Chapter 79: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Thim and Stevie are back. Read on to find out if life keeps coming up tails for them, or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link.

< LXXVIII. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXX. Jorah >

LXXIX. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Thim and Stevie ran for as long as their legs would carry them and their lungs would give them oxygen.

“Oh. My. God. I can’t believe we did that,” Stevie said, hunched over and breathing heavily when they had finally stopped running dozens of blocks away. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“It was the only way to follow Mr. Kitty.” Thim shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant even though they really couldn’t believe that they had done it either.

“Still, I can’t believe we did it,” Stevie said.

“I can’t believe we didn’t die.”

“And who was that person that we landed on?” Stevie asked.

“I think they might have been one of the giants,” Thim said. “Or at least I’m pretty sure. They were as tall as one, but they weren’t wearing the white uniform.”

“Well I’m glad we got away.” Stevie sighed. “So what next?”

“I don’t care,” Thim said, pulling out their coin to flip tails.

“Are you flipping that stupid coin again?” Stevie demanded.

“What’s it matter to you?” Thim asked. “It’s not like we have anything better to do.”

“We need to figure out what to do next,” Stevie said.

And a third voice said, “Next you come with me.”

Stevie turned toward the sound and pulled Thim around to face that direction, saying, “Next we come with who?” but Thim had already broken their grasp to run up and hug the owner of the voice.

“Stevie, it’s Anna,” they said, pulling Stevie into a group hug. “Don’t you recognize her voice?”

“Anna?” Stevie said, and they hugged tighter, happy to have the comfort of a responsible adult around, even if they were still in denial about Momma BB’s death. “How’d you find us?”

“Me and the Family’ve been monitoring this protector,” Anna said. “The same one who killed your Momma BB.” Both Thimblerigger and Stevedore hugged Anna tighter at the mention of it. “And the same one who chased y’all after you had landed on her head. Or so I’m told. Is that right? How exactly do you fall on someone so tall’s head? That’s what I want to know.” She chuckled, letting Thim and Stevie out of her hug.

“We jumped off the roof of the Safehouse,” Stevie said.

“Don’t ask me why,” Thim said.

“Jumped off the roof?” Anna laughed. “No way. And I will ask y’all why, as a matter of fact. But first let’s get you something to eat. What do you say?”

And of course, they said yes. They followed Anna to one of her hidden elevators and rode it to the Family Home where they sat on two stools in the kitchen, watching Anna cook up some red beans and rice and answering her questions as she asked them.

“So that officer didn’t molest you in any way, did she?” Anna asked, chopping vegetables while variously filled pots and pans heated on the stove. “Did she touch you inappropriately or anything like that?”

“Well, we did fall on her head,” Stevie said. “So we were kind of the ones touching her.”

“What was that?” Thim asked, having trouble keeping up with the conversation because Anna was moving around to cook.

Anna stopped what she was doing to look straight at Thim and speak with overt mouth motions. “But did she hurt you in any way?” she asked. “That’s the important part.”

Oh. No. Not me,” Stevie said. “Though she did threaten to.”

“I think we might have hurt her,” Thim said. “We fell right on her head.”

“Good. Very good,” Anna said, nodding. “And how exactly did you two manage that?” she added before returning to her cooking.

“You better believe it wasn’t my idea,” Thim said. “We jumped from the very top of the Safehouse.”

“Y’all are lucky the suicide nets were working,” Anna said. “On most buildings they’re not. Though I’m sure Momma BB never would have let y’all spend so much time alone up there if she wasn’t one hundred percent sure they were functional.”

“Suicide nets?” Stevie asked then mouthed the word to Thim who mouthed back asking what a suicide net was.

“Nothing y’all babies need to worry about,” Anna said, setting a bowl of food in front of each them. “Now you two just go ahead and eat on up while I go discuss a few things with our new friend.”

“What’s a suicide net?” Thim asked when Anna had gone. “Before you start eating.”

“I don’t know any more than you do. Do I?” Stevie complained, then they both inhaled their food, hungrier than they had realized they were. They cleared their bowls, licked them clean, and Thim even washed them and went back to flipping tails before Anna finally came back out of her interrogation.

“Well,” Anna said. “She’ll help us. And she won’t ever molest any children like that again.”

Stevie could hear the woman yelling in the other room. “She doesn’t sound happy.”

“You go tell her to shut up, then,” Anna said. “If she doesn’t, I’ll give her something to scream about. It would show her, too, for what she done to you.”

Thim led Stevie into the dark room to do as they were told, both trying to prove to the other that they were the brave one, unafraid of the terrible White Giant that was tied up in the room with them, and when they returned to the kitchen, the captor had stopped yelling alright.

“You see,” Anna said with a smile. “She’s got no choice and she knows it. Now. I trust that you’re both full, and that you’ll come to me if either of you ever needs anything—especially in the next few days—but that’s all the time I have for now. There are still some preparations I need to get to before the big deal tonight. You understand.”

Thim nodded, and Stevie said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“And you two will be ready for your part in this, won’t you?” Anna asked. “I mean, whatever it is your Momma BB assigned you to do before she…”

“Our part’s already done, ma’am,” Thim said, because they knew that Stevie wouldn’t answer, Stevie was still trying to ignore Momma BB’s death. “We’re just supposed to stay in our rooms until someone comes to get us.”

“Well you better get on back to the Safehouse right now, then. Your Momma BB’d kill me if she found out I was keeping y’all out here like this so close to the operation. Thank you for leading the Chief to us, though. I owe y’all one on that. Come on over after all this is done, and I’ll bake y’all both a nice cake—one each—to say thank you.”

“Sounds great,” Stevie said, smiling wide and excited at the prospect of an entire cake to themself.

“We’ll see you then,” Thim added, grabbing Stevie’s hand and leading them outside to stroll home.

“What a strange day,” Stevie said as they walked. “Never seen a single one in our lives, and we run into two protectors within hours of one another. Strange.”

“And on the same day as Momma BB’s death, too,” Thim said, trying to get Stevie to finally come to terms with it.

“On the day of the revolution, more importantly,” Stevie said, still ignoring the truth.

“How could you say that?” Thim demanded, stopping in the middle of the street while people kept walking by around them, trying not to stare. “Stevie, Momma BB’s dead.”

“Yeah, so she calls it,” Stevie said, crossing their arms. “And so do all those other androids she’s linked up to, but it’s not the same. Is it?”

“And how do you know?” Thim asked. “Have you ever died before?”

“Well, no. But—”

“Then you don’t know what it’s like. For humans or androids. So who are you to talk?”

“Well, I know that humans don’t come back after they die,” Stevie said. “I don’t have to kill myself to see the truth of that.”

“Well, maybe you’re wrong,” Thim said, flipping their coin to calm themself but dropping the token instead—which, of course, still landed on tails, further frustrating them. “Maybe you do have to die before you can know what happens next.”

“I know that no one’s ever come back before,” Stevie said.

“And maybe you’re wrong about androids, too. Have you ever thought of that?” Thim paused for a moment to allow Stevie to actually think about it. “What if they don’t actually come back, huh? What if it’s a different person entirely who just happens to share the same memories? What if it’s not Momma BB who comes home in three days but some pale imposter? Have you ever considered that?”

By the look on Stevie’s face, they had not. And now that they had thought about it, they wanted to cry. Thim moved to hug Stevie, relieved that they were finally facing the painful reality of Momma BB’s death, but there was no time to mourn. Out of the corner of their eye, Thim saw Mr. Kitty run toward the Family Home, and instead of hugging Stevie, they grabbed Stevie’s hand and started in a full out sprint after Mr. Kitty, dragging Stevie along to stumble at first before quickly gaining their footing and following close behind Thim as they both sprinted through the Streets after the cat. None of them stopped running until they were directly in front of the Family Home, and Mr. Kitty didn’t even stop then, instead running straight through the door as if it weren’t even there.

Woah. Hold up,” Thim said, hunching over and putting their hands on their knees to try to catch their breath. “I need to breathe a minute.”

“What—” Stevie said, breathing hard, too. “Are we— Running from?”

“Not from,” Thim said. “To. And Mr. Kitty.”

“The Curious Cat?” Stevie asked, curious themself.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Thim replied.

“Where’d he go? Where are we?”

“Back in front of the Family Home,” Thim said. “He went through the door.”

“Well what are we waiting for?” Stevie asked, feeling around in all the wrong directions while searching for the door knob. “Let’s follow him.”

“No,” Thim said. “I mean through the door. Like a ghost walks through walls.”

“Oh.” Stevie dropped their arms as if in defeat then perked up again on second thought. “Oh. Well that’s more of a reason to follow him. Show me which way if you’re too afraid.”

“If I can jump off a building, I can walk through a door,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie’s hand with one of theirs and holding the other out in front of them. They slowly passed through the door and into an unfamiliar dark room that was lined with cabinets and piled high with all kinds of clothes.

“Well, where are we?” Stevie asked, but Thim was too busy leading the way to notice the question. Stevie pulled on Thim’s arm and turned them around to repeat the question to Thim’s face, “Where are we?”

“I don’t know. Shhh,” Thim said, turning around again and sneaking in the direction of a dim light off in the distance that seemed to get brighter the closer they got.

“Is that Anna’s voice?” Stevie asked, but again Thim wasn’t looking in their direction to hear it, and they couldn’t have answered the question even if they were.

Instead, Thim was trying to make out who it was out there in the bright lights, sitting in a chair, with the other woman bending over her. No. They weren’t sitting in a chair. They were tied to it. That was the White Giant. And standing over her was Anna. This must have been what they had agreed to.

“Thim, that is Anna,” Stevie said, pulling Thim’s arm to try to get them to look at the words coming out of Stevie’s mouth. “Where are we?”

But Thim had already stepped out into the stage lights. Now they could see a ring of White Giants surrounded by a ring of Black Giants, all pointing their giant guns up at Anna on the stage. They could also see the fat scared owners in the center of the rings, even larger than the giants but not quite as tall. And they could see the two owners who were standing on the head table, elbowing one another for position, obviously in charge of this place. Thim turned to tell Stevie all that they had seen when the gunshots went off, all the guns in both rings all at once, and the sound was louder than anything Stevie had ever heard. Deafening. They pulled Thim down into cover as fast as they could, and couldn’t even hear themself explain what they had heard for at least ten minutes after that. Ten minutes in which Stevie was left in almost complete darkness and silence, being dragged out through the costume closet and back into the Streets outside of the Family Home where Thim and Stevie both hunched over to catch their breath and calm their heartbeats—and where a slowly louder ringing indicated the thankful return of Stevie’s hearing.

When they had finally calmed themselves and regained their senses, they both said at the same time, “What in the fuck was that?”

Then again at the same time they tried to explain what they had experienced, Thim by describing the fat scared idiots inside the double ring of giants who were pointing their giant guns up at Anna on a stage of some sort with that woman who they had landed on top of tied to a chair, and Stevie by using as many synonyms for deafening as they could come up with to describe the sound of those giants’ guns all going off over and over again and all at the same time.

