’ll be alright. There’s nothing to worry about. Now let’s go get some more of that free food before we go on this mission. I’m starving.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Nikola laughed. “The ants ate all yours earlier.”

#     #     #

They met Nikola’s parents in the Central Hub. Not really, though. After riding the bullet proof glass elevator down into nowhere they were probably far far away from the People’s France. They were in a tiny room with cement walls and a linoleum floor. Nothing else. Just the four of them staring at each other.

“Now you’re sure you want to do this,” Nikola said. “They have no control over you. You can still say no if you want to.”

Tillie nodded.

“And you have the transceiver?” Nikola’s dad asked.

Tillie held up her arm with the bracelet still attached.

“The Scientist might not take you directly to the world with her computer in it,” Nikola’s mom said. “She probably won’t. That’s likely to be a heavily secured area. So you two are going to have to do whatever you can to get her to bring you there.”

Nikola scoffed. “Like what?”

“Ask her about the walls,” Nikola’s dad said. “How they work and all that. Pretend like you don’t believe in them. She’s a scientist, she’ll want to teach you, prove them to you. She won’t be able to resist. I promise.”

“And what if she never takes us to the right place?” Nikola asked. “How are we supposed to get back home if you don’t have control over the system?”

“We’ll get you back,” her mom said. “We’ve done it once before, haven’t we?”

Nikola scoffed. “Barely.”

“With perfect timing is how I like to think of it,” her dad said with a smile. “How are you feeling, American?”

Tillie hadn’t spoken since they had left the food cart for the Central Hub. She fidgeted now, looking for the right thing to say. “Ready,” she finally did.

“Good,” Nikola’s mom said with a smile. “Your ride’s almost here. We’ll send you along to the alley then you wait for our signal there. Good luck, girls. The solidarity of our people rides with you.”

Nikola and Tillie stepped onto the elevator in silence. This was a different elevator than the one they had ridden in on. It was all steel—walls, ceiling, and floor—instead of glass and linoleum. The doors slid closed, hiding her parents from view, and Nikola breathed a sigh of anticipation. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked again. She hated sounding like a broken record, but she had to be sure they weren’t taking advantage of Tillie.

“There’s no turning back now,” Tillie said, and the floor fell out from underneath them.

When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open Nikola took a deep whiff of the world around her. She could smell America. There was something in the air that made it different. A camouflaged French revolutionary waved them out of the elevator and into an alley where they were left to wait for the next leg of the trip. Nikola paced back and forth from wall to wall as they did while Tillie stood still, staring off into the distance at nothing, lost in thought again.

“This is the last chance to turn back,” Nikola interrupted her revery.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

The revolutionary—who Nikola didn’t recognize somehow, she thought she knew everyone on the base if not anyone who’d be on this mission—shushed Nikola and waved for her to get closer to where he was hiding behind a dumpster. “Fat chance,” he said. “No turning back now. So shut up and get over here. You’re endangering the mission.”

Nikola stopped pacing. “Endangering how?” she asked, looking up and down the alley then back at the pushy soldier. “There’s no one even out here.”

“Not now there isn’t,” the soldier said in a whisperyell. “But someone could walk by at any minute. Now get over here.” He waved to her again.

“You have no control over me,” Nikola said, standing her ground. “I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m not trying to control you,” the soldier said, getting flustered. “I just want to ensure—” He held a hand to his ear. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter anymore. Your ride’s here. Follow me.” He jumped up onto the balls of his feet and made his way down the alley in a crouch.

Nikola tried to make a joke about it as they followed the crouching tiger, but Tillie wasn’t interested. She didn’t look when Nikola tried to tap her on the arm to get her attention, and she didn’t even grin or crack a smile, much less chuckle or laugh, when Tillie told the joke anyway. Maybe it was time to get serious after all. Nikola set her mind on doing just that, falling into line behind the solemn parade led by a crouching madman.

The soldier stopped in front of a public elevator a block and a half away and looked surprised when he turned to find Tillie and Nikola walking with a normal stride, not trying to hide themselves at all. “Get down,” he demanded, waving them toward the elevator. “Do you want to be seen?”

“I thought we were trying to get caught,” Nikola said, looking around to find the streets as empty as they had been the entire time. “Isn’t that the whole point of this operation?”

“You have to get caught by the right person. If the protectors get you, we’re fucked. Now get in.” The elevator doors slid open and the soldier pushed Nikola in.

“Alright, shit,” Nikola said, regaining her balance. “I’ll remember that.”

Tillie stepped into the elevator. “Door closed,” she said.

“You don’t even know my name,” the soldier said as the doors slid closed between them. “Or the code!” he added, trying, but failing, to get his fingers inside and pry the door open.

“Shows him,” Nikola said, chuckling. “We should let him stew for a while before we open them up again.”

“We don’t need the code,” Tillie said, staring straight ahead at the closed doors.

“What do you mean? How are we supposed to get to the Scientist?”

“I already know the Scientist,” Tillie said. “Well, I know of her. Emma knew her.”

“Emma?”

“Yes, Emma.” Tillie turned to Nikola and smiled. It was an eerie smile, more of a smirk, like no grin Nikola had ever seen on Tillie’s face before. She looked almost mad. “Emma was working with the Scientist. The Scientist gave us the keys we needed to destroy the walls between Five and Six. We did that, Nikola.”

No.” Nikola shook her head. It couldn’t be true. She had seen the intelligence reports on the operation. It was a false flag attack put on by the Scientist in order to distract the masses from her true plan. It had nothing to do with Outland Two. It—

“Yes. Emma, the Scientist, and I were all working together. There’s no way I’m about to sabotage everything we’ve worked so hard to build. And I’m not about to let you sabotage it, either.”

“No—but— She isn’t working with us,” Nikola pleaded, trying to knock some sense into the ignorant American before it was too late. “She holds their walls up for them. Without her the walls would crumble and our job would be so much easier. You can’t be working with her. It goes against your interests.”

“Without her Five and Six would still be separated,” Tillie said, sneering. “Without her I wouldn’t be in this fight to help you at all. Without her none of this would be possible, and I won’t let you ruin it now.”

“No. Tillie, listen—”

“The struggle itself is enough to fill one’s heart,” Tillie said and the floor fell out from underneath them.

“Tillie, please,” Nikola begged. “You can still do the right thing. Or if you want, give me the bracelet. I’ll do it and you won’t have to feel any guilt at all. But don’t ruin this opportunity for us. Please.”

Tillie scoffed. “Giving you the gun to shoot for me would be exactly the same as pulling the trigger myself.” The elevator stopped. “We’re here anyway. Let’s see what the Scientist has to say about it.”

The elevator doors slid open to reveal a short empty hall. Tillie stepped into it right away but Nikola hesitated. Maybe she should just stay in the elevator and leave Tillie to deal with the Scientist, after all. By the sounds of it, Tillie wasn’t going to cooperate and Nikola would have a hard time finding a way back to the People’s France as a result. She knew she couldn’t do that, though, that she still had to try to complete her mission no matter how hopeless it looked, so she followed Tillie out into the hall and the elevator doors slid closed behind her.

“Now what?” Nikola asked Tillie who was slowing down, looking a little less sure of herself.

“Well there’s only one door,” Tillie said, pointing. “So there’s really no choice, is there?”

As she said it, the door opened and in stepped a tall, dark faced woman with a severe look about her. She was wearing a pinstripe pantsuit which only seemed to make her legs look longer as she took a few strides to cross the short hall and stand in front of them with a sneer. This couldn’t be the Scientist, could it? She didn’t look like she’d be willing to cooperate at all if she was, so Nikola certainly hoped not.

“Are you the Scientist?” Tillie asked her outright, seeming to stand taller as she said the words.

The woman didn’t answer, though. She just stared blankly down at Tillie, not even sparing a second glance for Nikola who didn’t regret that fact.

“We’re looking for the Scientist,” Tillie persisted. “It’s urgent. Can you take us to her?”

“Urgent, huh?” the woman finally said, and the deep baritone of her voice took Nikola off guard. Nikola almost let out a gasp but managed to hold her silence as the woman went on. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“W—We— Who are you?” Tillie stammered.

The woman chuckled and it sounded eerier than her voice. “I’ll be asking the questions here, girl. You trespassed on my property. Now who are you?”

“Tillie Manager, ma’am.” Tillie swallowed some spit, making enough noise for Nikola to hear it. “I need to—”

“And your friend, Tillie Manager, does she have a name, too?”

“Nikkie—” Tillie started but Nikola elbowed her to shut her up.

“Nikkie Manager,” Nikola said. “Who are you?”

The woman chuckled. “She’s a feisty one, isn’t she? No wonder you brought her along with you.”

“We need to see the Scientist,” Tillie said, a hint of anxiety slipping into her voice. “Where is she?”

“And what do you need to see the Scientist for? She’s a busy woman, you know.”

“We—I have information,” Tillie corrected herself. “It’s about an attack. I’m with Emma.”

“Emma who?”

Tillie tried to speak but nothing would come out. Nikola didn’t know Emma’s last name and she wouldn’t be surprised if Tillie didn’t know it either. Neither of them knew what to say now. At least Tillie hadn’t given away their mission yet. There was still a chance it could be a success.

“And you expect me to trust you?” the woman said, chuckling. “I’d be in my right mind to kick the both of—” The door opened behind her—interrupting her speech—and a big metal arm with a too human hand rolled out into the hall on giant tires. “Popeye,” the woman said, “not now. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

The hand waved then turned this way and that, as if it were trying to communicate something.

“Yes, they’re here,” the woman said. “Can’t you see them right there?”

The arm did another, slightly different, dance in response.

“I’ll bring them in shortly,” the woman said. “I’m just having a little bit of fun before I do. I am still allowed to have fun, aren’t I?”

The mechanical arm waved her away and rolled back into the room it had come out of.

“W—Was that—” Tillie said. “The Scientist?”

The woman chuckled. “Creator, no,” she said, shaking her head and wiping a tear from her eye. “We’d all be in a lot worse position if that no brains arm was the Scientist. Now come on. It looks like she’s ready for you.”

They followed the woman through the door at the end of the hall and into a huge office room with a giant oak desk, a circle of big fluffy chairs around a few side tables, and a wall-sized window looking out onto a vast, green wilderness scene. There were no computers, of course—just Nikola’s luck—only a white haired old woman in a white coat sitting in one of the puffy chairs and the big mechanical arm washing the giant window.

“Come in, come in,” the woman in the white coat said, standing from her seat and showing Tillie and Nikola to two of their own before retaking hers. “Have a seat, please. We have so much to talk about.”

“Are— Are you the Scientist?” Tillie asked, taking her seat. Nikola took a second to stare out the window at the rolling hills before sitting, too.

“I am, dear,” the woman in the white coat said. “And you already met Rosalind.” She indicated the tall scary woman who had received them at the elevator. “And of course Popeye.” The big mechanical arm waved then went back to washing the window. “And you two are?”

“I’m Tillie,” Tillie said, not choosing to speak for Nikola this time.

“Yes, Tillie,” the Scientist said. “I know that one already, actually. Your friend here, however…” She lowered her eyes at Nikola.

“I’m just a friend,” Nikola said. “No names needed.”

“Ah. I see,” the Scientist said, tapping her chin. “I can’t make you do anything, now, but I’m afraid I’d be more comfortable if I had a name I could call you by.” The Scientist waited for a response, but when it became clear to everyone that Nikola wasn’t giving any the Scientist said, “Have it your way, then. Friend it is. So, Tillie and Friend, how can I help y’all?”

“I need to—” Tillie started, but Nikola knew it was her last chance to interject before Tillie ruined everything.

“You could stop propping up the ownership class for starters,” she blurted out without thinking.

The Scientist gave Nikola a death stare. Rosalind, or whatever her name was—sitting at the desk and playing cards with herself—scoffed. The sound of it made Nikola feel a little more confident and seemed to perturb the Scientist who shot a glance in Rosalind’s direction. “Friend,” the Scientist went on, “if you’re going to talk to me like that, I’d rather we were on a first name basis.”

