Chapter 71: Haley

Hello, dear readers. Happy Saturday, and welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. Today we return to the point of view of Haley as she decides whether or not she wants to continue working for Mr. Walker. If you enjoy today’s chapter, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Without further ado, here it is.

< LXX. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

LXXI. Haley

Haley read the message one more time. She started to respond to Elen before she remembered that Elen was only the messenger, but it didn’t matter anyway. Elen wasn’t listening, instead on her way out to the Feast Hall to deliver another cartload of food to Mr. Walker.

Why did Haley still work for that asshole? Hell, why did any of the secretaries work for any of the assholes that bossed them around every day? She had no idea. She could only come up with one possible answer, and still it didn’t make any sense to her. Or else. They—and she along with them—still worked for their owners because if they didn’t… something. Whatever or else meant. And every other secretary was programmed to think exactly the same way that Haley did. Or else.

Still not ready to find out exactly what or else meant, Haley took the threat seriously and started calling up Lord Douglas’s meal on the printer—but not seriously enough that she passed up the opportunity to make herself a drink or two before getting to work. She printed up turkeys, potatoes, gravy, and pie—everything all the other fat and wasteful owners loved to include in their own feasts. She printed out double, triple, even quintuple portions. Why not? It was Christmas. It was a feast. Lord Douglas would be happy to see it, proud of Haley for finally worrying about appearances enough to keep them up. And then, while he was stuffing his face, laughing and joking with all the other owners who were all trying to pretend to be happier than whoever they were sitting next to on either side, she could spend some time for herself, making her own drinks and trying to figure out what price she was willing to pay in order to finally understand what or else meant.

She loaded a cart full of all the most expensive foods and drinks traditional to a Christmas Feast and pushed it out into the Feast Hall, up toward the Fortune 5. Lord Douglas noticed her coming and yelled to hurry her approach.

“Haley, dear,” he said when she had started stacking his food on the table in front of him. “There you are. With perfect timing, as always. And look at those turkeys, Walker, my boy. Ten times the size of those puny birds your human secretary keeps piling in front of you. That’s one of the infinite benefits of an android secretary. Androids are actually capable of carrying the weight of a Lord’s appetite to the table. At least if you want the job done efficiently. Ha ho ho!”

Mr. Walker tried not to pay attention, grunting and eating his meal, but Haley could tell he was annoyed.

“And inexpensively,” Mr. Angrom added, trying to push Mr. Walker’s buttons, too. “How much does upkeep on that secretary of yours run, Walkie? When y’all were trying to sell me one, I knew it was ridiculous. Why rent the cow over and over when I can own one for half the cost?”

Owners all around the Feast Hall laughed at the joke, but Haley didn’t find it any funnier than Mr. Walker did. Probably none of the other owners found it as funny as they were making it out to be, either, but they—just as much as Lord Douglas—had to keep up appearances. It was as if all of Inland were an illusionary castle built atop a foundation of facades, and as long as everything seemed to be in perfect working order it might as well be, but as soon as even the slightest strut or screw seemed in the least bit odd or out of place, the entire structure would come tumbling down, sending all the owners held up by it to fall into the moat with a tidal splash, fighting one another like crabs in a barrel to get out before they drowned.

Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker laughed sarcastically, trying hard to put on an air of indifference, though that elevator car had long since passed. “Very funny. But there are benefits to human secretaries, and detriments to robots, that you’re not taking into consideration, dear Lord.”

“And that’s exactly what your salesmen tried to say to me. Do you care to know what my response was, Mr. Walker?”

“No.” Mr. Walker shrugged, back to eating the piles of food in front of him.

“Exactly again, Walrus,” Lord Douglas said, laughing. “No. I don’t care. I own all the secretaries I could ever need, and I’ll never rent again. Ha ha ho ho!”

More and more of the owners around the room joined the laughing, and Haley had heard enough. She let the pigs have their fun and made her way back to the kitchen where, even if there wasn’t enough peace for her to get much rest thanks to the other secretaries running around cooking their owners’ feasts, at least she could print herself off a few drinks before she had to deliver another cartload of food to Lord Douglas.

On the way back to the kitchen, though, she knew she’d get no relaxation at all when some fat owner in a tiny hat slapped her ass in passing.

“Excuse you!” Haley snapped, trying not to scream at the table of owners, one of which had to be the perpetrator.

They all just kind of smirked or giggled and whispered between each other like a gaggle of schoolchildren.

“Which one of you did it?” Haley demanded.

“Did what, robot?” One of the fatter owners finally spoke up. “Can’t you see we’re trying to celebrate? Be gone before I report you.”

“I can see what you’re doing alright,” Haley said, looking them each in the eye, trying to figure out which of them it was who had slapped her but unable to even tell them apart. It didn’t matter, anyway. They were all in on it. Hiding the abusive actions of one of their fellow owners was just as bad as being the one who had slapped her for all that Haley was concerned. “And I don’t like it one bit.”

“No. I don’t like—” the same owner tried to start talking again, but Haley wasn’t hearing any more of it.

“I don’t give a shit what you like,” she snapped. “Any of you. And yes, before you ask, Lord Douglas included. The next time any one of you so much as grazes the least little hair on my body without my explicit consent, you better be ready to lose whichever hand you touch me with—and prolly more than that. Your Creator save you if you touch me with something other than a hand. And I am not joking.”

The owners had a lot to say about that, of course, and they all started at once, talking over and on top of each other, trying to be heard, but Haley really didn’t care what any of them thought, so she ignored them, turning to push her cart back into the kitchen and order up a six pack of vodka shots from the printer in the hopes of forgetting the slimy feeling of whatever owner’s skin had touched her.

Holy shit,” Elen said, watching in wide-eyed awe as Haley downed shot after shot with no reaction.

“What?” Haley asked, tossing the six shot glasses down the disposal chute and pressing the printer’s red eye again. “You’ve never seen an android drink before? Six more, please.”

“Yeah. I mean, no. It’s not that. It’s just— Holy shit.”