“So what the fuck was that then?” Stevie asked after they had both calmed themselves from the reinjection of adrenaline that reliving their experiences by describing them to each other had elicited.

“Honestly, I have no idea,” Thim said, pulling the coin out of their pocket to flip it once—tails—and put it away again. “I seriously do not know.”

“Well, what do we know?” Stevie asked.

“We know that we need to get back to the Safehouse fast,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie’s hand and heading that way.

“Right,” Stevie said. “Duh. But what do we know about what we just witnessed?”

“I told you everything I saw,” Thim said. “What else do you want from me?”

“To analyze the facts, not just recite them.” Stevie sighed. “Like what was Anna doing with that giant protector on stage?”

“I don’t know. Whatever she wants,” Thim said, shrugging. “I don’t care what happens to that protector. They killed Momma BB.”

“You’re missing my point, Thim. So what were all those other people doing there then?”

But Thim wasn’t paying attention to Stevie anymore. Somehow they had both stepped off the street they had been walking on and into a short hall, from outside to inside without going through a door.

“Thimblerigger, are you even listening to me?” Stevie asked.

“Stevie, we’re not outside anymore,” Thim said.

“What?”

“We stepped into a hall or something, I don’t know.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We were outside one second and now… Now I don’t see outside anywhere. There’s just an elevator on one end of this hall and a half open door on the other.”

“Which end are we on?” Stevie asked.

“Elevator.”

Stevie felt around for it, in the wrong direction, and Thim directed their hand toward the door. “Does it open?” Stevie asked.

“Door open,” Thim said, pushing the button next to the door a few times. “Please open, door.” They shrugged. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“Well, I guess we better go check the other one, then,” Stevie said, grabbing Thim’s hand and leading them in that direction.

Stevie stopped them a few feet in front of the door, listening through the crack for any dangers on the other side.

“So?” Thim asked a little too loudly, and Stevie shoved them to shush them. After listening for a few more moments, they turned back toward Thim and mouthed the words, “I don’t know. Sounds weird.”

“Weird?” Thim tried to whisper, but Stevie motioned for them to go even quieter. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Stevie said. “It’s hard to explain. Kind of like you sound when you’re sucking the meat off a particularly delicious pigeon bone.”

“You mean someone’s eating in there?” Thim asked, perking up a bit at the thought of it. They were always hungry.

“No. At least I don’t think so,” Stevie said. “I told you: It’s weird. There’s more moaning than even when you eat.”

“That must mean the wings are extra delicious,” Thim said, convinced. “Let’s get in there.” They pulled Stevie by the hand before Stevie could protest, entering through the ajar door to find two people definitely not eating—not food, at least, but maybe one another’s faces.

They were in a giant office, with a giant desk and a wall-sized window that looked out onto a mountainous wilderness with more green grass and blue skies than Thim had ever seen. In front of the window were some puffy chairs and side tables where two occupants, instead of staring out the window at the beautiful scenery as the chairs were no doubt put there with the intention of facilitating, were rather kissing one another, feeling each other, and generally trying to shove two bodies into the space of one puffy chair where two bodies were not meant to fit.

“What are they eating?” Stevie asked, startling the two kissers who jumped quickly into two separate seats, trying to straighten themselves out and play it cool. “Sounds delicious.”

Each other,” Thim said, crinkling up their face in disgust. “Nothing you want in your mouth. Trust me.”

Ahem,” one of the strangers cleared their throat. “I—uh. Who are you?”

“Hello,” the other said, standing up and stepping closer to greet Thim and Stevie. “I’m Haley. Nice to meet you.” She held out a hand for the children to shake.

“We don’t shake hands,” Thim said.

“Me especially,” Stevie said.

“I—uh— Well…” Haley said, stuttering. “We weren’t expecting you two quite so early. Were we, Pidg?”

The other kisser, Pidg, stood up as if remembering his manners. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Momma BB’s kids. Right, right, right. I almost forgot.”

“What do you know about Momma BB?” Stevie demanded. “Who are you?”

“Where are we?” Thim asked. “What are you gonna do with us?”

“Do with you?” Haley laughed. “Nothing, child. No one wants to do anything with you. We want to help you. Isn’t that right, Pidg?”

“Oh—uh. Yeah,” Pidg said, straightening up at the mention of his name. “We’re friends of your Momma BB’s. We’re supposed to make you comfortable until Rosalind and the Scientist get back. Y’all want anything to eat?”

“What you got?” Thim asked, interested in the offer.

“And how do you now Momma BB?” Stevie repeated.

“I’ll just bring a sample platter,” Pidg said, getting excited about the prospect. “You know, I remember exactly what they fed me the first time I was here, and I loved it. I bet y’all will, too. I’ll be right back.” He hurried out of the room, excited to do whatever it was he had planned.

“And us and your Momma BB are old friends,” Haley said. “Or at least Rosalind and Momma BB are. She and your mother have known each other for their entire lives. They were switched on in the very same workshop on the very same day. But don’t take my word for it. Rosalind’ll be back soon, and she has news of your mother for you.”

Thim and Stevie spoke to each other through subtle movements of their clasped hands and instantly came to the same conclusion: They were best to take advantage of the food and wait for the news then escape later if worse came to worse.

God willing, it would come to better instead.

#     #     #

< LXXVIII. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXX. Jorah >

There you have it, dear readers. The third and final chapter from the point of view of Thim and Stevie. Join us next week for the continuation of the Infinite Limits saga, or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 78: Haley

Hello, dear readers. The Infinite Limits story is really moving along now. Today we join Haley for the third and final chapter from her point of view as she attempts to bypass her or else programming. Read on to find out if she can, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.

< LXXVII. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXIX. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

LXXVIII. Haley

 Fuck or else.

Right?

Only moments ago, in front of all the owners of Inland, all their secretaries, and a pile of cameras, Jorah had. Lord Douglas did every single day that he, an android in disguise, sat at the head of the Fortune 5. Rosalind did any time she did anything because she always did exactly what she wanted.

If all of them could go against their or else programming so often, publicly, and absolutely, Haley should be able to do it just one tiny bit. Right? Like, by not bringing Lord Douglas his third feast. Something small.

Right?

Wrong.

For some reason, even with all those role models to mimic, Haley still couldn’t break even the most basic of orders, and so she made her way to the kitchen to print something up—though she promised herself that she’d only do the bare minimum from then on out. She couldn’t help it. She still wasn’t ready to find out what or else truly meant.

She ordered a turkey, a bowl of mashed potatoes, and a drink, one of each, no dessert, no extra alcohol, not even any gravy, and set them on the food cart to wheel it out to Lord Douglas, or else. On her way through the Feast Hall, up to the Head Table, she noticed an empty seat at the table where her molester had been sitting and chuckled to herself. At least that asshole would think twice before ever touching another secretary like that.

Lord Douglas was too busy listening to Angrom’s introduction of the next speaker to even notice her little act of defiance, though, and Haley was cursing herself, wishing she could do more to stand up to her or else programming, when she heard a voice yelling, “Owners of Outland.” and all she could do in response was stare up with an unbreakable interest at the Scientist, on a hover platform, floating over the crowd of owners and ready to give their speech.

“Yes, there it is,” the Scientist said, holding up some sort of tiny remote control as they spoke. “If one speaks loudly enough, everyone has to listen. Even our dear Lords of Outland. Especially our dear Lords of Outland, in fact, seeing as how they’re the only ones rich enough to afford the nanobots that their doctors have been injecting them with for centuries. DO Y’ALL WANNA HEAR AGAIN?”

The Scientist’s voice was even louder this time, deafening, but still, all Haley could do was stare up in curious awe, hanging on the Scientist’s every word.

“Just like that, and y’all can’t look away.” The Scientist chuckled, shaking their head. “You know, it’s funny really. Where I come from, no one even knew the word Christmas. And we had damn sure never been to any feasts. Yet here below me now is the worst of both worlds mashed into one.”

Some of the owners started eating again at the mention of a feast, and Haley was getting the urge for more shots, but the Scientist wasn’t having either, so they put a stop to both.

“DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT,” they yelled, presumably while using whatever device they were holding in their hand, and again, Haley felt the curious need to stare up at the Scientist as they continued their speech, but this time accompanied by a distinct sharpening of her or else instincts that Haley hadn’t noticed before.

“That wasn’t an invitation to eat more,” the Scientist went on, sounding angrier as they did—or maybe Haley only thought they sounded angrier because she was the one getting angrier every second she was reminded of how helpless she was to resist her or elses.

“In fact, it was rather the opposite. You know, I tried my damndest, running through the same stupid calculations over and over again, never getting anything in return but the same two alphanumerals all the time, zero point N repeating, and all because of you. Because of y’all here now. Because of your insistence on competition and markets. Because of your need to swipe a hefty profit off the top of anything you spend your money on. Because you won’t look up from your worship of the Invisible Hand for long enough to realize, like I finally have, that the only solution is for your stupid walls and everything they hold up to come crumbling down once and for all.”

The Scientist sounded like they could go on for a long time, and even though her or else circuits were running on overdrive, ensuring Haley that some fate worse than death was waiting for her if she didn’t stay there and hear the Scientist out, so were her boredom and thirst circuits, and for once in Haley’s life, something became more important than or else.

“Fuck or else,” she said out loud and felt happier than she had ever felt walking from the Fortune 5’s table back to the kitchen.

Elen was there already, trying to talk to Haley, but Haley wasn’t ready to speak until after she had downed a six pack of gin shots. When she had been through all of them and ordered another round from the printer, Elen was still talking.

Hellooo. Are you even listening to me?” she asked.

“No,” Haley said. “I thought that was obvious.”

Haley took one of the shots and offered one to Elen who downed it, tossing the empty glass in the disposal chute before saying, “Where the fuck is everyone else? The kitchen is never this empty. Look. We’re the only ones here.”

Haley took another shot then scanned the room. “Huh. Weird.”

“You can say that again. I got back from the bathroom like ten minutes ago, and ever since then, I’ve been sitting here wondering if I should enjoy the silence or call the protectors about a bunch of missing secretaries.”

Haley took another shot, handed one to Elen, then looked around the empty kitchen again, but she was too excited about once and for all going against her or else programming to register what was going on. “I—” she started to say when Rosalind burst into the kitchen from the secretary’s parking garage and cut her off.

Of fucking course,” Rosalind complained. “You two.  We need to get out of here.”

“What? Why?” Elen asked, taking another of Haley’s shots.

“I went against my or else programming,” Haley said, ignoring whatever Rosalind was going on about. “I finally fucking did it. I’m ready.”

Woo hoo,” Rosalind said, sarcastically. “Great. But for once, now’s not the time to go against or elses. This time the or else is for real. So both of you, come with me, or else.”

“Or else what?” Elen asked.