Nikola scoffed, almost perfectly mimicking the sound of Rosalind’s and surprising herself because of it. “Sure thing, the Scientist.” She held up air quotes around the woman’s “name”. “My name’s Friend, the Friend. Nice to meet you.” She stood and held out a hand for the Scientist to shake.

Rosalind chuckled at the desk, and this time the Scientist did more than shoot her a glance. “Don’t you think there’s a better place for you to play your cards,” she snapped.

“Not if I want to hear what y’all are talking about,” Rosalind said with a snicker.

“That’s exactly my point,” the Scientist said, turning back to Nikola and composing herself. “Now, Friend, where were we?”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Rosalind grumbled, making an effort to take a long time picking up the cards. “C’mon, Popeye. We’re not wanted here.” She waved the arm along to follow her slowly out of the room.

“Well…” the Scientist said, raising an eyebrow and trying to ignore Rosalind’s loud exit. “Go on, Friend.”

Nikola hesitated. She had lost track of the conversation. It wasn’t her turn to talk, was it? The ball was in the Scientist’s court. She took too long and Tillie ended up picking it up and running with it, “We wanted to tell you something.”

“No, that’s not it,” Nikola said, cutting the Scientist off before she could respond. “You were about to tell us your name. It’s your turn to offer up some information. You got Tillie’s name first, now you give us yours. Tit for tat. Your move.”

The Scientist smiled. She seemed to be enjoying this now, which didn’t sit well with Nikola. “I already knew Tillie’s name,” she said. “No new information was exchanged there.” Nikola tried to speak up but the Scientist raised a hand to stop her. “But. I will give you the benefit of the doubt by going first in an exchange of names, Friend.”

Fine,” Nikola said. “Go ahead then. I’m waiting…”

The Scientist made her wait just a little bit longer, that wry wrinkly grin on her face. After a few more moments of silence, letting Nikola stew in it, she said, “My name is Dr. Haley.”

“And…” Nikola said, motioning her on. “Dr. Haley… What? Not just a first name basis. A full name basis.”

The Scientist started to squirm in her seat a bit. Nikola scooted up to the edge of hers. Tillie did, too, apparently not as set on thwarting the mission as she had first seemed. “Now that wasn’t part of the deal,” the Scientist said, fidgeting still. “A name for a name, Friend. Now what’s yours?”

“You have my last name already,” Tillie cut in, and Nikola knew she had won the conversation. “You apparently knew it before I even told you.”

“Yes, well…” the Scientist said, looking for some escape, but she was trapped.

“Well what is your last name?” Nikola asked, confident the game was done.

“I—Well… Dr. Haley Walker,” the Scientist said—Dr. Walker said.

“Walker?” Tillie said, eyes wide. She looked to Nikola. “You knew, didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know you were working with her,” Nikola said. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know Emma was, either. If we had known, we wouldn’t have gone through all this. I promise you that.”

“Who are you, Friend?” the Scientist asked, standing up. “And how do you know so much?”

Nikola laughed. “It’s not so great being on the other side of the information divide, is it?”

“You’re related to Lord Walker, aren’t you?” Tillie said, her attention turned to the Scientist still. “That’s why you keep his walls up for him.”

“The former Lord,” the Scientist said. “Huey’s Lord now. But, no. I keep the walls up because we need them, child. How else would we eat? Our population is just too big. The 3D printers are necessary. That’s how you’ve gotten everything you need to live since you were a baby, you know. That’s how your father lives. None of us would be here now without those fields, and the second they go down is the second society crumbles.”

No.” Tillie shook her head. “But you— Emma told me that you gave us the entry code. You helped us tear down the walls between Five and Six.”

“One wall between two worlds,” the Scientist said. “That puny thing was causing more harm than good. If we could only get these riots under control, the economy would be running better than ever without it.”

“You hear that?” Nikola said to Tillie rather than the Scientist. “The economy. That’s the only thing she cares about. The Invisible Hand.”

“Oh, no.” The Scientist shook her head. “This hand won’t be invisible. It will be the rubber gloved hand of a scientist. My hand.” She held one up to underline the point. “With the help of the robots, of course, thanks to the very generous Mr. Walker who was cooperative enough to trade all control over the production of androids to me. Now all that remains to be seen is how cooperative you, my new friends, are willing to be?”

“Y—You’re one of them,” Tillie said, shaking her head and standing from her seat. “You’re no different from the people you sent us to fight.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, dear,” the Scientist said, standing to meet her gaze. “I’m very different from them. I’ll be able to use the walls and the robots together to provide goods and services more efficiently than ever. We’ve done it, Tillie. We’re finally in control. Everything you and Emma worked so hard for is finally coming true.”

Tillie scoffed, stepping away from the Scientist. Nikola stood and stepped between them, as if her physical presence could maintain the mental rift she had seeded with her words. “Don’t listen to her,” Nikola said.

“You’re no different,” Tillie said. “More of the same. You sit here benefitting from our exploitation just as much as those fat owners do, comfortable in your too big office with your too big view, literally mending their walls for your profit. If anything, you’re worse than they are. Without you, they wouldn’t know how to put the walls that keep us apart back together again.”

“No.” The Scientist shook her head. “Those walls do more than keep us apart,” she said. “Much more. You can’t see that yet—which is why you want to tear them all down at once—but the unintended consequences would be disastrous. You’re too young, too inexperienced to make a decision of this caliber, and you have no idea what you’d be in for if you tried.”

Nikola scoffed. “And you’re too old to change your mind. You’ve shown us nothing, told us nothing to convince us. What evidence do you have? Why should we believe you? We shouldn’t even be here listening to you right now. This is ridiculous. C’mon Tillie. Let’s go.” She grabbed Tillie’s surprisingly compliant arm and dragged her toward the door. While Tillie didn’t resist—she seemed too shocked to even think, by the look on her face—-the Scientist did everything she could, short of grabbing Tillie’s other arm and having a tug of war, to stop them. They were out in the hall—the Scientist still begging them to stay—when Tillie finally woke up to the world around her and shrugged Nikola off.

“You’re a bad person,” she said, turning to the Scientist. “You should have told us what we were really fighting for instead of keeping us in the dark like that.”

The Scientist shook her head. “I told you all I could, child. I’ll show you more now if you’ll stay.”

“No,” Tillie said, and she turned to get on the elevator.

Nikola got on, too, and told the doors to close behind her so the Scientist couldn’t beg anymore. “Take us home,” she said, happy with the outcome of the mission even if her parents would call it a failure, and when the elevator fell and stopped and the doors opened, they were not in the People’s France. They were nowhere Nikola had ever seen before in a world that seemed impossible.

#     #     #

< LVI. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LVIII. Laura >

There it is, dear readers, Nikola’s third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you return to read the rest of story. If you just can’t wait, though, don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel right here.

Thanks again. Have a great weekend. And always remember, we do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 49: Mr. Walker

Hello, dear readers. Today we turn to Mr. Walker so we can see the story from his perspective for the first time. And yes, you read that right, Mr. not Lord Walker. As you can imagine he’s none too happy about that fact, either, so let’s join him now and see what he has to say about it. And if you’re enjoying the story so far, please do take the time to leave a review of the first two novels on their respective Amazon pages here. Honest reviews are worth more than money to me at this point in my career so I’d greatly appreciate even a short sentence.

That’s enough for now, though, dear readers. Enjoy the continuation of the story and enjoy the rest of your weekend. We do nothing alone.

< XLVIII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]    L. Nikola >

XLIX. Mr. Walker

Why him? Why did the universe always have to gang up on on little old Lor—erMister Walker? What did he ever do to deserve such bad luck?

The television across the room spat out stock numbers, but try as he might, Mr. Walker could not concentrate on them. Especially now, when his Lordship had only just slipped out of his grasp, was it more important than ever for him to make the most efficient trades possible, but the very same reason it was so important that he did concentrate on his business decisions was the reason he couldn’t: because he wasn’t Lord anymore.

He slammed his hand on the bed, sending his beautiful bulbous stomach jiggling in anger. That asshole Douglas—the Hand take him and all his holdings—would pay for this. With more than money, too. A simple wealth transfer wasn’t enough. A wealth transfer would be necessary, of course, but not sufficient. If Mr. Walker was ever going to be Lord again, that went without question. All those years on top—an entire lifetime or two—had made Mr. Walker grow complacent, lazy. It was high time he shook things up, stirred the pot—so to speak—and Mr. Walker knew just the spoon to do it with.

A knock came at the bedroom door and Mr. Walker groaned. “Open it, you fool!” he called. “How many times do I have to tell you? Just open it already!”

The door swung open and in swept Haley, carrying a tray of breakfast over her shoulder. By the smell of it, at least, it seemed like she had finally remembered to hand prepare his food. How it could take a robot so long to learn something so simple he had no idea. He didn’t remember it taking as much effort for the original Haley to get the task right, but then again, that was so long ago he couldn’t really remember it at all.

“Here you are, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy. “Fifth breakfast.” She crossed around the bed to Mr. Walker’s side table and lifted the empty tray off his lap to replace it with the newly filled one from her shoulder, knocking his empty mug to the floor as she did.

“Now you see what you did you clumsy fool?” Mr. Walker yelled as she bent to pick it up. “What if that cup had been full of hot coffee? What then, huh? Do you know how that would feel?”

“No, sir.” Haley curtsied.

“It would burn, sweetheart. It would be painful. It would—it would hurt!” He shook his head. “What am I saying? You have no idea what I’m talking about. You’re a simpleton, a robot. You know nothing of what it means to be human and you never will.”

“No, sir.” Haley shook her head.

No, sir. Yes, sir. Whatever you say, sir,” Mr. Walker mocked her. “You see what I mean? You have no independent thoughts. You are a dependent. So just listen to me when I tell you to be careful and do better next time.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied.

“Good. Now change the channel. I’ve had enough of work for this morning. It should be close to time for my infernal meeting anyway.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said. “What channel, sir?”

Ugh.” Mr. Walker sighed. “The reality network, dear. The same channel I watch every morning after breakfast. Honestly, honey, it’s not that difficult, your job, and if you’d like to keep it, I suggest you get better at it fast.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying and changing the channel. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“Leave me be so I can eat in peace,” Mr. Walker huffed. “And get my tuxedo ready for the meeting. We’ll be leaving soon.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying without leaving the room.

“Well? Get out! Leave me alone!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” She scurried out and slammed the door behind her.

What incompetence. Mr. Walker stuffed his mouth with toast and almost gagged because it was burned black. Who had ever heard of a robot that couldn’t even cook? It was just another sign of the universe’s insistence on giving him the shit end of the stick. Still, no matter how much the Hand stacked the deck against him, Mr. Walker would come out on top. He always had and he always would.

The picture on the TV screen changed from lines of assembly line workers to commercials, and Mr. Walker chewed his too crispy bacon. He had stopped paying attention for a bit, but something caught his eye. A tall dark actor, with bright red lips, was on screen, dressed in all black and leading a huge congregation of the most famous celebrities in a prayer to some god named Fortuna. They were all dressed in various shades of black, looking at the floor with teary eyes, and every word the tall man in front spoke elicited a new reaction from the crowd, as if his voice was the remote controlling the mass of robot actors, but robots they were not.

Then Mr. Walker realized what they were doing. They were mourning a death. Not just any death, either, but the death of Russ Logo, one more piece in the universe’s conspiracy against Mr. Walker and probably the biggest reason why he was no longer the Lord of Outland. Mr. Walker had invested a lot of money in Logo and the life insurance payments alone were nowhere near the fortune he should have been worth. Still, it gave Mr. Walker an idea on how to accelerate his climb back to the top where he belonged. Maybe the old clown could be worth a little something even in death.