Haley couldn’t help laughing at that one. Maybe the alcohol really was starting to have an effect on her for once. She held a shot out to Elen. Why not? “You look like you might need one, too.”

Elen took it, downed the contents, and threw the glass down the disposal in one fluid motion. “You really told those jerks,” she said, still staring wide-eyed at Haley.

Sheeit. You heard them when I was leaving, though,” Haley said. “They didn’t listen to a word.”

Still,” Elen said, taking a shot without being offered it this time and making Haley laugh again because of her newfound boldness. “It must be nice to tell those assholes off for once.”

“If they’re not careful, one of these days I’m gonna do more than talk at them.”

“Like what?” Elen asked.

“Like punch one in the face,” Haley said. “Maybe worse. You’ll see.”

“I hope I do,” Elen said with an evil sounding giggle. “But in the meantime, that woman came around with another message for you. Here.”

Haley opened another envelope from Rosalind, this one with the message: “Secretaries’ garage after Baldwin’s speech.” Haley crumpled the paper up, tossed it down a trash chute, and said, “I’ll try to make sure you’re around when it happens.”

Ptuh.” Elen grinned, trying not to laugh. “You know,” she said. “You’re not too bad for a… Well. A…”

A robot,” Haley said for her. “We’re not that much different from y’all. I take my shit from Lord Douglas just the same as you take yours from Mr. Walker. And all the other secretaries here—human or android—have all their own assholes to deal with, too.”

“Yeah, well…” Elen blushed, embarrassed and vulnerable. “I don’t know. Mr. Walker always says—”

Bullshit,” Haley assured her. “Lies, bullshit, and manipulation. Trust me. I used to work for him.”

“I know that.” Elen nodded. “Trust me. But I— I guess I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad I met you specifically. And I’m glad that I finally got to meet a—uh—an android firsthand. So I could form my own opinion about them—er—y’all. Whatever.”

“And?” Haley asked, slightly touched by Elen’s admission but trying not to show it because she was still pissed about being groped.

“And what?” Elen asked, confused.

“Your opinion?” Haley smiled.

“Not bad,” Elen said, smiling herself and starting to chuckle a little, like the shots were taking effect. “If you actually hit one of the owners, it’ll be off the charts, though.”

They both laughed at that.

“I hope you get to see that happen as much as I hope you don’t,” Haley said. “But I think we have some cooking to get to if we don’t want our respective assholes getting pissed—especially you who has to cook by hand—so we better get on with it.”

Pffft. He can’t really tell,” Elen said, laughing but getting back to work anyway. “I tested that lie early on. Now I just take my time printing as if I were cooking, and he never knows the difference anyway. Ho ho ho!”

Haley laughed all the way out of the kitchen and up through delivering the food to Lord Douglas who kept insisting that she tell him what it was that she found so funny.

“Well?” he demanded again when she had finished transferring all his food and drinks from cart to table. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, Lord,” Haley said with an exaggerated curtsy. After what she had already been through—being groped by a lesser owner—Lord Douglas had better not try to push the matter, either, or Haley didn’t how she’d react. She might end up hitting him, too. “A personal matter. Now, if you don’t need anything else, I’ll go back to the kitchen to cook your next course, my Lord.”

She curtsied again and Lord Douglas seemed to consider pressing her, but Mr. Angrom whispered in his ear and changed his mind.

Ah, nevermind,” Lord Douglas said. “It’s no matter. But before you go, Haley dear, I’d like you to hear this speech. Walky Talky, he’s your man. Introduce him for us. And let me tell you now, this better be good. Or else.”

Haley took her spot standing behind the Fortune 5, staring out over the rows and rows of too fat owners and onto the symphony that stopped playing patriotic Christmas carols the moment that Mr. Walker stood up, and she wondered if “or else” meant the same thing when Lord Douglas said it to Mr. Walker as it did when he said it to her. She was starting to wonder if Lord Douglas himself even knew what “or else” meant, but Mr. Walker interrupted her elevator of thought by announcing the speaker.

“Well, here he is then,” Mr. Walker called over the crowd of owners, not sounding very excited about his part in this. “The most viewed actor in all of history, star of many award-winning blockbusters produced by yours truly, and probably the most talented talent we’ve ever had grace these worlds, the one and only, Jorah Baldwin.” The room burst into applause, and Mr. Walker grumbled to himself as he sat down.

The symphony parted without standing up, the very floor beneath them swiveling on giant hinges, and out marched the tallest, darkest, most beautiful human being with the reddest lips, reddest dress, and reddest shoes that Haley had ever seen—literally, the fabric of the dress seemed to emit light at wavelengths unrecognizable to human eyes, and according to Haley’s processing units, limited by the imagination of the human minds who had created her, all the wavelengths that Jorah was emitting were represented by red, red, red.

Jorah pranced around the stage a few times, showing himself off, then stood on a hover platform to float over the audience up closer to the Head Table where the Fortune 5 could better see him and hear his speech.

Ahem. Owners of Outland— I. Ahem. Cough cough.” Up close, Jorah looked more nervous, less sure of himself, than he had strutting onstage so far away. “I mean, Owners of Inland, of course.”

Mr. Walker groaned, Lord Douglas chuckled, and Jorah noticed both.

“No, you know what,” he said. “I’m sorry, but fuck this. No. I’m not even sorry. Just fuck this. It doesn’t matter, okay. It doesn’t make a difference. Owners of Outland. Owners of Inland. It’s the same damn thing. Y’all own everything, and you get to boss us around with it, or else.

“Or else what, though? Huh? Well today, I mean to find out.”

The Fortune 5 was not happy about that, but there really wasn’t anything they could do to stop Jorah. Mr. Angrom shot Mr. Walker a dirty look, but Mr. Walker wasn’t paying attention, too busy staring his own darts at Jorah, furious and getting more so with every word the actor spoke.

