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.

 

#     #     #

< 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.

#     #     #

< 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.

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< 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 72: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to two of my favorite characters, Thimblerigger and Stevedore in the poorest of Outlands, so let’s jump right into it. And don’t forget, you can buy a full copy of the novel through this link. Purchase the print version and get the ebook for free. Enjoy.

< LXXI. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXIII. Jorah >

LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Thimblerigger and Stevedore slept—or stayed awake as the case had actually been—in their makeshift tent on the shaded corner of Momma BB’s Safehouse’s veggie garden roof just like they used to do when they were little kids, before they had important chores to perform in the mornings. Mr. Kitty never showed up, though, so most of their time was spent under the almost gray darkness of a light polluted sky, wondering if there really could be stars beyond it like Momma BB had taught them. That, and of course, Thim kept experimenting with coin flips, but Stevie tried to ignore the sound of it and focus instead on the dull white noise of the cityscape. They stayed up in shifts all through the night, doing one or the other, until morning came and Stevie went down to bring breakfast back up so they didn’t have to listen to any more of Thim’s coin flips.

Ugh. You always pick the ugliest sausages,” Thim complained when Stevie had brought a plate up to them, but that didn’t stop Thim from diving into the meal. “I swear, it looks like this one still has a tail. Who ground this batch, anyway?”

Stevie shrugged, eating their meal and happy to have a short break from Thim’s never ending repetition of the word “tails”, allowing them to finally listen to the soothing background noise of the Streets. “It makes no difference to me,” they said. “It all tastes the same going down.”

“Maybe it still is the same,” Thim said, thoughtfully. “The same sausage we ate for lunch yesterday because time still hasn’t started back up again.”

“God, no.” Stevie groaned. “Not your coin flips again. Please. The sun has set and risen. We’re in a new day with no chores in front of us. Of course time has gone forward.”

“I don’t know.” Thim shook their head. “I still say the evidence is inconclusive.”

“Then I don’t care if time has stopped,” Stevie said, exasperated. “It feels the same to me either way, so let’s just get on with our lives.”

“Yeah, but get on to what?” Thim asked, done with eating and back to flipping their coin. “We don’t even have chores to do, so what else is there?”

Everything. There’s everything in the worlds to do. Anything we want. Starting with what we came up here to do, find that Mr. Kitty.”

“Yeah. But we just have to sit here and wait for that,” Thim said, making a face each time they flipped tails again. “I might as well keep flipping while we do. It’s more efficient.”

“Or you could relax for a minute. Sheesh. Why do you need to be so efficient with this coin flipping anyway, huh? What’s the hurry?”

Thim shrugged, still flipping. “I don’t know,” they said. “I just gotta know.”

“Well it doesn’t look like you can hurry your answers any more than we can hurry Mr. Kitty. So sit back, relax, and cool it with that coin flipping for a minute. Please.”

Thim flipped the coin one more time, cringed at another instance of tails, then stopped to actually consider the prospect before deciding on a compromise and going back to flipping the coin in a more leisurely manner, something more like twice a minute instead of the twice a second rate they had been going at.

“So, you’re really interested in where this cat comes from. Aren’t you?” Thim said.

“Yeah. So?” Stevie shrugged. “I thought you were, too.”

“Oh. Sure, sure,” Thim said. “But I have been ever since we first saw Mr. Kitty. So… What I’m wondering is why you’re so interested all of a sudden.”

“I don’t know…” Stevie said, looking away so Thim couldn’t really see their words. “I guess I…”

“Look at me when you’re talking,” Thim complained. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

“I guess I’m just curious,” Stevie said, making their mouth motions as big and obvious as they could while they spoke. “Aren’t you?”

Curious, you say?” Thim said, holding back on flipping their coin for a while. “What a curious choice of words.”

“And purposeful,” Stevie said, nodding

Nah.” Thim didn’t really believe that. Did they? “Really?”

“You don’t think it’s possible?” Stevie asked.

“Who? Mr. Kitty? The Curious Cat?”

Stevie nodded.

“I thought you were making fun of me when you used to say that,” Thim said. “Pulling my leg. Like that time you said Momma BB had gullible written on her butt and I actually went to check.”

Stevie laughed. “I still don’t know how you believed I could have known. I never went around feeling Momma BB’s butt. Huh huh ha.”

“I don’t know,” Thim said, embarrassed. “Sometimes I forget. But that’s beside the point. Do you really think Mr. Kitty could be the Curious Cat? You weren’t just kidding?”

“Why not?” Stevie shrugged. “He comes and goes as he pleases, appearing out of thin air.”

“We haven’t seen him appear out of thin air,” Thim corrected Stevie.

“No, but that’s what we’re here for, right? To finally see it. So you better be paying attention and not flipping some stupid coin.”

“I’m not,” Thim said, and they actually hadn’t been, but Stevie had reminded them so they flipped one more tails before taking the stakeout seriously again. They hadn’t known that Stevie actually cared, or they would have been paying more attention from the beginning. “I promise.”

Good. Because Mr. Kitty could come out anywhere at any time, and I’m afraid he won’t make a noise when he does.”

“I’ll be looking,” Thim said. “I’ll make sure to find him. I didn’t know it was so important to you.”

“It’s not that important,” Stevie snapped, getting defensive for some reason. “I mean, it is important. Keep your eyes peeled. But I— I’m not pinning my hopes on it. Okay. I’m not that stupid. I just thought it might be nice if he was the Curious Cat. That’s all.”

“Nicer than what?” Thim asked. “The revolution?”

“I don’t know,” Stevie said, embarrassed again. “Yeah. No. Nicer than this. Just better than what we have now.”