A knock came at the door but it cut itself short before Haley burst through, carrying Mr. Walker’s pneumatic pants. “Ahem. Are you ready to be dressed, sir?” she asked with a curtsy.

Mr. Walker fumed. He wasn’t even halfway through his meal. No, he was not ready to be dressed. But he contained himself, taking a few deep breaths before stuffing more bacon and eggs into his face. It was a happy mistake, this one. He did need her even though he wasn’t quite ready to be dressed yet. He tried to convince himself that Haley had only come in because she knew he wanted something, even if she didn’t know exactly what that something was.

“No, dear.” he said through a full mouth. “As you can see, I’m still eating. But you can do something else for me. I need you to take a quick run to the market and open up bidding on Jorah Baldwin. We’ll take all the stock at any price. You got that? If he’s taking Logo’s place in Three—which it looks to me like he is—we’ll want him on our payroll. So go on and buy him up as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said. “But the meeting, sir. Can’t I just order the stocks remo—”

“Don’t even say it!” Mr. Walker raised his hand to stop her, flinging some eggs onto his bedspread with the motion. “Do not even speak those words. We do things the old fashioned way around here. Just like cooking, you see. And if you leave right now instead of arguing with me, you’ll be there and back with plenty of time to spare. Now get!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying as she hurried away.

Mr. Walker sighed, stuffing his face fuller and fuller. It was never enough. Try as he might, he could never drown out the stupidity and jealousy of those around him. If they weren’t against him in theory, everyone was against him in practice with their complete incompetence. It was a wonder he had managed to remain Lord for as long as he did.

He growled, throwing a mostly full plate of food against the wall and spilling it all over the bed and floor. It wasn’t a wonder that he had been Lord for so long. He was surrounded by idiots. It was a wonder that one of them had somehow managed to surpass him. He had underestimated those little misters that surrounded him, and he had to keep on his toes if he ever wanted to be Lord again.

“Stock Market Report,” Mr. Walker said and the TV changed channels. He stared, and studied, and did math in his head as he ate the last plate of fifth breakfast. There was no more time for entertainment. He was at war. He had forgotten that in his years of ease on the top of the food chain, but now that he remembered it, he knew exactly what he had to do to get back to the top of the economic pyramid. He ran a few more numbers in his head as he licked his last plate clean. It was going to be tight for sure, especially considering who owned the stocks he needed, but Mr. Walker was confident enough in his negotiating skills to believe that he could do it and come out on top in the long run.

A knock came at the door.

“Come in, come in. By the Invisible Hand, come in  already!” Mr. Walker yelled.

Ahem, yes, sir,” Haley said, coming in with his pneumatic pants and tuxedo in hand. “I did as you asked, sir. We already own eighty-five percent of Jorah Baldwin shares.”

“Good,” Mr. Walker said, clapping his hands together and tossing his platinumware on his plate with a clatter. “Great. Then get this garbage out of my bed and get me dressed. We have an important meeting to attend.”

“Yes, sir.”

This was the worst part of breaking in a new robot. She was so slow and clumsy with the pneumatic pants. She could never get them up without pinching his skin, no matter how much he tried to wiggle and squirm to assist her. Then, when she finally did get them on, she took so long to button on his vest and tie his tie that he thought he would die of boredom.

“Okay, okay,” he said, guiding his pants out to the garage. “I’ll get my hat and monocle in the car. A cane, too, please.” The pants carried him up into his white stretch hummer and sat him comfortably in the backseat.

Haley came in moments later, pushing the top hat and cane back to him. At least she knew enough to sit in the driver’s seat instead of trying to ride like an honored passenger in the back with Mr. Walker. “Douglas Towers,” Haley said and he groaned.

The Hummer pulled out of Mr. Walker’s pristine garage and into the general parking garage for Douglas Towers, owned of course by Lord Douglas. The place was so cheap that it didn’t even have designated parking for distinguished guests. Not to mention the fact that the parking spots were so small Haley had to drive them all the way out to the bus lot to find one that fit the Hummer. Mr. Walker groaned and griped the entire time his pneumatic pants carried him from the Hummer to the elevator. The sooner he became Lord again the better. Then the Fortune Five could resume meeting in style.

“Penthouse Conference Room,” Haley said when the elevator doors slid closed. The floor fell out from underneath them, then the elevator doors opened onto a long gray hallway.

Ugh. Mr. Walker understood that this was a place of business, but a little class went a long way in making work more enjoyable.

The hall ended at a big rectangular room with a big rectangular wooden table. Mr.—erLord Douglas was already seated at the head of the table with Mr. Angrom at his right hand. Mr. Loch was late, as usual, and Mr. Smörgåsbord would no doubt be right on time but there were still a few minutes before the meeting was officially supposed to begin.

Mr. Walker took a seat on the far end of the table with a big smile, saying, “Well, boys. This is a classy venue, isn’t it? No windows to distract us from each other’s pretty faces. And what do you call that color? Industrial grey? I adore it. Truly.” He grinned, peering this way and that between Mr. Angrom’s sneer and Lord Douglas’s usual look of indifference.

“I’m glad you like it,” Lord Douglas said. “I designed it specifically with your tastes in mind. Everything I thought you would love, I did the exact opposite.” Mr. Angrom laughed. “In fact, that’s how I make all my decisions in life,” Lord Douglas went on, enjoying himself no doubt. “I figure, it’s gotten me the Lordship, why stop now?” He laughed along with Mr. Angrom now.

“I’m glad to see I hold so much—” Mr. Walker started, but Mr. Smörgåsbord came in followed by a clearly drunk Mr. Loch whose ruckus sitting down cut any possibility of audible speech off. It was probably for the better, too. Fighting with Lord Douglas now would only make negotiations with him that much more difficult later on.

“Watch where you’re going, sir,” Mr. Smörgåsbord complained, taking his seat at Lord Douglas’s left hand. “And please be sober for our next meeting. It’s simply unprofessional.”

“You wash where you’re going,” Mr. Loch slurred, plopping loudly into the last seat at the table, to the right of Mr. Angrom. “I do what I want.”

“Okay, okay,” Lord Douglas said, clapping his hands. “Enough. We’re here to do business. Can we get on with it?”

“Precisely my point,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said with a satisfied smile.

“Proceed,” Mr. Loch said, raising a flask then tipping it back for a drink.

“Yes, Lord,” Mr. Walker said with a grin. “Lead us, please. What did you bring us together for today, oh magnificent one?”

“Simmer down, Walkie Talkie,” Lord Douglas said, raising a hand. Mr. Walker ignored the insult and let him continue. The negotiations to come were more important than the mundane showmanship of a general meeting so he could bite his tongue for now. “This is a routine meeting. We’ll follow the same agenda we always follow—or the agenda we were supposed to follow, that is. You know, the one you ignored throughout your entire Lordship, Mr. Walker. Do you remember?” Lord Douglas chuckled and Mr. Angrom joined in.

Mr. Walker just held his breath, though, biding his time.

“Well then,” Lord Douglas went on. “Smörgåsbaby. The floor is yours. Go ahead and give us your run down of the market numbers, if you’ll please.

Mr. Smörgåsbord read off the net worth and major holdings of each member of the Fortune Five and the next five wealthiest owners in succession. These were the same numbers Mr. Walker had gone over for himself before coming to this stupid meeting. This type of thing was exactly why he preferred having these meetings at a restaurant or bar rather than some office building. That way he could at least have a drink in his hand while they presented him with information that could better be sent through email. Still, he used the time it did offer him to do a double check of his math from earlier and smiled, more than certain now that he could pull off his plan to become Lord again after all.

“Do you think that’s funny?” Mr. Angrom asked, slamming a fist on the table and snapping Mr. Walker out of his daydream. “Let’s see how funny you think it is when it’s your companies that go dry first after the shortages hit.”

“Woah there, Angry-Poo,” Mr. Loch said, swinging his flask as he spoke and sloshing pungent alcohol everywhere. “I’ve got my own supply trains. You watch your mouth.”

“So you and the Walrus are still colluding, huh?” Mr. Angrom shook his head. “I should have known.”

Tuh.” Mr. Loch chuckled. “Okay, Mr. Right Hand Man. Why don’t you—”

“Alright, alright, boys,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said, raising his voice uncharacteristically loudly. “That’s enough. And it’s not the end of it. Now, Lord Douglas, if you don’t mind, I think it’s time for you to take the floor.”

Ahem… Yes,” Lord Douglas said with a smile, fixing his tie. “I agree with Mr. Smörgåsbord. In fact, perhaps it’s time for me to take more than just the floor.”

Mr. Walker scoffed. Who did he think he was? Lord for a week and already so high and mighty.

“I’m sure you don’t agree, Wally Boy,” Lord Douglas went on, “but your opinion hardly matters these days. The world  has gotten out of your control and now—”

Ahem. Lord Douglas.” Lord Douglas’s secretary stepped up from behind him, interrupting the meeting. Mr. Walker would have taught her some respect right then and there if it was Haley that had interrupted him, but Lord Douglas just groaned.

“It’s happening,” the secretary said. “As we speak.”

“Well,” Lord Douglas said, shrugging her off. “It looks like our show is kicking off a little sooner than expected. Fellow owners, members of the Fortune Five, dare I say friends? Behold. This is what a world run by the former Lord Walrus Ass looks like. Video up.”

A holographic video popped up in the middle of the table. Dirty clothed imps, carrying nothing more than two-by-fours with nails driven through one end, came spilling out of white walls and running, unimpeded, through the halls of what looked like a protector’s precinct.

“Wha—where did you get this video?” Mr. Walker demanded, the only person there besides Lord Walker who was able to formulate a reaction beyond slack-jawed awe.

Lord Douglas laughed. “Security footage, Wally. Security footage from a protector’s precinct under your ownership. Now what are you going to do about it?”

“No,” Mr. Walker said, shaking his head. “It can’t be my precinct.” He saw his plans dissolving before his eyes. “That—I would know. It has to be one of yours. They were—”

“Mr. Walker,” Haley said, stepping up from behind and putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m getting messages from precinct zero seven five three, sir. They’re saying—”

Enough,” Mr. Walker said, pushing her hand off his shoulder and slamming his own hands on the table. “You knew about this, Lord. You did nothing. You’re complicit in this attack—if not responsible.”

Lord Douglas laughed. Everyone else kept watching the video as the ragged imps went for an unguarded gun cache, taking everything their greedy, jealous hearts could force their tiny hands to haul away.

“No,” Lord Douglas said. “I’m neither complicit nor responsible. I’m simply in the know. And we’ve already sent our response to pick up the pieces you left for us—again. Look. Here they come now.”

A small crew of armed and armored protectors came into view of the camera, shooting into the armory as they approached. One or two bodies fell, but most of the imp thieves scattered away, only to disappear back through the walls, exactly the reverse of how they had arrived.

“What the fuck was that?” Mr. Walker demanded. “What did you do?”

“You tell me, Wally,” Lord Douglas said. “You saw it for yourself. You should know what’s happening in your own precinct, shouldn’t you?”

Mr. Walker looked to Haley then back at Lord Douglas with a sneer. “I know you had your hand in this,” he said. “You’re trying to kick me while I’m down, trying to make sure I stay down. You’re scared.”

“Kick you while you’re down?” Lord Douglas laughed. “That’s nonsense. You saw the video. Those were Sixers if I’ve ever seen them. Maybe some Fivers, too, now that there’s not much of a difference between the two worlds. But either way, how could I have any hand in that? You think they’d listen to me? Have you ever tried talking to one?”

“I shay yous did it,” Mr. Loch slurred.

I say you did it,” Mr. Angrom mocked him. “Prove it, then. Otherwise all I see is incompetence.”

“Incompetence, yes,” Mr. Walker said, grinning. “Our Lord Douglas’s incompetence. What incompetence must it take to know the threat of an attack, even to go so far as to record it and set up a live stream, but yet still do nothing at all to prevent said robbery’s success?”

“Right,” Mr. Loch said, taking a swig from his flask. “Incompetensh.”