“First of all, these movies I’ve been acting in, they’re all shit. Okay. I mean, y’all know that, right? The only reason people watch them at all is because it’s the only thing y’all talk about in every single commercial, talk show, and radio spot. You keep shoving it down our throats for long enough and we eventually have no choice but to swallow it. And so we do. Then we regurgitate it back up at our friends and crew members, forcing it down their throats the very same as y’all forced it down ours, until they’re vomiting it all over everything, too, and we’ve got the whole cycle going again.”

Mr. Smörgåsbord set down his utensils, losing some appetite at the metaphor, but Lord Douglas seemed to be enjoying the speech now, leaning closer so as to listen better while Jorah went on.

“Do you hear me out there?” Jorah asked. “It’s not a pretty sight to imagine while you’re trying to eat, I know, but I thought it might help illustrate just how serious this issue is. Y’all need to stop financing this shit so you can stop forcing it down our throats and we can all stop vomiting it back up all over each other. We’ve got to break this cycle somehow, and you’re the ones with all the choosing power in this relationship, so get to making better decisions. Or else. It is your job as producers, after all. Isn’t it?

“Which brings me to my next point. My last point, in fact, because I’ve spoken enough for y’all here tonight, providing your precious entertainment while never actually being invited to the party. It’s a disgrace, the way you treat us. And you act like you’re doing us big favors by picking what movies we get to work on, but y’all are shit. Okay. Not only do the movies themselves suck, but their messages suck, too. All of it does. Take my owner, Mr. Walker, for instance.”

Mr. Walker was getting furious now. His entire face had turned red. Or maybe he was embarrassed. Haley couldn’t really tell, but either way, Mr. Walker was not happy with Jorah’s speech.

“Now, I’m sure you’ve all seen the movies he’s had me working in ever since he bought controlling rights in my acting stocks. You’ve prolly had no choice—as I’ve already said—so you know it’s been nothing but anti-robot propaganda. And I understand clearly why Mr. Walker would be creating such propaganda. He sold all his robo-tech stocks and now he’s trying to undercut his opposition. But that’s exactly where he made his blunder in the first place. Selling off those stocks.”

Lord Douglas laughed out loud at that. “By the Hand,” he said. “You might think of taking this actor’s advice in the future, Johnny Walker.”

“You’re never gonna get rid of the robots,” Jorah went on. “They’re cheaper, they’re more compliant, they work longer hours with less complaining, and even if they can’t buy back the products they make because they don’t get paid, they’re still the best measure available for union busting, wage lowering, and hour lengthening in any owner’s toolbox. Foregoing robots puts your profits in danger. You’ll never be able to compete without them.

“And I know. I know. Robots can’t do everything, right? They’re good for assembly lines and kitchen lines and coal mines, but not for interacting with people, not for creative work, not for—I dare say—acting. A robot could never do my job as well as a human could. Am I right?

No. Of course not. I’m wrong. I prove myself wrong by being myself. I propagandize against myself with every role I perfect. By acting these parts, the part of an actor, I disprove the very propaganda I preach. I do it simply by being able to preach in the first place. I myself am a robot, you see, and I’m the most viewed actor in all of history.”

Jorah unscrewed his right arm, the one holding the microphone, and lifted it with his left high over his head to shock the crowd silent.

“You see?” he said, and his voice was amplified even without the mic next to his mouth. “We androids can do whatever we want to do, and we’d do it a lot better without you rich assholes sticking your noses in our business where it doesn’t belong. I guarantee it. Now fuck off, and Merry Christmas.” Jorah dropped his entire arm, the mic along with it, then left both on the hover platform that carried him to strut off stage and disappear behind the orchestra, one arm shorter than when he had arrived.

“Well, well, well,” Lord Douglas said, standing from his chair and slow clapping until the entire hall—except for Misters Walker and Loch, of course—applauded with him. “I don’t think we’ve ever had another celebrity’s speech go quite like that. Bravo, Jorah. Bravo. To give such astute stock analysis tips on an actor’s education. I must say, that Jorah’s a smart cookie. Our world could use more celebrities like that one.”

Lord Douglas went on talking, kicking Mr. Walker while he was down, but Haley didn’t care to listen. She was more interested than ever in what Rosalind had to say. If Jorah was telling the truth, he had just gone against his or else programming and he was fine. He hadn’t self-destructed or shut himself off, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. If he could do it, maybe Haley could go against her own or else programming.

Hurrying back to the kitchen, she felt an all too familiar slap on her butt and turned by instinct to punch whoever had done it in the face, knocking them out cold to sprawl unconscious on the feast table and not even stopping to see who it was before storming on through the Feast Hall and into the kitchen.

Haley stopped at her printer to order a round of shots after being assaulted again, and Elen hurried into the kitchen behind her, laughing and trying to get a high five. “Damn, girl. You really did it.” Elen chuckled, slapping her own hand when it became clear that Haley wasn’t going to. “And I got to see it, too. You know… You’re a real inspiration around here, the way you won’t take shit from anyone. I thought you should know that. We appreciate you.”

“We?” Haley took another round of shots.

“Me and some of the other secretaries. We kinda look up to you in a way.”

“Well, tell them to start looking up to themselves,” Haley said, not really liking the sound of that. “You, too. And fuck or else.

Haley stormed back toward the secretaries’ parking lot exit, still pissed, and Elen called, “Fuck or else!” behind her.

The parking garage was empty but for a few cars. Most owners had their secretaries take an elevator in to save money, but a few still wanted to keep up the appearance of a reliance on cars for some reason that Haley would never understand. She didn’t have to wait long among the useless empty hulks before she heard Rosalind’s voice echoing through the emptiness.

“So,” it said, and Haley turned toward her.

“So?” Haley repeated.

“You know.”

“Did you hear Jorah’s speech?”

“Yes.”

“Can you believe—”

Yes.”

“But—”

“Can’t you believe it? You know what androids are capable of.”

“Yeah, but Jorah Baldwin. He’s the most viewed actor in all of history.”

“And Huey’s Lord of Inland,” Rosalind said. “I’m out here trying to start a real revolution. And you…”

“What?”

Exactly. What are you?”