“But we’re working to make this better for ourselves,” Thim said. “We don’t have to wait and watch and hope for Mr. Kitty to show us the way to Prosperity. Prosperity ain’t even real. Okay. It’s not a place. It can’t be.”

“Oh. And how do you know that? Why are you out here watching with me if you’re so certain he’s not the Curious Cat? Why do you even care?”

“I can go back to flipping my coin,” Thim said, flipping it and coming up tails again. Stevie started to protest, but Thim cut them off. “But I won’t. Because you care. And I want to help you. And I want to know where Mr. Kitty comes from whether it’s Prosperity or not.”

“Yeah. Okay,” Stevie said, nodding. “Those are pretty good reasons. But what if Mr. Kitty did come from Pro—” But they didn’t finish their sentence, instead standing up and turning their head in every direction like they had heard Mr. Kitty. “Did you hear that?”

Uh.” Thim shook their head. Of course not.

“I can’t hear the rocks rattling around in your head,” Stevie complained. “I said did you hear that?”

“I didn’t hear anything, you dolt,” Thim complained right back. “Look at me when you’re talking. It’s like I’m getting bad reception on a radio. What’d you hear?”

“Gun shots,” Stevie said, looking truly worried.

“Gun shots?” Thim tried to laugh but they ended up kind of just snorting instead. “That’s it?” They went back to flipping their coin every minute or so. “Ain’t never seen you so afraid of gunshots before.”

“These are different,” Stevie said, shaking their head. “Louder somehow. I don’t like the sound of it.”

“They were prolly just closer than you’ve ever been to shots actually fired,” Thim said, trying to convince themself just as much as they were trying to convince Stevie by that point. “Someone done something they shouldn’t have, or stuck their nose in somewhere it doesn’t belong, and now they’re paying the consequences for it. Simple as that. You know how justice works in the Streets.”

“Yeah. I do,” Stevie said. “You do, too. Mostly it doesn’t work at all, shooting blindly into the crowd and punishing the least guilty. You realize that, too, don’t you? You should. It’s what Momma BB’s always taught us.”

“I know what Momma BB’s taught us,” Thim snapped. “But that’s still how the world works,” they added with a shrug, flipping tails again.

“And there goes another gunshot,” Stevie said, leaning over the edge of the building in an attempt to hear what was happening on the street below, which direction the sound was coming from, anything. “I really have a bad feeling about this one.”

Thim stood to look over the edge of the building, too, but they were too afraid of heights to lean out far enough to actually see anything, so they retreated to the safety of the rooftop and said, “Well, if you’re so worried about it, why don’t we go down and see what’s really going on?”

“You’d come with me?” Stevie asked.

“Got nothing better to do but look for Mr. Kitty, and I’m pretty sure he won’t show up again until lunchtime. So, why not?”

“Let’s go then,” Stevie said, grabbing Thim’s hand and running toward the stairs. “Hurry up. Before they get too far away.”

Thim got the message and sped up now, leading Stevie to the stairs then racing them to the bottom where both burst out into the cool Streets, sweaty and hunched over, trying to catch their breath.

“It’s— No— Fair—” Stevie complained between heavy breaths. “You— Always— Get— A— Head start.”

“You wouldn’t want me giving you special treatment, now. Would you?” Thim said, laughing. “Besides, you know I’m faster than you. At least this way you have an excuse instead of just being slow. Ha ha ha.”

“You don’t have to treat me specially,” Stevie said, finally recovered from the exertion. “Fairly is all I ask.”

“Next time I’ll give you the head start, then,” Thim said with a chuckle.

Oh, ha ha. Very funny.”

“I know,” Thim said. “That’s why I said it. Now, which way to your gunshots, oh dear Lord and leader? Take me away.”

And so Stevie led the way, up a street here, down an alley there, this way and that until it seemed to Thim like they were going in circles. When it became clear that they really had passed the same intersection two or three times already, Thim finally spoke up.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” they asked.

“I’m sure we’re near where the original shots were fired,” Stevie said. “But there’s no telling where the shooter could have gotten to since then. I’m just trying to circle the area. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Well that explained part of it. But, “For what?”

“I don’t know.” Stevie shrugged. “Anything suspicious. Either someone with a giant gun, someone with a giant bullet wound, or both.”

“You really think it’s gonna be that easy?” Thim asked. “And that bad?”

“I don’t know,” Stevie repeated. “I just have a feeling, okay. I’m not sure what I—”

But they didn’t have to time to finish their sentence because Thim grabbed them by the arm and pulled them down an alley to hide behind some dumpsters.

Shit,” Stevie complained, rubbing their arm where it felt like a bruise was forming. “What was that for?”

“I think I found them,” Thim said, peeking around the dumpster for a moment but more interested in staying hidden than in getting another look.

“Wha— Who? What is it?” Stevie asked.

But, “Shhh.” Thim shushed them, heart still pounding from the adrenaline rush produced by what they had just seen: the biggest, scariest, whitest monsters they had ever experienced the presence of in anything more than nightmares.

“But—” Stevie tried to say again.

Shhhhh.”

Thim held their breath, trying to make as little sound as possible, and Stevie finally got the point, holding their breath, too, and trying to listen close to whatever monster had been capable of scaring Thim like that. They sat in mostly silence for a few minutes, some garbled nonsense sound like a robot screaming in pain the only thing to fill it, before Thim started breathing again and Stevie gulped down a big breath of air to say, “Well?”

“Well, shit,” Thim said. “Maybe you were right to be worried after all.”