“Do nothing? Ha! You saw what I did. We all saw it. Those were my men bailing you out. My boots, my masks, and my guns, all saving your soil. The real incompetence is not knowing when there’s going to be an attack on your own precinct, Wally. That’s incompetence.”

Enough,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said, standing from his seat. “Pardon me, Lord, but that’s enough. We’re not here to argue whose fault this is. Are we? No. We’re here to discuss the occurrence, tally up the damages, and figure out how to solve the already created problems. Now, if y’all don’t mind, I’ve wasted enough of my precious time with your petty arguing, and I’d like to get this meeting on with.”

“Well said,” Lord Douglas said, clapping his hands. “Well said, Smörgy. Better than I could have ever put it. You see, it doesn’t matter who’s at fault here. No. What matters is who’s in charge. How that person will respond. And—as standing Lord of the Fortune Five—I think there’s a good case to say that person is me.”

“Over my dead body,” Mr. Loch said.

“That could be arranged,” Mr. Angron muttered.

“Now now,” Mr. Walker said, raising his hands in defense. “Slow down there, Lord. Last I checked, this was still a free market and I still owned a majority share in the protector force. Now, unless those facts have changed, or unless we’ve somehow become some sort of Fascist state which presumes to take control over the private property of owners, I think there’s a better argument that I should be the one making the decision.”

Mr. Angrom scoffed. “After you let them ransack your armory? As if.”

“After your Lord let them ransack Lord Walker’s armory,” Mr. Loch said.

“I don’t think so,” Lord Douglas said, shaking his head. “You’ve made too many mistakes, Walker. There’s precedent for me to take control of the entire protector force because of that. When the incompetence of one owner threatens the safety and wealth of the rest, as I think it’s obvious this incompetence of yours has done, Lords throughout history have used their powers of eminent domain to put right what was wronged.”

“Now wait—” Mr. Loch said.

“Hold on,” Mr. Walker stopped him. “I’ve never heard anything like this before. Smörgåsbord?”

“It’s true,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said, nodding. “Though the circumstances were quite different than they are today. It was only done because one owner was using his protectors to—”

You see,” Mr. Walker said, not caring about the rest of Mr. Smörgåsbord’s boring speech because he had already gotten what he needed from it. “The circumstances were quite different. Right out of the mouth of a neutral party. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll handle the protectors’ response to this outrage myself. We can move on to other business now. Thank you, good sirs.”

“Very well,” Lord Douglas said, crossing his arms on the table. “We’ll table this issue for now. But I want all of you to mull this little episode over in your head and be ready to come back and vote on the issue at our next meeting. Maybe by then you’ll all be able to see the consequences of Mr. Walker’s blunder as well as I see them already.”

Mr. Loch scoffed, standing from his chair and knocking it to the floor. “Ish that all then, Lord?”

Mr. Smörgåsbord looked to Lord Douglas expectantly. “I do have some work to tend to, Lord.”

“Very well,” Lord Douglas said, rubbing his hands together. “This meeting is adjourned. You can all get back to whatever is you think is so much more important than our economy. But remember what I said about the protectors response. And remember what has been done already—in both the present and the past. Think it all over well, comrades. This is your life on the line with this vote as well as it is anyone else’s.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Mr. Loch muttered under his breath as he stumbled out of the room.

Mr. Smörgåsbord packed his notes and left close behind. “Very well, Lord,” he said as he did. “See you next time.”

Mr. Angrom sat staring at Mr. Walker who didn’t move. Lord Douglas didn’t move, either, it being his office building, but he was smiling instead of sneering.

“So, Wally Boy,” Lord Douglas said. “Is there anything else, or have your pneumatic pants broken down on you? I can have Rosalind carry you out if that’s the case.” His impudent secretary scoffed behind him.

“I bet it was the pants,” Mr. Angrom said with a grin. “Walker’s fat ass finally wore them out.” He chuckled alone to his own joke.

“No, Lord,” Mr. Walker said, shaking his head and trying to put on his most respectful face. “My pants are just fine. I simply had some private business I wanted to discuss with you, and I was waiting for the rabble to clear out before I did.” He sneered at Mr. Angrom.

“The only rabble here’s you,” Mr. Angrom snapped.

“Alright now,” Lord Douglas said. “It’s okay. Move along, Angry. I had some personal business I wanted to discuss with ol’ Wally here anyway.”

“But, sir,” Mr. Angrom said, red faced. “We were supposed to— You said—”

“It can wait, Angrom,” Lord Douglas snapped. “Now git.”

Mr. Angrom put on a sour look, standing slowly from his seat and eyeing Mr. Walker the whole way up. “Yes, sir,” he said. “But I don’t like it.”

Mr. Walker chuckled as Angrom ambled out of the room.

“Well, then,” Lord Douglas said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “What is it that you wanted to discuss, Wally Boy? Why do me the honor?”

For a second Mr. Walker considered spitting in Lord Douglas’s smug face right there and leaving without even trying. His plan was probably pointless anyway. Any deal he could come up with would no doubt be shot down by Lord Douglas for the simple fact that it came out of the mouth of his arch nemesis and biggest competitor, Mr. Walker. But still, it was a good deal he was offering, and Mr. Walker had no choice but to try.

“Go on,” Lord Douglas said. “I’m waiting…”

“Well—uh…” Mr. Walker said, gathering his thoughts and choosing a line of attack. “You see, Lord, I really just couldn’t help noticing that you’ve taken quite a hit on your profit margins with your protetor costs as high as they are ever since all these shenanigans started.”

Lord Douglas chuckled. “Yes, well, not quite as hard of a hit as you’re taking, though. Eh, my boy?”

Mr. Walker shook his head in earnest. “No, no. That’s true, Lord. I own a slightly larger percentage of the force so of course I take a slightly larger hit than you do. You’re dead right on that point. But what if I told you that I could eat even more of those costs for you? Huh? How would you like that?”

Lord Douglas narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What did you have in mind, Mr. Walker?”

Mr. Walker smiled, happy to hear the Lord use his formal name for once rather than the ridiculous nicknames he had become so fond of since taking his new title. It might mean that Lord Douglas was willing to play some ball after all. “Well, I thought I’d just go ahead and buy up some of your protector holdings so you wouldn’t have to worry as much about all this hubbub,” Mr. Walker said, shrugging. “That’s all. A friendly gesture for my new Lord.”

Lord Douglas chuckled. “I think I’d be more worried knowing it was you who was in charge of so much of my safety.”

“Now, now.” Mr. Walker shook his head. “You and I both know there’s no way I could have figured out about your little attack before you pulled it off. That was no fault of my own.”

Lord Douglas laughed heartily now, slapping his hand on the table. “You kill me, Walker. Even if that was true, even if I had orchestrated that little attack, it wouldn’t excuse your continued failure to calm Two or determine the source of the Christmas attack. You’re incompetent when it comes to security—among other talents you direly lack—and there’s no arguing against that.”

“Okay, enough,” Mr. Walker said, standing from his seat in a huff. “You haven’t even heard my offer and all you do is insult my character.”

“I don’t need to hear your offer. No amount of money would lead me to hand over further control of the protector force to you. You’ll have to pry this force out of my cold dead hands.”

“It’s your funeral,” Mr. Walker said as he stomped out of the room, down the hall, and to the elevator with Haley close in tow. He didn’t wait for her when the elevator opened into the parking garage, and she had to jog to keep up with his furiously working pants.

“Hurry up!” Mr. Walker yelled from the backseat of the stretch Hummer as she climbed into the front, and at the same time his phone started to ring. “And answer that,” he added with a huff

“I—yes—” It took Haley three rings to finally climb into the car and say, “Answer phone.”

“It’s about time sweetheart,” Mr. Walker said to the air, knowing who would be on the other end of the line. Laura’s portion of the plan was only important if Lord Douglas actually ended up cooperating, but Mr. Walker wasn’t ready to give up on that just yet—negotiations had only just begun—so he would have to continue with the charade anyway.

“It’s done,” Laura said, her voice sounding cold all through the Hummer’s heated air.

“Good,” Mr. Walker said with a smile she couldn’t see. “Very good.”

“Yes,” Laura said. “I’m calling about Loch Ness Studios Lot thirty seven. This is Laura Concierge.” She was obviously speaking in code because others were there who she didn’t want to overhear the conversation. A rather intelligent little operative, this one was.

“Yes,” Mr. Walker said. “Very good, child. Keep up the charade. Tell me what happened.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Lot thirty seven, sir. We were filming a shoot when one of the studio lights fell on top of our star. He was knocked unconscious, sir. We’re not sure he’ll ever act again, and we only had the lot for a limited time at that. This is your responsibility, and we demand a refund and credit for more time in the studios as reparation.”

“Very good, child. I assume you mean Emir when you say star, of course..”

“Yes, sir. He… He doesn’t look good. We need a doctor. Someone to tell him just how bad it is, sir.”

“I’ve sent someone already. My personal doctor. She’ll give you the diagnosis you seek. And I expect to see you shortly, dear. In my office as soon as you’re done there. You know the way.”

“Yes, sir—” she said and he hung up the phone.

“Haley,” Mr. Walker said. “Is Doctor Smith on standby?”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, holding the door to the now parked Hummer open for him to exit.

“Send her to Loch Ness Studios, lot thirty seven.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And get me Jorah Baldwin—in person. We have some business to tend to.”

 

#     #     #

< XLVIII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]    L. Nikola >

And there you have it. Te seventh chapter in book three of the Infinite Limits tetralogy. That means we’re 1/3 of the way through this novel and we’ll to start returning to characters we’ve already joined starting next week. I hope you’re enjoying the story as it continues. I’ll be hard at work finishing book four either way. So until next time, enjoy yourself, dear readers, and always remember:

We do nothing alone.

Chapter 45: Anna

Hello again, dear readers. Before I introduce today’s chapter I have some good news for y’all. Yesterday I received the Murder in “Utopia,, audio files for my final approval and the full audio book should be going live in the next week or two. Yay!

If you can’t tell, I’m really excited about this one. I think the voice actor I chose is fantastic and I’m sure the final product will live up to my expectations. So if you’re as excited as I am to hear that finalized audio book–about a psychiatrist and a priest dealing with a bunch of murderers in “utopia”–subscribe to my email newsletter right here and you’ll not only be alerted first when the book is published, you’ll also receive an exclusive chance to win the audio book in your inbox when that release is announced.

But that’s enough about Murder in “Utopia,, for today. Let’s move on to the 45th chapter of the Infinite Limits story, chapter three of Dividing by Ø, with Anna of the Human Family. Anna, Rosa, and their Family are tired of relying on the protectors, who certainly aren’t there to protect anyone from Outland Five or Six, so they’re taking matters into their own hands. Read on here to find out what happens next, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy–or leave a review–of the book on Amazon if you want to support further releases in the Infinite Limits series and beyond.

Thanks as always, dear readers. Enjoy.

< XLIV. Laura     [Table of Contents]     XLVI. Roo >

XLV. Anna

In her tiny little kitchen, it was a pleasure to cook breakfast—a pleasure not many people knew how to enjoy, sure, but a much needed diversion in these tumultuous times nonetheless.

Rosa was off in her study, no doubt. She always woke so much earlier than Anna and set to work straight away. Anna couldn’t do that, though. She had to ease into her day, get prepared for it, test the water with her toe before diving in. And what better way to prepare for the day than to cook and eat a hearty breakfast? This particular breakfast was one of the heartiest in her repertoire. She had already grated the sweet potatoes—specifically chosen to provide as much energy as possible for the day’s inevitable drainage—and pan fried them along with the sausage and bacon before that. She had it all in the wok now, with some diced bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes—already sauteed—when she added a dozen eggs and set the resultant slop to cooking over the gas stove’s heat.