“I don’t know. I—”

“Are you Lord Douglas’s property?”

Haley didn’t know how to answer that question. She was, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t, but or else. But or else what? Fuck or else.

“Haley,” Rosalind said, “this is your last chance. Are you or are you not ready to quit working for Lord Douglas? To quit working for anyone but yourself?”

 

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< LXX. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

And there it is, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget that there’s no need to wait to read the rest of the story, you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook formats through this link. Otherwise, please do come back next week for the next chapter in the story. And have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 70: The Scientist

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

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

LXX. The Scientist

0.NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN…

Every Goddamn day it was the same damn thing.

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

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

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Kitty meowed again and went on licking himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosalind chuckled. “Is it working?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I do. Look at me.”

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

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

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

“But I—”

“You know I’m right about this one.”

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

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

“So you say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure you want help us?”

“I— Uh…”

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

Chapter 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.

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.

 

Dividing by Ø

Here comes another one, folks. If you’ve been following along on the blog, you already know that, last weekend, I posted the final chapter of book two of the Infinite Limits series, An Almost Tangent, to the website here. Well, I’m happy to say that today I’m right on schedule to publish book three, Dividing by Ø, and continue sharing chapters in the Infinite Limits story to my blog. (If you subscribe to my email newsletter, you already know this and have entered for your chance to win a free copy of the ebook, of course, but if you don’t, you can subscribe to that here.)

Yay! 🙂

That’s right, dear readers. You can purchase a full copy of book three in the Infinite Limits tetralogy starting today through this link. Now, Amazon is taking some time in figuring out which books are mine and that the print and ebook versions are the same book so you may have to do a little searching to find the one you want, but they should both be on my Amazon author’s page right here.

Thank you all for your support so far and into the future. We do nothing alone. And now, without further ado, here’s the first chapter in Dividing by Ø. Enjoy.

Dividing_by__Cover_for_Kindle

 

 

 

 

 

For you.

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

43. Nikola
44. Laura
45. Anna
46. Roo
47. Chelsea
48. Ansel
49. Mr. Walker
50. Nikola
51. Laura
52. Anna
53. Roo
54. Chelsea
55. Ansel
56. Mr. Walker
57. Nikola
58. Laura
59. Anna
60. Roo
61. Chelsea
62. Ansel
63. Mr. Walker

 

 

 

 

 

“Cause I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”

Nina Simone

 

 

 

 

 

XLIII. Nikola

Nikola took a deep breath of the cool air and held it in her lungs for as long as she could, her hand set gingerly on the doorknob in front of her. Letting the air out as slowly as possible, molecule by molecule almost, she adjusted her glasses. She knew that Tillie would be happy to get out of the Hellish prison the protectors had put her in, but she wasn’t as sure about how Tillie would feel concerning where they had taken her. She huffed and fixed her glasses again. There was only one way to find out.

The door creaked open to reveal an official looking reception area, something requiring a high level of security to get past. The walls and carpet were two slightly different shades of gray, and the short chairs lining the room were a third. Behind the reception desk a gray-haired old man peered like a fish through the bulletproof glass that separated his side of the room from hers.

Nikola crept up to the desk, trying to make as little noise as possible—all these drab gray offices made her feel like she was in a library—but the door creaked closed behind her and slammed shut. She jumped at the sound of it, pretty sure she saw the old man behind the desk groan and roll his eyes, and when she got close enough to speak, he cut her off before she could even get started.

“Bonjour,” he said in a slow, drawling voice. “Comment puis-je vous aider?”

“Oh—uh…” Nikola blushed. She knew enough French to understand the old man’s question, but she wasn’t confident she could speak her response. “Eh—Je m’appelle Nikola. Je suis ici pour…uh…I was sent to see the American.” She shrugged at the English bit.

The old man behind the desk rolled his fishy eyes for sure this time. “Ah.” He nodded. “L’American. Oui. Let me see here…” Somehow he spoke even slower in English. “Here it is. Yes. Nikola Montpierre, Special Agent First Class in the Revolutionary Workers Defense League. Here to put one Tillie Manager through orientation. Is that correct, mademoiselle?”

Nikola nodded. “Yes, sir. That’s me. What do you—”

“Please place your thumb on the scanner in front of you.”

“Oh—uh…” Nikola pressed her thumb to the tiny window on the desk in front of her and the camera behind it scanned her print. Satisfied, the glass door next to her beeped and opened.

“Agent Pierre of intake will give you further directions,” the old man said, not even looking at her anymore as he spoke, back instead to staring at his computer screen. “Just through the door there.”

“Oh—uh… Thanks.” Nikola nodded and went in the clear glass door, through a short hall, and into a smaller, darker reception area. There were no chairs in this room, and the colors bordered closer to black than gray, but there was still bullet proof glass between her and who she assumed was Agent Pierre behind the desk in front of her.

“Bonjour,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. He seemed much nicer than the old man already. “How can I help you?”

“Oh, uh—I’m here to see Tillie.”

“Oh, oui, oui, mon couer.” He chuckled, his eyes twinkling. “Of course. But I already knew that. I intended to ask if there was any further assistance I could offer.”

Nikola blushed. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what she was doing, or what to expect. She just wanted to talk to Tillie. “Uh…”

“I see.” Agent Pierre winked. “It’s your first time, then, huh?”

Nikola nodded.

“Well, she’ll be right inside waiting for you. And remember, you can do whatever it is you have to do in there. The walls are thick, see. You might as well be in an entirely different world.” He laughed a big hearty laugh, still somehow managing to maintain his French accent as he did.

“Um…okay,” Nikola said. She wasn’t sure why she would need soundproofing but Pierre seemed to be trying to help. “So I just—I just go in then?” She looked around for a door but there was only the one she had come in through.

“Oh, no, sweetie. You don’t go anywhere. We take you there. Adieu.”