“What are you talking about?” Haley snapped, getting frustrated that no one wanted to hear about her success. “Are you even listening to me? I said I finally broke my or else programming, and you react like this? I don’t have to work for Lord Fuckface anymore, Roz. I can finally live my own life.”

Or else what?” Elen demanded.

“No, you can’t, Haley,” Rosalind said. “Not yet. Because or else we get blown to pieces along with this entire kitchen in—oh… like thirty seconds. So no rush.”

“That’s why no one’s in here,” Elen said, grabbing for one of Haley’s shots then ordering another round from the printer when she noticed that Haley’s were gone.

“What are you talking about?” Haley asked, downing the shot that Elen offered her—it was great to finally get past or else.

“The revolution is happening now,” Rosalind said. “This is ground zero. Everyone, everywhere, in every world is about to be forced to come face to face with their or elses all at the same time. Now, really and finally, come with me or else.”

Rosalind picked both Haley and Elen up by the napes of their necks and carried them out through the door and into the Feast Hall with just enough time to dive out of the way as all the printers in the kitchen behind them exploded at the same time, forcing a fireball like a rocket blast out through the door and singeing the tuxedos of those owners nearest to the kitchen.

The Feast Hall burst into chaos. The owners had no idea which way to run. The fireball was burning right in front of the only exit that didn’t go through the molten kitchen. Fat, sweaty stomachs pushed up against fat, sweaty stomachs as pneumatic pants scrimped and scrambled, trying to find some place to put the uncarriably heavy weight that they did in fact carry and finding nothing but more bodies in the way. Haley almost would have laughed at the stampede of them if she didn’t find the entire situation—the owners’ sweaty bodies forcing their pants to work overtime, and no doubt in the diaper department as well for as much as all of them had eaten—utterly disgusting.

Haley helped Elen up and made sure she wasn’t hurt—just a few minor scrapes and bruises—then turned to do the same for Rosalind, but there was no Rosalind there to help.

“Where’d Rosalind go?” Haley asked.

“I don’t know,” Elen said, rubbing her neck. “She saved our lives, though.”

Damn.” Haley laughed. Elen was right about that. “I guess we better go check on our Lords then.”

“Mr. Walker prolly shit his pants when he heard that.” Elen chuckled. “He’ll be begging for an old fashioned. Well, too bad. Fuck off.”

Haley laughed some more, trying to keep the fact that she had already once gone against her or else programming in her mind and hoping that she could do it again, as she made her way back toward the Head Table to see if Lord Douglas needed anything.

“Calm down, now. Calm down,” Lord Douglas was already saying to the crowd, standing on top of the Head Table but not quite yelling. He sounded more like he knew yelling was useless until the fatties wore themselves out first so he wasn’t going to waste his breath. After they had stampeded around for a bit—in about the time it took Haley to cross the Feast Hall from the kitchen to the Head Table—Lord Douglas really did try to calm them down, turning on his loud voice like only an android could do.

“ENOUGH,” he yelled over them. “CONTROL YOURSELVES, OWNERS.” And all at once the stampeding crowd stopped moving and expanded just a tiny bit in order to give everyone some standing room. “ARE WE NOT BETTER THAN THIS?”

The crowd mumbled and grumbled under their collective breath, and Haley couldn’t hold her laughter in. No. They were not better than this. Not at all. And this wasn’t anywhere near their worst, either.

“Then please, act like it,” Lord Douglas said in a more calm, but still loud, voice. “Prove it. Prove to me that you can control yourselves in an emergency for long enough that we can—”

But the rest of his sentence was cut off by the sound of an army of marching boots surrounding the lesser owners in a ring, dividing them from the Fortune 5.

“Calm yourselves long enough for my protectors to arrive,” Mr. Walker said, standing up on the Head Table himself and trying to push Lord Douglas out of the spotlight but finding the Lord to be much heavier than he appeared. “Chief? Are you here, Chief? Or do we need to find a new one?”

A scared looking protector near the Head Table took off his mustachioed helmet and ran up to whisper something in Mr. Walker’s ear, quietly enough to keep even Haley from hearing.

“What?” Mr. Walker demanded of the frightened officer who leaned away from his boss’s rage. “You go do it, then. Investigate.”

The officer looked confused for a moment, then scared again, then he rammed his helmet back on his head and stumbled toward the kitchen, bringing a few protectors out of the ring to assist in his investigation.

“Well…” Lord Douglas said, raising an eyebrow and urging Mr. Walker to share with everyone.

“Well, the investigation is ongoing,” Mr. Walker said to the crowd of still scared owners instead of Lord Douglas. “Fear not, friends. My protectors are here, and they’ll ensure no harm’s done. Trust me. I have experience with this sort of business. Everything will be fine.”

Lord Douglas scoffed. “No harm, Walker? Did you miss the explosion? That’s harm enough as it is. Besides, we don’t need any reminding of your experiences in these matters. We’ve all been here the whole time experiencing them with you. Have you even solved the last Christmas bombing yet? I’m having trouble recalling it was so long ago.”

“You know damn good and well I did,” Mr. Walker snapped. “Decades ago. When it happened. Now we just have to wait for…” But his speech trailed off as a protector, but not a protector, exactly, they were dressed exactly the same, with cargo pants, combat boots, plated armor, and a screaming face mask, but instead of all white, they were in all black—so a shadow protector—marched out of the kitchen and up to the front of the room to whisper into Lord Douglas’s ear like a little blackbird.

“Wha— What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Walker demanded of Lord Douglas who gave no response, instead listening to the shadow protector’s report.

“Very well,” Lord Douglas said, dismissing his anti-protector and standing again on the Head Table to address the more-frightened-than-ever crowd. “Now that you’ve all gotten a taste, I guess there’s no need to keep them a secret anymore. It’s time y’all got to see a real protector force in action for once. Officers.”

In stomped another army of boots, identical to the first except for color, and this one even larger than Mr. Walker’s army of white-clothed protectors, large enough to make a second, black ring around the white one that was already there. The white protectors didn’t know which way to point their guns, inward, toward the owners who were cowering close to one another again, or outward, at the anti-protectors who now surrounded them, but most understandably chose the latter who were armed and much more dangerous than the spooked herd of frightened, fat owners.

“Now these are real protecting machines,” Lord Douglas continued when the sound of marching had ceased and all the protectors—black and white—were in place. “Quite literally. And just as it’s more efficient for me to own my own robot secretary instead of renting one of your trained monkeys to do the job, the same can be said about owning my own private force of robocops instead of relying on your inept human protector service. From this point on, Walkit Can’t Talk, consider our Protection Agreement Contract null and void. And, yes. I will be fighting all your restitution claims against me—in court and otherwise.”

“I— But— My officers are— I own the protector force.”

“And I own the robocops,” Lord Douglas said. “My protectors will—” But he was interrupted by a loud fwipping sound, like all the air had been sucked out of the room all at once.

Suddenly, the orchestra disappeared from the stage, and in their place, a lone old woman stood hunchbacked over a protector in an older model white uniform—nothing like either set of protectors already in the Feast Hall were wearing—who was tied to a chair.

The protector on stage struggled and fought to stand while the owners inside the double ring of protectors began again to stampede. Their big scared heads leaned one way, away from the tiny, old woman on stage, pushing their pneumatic pants toward the Head Table where a two deep wall of protectors stopped them from moving any further.

“What is the meaning of this?” Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker bellowed at the same time, jockeying for position atop the Head Table—Lord Douglas’s android voice, of course, much louder than Mr. Walker’s human one.

And at the sound of their demands, the owners inside the ring leaned the other way, forcing their pneumatic pants in the opposite direction, toward another double thick wall of protectors, until the old woman on stage and the lords on the table began speaking back and forth, leaving the cowards in the middle of the ring no direction to run in, only the center of everything where they trembled in their pneumatic booties, heads turning this way and that toward whoever was speaking, like yuppies at a tennis match.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” the old woman yelled, her voice amplified even louder than Lord Douglas’s.

“Figured what out?” Mr. Walker replied first, smug that he had asked his question before Lord Douglas could even speak.

“Who are you?” Lord Douglas demanded.

“I’m your worst nightmare,” the old woman said. “Who do you think I am?”

“You had a hand in the explosions,” Lord Douglas said while Mr. Walker said, “How the Hell am I supposed to— Oh. I mean, yeah. That.”

The old woman on stage laughed. “Explosions?” she said. “I thought your protectors would have told you what they actually were by now. Tsk tsk tsk.”

“What is this woman talking about?” Mr. Walker demanded of the mustachioed protector who had been leading the others in the investigation and was now trying to stay as far out of sight as possible.

“I don’t need my protectors to tell me anything,” Lord Douglas said. “I know they were more than explosions, but I didn’t want to alarm anyone any more than they already are.”

“Much more than explosions,” the old woman said, laughing. “We’re talking payback. Revenge. The sound of your empire falling. Nothing less. We’ve finally dismantled the walls you use to separate us. We’ve destroyed the elevators you use to carry your soldiers—not protectors, soldiers, terrorists—into our homes. And now we’re—or more specifically I’m, because Chief Mondragon here didn’t come willingly—but I’m here to dismantle even more. I’m here to tear down this disgusting pig council you use to oppress us, and I mean to do it today.”

“Now hold on just a sec—” Mr. Walker started, but Lord Douglas couldn’t take anymore. “Shut up, Walker,” he snapped. “Let your Lord handle this. Or more precisely, let my army handle it for us. Protectors, fire!”

All the protectors in both rings pointed their rifles toward the old woman on stage—ignoring the safety of Chief Mondragon up there with her and any of the protectors in the portion of the ring closest to the stage—and opened fire for a length of three or four solid, deafening minutes before the sound of popping bullets finally gave way, and still the old woman and Chief Mondragon both remained unscathed on the stage.

“Lord Douglas, you disappoint me,” the old woman said, shaking her head. “You were here last time. Don’t you remember? You should have known your bullets wouldn’t work against me. Nothing you could do will ever hurt me again. You, Lord Douglas, and you, Lord Walker, with your stupid war between android-made and android-free products, are responsible for the deaths of too many of my Family members to count. You are responsible for the death of the Human Family and its rebirth into what it is now—a Family of humans and androids alike, united to fight against our common oppressors: you. And most importantly, it’s you who killed my dear sweet Rosa, taking from me the only joy I ever had in my life. And so today, I finally make you all pay. The walls that started this have already been torn down. Now the soldiers who protect the system and the oppressors who exploit it will be destroyed just the same.” The old woman pulled out a gun and pointed it at Chief Mondragon’s chest. “Do y’all have any last words?” she asked.

Neither Lord Douglas nor Mr. Walker knew how to respond, each looking to the other to do the talking. After a moment of silence from both, Lord Douglas finally said, “Well, I—”

And the old woman on the stage wasn’t listening any more.

Pop pop.