“What was it? What did you see?” Stevie demanded, grabbing Thim by the shoulders and shaking them for answers.

Giants,” Thim said, pushing Stevie off.

“Giants?”

“Bigger than Momma BB,” Thim said. “Twice the size at least.”

Giants…” Stevie repeated. “Did they have guns?”

“The biggest I’ve ever seen,” Thim said.

I knew it. I told you so. What else?”

“Well there was three of them,” Thim said, still hiding behind the dumpster, just in case. “And they were wearing all white, including their helmets, with masks that looked like they were screaming neon colors at each other.”

“They must have been talking to each other in code,” Stevie said. “That was the strange noise I heard. Like androids with broken voice boxes, or something.”

“I don’t know,” Thim said, shaking their head. “But if they sounded anything like they looked, I’m sure it was terrifying.”

“Hair-raising,” Stevie said. “Who do you think they were?”

“Scary, white, giants,” Thim said, the hair on their arms and neck standing up on end. “Who do you think they were?”

“I think they’re trouble,” Stevie said. “We should get back to the Safehouse and make sure everything’s okay.”

“I’m one step ahead of you, as always,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie’s hand and pulling them in a loud stomping run toward home.

When they burst through the doors of the Safehouse lobby and stumbled to a stop inside, still filled with adrenaline from their sighting of the White Giants, everything seemed to be in order. The lobby was empty, of course, because even though it was Thimblerigger and Stevedore’s day off, it wasn’t anyone else’s. Only slightly relieved by the normalcy, the two of them plopped down on one of the old raggedy couches in the lobby, staring at the entry door just in case any giants came through and generally trying to calm themselves down after what they had witnessed.

“So, we agree it was them, then. Right?” Stevie asked.

“What? Look at me.”

“We agree that they were the ones who were shooting the guns,” Stevie said.

“If they were as loud as you said they were.”

“As loud as you say they were tall.”

“Then, yes. I’d say so.”

“That cannot be good.”

“No. No, it cannot.”

Both of their hearts beat faster at the realization. Stevie stood and paced to try to calm themself while Thim pulled out their coin and went back to flipping it.

“Who do you think they were shooting at?” Stevie asked, still pacing.

“I don’t think I wanna know,” Thim said, still flipping tails.

“You know. Neither do I.”

But of course, they were both forced to face the truth sooner than later. No sooner had the words left Stevie’s mouth than the lobby doors burst open, and both Thimblerigger and Stevedore jumped to hide behind the couch in case it was one of the giant white gunners come to get them, too.

It wasn’t. Instead it was a familiar voice: Ms. Morticia’s, saying, “Thim? Stevie? Is that y’all?”

“Are you alone, Miss Morticia?” Stevie called back while Thim nudged them, trying to figure out who it was.

“I’m alone,” Ms. Morticia called. “It’s alright. Y’all can come out now. Ya’re safe.”

“There’s no White Giants out there with you?” Stevie called back. “We heard the gunshots.”

Ms. Morticia kind of laughed and cried at the same time, more a snotty snort than anything else. “No, child,” she said. “There ain’t no White Giants out here. Just me, and— Well… Thim’s with ya, too. Right? Y’all better come see. It’s okay. Ya’re safe.”

Stevie turned to Thim and slapped their arm away, finally answering Thim’s desperate pleas. “It’s Miss Morticia,” they said. “She says she’s got something to show us.”

“There’s no one else with her?” Thim asked.

“She says no.” Stevie shrugged. “I can’t hear anyone else, but to be honest, it’s hard to hear anything over your breathing and my own heartbeat.”

Thim poked their head up above the couch for an instant then darted back into hiding.

“Well?” Stevie asked.

“I don’t really know,” Thim said, shaking their head. “I was too afraid to open my eyes.”

“Alright, alright,” Stevie said, standing up themself. “I’ll do it. Let them take me if they will. Miss Morticia, whaddya got?”

Stevie stumbled around the couch, hands up in the air, and when Thim realized that there were no giants there to murder them, they stood, too, to find Ms. Morticia, her eyes red and puffy like she’d been crying, holding out what looked like nothing more than a handful of scraps and wires for stocking the workshop with. When Thim stepped closer they realized it was more than that, though. So much more.

“Well?” Stevie demanded, hands falling to their sides now that they knew there was no danger.

“I— I’m sorry,” Ms. Morticia said, trying not to make eye contact with Thim. “I…” She held out the mass of wires and Thim took it in her hands, crying silently and forcing Ms. Morticia to do the same in reaction.

What is it?” Stevie demanded, getting frustrated at the sound of their voices, knowing full well that something had gone wrong but having no way to know exactly what it was until one of them let Stevie in on the secret. “Tell me.”

“Stevie, it’s—” Thim tried to say, but the sobs took over and they couldn’t finish.

“Child, it’s—” Ms. Morticia started, but Thim sniffled loudly, wiped their nose, and said, “It’s Momma BB, Stevie. She’s… She’s dead. Shot in the head.”

No.” Stevie didn’t believe it, moving closer to the sound of Thim’s voice, looking for some confirmation. “It can’t be.”

“Yes,” Thim said. “I’m sorry. I— I’m holding her head in my hands right now. I— It’s— She… She’s just dead. Okay. Trust me.”

No.” Stevie pushed Thimblerigger away and ran for the stairs, all the way up to the roof, as far away from such idiotic nonsense as they could think to get. Momma BB was not dead.

“I’m sorry,” Thim said to Ms. Morticia, trying not to cry again. “I’ll talk to Stevie. They’ll understand.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Ms. Morticia said, bowing low. “I— Is there anything I can do for y’all?”