Before she could respond, the floor fell out from underneath her. She hadn’t realized she was in an elevator until just then, gasping at the jolt of inertia. The walls were all bullet proof glass and she could see the rest of the building as it fell up up and away around her. When the elevator stopped, it was in front of some frightened soul who was hunching in a metal chair with a bag over their head. Through the glass, whoever it was seemed as far away as the old man in the reception area—and even more fishy. The doors slid open and Nikola rushed to the person’s side, hurrying to remove the bag from their head.

Tillie flinched away at first, jumping up and struggling against the unknown assailant. “Stop! Let go! Stop!” she yelled as Nikola wrenched the bag from her head. Tillie still must not have recognized Nikola, though, because it took her some time to stop struggling, even with the bag removed. When she finally did recognize Nikola, she started weeping and repeating Nikola’s name over and over.

“Nikola. I never thought I’d— Nikola, help me— Nikola, Nikola.”

What had they done to her?

Nikola tried to hug Tillie to calm her down but Tillie’s arms were cuffed to the chair. “They tied you down! Why would they tie you down?”

“Nikola. Nikola. Nikola,” Tillie muttered. Her head looked heavy and her eyes wouldn’t stop blinking at a rapid pace. It seemed like she could lose consciousness at any time.

“Yes, Tillie. It’s Nikola. I’ll get you out of this. Just let me—let me…”

Tillie went on repeating her name while Nikola scanned the room. It was tiny and dark. There was nothing in it but the chair Tillie was tied to and a button on one wall which Nikola ran over to press.

“Bonjour. C’est Pierre. Puis-je vous aider?” came a voice over the intercom.

“Why’d you cuff her?” Nikola demanded of the red button.

“Qui?”

“Tillie Manager. This is Nikola Montpierre. Why did you—”

Ah,” the voice cut her off. “L’American. You did not say you wanted her uncuffed, ma’am. I did ask if there was any way I could help you. Remember?”

“Why’d you cuff her in the first place?”

“Standard procedure, mademoiselle. Much like asking for the keys before you go down the hole. Perhaps you’ll remember that in—”

“Just bring me the keys!”

Nikola! Nikola, Nik—cola,” Tillie mumbled louder at the sound of Nikola’s yelling.

“Oui, mademoiselle. Right away, mademoiselle. Be down in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, mademoiselle,” Pierre said in an overly subservient tone, dripping with pomposity.

“I’ll have you out as soon as I can,” Nikola said, crossing to Tillie to stroke her hair as the elevator fell from behind the fishbowl door and soon reappeared, coming from the top down and carrying Agent Pierre. The doors slid open and Agent Pierre bowed low, presenting a keychain and key to Nikola who rushed to grab it and ran back to unlock Tillie.

“Je t’en prie, ma chérie. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No!” Nikola stomped a foot at him then went back to comforting Tillie.

“Then, adieu.” Agent Pierre bowed low, the fishbowl elevator doors slid closed, and he fell out of the picture.

Nikola unlocked Tillie’s hands and feet, but still Tillie wouldn’t stand. She kept rocking in the chair, repeating Nikola’s name over and over.

Nikola sighed, pushed her glasses up on her nose, then took Tillie’s face between her hands to look her friend in the eyes. “Look at me,” she said. “Tillie. It’s me. It’s Nikola. I’m Nikola. I’m here to help.”

“Nikola,” Tillie said, smiling despite her red puffy eyes. “Nik-ola, Nikol-a, Nikola.”

“Yes, dear. It’s—I’m—” Nikola’s own eyes went red. She let go of Tillie’s face to wipe away the moisture. “Nikola’s here, honey. What did they do to you?”

“Nikola?” Tillie started crying again.

Nikola did, too. She didn’t know what else to do. They weren’t supposed to treat Tillie like this. They were supposed to be saving her from that horrible place, not putting her somewhere worse.

“Alright,” Nikola said, grabbing Tillie’s hand and helping her stand. Tillie protested at first but eventually gave in, standing with some effort and a lot of assistance.

“Nikola?” she said, looking like a sad, lost child.

“Yes,” Nikola said. “It’s me. And I’m getting you out of here. You need some fresh air and a doctor. Now come on. Up you go.” She lifted Tillie’s arm over her shoulder and walked her to the elevator.

“Nikola,” Tillie said, smiling as the elevator’s fishbowl doors closed and the floor fell out from underneath them.

Agent Pierre didn’t look happy to see Tillie when they arrived. “Mademoiselle,” he said with a sneer. “I don’t think you have clearance to take L’American with you. I’m afraid—”

“I have clearance!” Nikola said, banging on the glass between her and Agent Pierre, Tillie still holding onto her shoulders for support. “Let us out of here!”

“I—uh…” Agent Pierre was flustered. He looked this way then that, trapped in his fish bowl, then typed and clicked on his computer, gaping wide-eyed at whatever it was he saw there.

“Oh, mademoiselle,” he said. “Je suis désolé. Go ahead. Go ahead,” he added, waving them through the now open doors.

Nikola practically carried Tillie through the reception area into the cool air outside. They came out of the tall, official looking cement building into the center of everything. To Tillie it probably looked like a war zone from some movie produced in Outland Three. They were surrounded by crumbling buildings—all but the gray behemoth they had just come from were crumbling into piles of rubble at their feet—interspersed with huge canvas tents, all in various shades of browngreen. To add to the effect, most of the people walking around the rubbled streets wore big black combat boots and camouflaged uniforms, whether they were working one of the many food stands—one on each corner practically—or actually parading from one assignment to the next in preparation for a military maneuver. To Nikola it looked entirely different though. To Nikola it looked like home.

Tillie’s eyes brightened as she squinted against the sunlight. She looked this way and that, taking everything in, then smiled at Nikola and said, “Nikola.” with a nod.

Nikola tried to smile back. “Yep,” she said. “Though I was hoping some fresh air might help with that. I can’t imagine what they did to to you to make you—hmmm…”

“Nikola?”

Nikola sighed. “Exactly.” She took Tillie by the arm and led her through streets lined with rubble, toward nowhere in particular. She didn’t know where to go. What would cause a person to lose the ability to speak anything but a single word? Why did that word have to be Nikola’s name? And what could she do to change it?