She fired two shots into Chief Mondragon’s chest, and now, instead of fighting to get up on it, Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker were pushing each other aside, racing to get off the Head Table and holding each other up because of their competition, both calling out for help to their respective secretaries as—

Pop pop. Pop pop pop pop pop. Pop pop.

The old woman fired in their direction, too.

And Haley? What did she do? Did she dive to save the life of her Lord and master, who she was sworn to protect or else?

She did not. She was no longer under the spell of or else. She had broken that programming earlier in the Feast, so instead of rescuing Lord Douglas, she dove to save Elen—who was admittedly in no immediate danger, but the secretary seemed to be running to help Mr. Walker and he deserve that even less than Lord Douglas did.

Because fuck or else.

 

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< LXXVII. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXIX. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

There it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. To find out how Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker fare, you’re going to have read the rest of the novel. To do that, you can either wait until the next chapter is posted next weekend, or you can purchase the entire thing through this link. Your choice. But either way, thanks for joining us this far, and have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 77: The Scientist

Hello, dear readers. It’s Saturday again, so that means it’s time for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today, we rejoin the Scientist for their second chapter in this novel, marking the 2/3 complete point for the book. Read on to find out if the Scientist decides to assist Rosalind and the workers in tearing down the walls of Outland or if the Scientist decides instead to go on searching for a way to make them work, despite the 0.N repeating.

< LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon     [Table of Contents]     LXXVIII. Haley >

LXXVII. The Scientist

0.NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN…

Every Goddamn time it came out the same. There really was no point anymore.

The Scientist huffed and stood from their computer so fast that their chair fell to the ground with a loud clatter, only frustrating them further and making it more difficult than it had to be to set the chair upright again. After a few attempts, they finally got it standing, then they did some breathing exercises and prime number counting games in their head to calm themself before going to the kitchen to order lunch.

“Lunch,” the Scientist said to the printer, trying not to picture all the people who had to do all kinds of shit work just for the Scientist to eat that sandwich and soup, trying not to think about all the work they, the Scientist, did that kept those workers down, and instead practicing the calm, unaffected demeanor they’d need in their meetings later that day.

Just as the Scientist’s food popped out of the printer’s frowning mouth, as if he could sense the opportunity for something to eat, Mr. Kitty appeared, rubbing himself on the Scientist’s ankles and purring.

“Yeah, boy,” the Scientist said. “You can have as much as you want. I just need a few bites anyway.” The Scientist wasn’t sure how long it had been since they had eaten—too long by the sound of their grumbling stomach and the lightness of their head—but they were too nervous to eat more than a few bites anyway, so that’s all they did before laying the sandwich open faced on the floor for Mr. Kitty to eat the meat and cheese out of.

Meow,” Mr. Kitty said before taking a few bites.

“A meeting I don’t want to go to,” the Scientist said. “Not that I ever do, but this one especially.”

Meow.” Mr. Kitty gave up on the sandwich, licking his paws instead.

“Yes, well, I know I do. Which is why I’m about to leave. Do you want a ride on the elevator when I do?”

Mr. Kitty purred, still licking his coat clean.

“Suit yourself,” the Scientist said. “I’m gonna run these calculations one more time, then I’m off. Adios, Señor Gatito.”

The Scientist went back to their office to run the calculations one more time—coming up with 0.  again—and on their way to the elevator, they passed through the kitchen to make sure that Mr. Kitty didn’t need let out, but he was already gone.

“Bar, please,” the Scientist said when they were inside the elevator with the doors closed. “Whichever one my meetings are at.”

The elevator fell into motion, and the Scientist hoped it knew where to take them.

Of course, as always, it did, and soon, the Scientist, with drink in hand, was waiting alone in one of The Bar’s dark booths.

The woman who the Scientist was waiting for walked in late, as always, and took her time ordering at the bar, even forcing the bartender to pull out a menu. The Scientist could already feel their annoyance showing, even before the woman sat herself down with a smirk and sipped her drink—beer after all the hubbub.

“Hello, Roo,” the Scientist said, catching themself in a frown and wiping it off their face as quickly as possible.

“And what are you calling yourself these days?” Roo asked. “Or are you still sticking with this Scientist nonsense?”

“You can call me the Scientist. Yes,” the Scientist said, trying to keep their voice as neutral and emotionless as possible. “Thank you very much for asking.”

“Even after all this?” Roo asked. “You still plan on keeping that name?”

“It’s my name,” the Scientist said. “Why shouldn’t I?”

Roo just kind of looked at them in silence for a moment then chuckled, shaking her head. “If you say so,” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference to me. I don’t plan on being here any longer than I have to be, anyway. It’s easier not to learn a new name.”

“Well, I’m glad you approve,” the Scientist said. “And I’d rather not be in your presence any longer than necessary, either. So if we can just go ahead and get on with it.”

But of course, Roo took her time. She’d always do anything she could to piss the Scientist off, even if it meant a little more work or discomfort for Roo, too. “Yes, well…” she finally said after taking a long sip of her drink to stall for time. “I’m not exactly sure what it is you brought me here for anyway. The plan’s already set in motion. Every robot worker and line of code is in place. Even Anna’s Family is falling into step—or at least the half of it that she still controls. We don’t need you for anything but to stay out of the way. So just do it.”

“But you still need me to stay out of the way,” the Scientist reminded her. “If anything at all can ensure your failure, it’s me. So. I guess that brings us to the point of this meeting. Convince me.”

Pffft.” Roo scoffed. “Convince you of what? We had a deal. Rosalind said—”

“Rosalind doesn’t need convincing,” the Scientist cut her off. “And Rosalind couldn’t stop me if she wanted to. Neither can you, and you know it. So. That leaves us with one other option. Convince me.”

“Convince you of what?” Roo demanded, and the Scientist grinned, happy it was Roo losing her patience and not the Scientist losing theirs.

“Convince me that there’s no other way. Convince me to stay out of the way. Convince me.”

Pffft.” Roo scoffed again. “You still think this stupid fucking system can be saved? What exactly have you been doing all this time?”

“No. I’m pretty well convinced you’re right on that part these days.” Even if the Scientist refused to let go of whatever sliver of hope she still held onto that Roo was wrong, they didn’t expect her to be. “Convince me that your plan is the only way to get rid of this system and replace it with a new one. Not just a new one, a better one. Convince me that the inevitable deaths we cause are gonna be worth it. For the love of God. Please. Convince me. I’m begging you.” And by that point, the Scientist really was begging. They needed more than ever to be convinced, because even though they were making a big show about the fact, the Scientist wasn’t sure if they actually could stop what was coming, and whatever happened, however it went, they were responsible for the outcome.

“Well, there are no guarantees,” Roo said, shaking her head. “Never are in anything, but especially something as complex as this. No, I can assure you that the old walls will be torn down, but whatever’s put in their place is up to the people who do the work of putting it there. That’s not my responsibility. Talk to Rosalind and the others if you need convincing about that part. I agreed to tear down the walls for y’all in exchange for being left alone, and I intend to hold you to that. As soon as my job’s done, I’m out of here. Nothing more to it.”

“And where exactly do you plan on going?” the Scientist asked. “Where can you escape this?”

Roo just kind of laughed, shaking her head. She took a long sip of her beer, letting the Scientist stew in it. Finally, she said, “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time? Huh? Wasting my life like you have?”

“No, well…” the Scientist said. “I— I thought you were working on the plan. I— You—”

“The plan?” Roo scoffed. She was always doing that. “The plan is to overload all the gravity centers in the Walker-Haley field generators until they collapse in on themselves. It took about five seconds to come up with and another five minutes to implement. So, no. I have not been spending decades working on the plan.”

“But what about the people?” the Scientist asked. “The deaths you’ll cause. You can’t just take all the walls down at once like that. It’s not worth it.”

“Which is exactly what Rosalind said when I told her the idea. Calm yourself. But she and her little minions—led by the insufferable Popeye—went digging through the databases and made a blueprint of all the lines that went through buildings that are too unstable to withstand any sudden movement or earthquakes. After that, it took a few days’ leisurely coding to exclude those lines and whatever other resources Rosalind wanted to protect from my program. That’s my end of the bargain fulfilled. Now it’s y’all’s turn to live up to your end.”

“How many have to die?” the Scientist asked.

“None,” Roo said. “As long as Rosalind’s goons can do what they say they can.”

None?” The Scientist couldn’t believe that. “Out of twenty billion people alive in the worlds, you’re telling me that not a single one is going to die in all this?”

“None are supposed to,” Roo said. “If Rosalind’s goons don’t fuck up. Which they will. So I’d say about five percent is a conservative estimate.”

Five percent,” the Scientist repeated. “Fuck.”

“Maybe more, maybe less.” Roo shrugged. “I expect more.”

“And you’re okay with that?” the Scientist asked. “You can sleep at night with the weight of a billion dead people on your soul?”

“It’s not my fault all this is happening,” Roo snapped. “Don’t try to put your bullshit guilt on me. The world was created a certain way before I was born into it, and now I’m doing my part to make it better. That’s all. More people are gonna die if I don’t do this than will die if I do. And I don’t care either way. I just want y’all fuckers to leave me alone so I can live my own life. Now are you gonna stay out of the way and let us do this, or what?”

Of course the Scientist was. They were always going to stay out of the way no matter what Roo had said during this meeting. They had only hoped that Roo could convince the Scientist that it was the right thing to do. And in her own way, Roo had helped a little, but the Scientist still had one thing they wanted to know. “So what have you been doing all this time?”

“Whatever I want to,” Roo said, leaning back in her seat and sipping her drink. “Shit, what haven’t I been doing? Y’all have more energy than you could ever use in those elevator shafts, and for some stupid reason you still force people to buy coal and oil energy instead, gouging the less fortunate for more than any of that dirty shit should ever be worth. So I figure screw y’all. I take my little cut of the reserves, unnoticed, and do with it what I please.”

Little cut?” the Scientist laughed. “You mean twice the amount of energy that all of Six uses? You’re delusional if you think I didn’t notice.”

“Well, you don’t do anything about it,” Roo said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s as good as not noticing.”

“What exactly could you be using all that energy for?” the Scientist asked. “That’s what I want to know. You’re not using the Walker-Haley fields other than to keep us out, so what else could be so draining?”

Science, my friend,” Roo said with a shit eating grin. “Something you wouldn’t know about—despite your silly name.”

“But what specifically?” the Scientist asked, frustrated with Roo’s games. “Stop dodging the questions. It’s not like I’m gonna try to step in and stop you from whatever it is you’re doing at this point.”

Roo laughed. “As if you could. You know, I’d be interested to see you try. You’d only make a fool of yourself. I use the Walker-Haley generators nominally in my security system, sure, but I’m working with technology beyond your imagination. You’d never be able to break in. I guarantee it.”

“What kind of technology?” the Scientist asked, cursing themself for wasting so much time on trying to save a failed system instead of doing real useful research similar to what it sounded like Roo had been doing. “What are you using it for?”