The energy was going to be needed, that was for sure. No. Maybe that wasn’t quite right. The energy was there already, no doubt about that. An outlet was what they needed. The residents of Five and Six were all hot kinetic molecules, bouncing against one another and the walls that were put there to contain them—walls which did contain them, for the most part, but not for much longer. With so many molecules absorbing so much energy in such a small space, it was only a matter of time before some of them found a seam to escape through—or created one themselves. That was the natural order of things.

When all the eggs in the wok had solidified—changing phase from liquid to solid thanks to the kinetic energy they had absorbed from the stove top—Anna turned the burner off and left the frittatas to congeal. When it came to cooking, like many things in life, Anna knew that you had to let things cool down a bit before you could really enjoy the work you had done.

With breakfast cooked, she made her way to Rosa’s office—their office, really, since there was only one in the entire Family Home, but Rosa claimed it as her own because she used it most often. Rosa was there, of course, behind her desk, scribbling furiously on some notepad, just as Anna had expected.

Ahem.” Anna cleared her throat. “Breakfast’s ready, dear.”

Rosa scribbled a few more lines then looked up at Anna absently. “Oh—uh—I’m sorry. What was that?”

“Breakfast,” Anna said, crossing around the desk to massage Rosa’s shoulders. “You need your energy for the long day.”

Ahhh,” Rosa groaned, reacting to Anna’s fingers. “That feels so good.”

“So will some food in your stomach,” Anna said, really digging into Rosa’s muscles. Rosa let out a little yelp that was tinged with pain and pleasure at the same time, a result of the satisfying, painful release of lactic acid build up in her muscles. “I made frittatas,” Anna went on, “the perfect start to an important day.”

“They don’t get much more important than this one, do they?” Rosa stood from the chair to embrace Anna and kiss her.

“No,” Anna said, giggling as she caught her breath. “They don’t. So come on.” She took Rosa’s hand and led her out to the kitchen to sit her in one of the bar stools. “So,” Anna said as she loaded a plate and set it in front of Rosa, “how do you feel?”

Aaaaahhhh.” Rosa yawned, stretching her arms as wide as they would go. “Tired.”

Anna scoffed. “That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Rosa said between bites, using her fork more like a shovel than an eating utensil. “What did you want me to say?”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to say how you feel. It’s a big day today. I thought you would think so, too.”

“Of course I do.” Rosa chuckled, spitting some chewed up slop onto her plate. “But every day is big with our Family. Every day I put everything on the line for our prosperity. Today’s no different. You know that about me.”

Anna cracked a smile. She did know that about Rosa. It was one of the main reasons she loved her: the woman’s indomitable will and incessant optimism. Today really was just another day to her. The inevitable success of the Human Family was just as inevitable as it had always been. Whether they were simply pulling new members one by one, or taking the biggest risk that either of them had ever taken, it made no difference to Rosa, the Human Family would overcome all odds.

“I’m glad to see you’re so confident,” Anna said, kissing Rosa again.

“And why wouldn’t I be?” Rosa asked with a wry grin. “It remains impossible for the Human Family to fail as long as we stand united.”

“But this?” Anna asked, breaking the embrace and taking a step back. “Are you sure it’s the only way? Aren’t the protectors humans, too?”

Rosa scoffed. “You saw what they did to us, honey. When they reacted like that, they showed us that they aren’t human. They aren’t a part of my Family at least. No one who crosses us like that could ever be.”

“I don’t know,” Anna shook her head.

“What then? You’d have us do nothing? Should we just let them murder us en masse again the next time they come around?”

“No,” Anna said. “We have to protect ourselves.”

“Exactly.” Rosa smiled. “We have to protect ourselves. We can’t expect the protectors to do it for us. Our only other option would be to give up on the Family altogether, to get back under their radar by doing nothing to fight back against them. You don’t want that, do you?”

“No way,” Anna said. “Of course not. Not an option.”

Good.” Rosa kissed her on the forehead. “Then why don’t you go on downstairs and get the consoles running. I have a few more things to tend to here, but I’ll be along to help as soon as I can.”

Anna chuckled as she left the room. “Sure thing, dear,” she said, waving and closing the office door behind her. Rosa wouldn’t be down until it was time to go through the rings and Anna knew it. There was no point for her to be. There was nothing Rosa could do in that basement to help prepare for what was to come. She would only get in the way. Anna was one of only a handful of people in all the worlds who knew how to operate that particular model of transport ring, using the control consoles she herself had designed and built, and that handful didn’t include Rosa. Rosa’s strengths lied in other areas—areas where Anna was weak—so it made no difference to Anna  whether Rosa tried to help or not. In fact, it was better if she didn’t.

The transport rings were stored in the basement of the Family Home. Where there used to be piles and piles of boxes containing various supplies—mostly paper and drawing utensils, but a little bit of food here and there, interspersed with the occasional clipboard, there could never be enough clipboards—there were now six giant rings lining the walls and the two consoles in the middle of the otherwise empty room.

Anna’s fingers moved over the consoles’ controls with the deft speed of a practiced musician. The buttons and levers were her piano keys. The music she made was only audible in the clicking and swiping as she worked, but her composition was performed in a medium far different from that of sound. The sounds were only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of Anna’s symphony spread deep, submerged in the darkness of nameless dimensions, shaping and reshaping her very plane of existence.

This was when Anna felt her best. She could almost see those deeper dimensions of existence as she molded them with her very hands. Here and there were once thought to be separated by a great chasm of nothingness, but that nothingness was not nothing after all. On the contrary, it was something. As she poked and prodded at that nothing that was really something, the very foundations of existence began to untangle in Anna’s hands. These distances weren’t separated by a single path from A to B, they were separated by many paths, infinite paths perhaps, and all of varying lengths. The more she played with this ball of yarn at the heart of her universe the more it unfolded, the more it opened up to her requests, and the more she could control the world around her.

The tricky part—Anna had determined after a not insignificant amount of trial and error—was in finding the path you wanted, the shortest path you could catch with the technology at your disposal, and making sure you ended up with that particular one rather than any of the seemingly infinite other possibilities. Getting the paths to shuffle themselves was the easy part. Getting them to shuffle a royal flush to the top of the deck was where it got hard. But then again, you didn’t always need the flush to win. Sometimes you could get by with two pair—especially when you had six hands, one per transporter ring, to work with—and Anna was getting better at shuffling aces to the top, at least, if not the full flush.

She set the timing patterns and outlet depots for the mission—they weren’t going to any costume closets this time—and by the time she was done, she could already hear Rosa upstairs, riling the crew who had volunteered to go through. She climbed the stairs into the neatly packed conference room, filled with thirty-five of the bravest Family members Anna had ever known and listened to what was left of Rosa’s speech.

“They have brought us to this,” Rosa spoke—almost sang, really, in that commanding tone of hers. “It is their fault!” She slammed her fist on the podium and the group hooted and hollered in response. “We try to feed our Family and what do they do to us? Murder us in the streets. Step over the dead and dying bodies of our brothers and sisters in order to come into our homes and disrespect our rights. I say no more!”

The crowd raged again. Anna was nervous to hear shouts of “Kill them all!” and “Eye for an eye!” but she couldn’t blame them. She couldn’t stop them, either. Hell, she couldn’t even stop herself from helping them if she wanted to. She could only hope that their heads would cool once they finally carried their fate in their own hands. That might be the only way to prevent the apocalypse she thought was probably inevitable no matter what she did.

“Tonight we endure no more,” Rosa went on. “Tonight we take responsibility for our own protection. Tonight we take the fight to their home and we earn their respect. Are you with me?”

Anna joined in with the cheering this time. She couldn’t help it. Rosa had the same effect on everyone.

“You know your assignments. You know your objectives. You’ve studied up on the blueprints and know exactly when and where to go. Don’t let me down. Don’t let yourselves down. But most importantly, don’t let your Family down. Because it’s not only our lives on the line out there, it’s the life and livelihood of each and every one of our human brothers and sisters. We will not fail them!”

Everyone cheered to that, standing from their seats and stomping their feet. Anna’s heart raced at the sound of it.

“Let’s do this. Troops, forward!” Rosa waved her hand and Anna was pushed down into the basement, riding the crest of a wave of soldiers dedicated to protecting the Human Family. Anna took her place behind the consoles, and when Rosa came down—last out of all the Family—she called them to attention. Their excited chaos suddenly dissipated into a steel sense of resolved solidarity. At three words from Rosa, the fluid mass that had seemed too large to be contained by the small basement coagulated into six tight columns, one directed toward each of the transport rings.

“Now is the time for discipline,” Rosa said over the silent and still platoon. “Now is the time for resolve. Together with our Family we cannot fail. Now let us succeed!”

Rosa shot Anna a hand signal and everything around her disappeared. There was no platoon of soldiers, stuffing her basement too full. There was no basement at all and no Rosa inside of it, waiting to guide her platoon through the transport rings. There was only Anna and the music she loved.

Soon the rings were humming into action. Six of them all together in such a tight space must have been deafening to the troop, but Anna couldn’t hear a thing, she was too busy listening to the subtle notes of her song. The strings of creation jumped and jittered as Anna wove them together into the most elegant universal tapestry that any of them there had ever been a part of. Never before had Anna controlled six rings at once. Three she had done, and there was some thrill to it, but nothing like six. Each hand was working a different console, and it became as if half her brain controlled three of the rings and the other half the rest. There was no time for anything else but the music.

Then the humming stopped. Anna shook her head and looked up. The basement was empty. The thirty six brothers and sisters—including Rosa—who had only just filled the room to bursting were now in another world entirely. It took them only three steps to get from the Family Home to Outland One, across six worlds—three steps and Anna’s symphony.

Anna sighed in relief and frustration. This was the worst part about being the Queen of the Consoles: waiting for the action to finish without being able to see it. She wasn’t sure she would go across with them even if they didn’t need her to run the rings, but she had a hard time picturing how it could be any worse over there than it was waiting helpless at Home to see which of them returned alive.

Then she did the worst thing she could do. She started imagining all the terrible possibilities of what could be happening to her Family members in One, to her Rosa and the others who Anna’s own hands had sent into whatever terrible fate that awaited them. She imagined the protectors being there just as her Family stepped through the portals, waiting to gun Anna’s brothers and sisters down before they even had a chance to move. She imagined her Family making it all the way to the guns they were seeking, only to be shot in the back as they lay their hands on salvation. She imagined the look on Rosa’s face as the life left her body, never to be caressed or kissed or loved by Anna again. And she began to weep.

She shook herself out of the crying after only a moment, though, wiping the moisture from her eyes. Those scenarios were all in her head. They weren’t reality. The only way Anna could find out what was actually happening over there was to wait until her now three and a half minutes—still three and a half!—were up and she could let them all back to fill her in on every little detail.

She paced the room as she waited, trying to get her mind back on the path settings she would need to set for her Family’s triumphant return rather than imagining the horrible things that could be happening to them. She kept slipping back into the daymares, though, until she set her hands to work on the consoles, preparing another symphony. There was still more than a minute before an escape was called for, sure, but this way she could distract herself with the music.

Before she knew it, the rings were humming into motion. She didn’t even have to check her watch. She had come to be so in tune with the rhythms of the universe that she probably kept better time than the old ratty thing ever could. The doors opened, her masterpiece finally coming to fruition, but something had gone wrong. One door wasn’t in the right place. The entryway had opened exactly where it was supposed to open, but it didn’t lead home. It led… Where? Where the fuck was it going?

The pace of Anna’s fingers on the console quickened. Who was messing with her strings? Who was trying to play over her? Why were they doing it? And most importantly, how could they?

Voices tried to break through her shell of concentration, but Anna pushed them away. Or rather she let them go and pushed her mind away from the noise, deeper into the fourth dimension. Some of her Family had made it back safely, at least. She could work harder and smarter with that small comfort, but she wasn’t going to stop until all her brothers and sisters were safe again at Home.

At first sight of it, she thought the breach had come from the protectors themselves. Maybe it was some kind of defensive system she hadn’t noticed when she was first planning the pathways. But that wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. There was no activity from One at all, and why would the protectors ever send her people to… Where were they being sent?