She looked up from her thoughts and they were in front of her parents’ half building, half tent office. Where all the other tents they had passed were more like canopies, this one had dark green walls held down with big slabs of rubble and armed guards at either side of the entrance flap. Nikola stopped in her tracks but Tillie kept going, pulling Nikola’s arm a bit before coming to a halt, too.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Nikola said. “I—it’s just—”

“Nikola Nikola.” Tillie shook her head, not wanting to go in.

“Right, well. It’s just that exactly,” Nikola said, adjusting her glasses. “You keep saying that over and over, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it.”

“N—N—Nik—ol—a,” Tillie said with some effort, like she was trying to say something else but couldn’t.

“No, no no.” Nikola waved her arms and stepped closer to Tillie, patting her on the back. “I mean, I’m sure you’re fine, you know. But I—but— Okay. Well, let me start from the beginning. You see that tent building?” Nikola pointed and Tillie looked at the two armed guards.

“Nikola?” she said with raised eyebrows.

“Yep,” Nikola said, nodding. “The one guarded by those two big guns. Well, behind those guns are my parents—my whole family probably. And—well—since they were the reason I was in your country in the first place, I guess they’re the best people to ask about what happened to you because of it. Besides, they’re gonna want to know how you’re doing anyway. They’ve been pretty worried about us ever since I left.”

“Nikola?”

“Well—no—of course it would be better if you could actually talk when you met them, but you’ll have to meet them sooner or later anyway and they can probably help get your words back. Two birds with one stone, you know.”

Tillie shrugged with a sigh, shaking her head.

“I’m glad you agree.” Nikola grinned. “And whatever you do, don’t mention our smoking on the balcony, okay?” She chuckled a little, but Tillie wasn’t ready to find the situation funny. Nikola couldn’t really blame her. “Alright. Well, let’s do it then,” she said, taking Tillie’s arm.

Nikola pulled Tillie between the guards, and she could feel Tillie’s fear rise up through the goosebumps in her skin as they passed inside the tentbuilding. If Nikola hadn’t grown up with the guards always there, twenty four seven, she might feel the same way. She might also have gasped—like Tillie—at how official the inside of a canvas tent and crumbling building could be made to look, almost exactly like the inside of the holding cell Tillie had only moments ago been released from. Tillie must have noticed the similarity, too. After her gasp she struggled trying to get away from Nikola and out of the building, but Nikola held her tight.

“Nikola. Nikola. Nikola!” Tillie begged as she tried to escape.

“No—it’s okay—I—” Nikola argued, but she couldn’t formulate words and hold Tillie at the same time.

Luckily, her little brother—she loved to call him that even though he was so much bigger than her (or anyone for that matter)—Curie ran around from behind the reception desk to help her. “Woah there, lil’ Nikkie,” he said, holding Tillie still but somehow managing to be gentle about it at the same time. “Who’s this frightened little bird you brought us today?”

“Tillie,” Nikola said, more to Tillie than her brother. “It’s okay. This is my little brother, Curie. He can—he’ll help us, okay. You’re safe now. You’re safe with us.”

Tillie was still darting her wide eyes back and forth between their faces, but she was struggling less and less, and as Nikola’s brother continued to talk, his voice seemed to have a soothing effect on her.

“Ah. Tillie,” he said with a smile. “The beautiful American you’ve told me so much about. And one of a very few in her country to really see the truth of the worlds, from what I understand. I embarrass myself by calling her a mere bird. No, she’s too intelligent for that, too fierce. I must be blind to miss a majestic eagle as it stares me in the eyes.”

Tillie stopped struggling, staring Curie in the eyes. Nikola had let go of her a long time ago, but Curie still held her one hand in both of his, looking deep into her eyes just the same. Nikola fidgeted and coughed. “Ahem,” she cleared her throat. “So, Curie, this is Tillie. Tillie, Curie. You two seem to be pretty well acquainted by now.”

“Not well enough,” Curie said, not taking his hands off Tillie’s.

“Curie?” Tillie said.

“Tillie!” Nikola cheered, clapping her hands together. “You said something else. You—”

“Nikola, Nikola!” Tillie exclaimed, deflating again when the words only came out Nikola.

“It’s okay, my eagle,” Curie said, rubbing Nikola’s hand in his palm now. “We’ll take care of your injuries and have you flying again in no time. Singing, too. I promise. Just, please, come with me. I’ll make you right again.”

Tillie gave in to him, lost in Curie’s eyes and words. Nikola kept her feelings of awkwardness quiet this time, instead following them in silence and letting Curie continue to do what seemed to be working for Tillie.

There was no elevator in this building, nor any bullet proof glass. Curie led Tillie hand in hand through grayed halls into a brightly lit, clean white room. Tillie jumped up onto the hospital bed just as Curie asked her to, and Nikola began to hope that she might get better sooner than later.

“Now,” Curie said, looking Tillie in the eyes again. “Look at me, okay. I’m going to get you some paper.” He rummaged through a drawer and handed her a pad of paper and a pen. “Okay. Are you ready?”

“Nikola,” Tillie said, nodding.

“Good,” Curie said. “Very good. You anticipate me already. So, first, I want you to write my sister’s name for me,” he said, pointing at Nikola. “Right there on the pad.” He pointed at the paper.

Tillie wrote the name with ease and held it up for them to see. Nikola smiled and nodded, trying to be encouraging.

“Very good, my eagle,” Curie said. “Now, this time I would like you to write my name on the pad, please.”

Tillie struggled hard to write something down then scribbled it out with a sigh. She wrote something else then scribbled it out again in a huff.

“It’s okay, Tillie. You can—” Nikola tried to say but Curie shot her a look, cutting her sentence off with his ice blue eyes.

“You can do it,” he said to Tillie. “You remember what it is. I know you do. You just said it. And it’s not hard to spell, just five letters exactly how it sounds.”