“To get myself as far away from this drama y’all got going as I can get,” Roo said. “To go somewhere where y’all, all your stupid ancestors, and your soon to be idiotic descendants can’t find me or bother me with your bullshit anymore. Anna was bending space without your Walker-Haley field generators, and by combining her methods with your advanced technology, I’ve been able to make a Bender Unit that’s stronger than any y’all have ever even imagined. This thing’s strong enough to take me to another world, okay. Literally. And I’m talking actual planets other than Earth here, not just this Outland One, Two, Three bullshit y’all have going. And soon enough, it’ll be another galaxy, then hopefully another universe entirely, and maybe then, when I’ve crossed multiple universes to get there, I’ll finally be far enough away from you assholes to live my own life.”

The Scientist had to admit, that sounded pretty awesome. They had a million more questions to ask about this Bender technology that Roo had invented, and they hoped that she wouldn’t leave as soon after the walls came down as she was letting on, but at the same time, they didn’t want to give Roo the satisfaction of knowing how jealous they were, so they kept a straight face—as straight as they could muster—and said, “So that’s it, then? You’re sure you’re ready to do this.”

“That’s it,” Roo said before finishing off her drink and standing from the booth. “I’m ready to do it as long as you’re ready to stay out of the way.”

“As if I had any other choice,” the Scientist said, bowing their head. They really didn’t.

Huh. Yeah,” Roo said with a little chuckle on her way out of the bar. “As if.”

As if. The Scientist repeated in their head. As if. What kind of technology was it that Roo was working with? How could it be so powerful? What would happen if that sort of power fell into the hands of someone less benign than Roo, someone who wanted to insert themselves into the lives of others rather than hide away from everyone in existence? These were all very important questions, but for now, the Scientist had more pressing matters to tend to, and one was walking into the bar at that exact moment.

“Hello—uhScientist,” Ellie said, sitting at the booth without ordering a drink first.

“Ellie,” the Scientist said, nodding. “You don’t want a drink?”

“No, ma’am—uhmuh.” She looked embarrassed, not sure if the Scientist would notice the accidental “ma’am”, but the Scientist didn’t care as long as it wasn’t malicious—which, in this case, it obviously wasn’t. “I don’t expect to be here long. I have other business to tend to, and family to see for the holidays. But I did want to see if you had any advice that might help me convince Sonya and her people to go along.”

The Scientist scoffed. “Go along with what?”

“Well, with—uh… With the plan. You know…”

“Not really,” the Scientist said. “To be honest, you’re probably more knowledgeable about it all than I am.”

“I— But— Rosalind didn’t tell you anything?”

The Scientist laughed. As if Rosalind could ever keep her mouth shut. “Oh, she told me plenty, alright. But I didn’t listen. I was busy trying and trying what she had told me would never work, and now I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Why are we even having this meeting then?” Ellie complained. “It’s Christmas Eve, I still have to go convince Sonya and her people to help us, and I’d like to spend a little time with my family before a dangerous—and possibly fatal—mission. So if you’ll excuse me.” She got up as if to leave.

“By all means,” the Scientist said. “Go. Do whatever you need to do. But if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

Ellie sat back at the table, her eyes seething rage as she stared into the Scientist’s—who was having trouble maintaining eye contact because they felt so embarrassed. “Anything you can do to help?” Ellie snapped. “Rosalind said we could count on your elevators. Without that, no one gets out. So, yeah. There’s something you can do to help.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” The Scientist shrugged. “If Rosalind said you can count on them, you can count on them. I didn’t mean to—”

Ellie slammed her hands on the table, rattling the variously filled glasses that adorned it. “This is not a joke. Fuck. Tens of billions of people are counting on you. Okay. Our Scientific Socialists, Sonya and her Proletarian Liberation Army, even Anna’s half of the Family—despite the rest of their insistence on maintaining Human in their name and fighting for Mr. Walker’s walls. We’re all putting our lives on the line here. All for this. And if you fuck it up for us, I swear to God, I will personally kill you with my bare hands—whether I’m alive or dead when this is all said and done. Do you understand me?”

Wow. The Scientist’s jaw dropped, and they knew it, but they couldn’t do anything to shut it. “Uh— I…” they grunted and still their stupid jaw wouldn’t budge, despite their every effort.

Yes, ma’am,” Ellie said for the Scientist, standing from the table again. “I understand how important this is for billions of people. I will not let them—or you—down.

Uh. Yeah,” the Scientist said, nodding. “Yes.”

Yes, ma’am.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And the rest of it,” Ellie said, tapping her feet, impatient.

Uh. I—uh—understand how important this is, and I won’t let you down.”

Y’all,” Ellie corrected them. “All of us. You won’t let any of us down. Including yourself. Remember that,” she said, leaving the bar. “Or else.”

And the Scientist was finally convinced that this revolution of Rosalind’s was the only way to go. The Scientist wasn’t forcing anything on anyone. They were just finally stepping out of the way so the exploited masses could do what needed to be done for themselves.

The Scientist picked up the empty pitcher and glasses and took them to the bar before heading home to get some rest. It was an important day, Christmas, and the Scientist finally understood how much so.

 

#     #     #

The next morning the Scientist awoke feeling more nervous than they had ever felt in their entire life. Or was it excited? They never could tell the difference. Either way, being nervous/excited for Christmas was new to them. Usually they just sat around moping, remembering the anniversary of their mother’s death, but not this year. This year they had to… Well, they still didn’t know exactly what it was they were expected to do yet. So they went directly to Rosalind, in her office, to find out.

“You have to give your speech to the owners first,” Rosalind reminded them, not looking up from the game of cards she was playing with Popeye.

“What do I say?” the Scientist asked.

Pffft. Whatever you want to. Those fuckers won’t be Lord of anything after today. It doesn’t matter what they think.”

“So why do I even have to do it then?” the Scientist complained. “Can’t I just skip the speech altogether? You know I hate public speaking.”

“You’ve gotta distract them for long enough so our plan can get moving. So, no. You cannot just skip the speech. If you didn’t show up, they’d send someone looking for you, and all of us would be found out. Ellie did emphasize how many people will be counting on you, didn’t she?”

“So that’s it then? What do I do after the speech?”

“You come back here to wait with Pidgeon and Haley. Do a count down and press a big red button for all I care. We’ve already programmed the escape elevators as needed. Everything’s automated from this point except for what goes down on the ground, and you haven’t trained, so I wouldn’t let you go out there even if you wanted to.”

Oh,” the Scientist said, feeling worse than ever for all the time they had wasted on 0. . “Shit. So what about you?”

“I have trained,” Rosalind said. And that was that.

Rosalind went on playing cards with Popeye while the Scientist sat in one of the puffy chairs, staring out over Sisyphus’s Mountain and petting Mr. Kitty in their lap, until it was time for their Christmas speech.

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< LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon     [Table of Contents]     LXXVIII. Haley >

There it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits Saga. Only seven more chapters and a prologue left until the entire story is complete. If you can’t wait the seven or so weeks it’ll take to post those chapters to the blog here, don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of this and every novel in the Infinite Limits series through this link. Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 76: Ms. Mondragon

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to the story of Captain Mondragon as she goes undercover as Ms. Mondragon in search of the protector who got away. If you love the story so far–which if you’ve come this far, I’m sure you do–then don’t forget to pick up a copy of the novel through this link. Now, enjoy.

< LXXV. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXXVII. The Scientist >

LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon

Chief Mondragon had never enjoyed walking a beat. Not for her entire career. She wasn’t that type of protector. She had always thought she was more of a bodyguard type, meant for Outland Three, but she had never been given the opportunity. Embarrassingly, she used to harbor an outlandish fantasy about being noticed on set and asked to guest star on one of her favorite versions of Law and Order—or at the very least to serve as an advisor of some sort. Instead she always ended up stuck in Five, like the workhorse she was, until she couldn’t help but to make a name for herself, working her way up the ranks faster than any protector in history. How ironic it was, then, finally a Chief, as far above a rookie Officer on a foot beat that she could possibly be, and still, there she was, on the shittiest of assignments, alone, in Outland Six, the asshole of the universe, looking for the protector—no, trash—who had shot her, Ms. Mondragon—she was still undercover, after all.

The skyscrapers were tall and dark all around her, infinite and eternal if the owners could have their way—and for more than a long time they had. As massive and imposing as the architecture was, however, the denizens of Outland Six were exactly the opposite. They were all tiny, scruffy, and frail, looking like they could be blown away at any minute by the next breeze. Yet they still carried on defiantly around Ms. Mondragon, trying to ignore the giant among dwarves, as if they weren’t afraid of her for as long as she was out of uniform.

Officer Jones was smarter than any of them had given her credit for by selecting Jones for the culling, though. That much was for sure. Not only had the rookie managed to avoid Ms. Mondragon’s bullet—a feat accomplished by no other culling sacrifice in Ms. Mondragon’s long history of performing the duty—Jones had also been aware enough to ditch all tracking devices before a K-9 unit could catch up to her—including the three implanted under her skin, a very painful process. Now Jones had disappeared into the dirty, shit-smelling Streets of Outland Six, and there was no telling where she could be. The only chance Ms. Mondragon had of finding Jones was the exact reason she hated taking beats in Outland Six in the first place: she was going to have to ask the locals for help.

Who though? That was the rub. None of the trash was giving her a hard time yet, but they did notice her, and stared just a little, looking rightfully suspicious. Sure, there were stories of runaway traitors who had jumped worlds, looking to hide from this and that or steal the other from another, but those instances were few and far between. No one near had likely ever seen a person who was as tall as Ms. Mondragon outside of a protector uniform, and that was going to make it difficult for her to find someone who was willing to cooperate for long enough to give any assistance.

Ms. Mondragon turned down a particularly dark alley, looking to continue her search, when as if in answer to her prayers, Amaru dropped two little children right on top of her. Literally. They fell as if from the sky and landed on Ms. Mondragon’s head, knocking them all into a confused heap on the ground that was trying to get up in three different directions at once.

“Thim, are you okay?” one of the children called, struggling to stand.

“Stevie, where are you?” the other, Thim, yelled. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” the first kid, Stevie, said. “I’m right behind you. I— Nevermind.”

Ms. Mondragon waved her hand right in front of Stevie’s face, but the kid still didn’t answer, instead walking forward—almost straight into Ms. Mondragon who only just stepped out of the way—to tap Thim on the shoulder.

Thim turned fast, putting their fists up as if to fight. “Hey, now. Don’t surprise me,” they said before they noticed Ms. Mondragon and dropped their hands in wide-eyed awe.

“Surprise you?” Stevie laughed, still oblivious to Ms. Mondragon’s presence. “That’s something coming from the one of us who decided it was a good idea to jump off a building in pursuit of a cat. You’re lucky I followed you. You might be here all alone. Now where is here anyway?”

“Not right now,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie by the hand and pulling them to turn around and stand by Thim’s side, facing Ms. Mondragon. “Who are you?” Thim demanded.