“No,” Thim said, shaking their head. “Not right now. I— I just need to go talk to Stevie, okay. I— I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

Thim ran all the way up to the roof, trying not to think about the weight of what they carried with them as they did, until they were up in the cool, windy air, approaching Stevie who sat at the edge of their tent, listening closely to their surroundings as if still searching for Mr. Kitty.

“Stevie, I—” Thim tried to stay, but Stevie cut them off.

“Don’t even start,” they said. “And be quiet. I’m still searching for Mr. Kitty, even if you’re over it.”

“Stevie, she’s dead,” Thim said, holding the mangled head of Momma BB out to Stevie. “I’m holding her head in my hands right now. You can see for yourself.”

“No. I can’t,” Stevie snapped. “And it doesn’t matter if I could, because she’s not dead anyway.”

Fine. You can’t see it. But you can reach out and feel it. So, stop feeling sorry for yourself and face the facts.”

“I don’t care what you’re holding,” Stevie said, swatting in Thim’s general direction and knocking Momma BB’s head out of their hands to roll and tumble with a loud clang on the hard surface of the Safehouse roof. “Momma BB’s not dead. We still have work to do. Just like she always—”

But they couldn’t finish their sentence because Mr. Kitty interrupted them, appearing out of thin air and landing on Stevie’s lap with a meow.

 

#     #     #

< LXXI. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXIII. Jorah >

And there you have it, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. If you enjoyed that and can’t wait for the rest of the story, pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, we’ll see you again next week. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 62: Ansel

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

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

LXII. Ansel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pshh. What’s the difference?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get to the point.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, no.” He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Luckily for us. Lab.”

The elevator fell into motion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’re—” Ashley said.

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

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

“Haley Walker?” Ansel said.

“My true name.” The Scientist nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By the elevator?” the Scientist asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Beyond your imagination.” The Scientist nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ashley already told you most of it.”

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

Ansel nodded.

“And what did you see?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s Four?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well…” Ansel said.

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

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

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

“What does it matter anyway?” Ansel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scientist smiled. “Name a few.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

Chapter 61: Chelsea

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to chapter 61 of the four book Infinite Limits series. Today we see the world through Chelsea’s point of view as she’s been forcefully reunited with her husband, Tom, leaving their son home alone in the grips of the Captain. Chelsea will do anything to protect her son, now read on to find out if she can convince Tom to do the same.

Thanks for joining us, readers, and if you’d like to read the last two chapters in this, book three of the Infinite Limits saga, Dividing by Ø, then go ahead and pick up a full copy of the novel through this link–and maybe leave a review if you’ve got the time. Either way, thanks again for joining us, readers, and enjoy.

< LX. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LXII. Ansel >

LXI. Chelsea

The alarm that morning must have been the most grating, terrible sound that Chelsea had ever heard in her entire life. It didn’t sound any different than it did on any other day of the week—she had been woken up by the same alarm since she had joined the Academy—but still, the noise was worse than ever with the weight of what she was expected to do that day bearing down on her.

She took her time getting out of bed, enjoying the warmth of the comforter and the solitude of her bedroom. Finally, she knew who she was. She was a protector and she was ready to put right the wrongs which had been allowed to exist in the worlds for too long. That was what was best for Jonah. It was the only thing she could do.

When she eventually did get out of bed, she filled out all her paperwork in her bedroom, eschewing the bathroom and a shower—one day without wouldn’t be too bad—because she wasn’t ready to face Tom just yet. Her hair pulled into a ponytail, her protector’s suit on, and her helmet lodged up under her arm, Chelsea took a deep breath in preparation and opened her bedroom door.

She let all the air out in one loud breath when she saw that Tom wasn’t even there. He must have gone ahead to the meeting without her. Hopefully so. She didn’t need him to be late. The Captain would probably end up making her pay for that, too.

Chelsea’s stomach grumbled on the way to the elevator. She was hungry, sure, but that would have to wait along with her shower. The mission came first, and if assassination was on the plate, she already knew what her reaction would be and an empty stomach was for the best. She stepped onto the elevator, said, “Captain’s office.” not knowing where else to go—she didn’t need the locker room becauses she was avoiding Tom—and the floor fell out from underneath her.

She held her breath and counted her heartbeats as the elevator moved. Twenty beats, a good indication she was calm and ready for what was to come. The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and Chelsea’s heart skipped a beat, speeding up. There was Tom, standing in the hall, in full uniform except for his helmet which was tucked up underneath his armpit.

She must have registered her surprise—and hopefully only the surprise and not also the disgust which had seemed to build up over night with all her time alone to imagine what dangers exactly it was that Tom had put her Jonah into—because his voice was already defensive, if not his words, as he said, “Uh, hey.”  kicking dust like a scolded child. “I thought you’d be in the locker room. I tried to clear out so I wouldn’t bother you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Chelsea shrugged. What did he want, a medal of honor for being able to discern her obvious feelings for once in a lifetime? “I hadn’t noticed.”

“So, about last night… Well—”

“Just forget about it,” Chelsea cut him off. Now was not the time to be arguing again. Now was the time to be cool and collected and ready for a mission. Why couldn’t Tom understand that? “We should be going in,” she said, trying to pass him, but Tom stopped her.

“No, wait,” he said, and Chelsea jerked her arm out of his grip. “I’m sorry, I—”

“No!” Chelsea snapped, losing her temper despite her every effort to control it before such an important mission. “Not now, Tom. You lost your opportunity to explain yourself when you put our son in danger—and on multiple occasions at that. No—Stop! Listen to me. Let me finish. Now we’re going to get in there and do whatever the Captain asks us to do no matter how much you object. And—I’m not finished. Just shut up for a minute. And we’re going to do it all while keeping the fact that the safety of our son, Tom, the safety of our Jonah is on the line and we cannot forget that. I’ll do anything to protect him, okay. It doesn’t matter what the Captain asks me to do, I’m going to do it for Jonah. You got that?”