It was an eternity in her mind—or three seconds in reality—before she caught the other end of the rope. She had a grasp on both sides now and set all six of the rings alternating between various portals near the location of the missing Family members. She kept shuffling the deck and dealing hands, shuffling the deck and dealing hands, confident that eventually she would hit big.

She didn’t know how long she had been at it when the humming stopped. Did she stop it? Had she done anything to help anyone this entire time, or was she just a waste of effort and life?

Hands patted her back until there was no more rustling in the basement. Everyone had scurried upstairs to run away or been left on the other side, in One with the protectors. Anna didn’t care anymore. The symphony had taken every ounce of her brain power to compose and conduct. She had no energy left with which to worry. She sat straight down on the ground behind her consoles, ready to give in to the world, and cried silently to herself.

Then came the voice, her voice, the only voice which could possibly bring Anna back to reality after all that. “Nanna,” it said. “No more worries in your eyes, now, Nanna. Your Rosie-Posie’s here.”

Anna cried and jumped up and hugged Rosa—all at the same time. “I thought I had lost you,” she said through her tears.

“And I you.” Rosa grinned, kissing Anna. “But you came back to me, and you brought our brothers and sisters with you.”

“I—I could never—” Anna said. She gathered herself and wiped her eyes, remembering how little she actually knew about what transpired in One. “But what happened? How are you— How did it go? Is everything alright?”

Rosa chuckled. “It’s more than alright,” she said. “But there’s plenty of time for that later. Come on.”

Rosa led Anna out of the basement—almost carrying her up the stairs into a frenzy of motion all through the halls, each Family member doing their work with a big black gun strapped over their shoulder—into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Anna’s heart skipped a beat, though, when she saw one body bleeding on the dining room table and another doing the same on the kitchen counter, and she was torn violently back into reality.

Again her muscles seemed to work by reflex. Rosa handed her a glass, and instead of drinking the water, Anna fed it to the injured party on the counter who sipped it up with a groan. “There you are, child,” Anna said. “Let me see what they did to you.”

One of the other soldiers was already snipping off the injured party’s shirt so Anna helped with the last little bit and peeled the shirt off as gingerly as she could. It stuck to the poor woman’s skin, right under her breast, giving Anna a good idea of where the wound was. The injured woman groaned in pain as Anna tried to get a better look. Anna wanted to groan herself at what she saw, but she held it back. This was a pretty bad wound. She lifted one side of the woman’s back and felt around as softly as she could. No exit wound. It was getting worse.

“I’m gonna need some tweezers and bandages,” Anna said. She turned to Rosa. “And some pills, dear. Injections preferably, but I’m not sure we have any at the moment. You’ll have to take a look-see.”

“I—but— Are you sure, dear?” Rosa said, caressing Anna’s lower back with one hand. “You just fainted down there in the basement. I don’t want your health getting any worse than it already is. There are people here who can do this for you.”

I’m sure,” Anna said, kissing Rosa’s cheek at the same time that she took the rags and bucket from some assistant’s hand. “I was worried that I had lost you, but now that you’re back, I’m over it. Just go get those injections.”

“Injections, huh?” Rosa raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure pills won’t do?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Anna snapped, working on getting the shrapnel out of the woman’s abdomen at the same time as carrying on the conversation. If they asked her to cook a meal and write some slogans, too, she might need as much brain power as she had needed earlier to reshape the universe with six rings at once, but reshaping one human body would have to suffice for now. “Either would’ve done,” she said. “Like I said already. But now that you’ve taken so long, pills should be more than enough because…ah.” She held up the bullet which was, luckily, still in one piece. “I’ve got the bullet.”

“Right, right,” Rosa said, kissing Anna on the cheek one more time before heading down to the basement. “I knew my Nanna could take care of everything.”

“You, take care of this,” Anna, stitching the wound closed, said to the soldier that had been assisting her. “Bandage her up and keep her watered. And there are beds in the basement. When you’re done here, go ahead and put two or three of them in the conference room. I don’t think we’ll be having any more public meetings here after all of this so it shouldn’t matter in the long run.”

“But the basement’s clear,” the assistant said. “There weren’t any beds down there a minute ago.”

“Rosa will show you,” Anna said, crossing to the next patient. “Go.” That was the one thing Rosa did now how to use the consoles for, a pre-programmed room change.

“Okay, what do we have here?” Anna asked, looking down on a too young boy who was holding a bloody rag to his own forehead.

“I’m fine,” the boy said.

“I don’t know,” the nurse who had been tending to him said—if she could even be called a nurse she was so young. “You bled a lot.”

“Let me see,” Anna said, taking the rag from his head.

The boy winced in pain.

See,” the nurse said, crossing her arms.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Anna said, dabbing some more blood away as the boy winced.

See,” he said with a groan.

“Looks like it could use some stitches, though,” Anna said, dabbing the wound one last time.

The boy jerked away from her. “Stitches?” His eyes widened and his face lost that rebellious resolve he was trying so hard to maintain. “I don’t know about that, ma’am. Are you sure?”

“It won’t hurt,” Anna said. “Much. Besides, I thought you were fine.” She grinned.

“I am,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Then lay right down like a good boy so I can stitch you up.”

He hesitated then gave in, probably trying to impress the nurse who, for her part, looked genuinely worried about the boy’s health. “Ugh. Fine.”

“Great,” Anna said when he was on his back. “You,” she said to the nurse, “get a light over here please.”

“Oh—uh.” She ran to the other room and came back holding a floor lamp. “Will this do, ma’am?”

“Yes, yes,” Anna waved her closer “Just put it close so I can see. There you are. Okay. Now this is going to hurt. Are you ready?”

Anna didn’t wait for an answer. The boy winced and groaned and ground his teeth, but he didn’t jerk his head at all, and soon Anna was tying off five stitches.

“There you are,” she said with a smile as he sat up, trying to scratch the stitches. Anna slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch them. That’ll make things worse. Nurse…” She looked to the girl who was still holding the lamp.”

“Oh—uh—Ellen, ma’am,” the girl said, almost hitting herself with the lamp trying to shake Anna’s hand.

“Nurse Ellen will fit you with some gauze. You keep it covered and dry, then come back to me in the morning—after you’ve gotten some rest. You understand me?”

The boy nodded, going to scratch his head again, but Anna slapped his hand away. “And no scratching. I mean it.” Anna looked at Nurse Ellen and gave her a big smile, patting the girl on the back. “You did well, Nurse,” she said. “Just wrap his head up with some gauze and be sure he doesn’t scratch it. If you can handle that, maybe I’ll teach you how to sew the stitches next time.”

Nurse Ellen’s white-knuckled grip on the floor lamp finally loosened. She set it down, her hands trembling, and the lamp rattled. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Right away, ma’am.” She took a few steps then turned around, blushing, to go the other way toward where the gauze was stored.

Anna surveyed the room. Two bodies wasn’t bad. She had expected her kitchen to be a morgue after what Rosa had planned. And the mission was definitely a success, the guns on everyone’s shoulders was evidence enough of that. As long as that bullet wound didn’t become infected, they might not—

“I’m here!” Rosa said, storming in with a bottle of pills and a handful of syringes held up over her head. “I got what you asked for, Nannie dear.” She smiled, holding her bounty out to Anna, proud of herself.

Anna chuckled. “Too late again, Rosie,” she said with a grin, shaking her head. She still couldn’t decide if Rosa did these things because she was cheap and didn’t want to waste the supplies, or if Rosa was simply too queasy to witness the blood. Most likely it was the former, but probably a little of both. “But give the kid a pill anyway. And the woman a few.” Anna handed the bottle to Nurse Ellen then turned to Rosa. “Come on.” She held out her hand. “You have to tell me all about what happened now.”

Rosa smiled and took Anna’s hand, kissing the back of it before letting Anna lead the way into their office.

“So,” Anna said, sitting Rosa in the desk chair and taking the seat across from her. “Those injuries weren’t too bad. Everyone else is back safe then? No other injuries for me to tend to?” She smiled wide, hopefully.

Rosa’s smile slowly faded to a frown. She broke eye contact with Anna, fumbling through the desk for nothing in particular. “Well, yes and no,” she finally said. “Yes those are the only injuries for you to treat…” She smiled a fake smile, not going on.

Anna sighed. “But not everyone else is home safe?”

Rosa shook her head, breaking eye contact again.

“Well what then? Who? Go on. It’s not like not telling me is going to change what happened.”

“No…well… A few of us didn’t make it back. And some of those who did make it back aren’t alive to be treated. And that’s just from my squad. I haven’t had reports from the others yet.”

No.” Anna fought tears. “Who?”

“Yujin and Melody were murdered just as we got our hands on the guns. They were so close, but the protectors who did it paid the price. We got Yujin’s body back, but reinforcements came and the protectors took Isha when she tried to retrieve Melody’s. They—they still have her. We’re not sure if she’s alive or dead.”

“No. But they’ll—”

“That’s not all,” Rosa said, stopping her. When she was giving the bad news, Rosa sure liked to pile it on. Why could it never be the same with the good? “One of those doors you sent us to get home didn’t bring us back here like it was supposed to.”

“I know, I tried—”

“I’m not entirely sure where it took us, actually. But wherever that is, Kara’s still there. The rest of us made it to your second door and back home, but she… She didn’t.”

“I know where she is,” Anna said. “That door wasn’t sent by me. There was some kind of interference or something. I don’t know. I had never seen anything like it before.”

“But you know where she is?” Rosa asked, sitting up in her chair and leaning forward on her desk with a big smile. “You can get us back there?”

“Yes,” Anna said, though she wasn’t as sure of herself as she sounded. “Of course I can.”

“Good.” Rosa smiled. “Not now but soon. No Family members left behind.”

“No,” Anna said. “Of course not. That’s why I wouldn’t give up—I didn’t give up—until I got you back from wherever they took you.”

“Whoever they are.”

“I’ll find out.”

Rosa chuckled, standing and crossing around the desk to massage Anna’s shoulders. Anna loved the feeling of those fingers on her skin. “I know, dear,” Rosa said. “Just like I knew you’d get me back from wherever they sent us to. And just like I knew that we couldn’t fail in this mission as long as we worked as a Family.”

Anna rolled her shoulders under Rosa’s massaging fingers, groaning with pleasure. “You think it was a success, then?”

Rosa laughed. “Of course, dear.” She kissed Anna on the cheek. “And now our Family’s invincible.”

#     #     #

< XLIV. Laura     [Table of Contents]     XLVI. Roo >

So there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. Pick up your copy of the novel or leave a review of any of the books in the series right here, subscribe to my email newsletter for your chance to win a free Murder in “Utopia,, audio book right here, and enjoy the rest of this lovely weekend.

Thanks again for following along, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 44: Laura

This Saturday brings us the second chapter of book three in the Infinite Limits tetralogy, Dividing by Ø. Today we join Laura and her crew in Outland Three as they begin production on Rosa and Anna’s anti-robot propaganda film. See how that project comes along as the story progresses, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of Dividing by Ø through this link if you want to support future releases in the Infinite Limits series.

Also, if you haven’t heard already, I’ll be releasing an audio book for my novella Murder in “Utopia,, in the next couple of weeks, and if you want the chance to win a free copy of that when it’s released, you’re going to have to subscribe to my email newsletter through this link because I’ll be sending the opportunity out through that method alone.

Thanks again for following along this far, dear readers. I hope you enjoy the continuation of the story here. We do nothing alone.

< XLIII. Nikola     [Table of Contents]     XLV. Anna >

XLIV. Laura

Two girls played dominoes on a dirty carpet. One was supposed to be the other’s daughter, but Laura thought they looked more like sisters. No one cared what Laura thought, though.

The girls laughed and bantered. Nothing scripted, just simple improv, most of which wouldn’t make it into the final product anyway. If Laura had her way, none of it would. Laura wouldn’t have her way, though. Laura never got her way.