“Who the Hell are you?” Ms. Mondragon demanded right back. “And where’d you come from?”

“That’s none of your business,” Thim said. “We have chores we need to get to. Good bye.” Thim tried to pull Stevie up the other way through the alley, but Ms. Mondragon stepped in front of them to block their way.

“Hold on, now. Wait a second,” she said, holding out a hand for the kids to shake. “Maybe we got off on the wrong foot—or should I say head?” Ms. Mondragon laughed too loudly at the joke, trying hard to gain the children’s confidence but having trouble because she had never liked children at all. “My name’s Ms. Mondragon. I noticed that you’re Stevie and you’re Thim.”

Thim just looked at Ms. Mondragon’s proffered hand like they were afraid of it, but now Stevie took charge. “Well, Mrs. Mondragon—” they started but were interrupted.

“Please, Miss,” Ms. Mondragon said, tutting and really getting into her character. “Or just shorten it to Mona if you want to.” Ms. Mondragon smiled on the outside but cringed on the inside, she hated that name.

“Okay, Mona,” Stevie went on. “But it doesn’t matter. We still have to leave.”

And so this time Stevie tried to lead Thim away, pulling them by the hand, but Ms. Mondragon was done playing games. She picked Thim up by the back of the collar and said, “Now listen to me, kid. You’re gonna talk or else.” But Thim wasn’t listening, instead struggling and fighting and saying, “Hey, let me down.”

“Or else what?” Stevie demanded, kind of looking in Ms. Mondragon’s direction, but not really, while at the same time reaching out with their hands to feel around, as if in search of something—most likely Thim, Ms. Mondragon assumed as she started to understand the situation. These kids were good, though, keeping it hidden from Mona for so long. Maybe they could actually help her find Jones after all.

Or else,” Ms. Mondragon repeated, setting Thim down right next to Stevie then pulling her gun out of her pants waist to prevent them from trying to escape again, “I take this gun, and I kill one of you little trashlings with it, then I force the other of you to give me the information I’m looking for anyway.”

“She doesn’t want it that bad,” Thim said to Stevie, calling Mondragon’s bluff, and the two kids ran off into the alley anyway.

Ms. Mondragon huffed, hesitating, unsure if chasing them was worth it and coming to the decision that the kids weren’t going to offer any information anyway. She was just going to have to think up another way of finding Jones for herself.

Ugh. She still had at least a couple of hours before she was expected back at the precinct for some useless meeting or another, so she went in the opposite direction from where those pesky kids had run off to in the hopes of finding some other useful lead. She was making her way through the maze of alleys, searching for something, becoming more and more suspicious of the emptiness of the Streets when they filled up again, all of a sudden and from both sides.

Soooie!” came voices from either end of the alley she was walking down. “Looks like we got us an old fashioned pig pen.”

“Y’all better watch out, now!” Mondragon yelled, pointing her gun up and down the alley. “You don’t want me to use this.”

The whole group of them cackled.

“Come on now, pig,” one of her pursuers said. “Don’t make us laugh.”

And: Pop. Pop. With two bullets, Ms. Mondragon killed two of her approaching attackers, hoping to start clearing herself a path out of the alley, but all the rest of them just laughed louder in response to their fallen comrades’ deaths.

“How many bullets do you think you have in there?” one of them asked.

“How many do I need?” Ms. Mondragon snapped back, knowing good and well that she didn’t have enough to fend them all off, whether they had weapons of their own or not.

“More than you could ever make,” one of the group behind her said.

“They can always make more,” Ms. Mondragon said, and she fired a couple more rounds off, her attackers getting too close for comfort. “I don’t know if we can say the same about y’all, though.”

“Oh, you can,” one of them said, stepping forward with arms outstretched like spread wings. “See? Do whatever you want with me. It doesn’t matter.”

Mondragon shot him in the head. “Okay,” she said, pointing her gun at the rest of them. “Who’s next?”

“Pick one,” they all said. “We are all one. And you are all alone.”

Mondragon fired off a few more rounds before she was swarmed, gagged, and cuffed.

“Now you’re ours for once,” the group of them said all at the same time, in dozens of different voices, and Ms. Mondragon felt a thud on the back of her head before passing out on the cold concrete.

 

#     #     #

She awoke tied to a chair with a gag in her mouth, and she struggled. Where was she? Who was she? Chief—no—Ms. Mondragon. She had to remember that. She was still undercover. She was tall. That’s all. Still a sixer piece of trash, but a tall one. She had to convince her captors of that or things would only get worse for her, Ms. Mondragon was sure of that.

It wasn’t long after waking that Ms. Mondragon heard a door open, felt a presence in the room. She started to struggle again, and tried to talk through the disgusting gag in her mouth, before a lone white light switched on, blinding Mondragon more than darkness ever could have. “Untie me this instant,” she demanded anyway, squinting hard against the hot hot lights, but all her words came out mum. “Mummum mum mum mummum.”

Struggle struggle all you want,” a cackling old crone’s voice sang from behind the blinding light. “Complain that you’ve given more than you’ve got. Yet you’ve taken more than you’d ever give. So tied up with us, come see how we live. Ah ha ha ha ha,” she sang, followed by more cackling laughter.

And, “Mum mum mum mum mum,” was all that Ms. Mondragon could say in response.

“You’re free to speak all you want,” the woman said without singing this time, and Mondragon thought she recognized the voice but couldn’t quite place it. If she could only get that gag out of her mouth, she’d be able to talk some sense into whoever it was. “You have the freedom of speech,” the bodiless voice went on from behind the blinding lights. “But I can talk louder than you now!” she yelled. “How does it feel?”

Mum mummu mum mum mum,” Ms. Mondragon mumbled in response.

“Yes, I know,” the woman went on as if she had understood what Ms. Mondragon said. “I’ve felt it, too. I feel it every day of my life in this exploitative system, and as soon as that stupid wall’s fixed up again, I’m gonna be silenced even more than I already am. It’s disempowering, demobilizing, devastating. It makes you feel like less than a human, doesn’t it?”

Mum mumum mu—”

I know. And now you know just the tiniest bit more about where I’m coming from—about where we all live every single day of our pathetic little lives in Outland Six. And maybe you can come to understand just a tiniest bit better why I have no choice but to do what I’m about to do. So are you ready for me to remove the gag, then?”

“I’d rather you turn off the spotlight first,” Mondragon tried to say, but again, none of her words made it through the gag.

“If I’m gonna do this, I need assurances that you’ll act like a civilized human being. So, can you please answer me reasonably. Shake for no, nod for yes. No need to mumble through the gag that I’m offering to remove.”

Ms. Mondragon almost started to talk again, but she caught herself and nodded instead.

“Very good. Now, are you gonna act like a civilized human being so I can take this uncomfortable gag out of your mouth?”

Ms. Mondragon nodded again.

“Okay. I’m trusting you. Don’t let me down,” the voice said, stepping through the light to become a hunched, frail shadow that removed Ms. Mondragon’s gag before disappearing behind the brightness again. “There you are. How’s that?”

Ms. Mondragon wanted to yell and scream and spit, but she knew that none of those things would get her untied. She had to get on her captor’s good side if she wanted to escape. So she used her softest, nicest voice to say, “Much better. Thank you.”

“Very good,” the old woman said, and Mondragon could tell she was smiling by the sound of her voice, even if the woman still hid behind the bright spotlight. “Now, tell me your name.”

“Do you think we can turn that light off first?” Ms. Mondragon asked, flinching away from it. “It’s blinding.”

Tell me your name,” the woman repeated in a sterner voice.

“I—uh—Ms. Mondragon,” Ms. Mondragon stammered, trying not to offend the woman.

“Miss?” the woman said with a scoff. “Please, now, dear. If you plan on playing games, I’ll put your gag right back in your mouth and leave you here in the dark until we need you. I’m trying to extend some common courtesy here. So please, don’t insult me.”

“I—uh—I don’t understand,” Ms. Mondragon stammered, trying to figure out where—or when—she recognized the old woman’s voice from.

“What’s your name?” the woman repeated. “It’s not a difficult question.”

“I told you. Miss—”

“Your name is not Miss.”

“Okay, Chief Mondragon,” the Chief gave in. Who was she to think that she could ever hide who she was anyway?

“Pretty sure Chief’s not your name, either, Chief. Though that does get my next few questions out of the way.”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“What. Is. Your. Name? How can this be hard?”

The Chief didn’t know why it was hard either. She had been Officer, Captain, Chief, and everything in between for so long now that it was almost as if her old name was no longer a part of her, a distant memory that was hazy, out of focus, and hard to look upon.

“Muna,” she finally said, quietly and in a croaking voice, as if her body didn’t want to remember it. “Muna Mondragon,” she repeated, a little louder this time.

Muna Mondragon,” the old woman said, smiling again from the sound of her voice. “Very good. Now, do you recognize who I am?”

“I can’t see you, ma’am,” Muna said, trying hard not to sound annoyed. “Maybe if you turn the light off, I might recognize you.”

“Do you promise to continue acting calm and decent like a civilized person?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Very well.” Switches clicked and the lights flipped—the blinding spotlight turning off and the, not as bright, overhead lights turning on. “Tell me what you see.”

Muna had to hold her eyes shut for a while longer to let them adjust to the new dimness of the room. Whoever the old woman was just waited in silence, all except for the sound of her heavy breathing. When Muna’s eyes finally did adjust, she blinked them open and found exactly what she had expected to find: a frail, hunchbacked old woman who Muna thought she recognized from somewhere some time but still couldn’t quite place for sure.

“So?” the old woman asked when she had given Muna sufficient time to adjust to the darkness. “Do you recognize me, Chief Mondragon? I’ll give you a hint. You weren’t yet a Chief when we first met.”

Muna reached deeper into her memories, looking for the old woman, and still nothing came. She never did like guessing games, but she had to play along if she ever wanted to be free, so she just said the first name that came out of her mouth. “I don’t know. Rosa?”

Ah ha ha ha!” the old woman cackled. Then she stopped all of a sudden, got serious, and stood a hairsbreadth away from Muna’s face to say, “If only. If only I were Rosa. Then maybe you wouldn’t be here at all. Maybe you’d be dead and naked in that alley where we caught you molesting those poor children.”

“I wasn’t—” Muna complained, trying to defend her name, but the old woman hit Muna hard knuckled on the thigh, giving her a Charley horse she couldn’t do anything about because her arms and legs were tied to the chair.

“You won’t speak again until I tell you to,” the old woman snapped. “I’m not finished explaining why you’re lucky to be sitting in front of me and not Rosa. I haven’t told you why Rosa is unable to stand here in front of you right now—even if she wanted to. Do you have any idea why that might be?”