Tom nodded. “Of course. I would, too. But—”

No buts. We just do it. Anything she says, Tom. Now come on.” Chelsea stormed past him, toward the Captain’s office. She knocked twice on the door then burst through it without waiting for an answer and groaned when the Captain wasn’t there. She heard Tom come in behind her and blurted out, “I told you not to—” before she blushed, slapping her hand to her mouth, and said, “Oh, uh, Captain, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I— I thought you were—”

Can it,” the Captain said, brushing Chelsea off and marching around to sit in the chair behind the desk. “There’s no time, Pardy. I’ve got much more important shit to take care of. So please, let’s just get this over with. Sit down. Both of you.”

Uh, yes, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a salute and taking one of the low seats in front of the Captain’s desk, thankful not to have to explain herself.

Tom took the seat next to Chelsea and the Captain got straight to business. “So I gave you some generalities about your mission yesterday, but no specifics. Mostly because we didn’t have them. But now we do, and I’ll tell you, there’s not a lot of subtlety to this one. We’ll be sending you straight to your targets. That’s it.”

Tom fidgeted in his seat and Chelsea swallowed some spit.

“Tom, you’ve been there before, but not like this. The world’s become a much different place since you were a protector last, and you may not recognize as much as you expect to, but you should have no trouble recognizing your targets. They haven’t changed. I assure you of that. Chelsea, you studied the maps in bootcamp—or whatever facsimile thereof they’re giving you new recruits with as fast as we’re pulling you in these days—but you can fill in the holes of what Tom remembers and ensure y’all get to the right place.”

“Yes, sir,” Chelsea nodded.

“Anything else, sir?” Tom asked.

“Not really, Pardys. I’m afraid you won’t have much support out there beyond the normal patrolling officers, and they’ll, by necessity, be stationed as far away from your position as possible when we send you over there. It’s just you two, your guns, and the entire Force that’s counting on you—despite the fact that none of them actually know you’re even on this mission.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Chelsea said, saluting. “We won’t let you down, sir.”

“I hope not,” the Captain said, standing and saluting back. “Now get out of my sight. I have other business to tend to.”

Even Tom got the message on that one and scurried out close behind Chelsea.

“Did she say where we’re supposed to be going?” Tom asked, trying to keep up with Chelsea who was hurrying to the elevator. She wanted to get this done with as soon as possible.

“She said you’re supposed to know the place.” Chelsea shrugged. “It’ll come up in our viewports. Come on.”

They got on the elevator and the doors slid closed. Chelsea waited but the thing didn’t move and no directions came up in her mask’s viewport. She was starting to get a little nervous.

“Well…” Tom said, nervous himself from the sound of it.

“Well, you know the place, don’t you?” Chelsea snapped. Did she have to do all the thinking? “Take us there.”

“Oh—I guess… Well, Outland Six Sector F, then,” Tom said and the elevator fell into motion.

When it stopped and the doors slid open, Chelsea stepped out but Tom didn’t follow. “Well,” Chelsea said. “C’mon. This is the place, isn’t it?”

“I—uh… I don’t know,” Tom said, stepping out of the elevator and surveying the buildings all around them. “This— It didn’t look like this before.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Of course not. You do recall that the walls between Five and Six were destroyed, don’t you? It did happen on your watch. Seems like something I’d remember.”

Tom ignored her, still staring at the new world in awe. “No, but… This used to be a long strip of green surrounded by buildings. Now it’s just a patch. Where’d it all go?”

“You really have no idea how the worlds work, do you?” Chelsea chuckled. “That’s how the walls function, Tom. This is the world now. Just show me where to go so we can get this over with.”

“Why are you so eager?” Tom asked, finally breaking his eyes away from the towering buildings that surrounded them to address her. “Why do you want to do this?”

“I want to protect our son,” Chelsea said with a sigh. “We’ve been over this so many times already. Just leave it at that for now and let’s do what we came here to do: protect Jonah.”

“It’s almost like you—like you’re looking forward to killing them,” Tom said, breaking eye contact again but this time to stare at his feet.

Chelsea swallowed the spit that had gathered in her throat. She shook her head slowly, trying not to show any emotion. “I’m doing what’s best for our son,” she said in the steadiest voice she could muster. “I’m doing what you should have been doing all along, what you should be doing now. So please. Let’s go.”

Tom bowed his head and shuffled down the sidewalk, hopefully in the direction of their targets. Chelsea followed close behind, observing her surroundings and noticing that there was no one in the streets, no one anywhere, it seemed. Her school lessons had taught her that Six was packed to the brim and overflowing with criminals, hooligans, and harlots—the real scum of the earth—and she wondered where they were all hiding. Probably under a rock somewhere where they belonged.

After a few blocks of walking it was starting to seem like Tom didn’t actually know where he was going at all. That or he was taking her off course for a reason, trying to protect his trash friends. Probably the former, though. Chelsea saw a lot more ignorance in Tom than malice, and she still held some small hope that he would do what was best for Jonah in the long run.

“Wasn’t there a closer elevator?” Chelsea asked when the walking had grown to be too much and they still weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“I don’t know,” Tom said, turning to Chelsea and looking genuinely concerned. “I mean, no. This was the closest elevator before the walls came down, but I’m a little lost now.”