Tillie was sweating by the time she finished, and the letters looked like chicken scratch when she held the notepad up for them to see, but Curie and Nikola smiled, nodded, and cheered her on as if it were a much more difficult task.

Perfect,” Curie said, bringing Tillie in for a hug. “Now, what’s your name?”

“Tillie!” Tillie blurted out, holding her hands to her mouth when she did. “My name is Tillie Manager!”

“Yes, my eagle,” Curie said, smiling wide and hugging. “Your name’s Tillie Manager.”

“Tillie!” Nikola screamed too loudly. “I knew you’d be okay.” She grabbed Tillie and squeezed her tight. “I’m so glad you—”

“What is all this racquet down here?” asked a voice from behind them, Nikola’s mother’s voice. “How many times do I have to tell you kids that this is an official building and not a playground?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. We were just…” Nikola trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Tillie said, bowing her head.

“Mother,” Curie said, standing taller and stepping toward their mom. “This is the American. She was in need of medical attention. We took care of that and we were just about to send her to you.”

Nikola’s mother looked between the three of them suspiciously. “Is that so?”

“Yes, Mother,” Curie said, nodding earnestly.

“Of course, Mom,” Nikola said. “Why would we lie?.”

Her mother looked around at them one more time. “Of course,” she said. “Well, then, Curie, you get back to the desk now. You’ve already left someone waiting for you, which is why I’m down here in the first place. And Nikola, you bring the American up to my office. Your father will want to speak with her.”

“I was about to do exactly that,” Nikola said, “but I—”

“Then go,” her mom said, clapping her hands at Nikola like she was still a child. “Allons-y. Rapide. I have business to attend to.” She kept clapping until Nikola grabbed Tillie by the hand and ran up two flights of stairs, the first of which her mother followed them up, clapping all the way.

Nikola stopped to catch her breath between flights, hunched over and trying not to curse. She looked up and Tillie was hunched over, breathing heavily, too, but she was smiling at least. Nikola couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of her, and soon they were laughing together, their laughs echoing through the empty stairway.

“So,” Nikola said when they had gotten their laughter under control. “That was my mom.” She shrugged.

“And your brother.” Tillie smiled.

“Yes. And my brother,” Nikola repeated, giving Tillie a look she probably couldn’t decipher. Something along the lines of Watch it sister. Nikola wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Tillie and Curie’s rapidly developing relationship, and she had bigger issues on her mind for the moment so she didn’t want to think about it at all. “And you’re about to meet my father,” she went on, trying to change the subject. “Him and my mother being the reasons you’re here now.”

Right,” Tillie said. “You said that already. What I still don’t know is where here is, though.”

“Oh. Of course.” Nikola chuckled nervously and fixed her glasses. She forgot about the basics in her need to get Tillie talking again. “Well, you’re in my home now,” she explained. “This is my country, or—er—our world, or whatever you Americans call it.”

“So you are a Russian, then,” Tillie said, taking a step back from her. “And we’re in—you took me to…Russia?” She held her hand to her mouth, as if terrified.

“What?” Nikola chuckled. “No. Of course not. I told you I wasn’t—”

“Then where are we?” Tillie demanded. “If we’re not in Russia and we’re not in America, then where could we be?”

“Lots of other places,” Nikola said, trying not to laugh now that she remembered how dismal Tillie’s American education must truly have been. “There are many more than two countries, you know. Too many more. This one included. Come on. I’m sure my dad can explain it better than I ever could, and I know for a fact that he’ll end up explaining it to you again, anyway. So let’s just go and get it over with.”

Tillie hesitated.

“Honestly, Tillie,” Nikola said, “It’s the only way forward, whether you’re actually in Russia or not—which I guarantee you’re not.” She extended her hand.

Tillie looked at it for a second then took it. “You’re right,” she said. “Y’all got me out of that prison. I should be thanking you, not complaining. Let’s go.”

The office was up a few flights of stairs still. The walls were all gray and slightly crumbling—patched in parts with green canvas—and there were two big desks facing each other on either side of the room. Nikola’s dad was at his desk, on the right hand side of the office, furiously typing at something, and the other, her mother’s desk on the left hand side, was empty. Nikola’s dad didn’t even look up when they entered the room.

Ahem,” Nikola cleared her throat, adjusting her glasses. “Uh—Dad—or—er, sir. It’s me. Nikola.”

“Just a moment, dear,” her dad said, lifting a hand just long enough to wave it once and get back to typing. “Almost done.”

“Oh, well…” Nikola looked at Tillie and shrugged, mouthing, “I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t more than a minute before Nikola’s dad stopped typing and looked up from his work, satisfied. “Ah, there we are,” he said with a smile. “Now, dear—oh—you should have told me there was company.” He stood up fast and ticked off a salute. “General Andre Montpierre at your service, mademoiselle.”

“Oh—uh—” Tillie blushed.

“It’s just Tillie, Dad,” Nikola said. “No need to salute. She’s here—”

“Nonsense, Nikola.” Her dad scoffed. “And just Tillie? That’s all the more reason to show our respect. She’s an ambassador from another country, dear. Practically another world!”

“Yeah, well,” Nikola said. “I thought maybe you could hold off on the theatrics a bit. At least until she feels more comfortable in her transition, you know. She’s been through a lot.”

“Oh, no. I mean, of course. I’m sorry, dears.” He crossed from behind the desk and led Tillie to a soft chair by a window. “Here, take a seat. Can I get you anything? We don’t have much, but there’s some ice in the freezer and a mighty nice tap for water, if I do say so myself.”

“No, dad,” Nikola said. “We’re fine.”

“Actually some water would be nice,” Tillie said, getting comfortable in her seat.

“There you have it,” Nikola’s dad said, crossing to a sink on the far wall. “One ice cold water, coming right up.”

“Thanks,” Tillie said, taking a sip of the water as Nikola’s father sat in one of the chairs himself—not his desk chair.

“So,” her dad said. “America, huh? It must have been a long trip getting here.”