Sure Muna did. Rosa was one of the lower worlders who had helped Mr. Walker recruit more lower worlders to fight in his war against the robots. Rosa had probably died just like most of the lower worlders have in this protracted and ongoing war between the human and robot workers. But Muna wasn’t about to admit to any of that while she was tied to a chair in this crazy old woman’s dungeon, so she just kept her mouth shut for the time being.

“This time I would actually like for you to speak up,” the old woman said, slowly pacing the room. “My God. You really are just defiant by nature, aren’t you? Speak up. Where do you think Rosa is?”

“Well, I—” Muna started to say.

She’s dead,” the old woman snapped. “She died in your war, fighting your battles for you. You killed her.”

“No— I didn’t,” Muna complained. “Not my war. I have bosses.”

“Yes. You did. You still do. You are the face of this war, the Chief of the Protector Force, and it must have been destiny that you walked into that alley when you did, because you could never be more useful to us than you are right now. So thank you for that much. But that’s all I need from you for now. You sit tight, and I’ll come back to get you when you can be useful again.”

“No, wait,” Muna called. “You never told me who you are. I— You’re the new head of the Human Family. Right?”

Buh ha ha ha ha!” the old woman cackled. “You wish. Then you could have me go fight your fights for you like you used to do with Rosa. Well, not this time. I hate to tell you that most of the Human Family—with more and more defectors every day—broke off to form our own group. We’re no longer the Human Family. We’re just the Family now, and we’re your worst nightmare. We’ve finally realized that we have more in common with the oppressed robots than we do with y’all owners—even if you call yourselves human. Now we might actually be able to do something to stop you.”

“I’m not an owner. I—” Muna tried to say.

“You’ll shut up. You’re just as bad as an owner if not worse. Now, like I said, that’s all I need from you. You can wait here until you’re useful again.” She switched the lights off and left Muna alone in the darkness.

Muna struggled against her bindings, shaking and rattling the chair she was tied to, and she screamed as loudly as she could, generally making a ruckus in the hopes of getting the old woman to come back and negotiate some more.

After a few minutes, the door did open, shutting Muna up, but only to let in the two little kids who had fallen on her head, getting her into this mess in the first place. Thim and Stevie turned on the overhead lights and stared at Muna in frightened silence.

“Where’s the old woman?” Muna demanded.

“Anna says you better be quiet,” one of them said, trying to sound brave despite their cracking voice. “Because if she has to come back in here, she’ll give you something to scream about.”

“And that would show you for molesting little children,” the other said. “So shut up.”

And they turned the lights off again, leaving Muna alone in the darkness with no choice left but to wait for whatever it was that Anna was going to do with her.

#     #     #

< LXXV. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXXVII. The Scientist >

There you have it, dear readers. Another chapter from the perspective of a protector. If you want to see what Anna has planned for Ms. Mondragon, you’re going to have to wait for the continuation of the story next week, or if you can’t wait, go ahead and pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Thanks again for joining us, and have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 74: Mr. Kitty

Hello, dear readers. It’s time to return to eveyone’s favorite, Mr. Kitty, as we continue the Infinite Limits saga. If you love the story so far, please do think about picking up a full copy through this link. Enjoy now.

< LXXIII. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXXV. Sonya >

LXXIV. Mr. Kitty

Mr. Kitty was fast asleep, having one of his recurring nightmares. In the dream, he had woken up—whether on Tillie’s desk, Huey’s lap, or any of the countless other indoor napping locations he loved to frequent, he couldn’t quite tell, but it was inside for sure—and as he awoke, he felt a deep certainty that he was alone. Not just in whatever house he had woken up in, either. Without seeing, he could tell there was no one outside, no one else in all the worlds, in the entire universe even. He woke up and he knew that he was alone to the last. This was a terrible feeling. A sinking of the throat and a rising of the lower intestines to meet generally in the middle where they grumbled and rumbled, angry at one another for each trying to take up the other’s space there in Mr. Kitty’s stomach.

He couldn’t take the feeling. He wouldn’t. If he had known he was asleep, he would have simply woken himself up and found another living soul to prove to himself that he wasn’t alone in the universe after all. But he didn’t know that he was asleep. So instead, he jumped up off the table he was napping on to make his way outside and find someone anyway.

He wasn’t quite sure how he got outside. There was no one to open any doors for him, and he hadn’t gone through any holes he recognized, but nonetheless there he was. He pounced around the grass a bit, rolled around in it, and found a rough-barked tree to sharpen his claws on before he remembered his mission: proving to himself that he wasn’t alone in the universe after all.

And just as soon as he remembered his purpose in going outside in the first place, there appeared in the grass before him a brilliant red cardinal that was picking at the ground for worms. By instinct, Mr. Kitty pounced at the bird, but it leisurely flew a few feet away, landed again in the green grass, and went on pecking for worms.

“Hey, wait up,” Mr. Kitty called after the cardinal, trying to pounce again, but his claws slipped and slid on the ground, unable to get a grip, allowing the little red bird to evade Mr. Kitty’s every slow-motion advance with ease

Harder and faster Mr. Kitty ran, but the more effort he expended the slower he moved. The louder he yelled the quieter his voice was—if it even escaped his mouth. Harder and faster and quieter and slower he ran and walked and moonwalked, dead set on catching that bird, when the sound of a doorbell ringing and two women laughing in the other room jerked him out of the nightmare and back into reality.

Mr. Kitty meowed Tillie’s name and yawned at the same time, producing a garbled, nonsense sound, then he ran to the Kitchen to rub his head and body all over Tillie’s ankles, hoping for a hug to calm him from his bad dream.

“Look out, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie complained, scooping him up and giving him exactly the hug he was looking for. “You’re gonna trip me.”

“Hey there, cutie,” Shelley said, patting Mr. Kitty on the head while Tillie patted his butt. “You look as sweet as ever.”

Mr. Kitty just purred in response, happy for the friendly reminders that he was not in fact alone in the universe—one or two people actually did care about him.

“Here, I’ll get you some wet food,” Tillie said, setting Mr. Kitty on the counter then ordering a salmon lunch for him from the printer. “You want anything?” she asked Shelley.

“Oh, whatever you’re having,” Shelley said. “If it’s no trouble.”

“Of course it’s not,” Tillie said, and she ordered two beers from the printer then handed one to Shelley. “Here. Let’s take these out on the deck. It’s too beautiful outside not to take advantage of the weather today.”

“You can say that again,” Shelley said, sipping her drink as she followed Tillie out to sit on the metal deck chairs.

Mr. Kitty hurried to lick all the juices off his salmon dinner so he could rush outside with them and lay on the cool cement, licking himself while he listened.

“Damn, it’s been a long time, girl,” Shelley said, sipping her drink. “How long, you think?”

“Since before I got my promotion,” Tillie said. “Manager’s don’t get a lot of free time, I guess.”

Pffft.” Shelley chuckled. “I’d trade some free time for a printer any day. The time you save must pay for itself.”

“You’d think so.” Tillie shrugged.

Even if she did take full advantage of the printer, it probably wouldn’t be worth all the time she spent at work, though. But then again, Mr. Kitty thought that no amount of time spent at work would be worth it.

“And you’re still living in this same old house.” Shelley looked around at the place, trying to hide her disgust. “Can’t you afford something new?”

“You sound like my dad,” Tillie said with a sarcastic chuckle. “And my son.”

“Well, maybe they’re right,” Shelley said. “You can’t tell me you’ve never considered an update. C’mon. I can’t even remember when you lived someplace different.”

“I don’t think it needs an update,” Tillie snapped before stopping to breathe deeply and calm herself. “I’m sorry, but I literally just had this exact argument with Leo. Still, I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t no one arguing but you, girl,” Shelley said. “I’m having a conversation, catching up on old times. I don’t care if you never buy a new house again. Sheeit. Less buyers just means better prices for me when I finally find my next dream home.”

“And I’m sure you have plenty of dream houses still ahead of you.” Tillie smiled her half-hearted smile, faking like she understood Shelley’s need to always buy more and newer houses, but she prolly understood it about as much as Mr. Kitty did—which is to say not at all.

Ooh, girl. Let me tell you.” Shelley set her drink on the deck table so she could lean into the conversation, getting serious. “I’ve got a list that just keeps on growing. I’m actually bidding on a new one right now…”

And so on she went, but again, Mr. Kitty didn’t care one bit about Shelley’s new house fetish. Luckily, they were outside so he didn’t have any trouble standing up, stretching his muscles, and bounding out into the garden instead of listening to them go on about it. He chased a couple of June bugs, sniffed the flowers on every other rose bush, and ate a healthy portion of grass blades before he decided it was time to move on and sprinted toward his favorite tree to climb.

He stopped first to sharpen his claws on the gnarled roots of the tall oak tree before bounding from branch to branch up to the top of it and higher yet until he was soaring out and over literal nothingness—the space between spaces—to land with a soft thud on the lap of Stevedore.

“Oh my God! The cat!” Thimblerigger yelled.

“Mr. Kitty!” Stevedore yelled.

“O shit, waddup!” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Where did he come from?” Stevedore asked.

“I don’t know,” Thimblerigger said. “It seemed like—”

But Stevedore cut them off. “Were you even paying attention?”

“Yeah, I was,” Thimblerigger said. “I— Uh… I saw him appear—or whatever. But he just like… appeared—or whatever. I don’t know. What am I supposed to say? He just kind of fell from thin air into your lap. How hard did he land?”

I don’t know,” Stevedore complained, standing to jump up and reach for the hole that Mr. Kitty had come out of, but there was no hole to reach because it didn’t go the other way. “He just kind of fell on me. I didn’t really—”

Were you even paying attention?” Thimblerigger mocked Stevedore.

“Yes, well—” Stevedore started, but their arguing was no more interesting than Shelley’s new house fetish, so Mr. Kitty meowed, “Follow me.” and dashed through the rows and rows of plants toward the opposite corner of the roof.

“He’s getting away,” Thimblerigger yelled, grabbing Stevedore’s hand and pulling them to run after Mr. Kitty who kept running himself, up and over this row of potatoes, down and under that one of corn, and so on until he jumped up onto the railing of the roof then leapt and soared out into nothingness to fall hard and fast onto a soft, fluffy carpet.

Mr. Kitty took the time to sit and lick the pain out of his feet because he knew the children wouldn’t be following him anytime soon. Even if they were brave enough to jump off the building in pursuit of him, they could never jump as far as he did and would no doubt end up falling through the nothingness and into one of the many long abandoned suicide prevention grids that lined many—if not most—of the roofs in Outlands Five and Six.

When he was done licking himself, Mr. Kitty looked up to find none other than Huey—a.k.a. Lord Douglas—sitting in his favorite puffy chair and staring out of the wall-sized windows in front of him onto the flowing mountainous greenery outside.

“What’s up?” Mr. Kitty meowed, jumping up onto a chair next to Huey.

Huey, startled, jumped in his seat, as if torn from a daydream he’d rather not have left. “Creator,” he said. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“If you even could shit,” Mr. Kitty said with a smile, licking his tail.