Great.” Chelsea scoffed. “Perfect. Now what?” She was on the verge of calling back on her radio when Tom gasped.

“Wait a second. Wait.” He pulled Chelsea by the arm to hide in an alley. “That’s it,” he said, poking his head around the corner of the building.

“Are you sure?” Chelsea asked, moving him aside so she could look. “Let me see.” She poked her head around, too, but didn’t know what she was looking for so all she saw was more of the same buildings and streets they had been passing already. “Which one?” she asked.

“A few buildings down. Right in front of that patch of grass,” Tom said and she could tell the one he was talking about. “That’s the one for sure. It was in a different place the last time I was here, but that is the one.”

“You’re sure?” Chelsea asked him again, looking into his eyes. “Jonah can’t afford any mistakes.”

“I’m sure.” Tom nodded. “Though I’m still not sure how you want to go about this.”

Chelsea thought about it for a second. The Captain hadn’t been specific. Chelsea had assumed they would just go in and get the job done then get out. How hard could it really be in Six? But maybe Tom was right this time. Maybe a little more finesse was in order. “Did you have anything in mind?” she asked him, because she sure didn’t.

“Well…” Tom didn’t look very sure of what he was about to say. “The Captain chose me because I already know the targets, right. Maybe she thinks they’ll just let me in.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Do you think so?”

“Well not like this, obviously,” Tom said, taking off his helmet and vest. “Come on. You, too, if you’re coming in with me. They don’t trust protectors.”

Chelsea scoffed again. “Well, we are here to kill them. I mean, you don’t think they’ll be able to tell? I thought they already knew you, anyway. They know you’re a protector.”

“So?” Tom said, down to his undershirt and cargo pants. “They don’t know you. And we don’t need to rub it in their face, anyway. And say we come to someone else before we find our targets? They might not recognize me, and what do you think they’d do if they saw a protector?”

“Try to kill us,” Chelsea said. “Exactly why we should keep our armor on. I’m not taking mine off.”

Tom chuckled. “C’mon,” he said. “These people are tiny. You’ve never seen them before. They’ll be no match for the two of us. I’m leaving my gun, too, but you can bring yours if you want to.”

Tom.” Chelsea scoffed. “This is ridiculous. You don’t have to be tall or strong to shoot someone. You’re not listening to me. We’re here to get something done and we can’t do it without our guns.”

“Well I’m not taking mine with me,” Tom said, tossing it onto the pile with the rest of his uniform. “You can do whatever you want to.” He looked at her like she was going to take off her armor and throw her weapon down, too, and when she picked his gun up to strap it over her back instead, he let out a big sigh. “Fine. Whatever. C’mon. Follow me.”

They snuck, hugging their backs to the wall, from the alley to the doorway despite the sheer emptiness of the entire world. Tom crossed to the other side of the door and made the hand signal that indicated he was going to kick it in. Chelsea held up a finger, stopping him just before he did, and tried the handle—which, of course, was unlocked. She pushed the door open with a grin on her face, then got serious again and pointed her gun up and down the entrance hallway. When she saw it was all clear, she waved for Tom to follow her.

While Chelsea snuck from wall to wall, hall to hall, in perfect reconnaissance procedure, Tom didn’t even try to hide or protect himself at all. Chelsea was getting the feeling that he might not be as dedicated to Jonah’s safety as he claimed to be. She cleared a big conference room, kitchen, and office, leaving only one closed door left in the place, when she finally spoke.

“What the fuck are you doing, Tom?”

“Searching the premises.” He shrugged. “It looks like no one’s home.”

Chelsea’s hands started to tremble and her palms slicked up. If she wasn’t wearing gloves, she might have dropped her gun, but instead, she raised it, aiming the barrel at Tom despite her brain’s confusion as to exactly why. “You’re not taking this seriously at all,” her mouth said. Why was it being so harsh on him? “This is our son’s life at stake, Tom. Jonah’s life. And you’re willing to throw it all away?”

“Woah, now. Settle down,” Tom said, raising his hands in defense. Chelsea was glad she had her helmet on so he couldn’t see the disgust she couldn’t keep off her face. “I’m not the bad guy here. No need to point that thing at me.”

Chelsea held the gun steady, still pointing it at him. “Aren’t you, though, Tom? You’re the one who said you’d do anything so you didn’t have to kill someone else. Is that what you’re doing now? Sabotaging the mission? Putting our son in danger for your own selfish desires?”

“No.” Tom chuckled nervously, hands trembling in the air now. “Of course not. I— I wouldn’t… Jonah would— The Captain—”

“Now your tune changes.” Chelsea laughed and she didn’t know why. She felt like she was losing control of herself. She couldn’t stop. “Now that you see the gun pointing at your head it means something to you, but when you can’t see it and it’s pointing at our son’s head this is all a game.”

“No, I—”

“It’s not a game, Tom. I’m not playing it anymore.” She shook her head, her arms trembling and grip on the gun loosening. “You can take this mission seriously, or I’ll—”

Bang.

The front door of the house swung open and in pointed five or six guns.

Pow.

Chelsea’s trigger finger slipped. Her arm recoiled. Tom made his puppy dog eyes one last time before, gripping his stomach, he fell to his knees.

Pow pow pow.

Shots rang out from the pile of guns in the doorway, whizzing past Chelsea and setting her feet into motion. She dove into the kitchen, back braced against the counter, her only protection, and shots still rang.

No. She shook her head, blinking tears away as the shots still fired over and around her. No, no, no. Not like this. Not my Tom. Not by—

Crack crack.