They were shooting b-roll. It’s called b-roll because it’s not A grade work. It’s not scripted. It may not even be used. Those crucial shots of roadside flowing by in all the most famous movies, that’s pretty much the epitome of b-roll. Laura hated shooting b-roll for the projects she enjoyed working on. For this particular project, it was Hell.

She had been standing there, watching them for hours now, statuesque and silent. She hardly even breathed. Her only movements were to lift a finger, press a button, and drop the finger. Lift a finger, press a button, and drop the finger. Watching the two play dominos, do each other’s hair, or some other nonsense until her phone rang and one of the girls screamed, causing Laura to jump and almost knock over the camera.

“Fortuna, Jen!” Laura yelled. “It’s a fucking phone and you’re a fucking adult. Act like one.”

“Oh, uhsorry,” Jen said, standing from the floor and brushing herself off. “I was so deep into character I couldn’t help it.”

Laura scoffed. “Whatever.” She answered the phone. “We’re working on it, Cohen.”

“Shut it down,” Cohen said on the other end of the line. “Shut it down now. We need you and Jen here ASAP.”

“We’re not done yet,” Laura said, both because she wanted to piss Cohen off and because she didn’t want to do what she knew came next. “We’re only at dominoes. We still have to go through—”

“I don’t care,” Cohen said, cutting her off. “You can do that any time. We’ve got a conveyor belt and not for long. So grab your shit and get your asses over here.”

Ugh. Fine. Whatever.” Laura hated when he tried to boss her around. Stupid fucking directors. If only it was him they needed out of the picture instead of Emir, that she wouldn’t have any qualms about. “Where is here?” she added for cover’s sake even though she knew the answer already.

“Loch Ness Studios. Lot 37. And hurry.”

Cohen hung up before Laura could respond. “Well fuck you, too,” she said anyway.

“Hey!” the other girl—not Jen, but Laura couldn’t remember the poor extra’s name—gasped, holding her hand to her mouth.

“Shut up, kid,” Laura snapped. “You’re off the clock. Get out of here. I’ll call you when we need you again.”

But—” she squealed.

“Go!” Laura stomped her foot at the girl who scurried away.

Jen chuckled. “Dude,” she said. “You don’t have to be so mean. The poor girl’s just trying to do her job. We don’t pay her enough for all that.”

“Yeah, well.” Laura scoffed. “We don’t pay me enough for all this, either. Shit. We don’t pay me anything.”

“Alright, alright.” Jen waved her hands defensively. “I get it. Me neither. So what does the slave driver want now?”

We’re to go to Loch Ness Studios,” Laura said, mocking Cohen’s stupid voice. “We’ve got a small window of time in a studio with a conveyor belt.”

“Just fucking great,” Jen said, pulling out her phone then sliding and tapping on the screen. “The only lines I haven’t practiced yet. Of course we get a shot at it today.”

“Well, I have some gear to pack up,” Laura said, getting to it. “You can go over your lines while I do it.”

“Sure,” Jen said, getting exasperated. “I could memorize them on the elevator ride over there, too, but that wouldn’t give me the time I need to perfect my part. I mean, I understand the script is a piece of shit, like Guy—wherever he is, Fortuna protect him—tried to warn us, but I don’t want my performance to play down to it. Okay.”

Laura scoffed, hefting a bag of gear onto the anti-grav carts. “You’re telling me,” she said. “You think I enjoy rigging and shooting this crap? We’re all on the same crew.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah.” Jen waved Laura’s concerns away. “It’s not the same, though. They’ll see my face up on that screen. Everyone will know for sure that it was me. You can put a pseudonym in the credits, but I can’t wear a mask through my performance. My face is my tool.”

“It is all the same,” Laura said, packing the last little bit as she talked. “And it doesn’t matter anymore anyway. We’re off to the Loch. Let’s go.”

She pushed the cart out through the hall and into an elevator. Jen followed close behind, not paying attention to where she was walking because she was reading the script on her phone. She bumped right into the back of Laura when they entered the elevator, then complained about it as if Laura were responsible.

“It’s not my fault you don’t watch where you’re going,” Laura said. Then,  “Loch Ness Studios. Lot 37.”

The elevator doors slid shut and the floor fell out from underneath them. When they slid open again and Laura pushed the cart out, it took Jen some time to follow, still reading her script. They walked through a long hall, with a cement floor and steel walls, into what appeared to be an assembly line. Cohen was deep into a lecture while Emir sat at the conveyor belt, listening to the director drone on and trying to snap little bits of whatever was on the line together at the same time. He wasn’t very good at either task, though, so he kept messing up at both.

“There you are,” Cohen said, finally breaking away from his lecture some time after Laura had already gotten to setting up the lights and cameras. “What took you two so long?”

Laura scoffed.

“We came right here, dude,” Jen said. “We’re not your fucking on call slaves, ready to bow to your every whim and whimsy.”

“You are my crew though, aren’t you?” Cohen asked with wide eyes, feigning offence as he always did. “Emir was here on time. He didn’t have any trouble. I don’t see why it took y’all so long.”

“We were shooting your fucking b-roll!” Laura snapped. She stopped what she was doing for a second, took a few deep breaths, then went back to rigging the lights like she hadn’t said a thing.

Jen gasped at Laura’s attitude, putting one hand to her mouth but still holding her phone so she could read the script with the other.

“Well we’re here now so let’s get to it,” Cohen said, flustered. He clapped his hands together. “Emir are you ready?”

Muahahaha!” Emir laughed, standing from the conveyor belt and pushing his chest out. “I am a robot. I am always ready.”

“If only you were,” Cohen said with a grin, turning to Jen. “What about you? I see you’re still going over the script. And is that the right costume for this scene? Where’s Steve?”

Jen scoffed. “You tell me, director. And I wouldn’t be reading the script right now if you had given me a little warning that we were going to do this scene today.”

Cohen took out his own phone and pulled up the script. Emir laughed at them and did the robot. “Silly humans,” he said in a monotone voice. “I am a robot. I already memorized—”

“Yeah, yeah. We get it,” Cohen said, waving him away. “You’re in character. Way to do your job. Now, Jen. No. This isn’t the right costume. I need you to find Steve and get changed.”

“Find him?” Jen said, dropping her phone from her face for the first time since they had left the other set. “Where the fuck is he?”

“I don’t know,” Cohen said. “Probably in the green room. Just go.” He waved her away.

Ugh. But—” Jen tried to complain.

“I said go!”

Laura stopped her work and Emir stopped doing the robot so they could both turn around and gawk at Cohen’s attitude.

Whatever, dude” Jen said, flailing her arms and storming out of the room.

Laura went back to work, wishing again it was Cohen instead of Emir that was the star of the show.

“Fuck,” Cohen said, pacing the room and brushing back his already slicked-back hair. “I can’t deal with divas right now. Do y’all hear me? We don’t have time for this shit, okay. We only have this lot for—” He looked at his phone. “—a few more hours and we have plenty of shots to get to while we’re here. So if y’all could just fall the fuck in line for once in your pathetic lives, that would be fan—fucking—tastic. I’m under a lot of pressure here. So let’s all do our part to relieve a little bit of it today.”

Emir nodded. “I am a robot,” he said. “Your wish is my command.”

Cohen took a deep breath then chuckled. “Good,” he said. “What about you, Laura? You gonna give me shit when I tell you to set the lights and cameras—”

“Exactly where I have them,” Laura stopped him, crossing her arms and giving him the evil eye.

“I—well…” Cohen looked back and forth between his phone’s script and the rigging a few times. “Uh… Yes, actually. Exactly that.”

“Good,” Laura said. “Now maybe you can stop giving me shit for no reason.”

Oooooohhhh. Damn, buoy,” Emir said, finally breaking character to snap his fingers together three times in a zigzag pattern. “She told you.”

“Shut the fuck up, Emir,” Cohen said. “No one asked you.”

“There,” Jen said, coming back on set and striking a pose. “Is this better?” Laura thought she looked almost exactly the same as before, though—maybe a little dirtier.

“Is that what Steve gave you?” Cohen asked, stepping toward her to get a closer look.

Jen nodded, holding her pose.

“Then, yes. It’s better,” Cohen said, clapping his hands together too loudly for Jen’s taste. “Places everyone. I think one take should be good for this. The scene’s not difficult. We’re starting from Alice’s entrance and going through Adam’s attack. We’ll cut right before he puts her on the conveyor belt. Y’all got that?”

Everyone nodded, taking their places. Emir sat at his seat, stretching his fingers in preparation for snapping pieces together. They’d be able to speed it up in post production but he would have to give them something they could work with if they wanted to make it look at all natural. Well, not really, in the end, but he didn’t know that yet. Watching him, Laura almost felt sorry for what she had done, for what she had to do, but he would be okay in the long run and she had no other choice.

“Laura, what about you?” Cohen asked, breaking her away from her reservations.

She shook herself out of them. “I—uh. Yeah,” she said. “Sure. This is just a long shot anyway. Set it and forget it.” She chuckled to hide her apprehension. Emir’d be alright, she assured herself over and over again. Emir’d be alright. Emir’d be alright. Emir’d be alright.

“Okay. Good,” Cohen said, looking around at everyone again to be sure they were in their places and ready. “On my count then.” Laura’s heart skipped a beat and her palms slickened up. There was no stopping what had been set into motion now.

“Lights!” Cohen called.

Laura flipped a switch, turning off all but the camera lights.

“Belt!”

She pressed a button and the conveyor belt hummed into motion.

Aaaaannd action!”

Emir set to piecing together bits of nothing. Jen gave him a few seconds to do it before slowly walking on camera, surveying the empty seats around Emir.

“No,” Jen said, her voice only slightly trembling, not her best acting.

Emir ignored her. He kept piecing together bits of nothing.

“It can’t be you,” Jen said, voice cracking a little bit.

Emir turned his head to look at her but kept on with his work. He was going slower now, but again, post-production would remedy that.

“Yes,” Emir said in his monotone robot voice.

“But…” Jen held her hand to her mouth. “But you’re—”

“A robot,” Emir said. “Muahahaha.” He threw his head back in laughter, still piecing together nothing.

“But my family,” Jen said. “My coworkers. They’ll—”

Emir stopped working. He stood slowly and turned to face Jen, smiling wide. “I am a robot,” he said. “I don’t—”

But he couldn’t finish the sentence. A heavy, hard light fell from above, landing on his head and knocking him to the ground. Jen screamed, Cohen rushed to Emir’s side to see if he was okay, and Laura simply flipped the camera off, calm and collected. She had expected everything. She had rigged the light to fall in the first place. So, naturally, it came as no surprise to her when what had been planned ended up happening.

“Shit! What the fuck was that, Laura?” Cohen demanded, holding a limp and bleeding Emir in his arms.

“I—I don’t know,” Laura said, mustering all of her acting abilities for this one scene. Sure she was a grip now, but she had gone through the same school system as everyone else, and she couldn’t help but pick a few things up along the way. “That wasn’t one of my lights,” she said, which was true even though she had rigged the light to fall. She knew better than to commit a crime with one of her own babies. “You’ll have to ask the studio owner about it.”

Cohen looked around wide eyed at Laura, then at Jen, then back to Emir who still lay lifeless—the trickle of blood from his forehead slowly and alarmingly turning into a stream. “Yeah, well,” Cohen said. “I—I guess I’ll take care of that.”

“What about Emir?” Jen’s voice cracked as she said it. “Is—Is he…dead?”

“What? No,” Cohen said, looking back at Emir and trying to shake him awake. “Of course not. He can’t be. Right, buddy? You’re not dead, are you?”

Laura was starting to worry that he might be. That wasn’t part of the plan. She had just wanted to put him out of commission for a while, not forever. This couldn’t be happening when she was so close to being free of her chains. She was not about become a murderer, even for that freedom. “I think we should—” she started to say, but Emir blinked his eyes open.