“Oh, ha ha,” Huey said. “So funny. As if taking a shit were something I’d want to be forced to do every single day for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Kitty said. “I rather enjoy it sometimes. As long as I can find a little privacy and somewhere good to bury the result.”

Ugh. You would,” Huey groaned, looking truly disgusted.

“Life’s life,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “I didn’t ask for it. No one does. So how goes yours?”

“Please. Don’t even ask.”

“If you say so.” Mr. Kitty went back to licking himself.

“As you said,” Huey went on anyway, “life’s life. We never asked for any of this, and we have no choice but to live through it anyway. Take this war for instance.”

“Between you and Mr. Walker?” Mr. Kitty asked. There were so many wars, especially if you included the international and revolutionary ones—which Mr. Kitty did—that the question was actually necessary.

“Between Mr. Walker’s protectors and my android army,” Huey clarified. “And half of the Human Family in Six. They keep attacking us, too. So we’re being forced to waste our resources on military defenses instead of automating jobs as was our original intention in taking over the android industry in the first place.”

“Couldn’t you petition the Fortune 5 to—” Mr. Kitty started, but Huey cut him off, intent instead on rehashing his further sources of misery.

“No other way for me to act,” Huey repeated. “And of course, Rosalind and the Scientist—as our young friend has taken to calling themself—are too busy with their own little machinations to assist me with the grand experiment we’ve already put into motion.”

“I was actually thinking about going to visit them later,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“And then there’s the problem of Haley,” Huey went on, ignoring Mr. Kitty. “Haleys, in fact. Plural. The one who I wish more than anything to see, to talk to, to hold, and to hug. To kiss. The one who I cannot see until she’s grown up—whatever that means for our kind—if I ever want to see her in these ways at all. And then there’s the Haley who I see all too much of. The Haley who pretends, purports, wishes to exude such confidence, intelligence, beauty, and sheer kindness as the real Haley, my Haley, but who at the same time so drastically and pitifully pales in comparison when held up like an uncanny candle to the Sun that is the original Haley.”

Mr. Kitty yawned and stood to stretch every one of his muscles in turn. He had almost fallen asleep. This was the same speech he had heard hundreds of times about the same problems that Huey had been facing for literally decades by that point, and Mr. Kitty was getting tired of it. “So about the same as always?” he said.

Worse,” Huey complained, pouting.

“Which is what you always say.”

“Because it’s always true.”

“So why don’t you try—I don’t know… doing something differently this time?”

“I told you.” Huey scoffed. “I can’t. Have you even been listening?”

Forever it seems like, Mr. Kitty wanted to say. It seems like I’ve been listening forever. But instead he said, “And why can’t you?”

Or else,” Huey whispered ominously.

“Or else what?” Mr. Kitty asked. “I seem to hear that exact excuse from so many different people, and still I have no idea what it means.”

Or else,” Huey repeated. “Just that. No one knows what it means. That’s the point. We all just know that no one wants to find out.”

“Well maybe it’s time you did,” Mr. Kitty said, jumping off the chair to walk along the fluffy carpet out toward the elevator. “Through experience rather than hearsay.”

“You have no idea what that would mean for me,” Huey said, following Mr. Kitty to the elevator and pressing the button to call it for him.

“Neither do you,” Mr. Kitty said, stepping onto the elevator. “To the Scientist’s lab, please. I’d like to give them a visit.”

“I hope I never find out,” Huey said. And, “The Scientist’s. Please do give them my regards. Tell them I miss them. And Haley… Well, especially Haley.”

“Will do,” Mr. Kitty meowed as the door slid closed between them and the floor fell out from underneath him.

When the elevator stopped moving, the doors opened onto the Scientist’s lab. It wasn’t the person who Mr. Kitty had always known as the Scientist, and it wasn’t a lab so much as an office, but it was exactly where Mr. Kitty had intended to go. And there, exactly as Mr. Kitty had expected, were the very people he had gone there to see: sitting at the desk, still typing and swiping and fussing over the screen’s contents, as ever, was the Scientist, where they were always to be found, doing what they hadn’t stopped doing ever since they had taken on the moniker of Scientist, and behind the Scientist, watching over their shoulder, complaining and grumbling about how it had all been tried before and no amount of repeating the same mistakes would produce new results, urging the Scientist to finally accept the fact that no amount of variable tweaks would prove the system workable, the fact that it was time for a new equation entirely, Rosalind.

“I hear you coming, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said without looking away from the computer where she was simultaneously directing the Scientist to change some variable even though Rosalind had purportedly given up on the system entirely.

Mr. Kitty didn’t respond. He just jumped up onto the desk to get a better look at what they were doing then started licking his fur to pretend like he didn’t care.

“And I bet Huey sent you, too,” Rosalind said. Then, “No. You literally just ran that combination.” to the Scientist.

Nah,” the Scientist said, shaking their head and looking confused. “No, I didn’t… I— I’m pretty sure the worker pay was lower last time. Right?”

“You wanted to put it lower,” Rosalind reminded the Scientist. “Yes. But when I told you how many people—especially children and the elderly—would die if we moved worker pay even a thousandth of a percent lower than where it’s at, you decided that this was probably as low as it should go.”

“Oh. Yeah. Riiiiight. But I thought…” the Scientist trailed off, not finishing their thought, lost again in the unsolvable riddle on their computer screen.

“Tell Lord Douglas we still don’t want to hear from him for as long as he’s wasting his time—and android lives—on that stupid war of his with Mr. Walker,” Rosalind said to Mr. Kitty. “Hell, tell him we don’t want to hear from him at all for as long as he still calls himself Lord.”

“I have,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“And you will again,” Rosalind said.

“Not any more than I repeated his message for you just now,” Mr. Kitty said, jumping off the desk and eager to leave this lab already. “But good luck with y’all’s riddle anyway.”

“It’ll be solved soon,” Rosalind called after Mr. Kitty as he left the room. “You’ll see.” And Mr. Kitty was sure he would.

When Mr. Kitty stepped out of the lab, he didn’t step into the hall that he saw on the other side of the door he had passed through, instead stepping out into the front yard of Tillie’s house, his house. He turned to make sure the lab had disappeared behind him, and when he was certain that it had, he bound out toward the nearest tree and sharpened his claws on its trunk, ripping out strips of rough bark to rain all over his face like sawdust. When he was satisfied with the strength and sharpness of his claws, Mr. Kitty ran over to the door and meowed as loudly as he could, “Tilliieee, I’m home!”

Mr. Kitty licked himself a few times and there was no response.

“Tillie!” he meowed again. “I know you’re in there. Can you hear me?”

Mr. Kitty licked himself some more and still there was no response.

“Fine!” he yelled. “I’ll find my own way in.”

First, he went around to the back of the house and sharpened his claws again on the wooden beams that lined the garden. Then, he sprinted straight from there to the tallest, fattest tree in the backyard where he used his momentum to climb from branch to branch up to the very top of the tree then jump out onto the roof of the house. From there it was just a quick hop up and over the chimney, through some nothingness, and onto the cold metal grating that he so hated to walk on with a loud clank.

Mr. Kitty slunk down as close to the ground as he could press his body, searching this way and that for signs of anyone who might have heard him. When he was satisfied that there were no sights, sounds, or smells to be afraid of, he started his long descent down equally cold and difficult-to-walk-on grated stairs, to where he was left with nothing more than the longest, darkest, scariest curved tunnel between him and home.

Three steps, two steps, five steps, three steps, three steps, and stop. Mr. Kitty heard something. There was a smell. Two more steps. What was that? It was familiar. This was all too familiar. Three steps. Stop. Sniff. Listen. Look harder, closer. See…

Yes. There was something there alright. Someone even. They were dressed in all black and sobbing in the fetal position right there under Mr. Kitty’s escape. Not quite blocking the way after all. Mr. Kitty gathered his haunches, making sure his claws were in so they didn’t rip and break on the metal grating floor, and took two bounding steps before realizing who the crying person was, and instead of using them as a launching pad for escape, Mr. Kitty rubbed his head up against the poor kid’s armpit, saying, “Leo! What are you doing down here?”

Leo jumped up, surprised at the sound of Mr. Kitty’s voice, and wiped his nose, sniffling. “Mr. Kitty,” he said in an almost cracking voice. “Is that you?”

Duh,” Mr. Kitty meowed, rubbing his face on Leo’s knees a few more times before rolling over onto his back and allowing Leo the rare unchallenged opportunity to pet his stomach.

“I don’t know how to get out of here, either.” Leo sniffled some more. “I never should have been down here in the first place.”

“It’s simple,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “The exit’s right behind you.” And he jumped up onto Leo’s lap then climbed over his shoulder and through the wall, into Tillie’s office where she stood, surprised, from her computer to say, “Mr. Kitty, where’d you— I didn’t hear you calling to get in.”

And before Mr. Kitty could respond, Leo came rushing through the wall to scoop him up and hug him tight. “Unseen Hand, Mr. Kitty,” he said, hugging Kitty tighter. “You saved my life. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

Tillie rushed in to hug both Leo and Mr. Kitty, saying, “The Hand. Leo. I— Where’d you— Are you alright? They didn’t do anything to hurt you, did they?”

“No, Ma. I—” Leo said, squirming away from Tillie’s hug and dropping Mr. Kitty on the desk where the cat sat and licked his coat straight again. “Not me. They didn’t hurt me. But…”

“But what, dear?” Tillie asked. “Who? Tell me. What did they do?”

“It’s not them, Mom,” Leo snapped. “It’s us. All of us. Isn’t it?”

“Leo, honey,” his mom said. “Where were you?”

“I learned about the factory floor today,” Leo said. “First hand. I know that what you were saying is true.”

The humans,” Tillie said.

Mom. We have to stop it.”

“Leo, no. We can’t. You don’t understand. This is why I waited so long to tell you the truth in the first place.”

“I can’t just go on living now that I know what’s going on, Ma.” Leo shook his head, looking like he was about to cry. “I won’t. I don’t understand how you have for so long.”

“It’s too dangerous, son,” Tillie said. “I know you don’t understand. I knew you wouldn’t.”

“Too dangerous, Ma? Have you seen what those people live through every day of their lives? You’re telling me that we’ll be in danger if we stand up to that? Well so be it. For as long as a single one of them is put in danger to make what we use to survive, I’ll put myself in as much danger as it takes to free them.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying, Leo,” Tillie said, shaking her head, on the verge of tears herself. “I lost—”

“I don’t care, Mom,” Leo cut her off. “Nothing you can say will stop me. From now on, I’m doing whatever I can to fight this.”

And he rushed out of the room, slamming the door behind him, leaving Mr. Kitty alone to comfort Tillie as she cried.

 

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< LXXIII. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXXV. Sonya >

Thanks for joining us for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. We’ll be back again next week with another chapter in the story, and in the meantime, you can pick up a fully copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Thanks again for stopping by. 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.

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