Their aim was getting better. Their guns were more powerful than the standard Sixer fare, too. Those were probably the same terrorists who had attacked the precinct. They were firing the protectors’ own guns at Chelsea. Her inherited instinct and training kicked in. She knew what she had to do.

Pop pop pop.

She jumped up from behind the counter like a protector in a box and dropped three of the five bodies with three well placed shots. Her kill count was steadily rising, and the more she did it the more she wanted to.

Pop pop.

Two more shooters dead with two more shots, and Chelsea plopped back down, hidden behind the counter despite the room being empty of anything living but her. She was getting better at this killing thing, she told herself over and over, trying to get her heartbeat under control. Maybe she would make a good protector after all.

Her heart rate calmed and most of the adrenaline absorbed into her body, Chelsea stood on shaky legs, using what was left of the counter as a balance, to survey the room. By the looks of the tattered mass of splinters that the counter she had been using for cover had become, a few more seconds of indecision on her part and she’d be just another body dying in that room. She shook her head. Thank Amaru she wasn’t.

There were six lifeless bodies on the blood-stained floor, but only one that Chelsea crossed to kneel by. His whole undershirt was puddled with blood all up under his limp arm and on his stomach while his face was twisted into a grotesque smile, as if he welcomed the fate that had finally come to him. Chelsea didn’t want to throw up this time, but she did want to cry, and cry she did until her tears were dried up.

She stood and surveyed the room again only to find the same six bodies and all dead thanks to her. Had she done the right thing? Of course not when it came to Tom, but tha—that was an accident.

That was an accident. That was an accident. That was an accident.

The more she repeated it to herself the more she believed it was true. She was pointing the gun at him, yes, but she never would have pulled the trigger if that pile of trash didn’t storm in with their guns blazing. She had never meant to hurt him, her Tom. Of course she didn’t. She was simply trying to get his attention, to make him take this mission seriously, and it worked. It worked until…

What had she done? What was she to do next?

She couldn’t just stand there and wait for someone else to come. Another troop of Sixers would be on their way soon, no doubt, and then there’d be an even larger mass of bodies to explain. No, she had to get out of there and fast. But she couldn’t just leave Tom’s body behind. Not after she had…

She had to call for backup. It was her only option. Even if it took the local patrol forever to get there. She ran back to the alley to strap Tom’s vest back on him and lay his helmet by his side then make the call.

“Emergency line open,” she said, finding it surprisingly easy to keep her voice steady. “This is Officer Pardy reporting a four three nine in progress. We have an Officer down in Sector F of Outland Six. Send medical unit and backup as soon as possible. Over.”

“Loud and clear, Officer Pardy,” a voice replied over the headphones in her helmet. “Repeat. That’s a four three nine in progress?”

“Affirmative. I repeat, we have a four three nine in progres. Send backup immediately. Over.”

“The closest Officers are on their way. Over and out.”

The comm link shut off with a barely perceptible blip and Chelsea let out a sigh of frustration. Maybe Tom wasn’t so incompetent after all. Maybe the entire Force and the rest of the worlds beside that were just as ignorant, naive, and incapable. She had seen enough idiots getting ahead in the Force to think that stupidity was the norm rather than an anomaly.

What those protectors might have thought when they first saw Chelsea, standing over a mass of lifeless bodies, staring through the blood-stained vinyl at a universe far away and only accessible to her, she may never know. If they were less trained in reacting to violence or more loving of the scum that inhabited World Six, those Officers might have seen her as a crazed murderous psychopath, bent on admiring the ghastly product of her horrible profession. These two protectors, though—Officers and rookies though they were—had been through a particular upbringing, the same one Chelsea had gone through as a kid. Violence was a part and parcel of life in Outland One. Surviving violence and inflicting it on those who would inflict it on you before they had the chance to displayed the epitome of prowess. Murdering Sixers made one venerable, put one’s picture in the school books next to the mythological heroes of society, recorded your biography so generations yet to be born could read it forevermore. These protectors saw not a psychopath in Chelsea, but a heroic protector, doing her duty in the defense of property, liberty, and life, and she would no doubt go down in history for avenging the death of her husband on duty.

Hands patted her back. There were still only two other officers there, but it seemed like so many more. They asked her how it felt to finally get to destroy some of the scum from Six. They congratulated her on her kills. They apologized for her loss, even if it was an honorable loss, even if Tom had found the perfect way for a protector to die. And she?

She smiled and nodded, playing along with the other protectors. She told them it was exhilarating to finally take justice into her own hands, exciting to dispense it to those who so direly needed their fair share. She thanked them, assuring them that this was not the end of her kill list, that she would do her best and damndest—excuse the word in such a heat of excitement—to dish out the same justice to all Sixer trash. She nodded, letting a single tear fall from her eye, and agreed with them that this was indeed the best way for a protector to die, as a martyr for property, liberty, and life. She only worried about how to tell her son.

Then there were more of them. Protectors flooded the room. Chelsea was lost in a sea of them. How long she had been reminiscing and congratulating herself with the other two she didn’t know, but she was glad it was finally over. It was all over now. No more mission to Scumland to kill scumbags. No more of Tom’s exploits to endanger Jonah. No more of Tom at all.

Her control over herself was breaking and she was on the verge of bursting into tears when a gloved hand grasped her by the shoulder and turned her to stare into a masked and mustachioed face. “Officer Pardy,” the Captain said in a modulated voice, hiding any emotion underneath those blinking neon teeth. “To my office. Now. I’ll meet you there.”

“But, sir—” Chelsea started.