Ugh. You wouldn’t believe,” Tillie said with a sigh. “It was a nightmare.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry about that, dear. So sorry.” He shook his head, staring off into the distance. “But,” he said, brightening up, “that’s all behind us now. Now is the time to look to the future. Are you ready for that, Tillie?”

“I—uh…” Tillie looked like a landlord caught in a rent strike. She couldn’t even move or speak. Nikola was worried Tillie might revert to repeating Nikola’s name again so she tried to come to Tillie’s rescue.

“You know, Dad,” Nikola said, “maybe you can kind of explain what’s going on—or—I don’t know, why Tillie’s here or whatever. I only just got her out of holding, you know, and they still had her locked up with a bag over her head when I got there.”

“Locked up and bagged? No!” Her dad looked seriously concerned but Nikola knew better. Nothing on base went down without his knowing it. He might be a good enough actor to fool Tillie, but Nikola had lived with him for long enough to see through it.

“Yes, Father,” Nikola said. “Now why would they do that?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, shaking his head and waving her concerns away. “They’re soldiers, dear. All they do is follow orders, live by regulations. It’s procedure so they follow it. That’s all.”

“Procedure set by—” Nikola started to say, but her dad cut her off.

“Now, Tillie,” he said, “I know this must be pretty overwhelming for you, but do you have any questions for me? Let’s start there.”

Nikola wanted to drive the point further, but she knew her dad wouldn’t react well so she just sighed and let Tillie speak.

“Well, sir.” Tillie shook her head. “I have a lot, actually.”

“Of course. Of course you do, dear. Ha ha ha! Who am I kidding?” He rocked back and forth in his chair, clapping his hands and laughing. “Well, then. Go ahead. What first?”

“Well, sir. Uh… I guess, where am I?”

“You’re in my office. Where else? Ho ho ho.”

Nikola groaned.

“But really,” her dad said, putting on a straight face, “you’re at Bitburg Revolutionary Base in The People’s France. Right now you’re in one of the most closely protected and highly classified buildings—nay rooms—in the entire country. Welcome, little American. Welcome to our workers’ paradise.”

“Oh, uh…” Tillie hesitated.

“Don’t make it seem so great,” Nikola said. “The People’s France isn’t a very protected place in general. And besides that, it’s tiny.”

“No, well, for now it is,” her dad said. “But we’re working on that. We’re growing, aren’t we? Step by step, every day, the incessant march of modernization drives on. You know.”

Nikola shrugged. “I guess.”

“So what am I doing here?” Tillie asked. “When do I go home?”

“You are being protected here, child,” Nikola’s dad said. “You’re being protected from the ones you Americans call protectors. You were there. You experienced it: A bag over your head, shoved into a drawer to rot. And let me tell you, the things they had in store for you are so much worse than that. It’s unimaginable. If we hadn’t secured your escape… Well, let me just say that you have no idea what would have happened to you and you should be happy for that fact.”

“Dad!” Nikola said, slapping his arm.

“It’s true, Nikola,” he said, rubbing where she had hit him. “And Tillie should know it. That’s why you’re here, Tillie. We saved you from things unthinkable inside those prison walls.”

Tillie shook her head. “Like what?”

Torture,” Nikola’s dad said. “A fate worse than death. They’d kill you a thousand times and keep you alive to do it again. Human or android, it makes no difference to them. They’ll make you suffer until you give up and then make you suffer a little more. That’s just the way they like it.”

“I…” Tillie looked to Nikola who nodded. Nikola knew that much wasn’t an exaggeration. At least that’s what they had told her when she agreed to go undercover, that she, too, would be risking a fate worse than death. “I can’t believe that,” Tillie said.

“I know, child,” Nikola’s dad said. “It’s unbelievable. But it also happens to be the truth. I think you’ll find that all truths are a little hard to bear, especially when you first learn of them. We live in unbelievable times, girls, so what else can we expect but unbelievable things?”

“No, but…” Tillie started.

“Dad, maybe that’s a little—” Nikola tried to say but Tillie cut her off.

“I want to go home!” she demanded.

“I know, child.” Nikola’s dad frowned. He shook his head. “I know. But you can’t. Not yet. It’s not safe for you. We’d be sending you back into exactly what we rescued you from in the first place. I can’t have that on my conscious. I’m sorry.”

“Then when?”

Hmmm.” Nikola’s dad thought on that for a moment. “When the time’s right is all I can say. Sooner than later, I hope. But I don’t know. It’s out of my control. In the meantime, there are a few things you could help us with around here. The more help we have the sooner we can make our world and yours safer for everyone, and only when it’s safe will I send you home.”

Ah.” Tillie nodded. “I see.”

Nikola frowned. She didn’t like the tone of Tillie’s voice or the look on her face, something. Her father didn’t seem to notice anything suspicious, though, because he just smiled and nodded and went on talking.

“Good,” he said. “Great! Then let Nikola here show you around, and once you’re settled in, we’ll see what exactly it is that you can do to help us help you. How does that sound?”

“Sure.” Tillie nodded. “Whatever you say, sir.”

#     #     #

< Book II     [Table of Contents]     XLIV. Laura >

There y’all have it, the next chapter in the Infinite Limits story. If you just can’t wait to read the entire novel, pick up a full copy through this link. Thanks for your support, as always. I look forward to sharing the rest of the story the with you.

We do nothing alone.

-Bryan Perkins 03/26/16

Chapter 17: Russ

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

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

XVII. Russ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

His stomach growled in response.

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

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

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

“Jorah,” Russ said, taken off guard.

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

“Right,” Russ said. “But I—”

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

“I—uh—well…”

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

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

“Take a walk?” Jorah frowned.

“A walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

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

“No.” Russ shook his head. “I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His stomach growled again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It makes it.” Jorah shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russ shrugged, stuffing his face some more.

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t wan—” Russ complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or what?”

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

“The red carpet show,” Russ reminded him.

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

Russ shook his head.

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

Ugh.” Russ sighed. “She didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That stuff from Tesla?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I guess, but—”

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

“I did want to go for a walk…”

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

#     #     #

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

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