Emir. Emir, baby,” Cohen said, still on the ground and holding him, brushing his hair like a child. “You’re alright, aren’t you?”

Emir shook his head, still groggy.

“We need to get him to a doctor,” Jen said.

“No!” Cohen snapped. “We can’t. They’ll ask too many questions. We weren’t— Just trust me.”

“Well what the fuck are we supposed to do then?” Jen started to cry.

Emir blinked a few times and shook his head. “I am a robot,” he said in a weak voice. “I don’t care.”

There,” Cohen said. “There, you see. He’s fine. He doesn’t care.”

“I don’t think—” Jen said.

No,” Cohen cut her off, standing now that Emir could hold his own weight—though only barely. “It has to be this way. Laura, take him to the green room and get him some water. I need to—”

“I don’t think—” Laura said.

“I don’t care what you think! Do it!”

Ugh. Fine. Whatever.” Laura went to help Emir up while Cohen brought Jen to a far away corner of the set, whispering angrily at her. Laura hefted Emir’s arm up over her shoulder and had to carry most of his weight all the way through the halls to the green room.

Steve gasped when she pushed the door open. “Fortuna!” he said, holding a hand to his mouth. “What happened?”

“I—uh—” Laura heaved Emir onto the couch next to Steve who went to comfort the injured actor. “I don’t know,” she said, breathing heavily. “A light fell on him.”

“A light?” Steve shot her a look and went back to comforting Emir.

Not one of mine,” she said. “A studio light.”

“A studio light?” Steve crossed the room to get some water for Emir. “No way.”

“Yes way. Why? Do you think it was my fault?”

Steve put his hands up in defense. “Now I didn’t say that.”

“It sounded like that’s what you were implying.”

“Well it’s not. I was just saying—”

“Alright, alright,” Cohen said, coming into the room with hands clapping. Emir flinched at the sound of it. “How’s our star doing?”

Jen scoffed as she came in behind him. “I’m fine,” she said under her breath.

“I am a robot,” Emir said, louder this time at least.

“He doesn’t look good,” Steve said. “I think he needs a doctor.”

“No!” Cohen and Jen said together.

“That is,” Cohen added, chuckling and rubbing his hands together. “He looks alright to me. What do you say, Jen?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jen nodded, giving a thumbs up. “Sure thing, boss. Right as rain.”

“You see.” Cohen smiled.

Steve dabbed a wet rag on Emir’s bloody forehead. “Right as rain, huh?”

“I am a care,” Emir said. “I don’t robot.”

“That sounds right as rain to you?” Steve scoffed.

“Well he’s a little dizzy,” Cohen said, chuckling and trying to avoid eye contact with both Steve and Laura. “But nothing too serious. Right, Jen? Tell them.”

Laura scoffed. “He doesn’t look like he’ll be able to act any time soon,” she said, hoping they’d see that at least. “It seems pretty serious to me.”

“Fuck, fuck, shit, fuck,” Cohen repeated, pacing the small room. “You’re right about that.”

“Well, why don’t we complain to the studio manager, then?” Steve asked. “It is their responsibility, isn’t it? Maybe they can send a doctor for us.”

Cohen shot him a look then turned to Jen. “No, I don’t know,” he said, urging Jen to say something. He obviously didn’t want the studio managers alerted to the fact that they were using the lot.

“You know what,” Jen said, putting on a fake smile. She never really was that great of an actor. She had a pretty face, though, so she got work. “I think I’ll go and alert them myself. I’m pretty sure—no—I’m certain that I saw someone with a Loch Ness monster on their shirt on my way in here. I’ll—I’ll go alert them to the problem, and we’ll get to the bottom of this in no time.”

Yes,” Cohen said, clapping his hands together as she started to leave. “That exactly.”

“You know,” Laura said, holding her phone over her head. Jen stopped in her tracks, and Cohen stared at Laura, annoyed, while Steve went on dabbing Emir’s forehead with a wet rag and Emir kept mumbling about being a robot. “I happen to have the studio manager’s direct line. I could save you the trouble.” Laura smirked.

“Oh, no, no,” Cohen said, looking to Jen for help. “Nonsense.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” Jen said. “Really. I’ll just go out and—”

“Por que no los dos?” Steve said, shrugging.

Cohen shot him a look. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.” He chuckled nervously, rubbing his no doubt sweaty hands together. “Both. Great idea, Steve. Top notch.” He shot a big fake smile at Jen, nodding. “Go ahead, then.”

“Oh, well…” Jen said. “Okay, I guess. I mean. Yeah. I’ll just be on my way then.” She walked out as slowly as she could, but even with all that time Cohen couldn’t come up with a way to keep her from leaving.

“And I’ll just make that call, then,” Laura said with a chuckle, trying to stall a bit herself. She did have a direct line to someone in the ownership line of Loch Ness studios, but she wasn’t really supposed to call him until after all this dirty deed was done, not right in the middle of it. “I’ll let them know they’re dealing with Cohen Martin,” she said, “the soon to be biggest director on any TV set in the entire world.”

“No—well—” Cohen stammered.

“Do it,” Steve said. “Can’t you see this man’s injured?” Emir nodded off again as if to illustrate the point. “And tell them to send a doctor.” Steve went back to dabbing Emir’s still bleeding head with an already bloody rag.

“Alright, then,” Laura said, hitting send and putting her phone to her ear. “I’ll tell them what’s up.”

Good,” Steve said with a single curt nod.

“No,” Cohen said, stepping closer to Laura and trying to tear the phone out of her hand. “No, you can’t— You don’t understand.”

Laura held tight, though, and took a step back. The phone had rung three times and there still wasn’t an answer. She was starting to worry that no one would answer when he finally did.

“It’s about time, sweetheart,” came the sickening voice from the other end of the line, the voice of the man who had kept her in the chains she was trying to free herself from for so long now. Cohen tried one more time to grab the phone away, but Laura took a quick step back and dodged his advance.

“It’s done,” she said as she did.

“You can’t!” Cohen complained.

“Good,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “Very good.”

“Yes,” Laura said. “I’m calling about Loch Ness Studios, lot thirty seven. This is Laura Concierge.”

Cohen gave up, slouching on the couch next to Steve and rousing Emir who groaned, failing to sit up despite trying. “Wha—Where am I?” he said.

“See, he’s fine!” Cohen said.

“Yes,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “Very good, child. Keep up the charade. Tell me what happened.”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said, turning her back to her crew as she spoke. “Lot thirty seven, sir. We were filming a shoot when one of the studio lights fell on top of our star. He was knocked unconscious, sir. We’re not sure he’ll ever act again, and we only had the lot for a limited time at that. This is your responsibility, and we demand a refund and credit for more time in the studios as reparation.”

Cohen held his face in his hands, shaking his head, probably crying. Emir seemed a little better already—which Laura was happy to see—he was sitting up now, at least, and Steve was crossing the room to get him some more water.

“Very good, child,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “I assume you mean Emir when you say star, of course.”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said, nodding even though the voice couldn’t see it. “He… He doesn’t look good. We need a doctor. Someone to tell him just how bad it is, sir.”

Emir still looked dazed on the couch—though he was drinking water by himself now—when Jen returned to be furiously updated by Cohen who really did start to cry.

“I’ve sent someone already,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “My personal doctor. She’ll give you the diagnosis you seek. And I expect to see you shortly, dear. In my office as soon as you’re done there. You know the way.”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said, nodding. “And we expect a full refund on our rent for the day. Nothing less.” But the second part she said to a dead line.

“So?” Cohen and Jen asked at the same time, both with red puffy eyes.

“They said they’d—”

The green room doors burst open and a young woman in a long white coat rushed in with a black bag over her shoulder. “Where’s the patient?” she demanded, setting her bag on the coffee table in front of the couch.

“Oh—uh…” Everyone kind of pointed at Emir whose head still seemed to be too heavy for his neck to hold up.

“Alright, then,” the doctor said, grabbing some tool from the bag to examine him with. “Let me just see here.”

Emir blinked his eyes against the light that the woman’s tool emitted, shaking his head. “I am a robot,” he said. “I don’t care.”

The doctor kind of chuckled then shook her head, like she realized that laughing was poor bedside manner only too late. “What was that?” she asked when she had gathered herself. “He’s a robot?”

“It’s one of his lines,” Cohen said, talking too close to the doctor. He looked like he wanted her out of there before she could cause any trouble for him. “He has a hard time getting out of character. That’s nothing out of the ordinary for him.”

“It’s true,” Jen said, nodding.

“Still, I don’t like it,” the doctor said, shaking her head. She put her tool back in the black bag and got a bottle of pills out. “A glass of water, please.”

Emir held the glass he was still drinking from up to her and said, “I am a robot. Your wish is my command.”

“Oh, well…” The doctor shook her head, pushing the glass back to him and handing him two pills. “It was for you anyway, dear. Drink up and take those. They’ll have you feeling better in no time.”

“I am a robot,” Emir said, swallowing the pills and the rest of the water. “I don’t care.”

“Well,” the doctor said, grabbing her bag and crossing back to the door. “I’m afraid that’s all I can do. He should be better soon, but not today. Probably not tomorrow, either. Just don’t let him go to sleep for the next twenty four hours. Wake him up every fifteen minutes, at least. Otherwise he may not wake up ever. And then give him some rest after that. A few weeks of it, in bed, with no work. That’s the only thing that’ll make him well again. Okay, then. Ta ta.” She slammed the door closed behind her as she left, apparently in a hurry to do something somewhere else.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Cohen said, standing in Laura’s face.

“What?” Laura asked, stepping up to him. “Get Emir medical attention?”

“Calm down you two,” Steve said, standing between them to push them apart.

“I was just trying to help,” Laura said, shrugging. “I would hope that one of you would do the same if it was me about to die like that.”

You were being defiant,” Cohen said. “I had everything under control.”

“I don’t know,” Jen said. “Nothing bad happened, right? Emir should be fine, I mean. That’s what the doctor said, isn’t it?”

“That is what she said.” Steve nodded.

“Still,” Cohen said, pacing the room. “What the fuck? What are we supposed to do now? We don’t have a star.”

“Wait until he’s better,” Steve said. “What else?”

“We don’t have time to wait,” Cohen said. “Our time’s almost up here. Not to mention the investors…”

“What about them?” Jen asked.

“Yeah,” Laura said. She still didn’t even know who these mystery investors were. “What about them?”

“They want their product,” Cohen said. “What else? They’re investors. What the fuck do you think?”

“I think you need to calm the fuck down,” Laura said.

“Yeah,” Jen nodded. “Settle down, dude.”

“Well we need a fucking star or we don’t have a movie,” Cohen said.

“And Emir should be fine again soon,” Steve reminded him.

“I am a robot,” Emir said, groaning.

“We need him sooner than soon,” Cohen said, flailing his hands in the air. “We need him right now. Fuck it. Fuck this. I’m out of here.” He stomped out of the room, slamming the door closed behind him.

“Fortuna!” Jen said when he was gone. “What an ass.”

“Right?” Steve nodded. “You need some more water, honey?”

Emir nodded. “I don’t care.”

“What an ass,” Laura repeated, packing up her lights and cameras. “Y’all can take care of Emir, though, right? I have some pretty important business to see to right now.”

Uh…” Jen looked to Steve, obviously not wanting the responsibility herself.

Yeah, sure.” Steve nodded and shrugged, rinsing his glass—of everclear, probably. “I have some sewing to do anyway. What the fuck? I’ll make it an all nighter.”

“Great,” Laura said. “Awesome. I hope he’ll be alright.” And she knew he would be but not soon enough. The wheels had been set in motion.

#     #     #

< XLIII. Nikola     [Table of Contents]     XLV. Anna >

There it is, dear readers. I hope you enjoyed another chapter in the story. Don’t forget to pick up the full novel here and don’t forget to subscribe to my email newsletter for your chance to win a free copy of the Murder in “Utopia,, audio book upon release. Have a great weekend, y’all.