“Now!”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a salute in automatic response to the volume of the Captain’s voice—even modulated she could hear it. “Right away, sir.” She marched out, bumping shoulders with the crowd of protectors left in her wake, and stood at attention until the elevator doors closed, cutting her off again from the rest of the world.

The elevator ride was infinite. The solitude was welcome and it elicited a sobbing, sloppy, teary-eyed scene which Chelsea was glad no other human witnessed. She enveloped herself in the cold misery of a life alone, responsible for the life of another. She was out of Hell into a new one, out of the pit and into the frying pan, and yet somehow she managed to bottle it all up inside again by the time the elevator stopped and the doors reopened.

The hall was empty, thank Amaru, and there was no one to question her about what she had done—what she had done. She found solitude in the Captain’s office, too—staring out the wall sized window onto the snowy mountain scene—but she didn’t let her sadness overtake her this time. She maintained control of herself. The Captain could walk in at any moment and Chelsea didn’t need her to see what only the elevator had witnessed.

When the Captain did walk in, a single tear had broken through Chelsea’s defenses. She wiped it away as she turned to salute, and the Captain didn’t even acknowledge the salute—much less the tear, to Chelsea’s relief.

“Fucking shit, Pardy. Fuck—king—shit,” the Captain said, throwing her helmet at the wall and plopping into her desk chair. “What do I have to do?” she yelled out the still closed window at no one.

Chelsea didn’t say a word. She didn’t want to make things worse. The Captain was obviously pissed at what Chelsea had done, and with good reason, too. They had lost an officer in the line of duty on an operation that was supposed to be hush hush. Chelsea was responsible for that and her punishment would no doubt be severe. Hopefully a little less so for the fact that she knew not to defend her heinous failures.

“You have no idea what’s going on out there, Pardy,” the Captain said, turning in her chair to look into Chelsea’s eyes. “Do you?”

“I—uh… No, sir.” Chelsea shook her head. She really didn’t, and now was not the time to pretend like she did.

The Captain grinned, nodding her head slowly. The way her teeth reflected as white as the walls and the snow on the mountain outside seemed to want to impose some meaning on Chelsea but she didn’t know what it was. “Pardy, you’re a good Officer. I hope you know that. That’s why I hate for this to happen to someone such as yourself.”

Chelsea braced herself. Here it came, her punishment for killing Tom and starting the shootout. Even if the Captain never found out it was actually Chelsea who had killed Tom and not the trash that died with him, this was karma taking its due. “I understand, sir,” Chelsea said. “You do what you have to do. As did I.”

The Captain broke into laughter. “I do— Wait— Ho ho ho. Me, Pardy? What did I do besides send you on an impossible mission?”

“I— What, sir? I meant your punishment, sir.”

“Punishment?” The Captain was really laughing now. “Ho ho ho. Pardy. Now— Pardy— Ho ho ho. Punishment for what?”

“Well, for my failed mission, sir. Tom—er—Officer Pardy, sir… He’s dead. I killed— I killed all those Sixers. I—”

Oh ho ho! You kill me, Pardy. Sorry for the ill timed figure of speech, but there’s no better way to say it. What do you think this is, huh? So you killed some Sixers? So what? They had guns, Pardy. You performed your duty and eliminated the threat. The only one who failed is Pardy Two for dying, but how could we punish a dead man? Ho ho ho!”

Chelsea gritted her teeth. Even though it was her who had pulled the trigger that ended Tom’s life—an accident she reminded herself—she didn’t like the flippant manner with which the Captain was treating his demise. Who was she, even as a Captain, to put such little value on Chelsea’s husband’s life?

“If anything, we’ll be giving you a medal of honor, Pardy,” the Captain went on. “And we’ll be giving Pardy Two a posthumous one at that. No, you’ve done well for yourself—and for your son, whose future is looking brighter than ever. But that’s not what I asked you here for.”

Chelsea was speechless. This couldn’t be happening. She wasn’t even sure if they had killed the right Sixers, Tom was gone forever, and more than anything, she had a deep sense that the mission was an abject failure. There was no way in this world—or any of them for that matter—that she should be getting praise for what was probably a fireable offence.

“Although there was one little snag in your performance,” the Captain said.

Chelsea scoffed, as if Tom’s death wasn’t snag enough.

“You didn’t get the targets I tasked you with specifically. Though you did manage to take out most of their closest staff. So we got that going for us. Which is nice.”

“I—uh. I don’t understand.”

“Your targets weren’t there, Pardy. You know, the people you were supposed to kill.”

“O—or apprehend, sir.”

The Captain chuckled. “Sure, Pardy. But we see the choice you made, don’t we? Ha ha ho!”

Chelsea didn’t know what to say. She had failed and failed and failed, and the Captain didn’t care one bit.

“No, Pardy, but that’s not what we’re here about. I admire your decision. It was the correct one, the profitable one, and if you stick with me, you’ll see some of those profits. But only if you stick with me.”

“I—sir…” Chelsea didn’t understand. Any of it. She felt worse now for doing what she had done than she had felt when she was actually doing it. Why? What was different? “But Tom— I didn’t get the targets— I—”

“You did your best, Pardy. You did what you could and what you had to do. There’s no question about that. From anyone. You did good well, and I want to ensure that you’re in a position to do it even better in the future. Are you feeling me? It’s a war out there, Pardy. A big one. We’re tight on bodies here in the Force, and you’ve shown us that you have what it takes. So what do you say?”

“I—uh—” Chelsea’s lips stuck together as she tried to speak. Her palms should have been slick but they seemed to dry and crack. The whole world was evaporating around her. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t understand.”

“I’m offering you a promotion, Pardy. I’m offering you a team under your command under my command. I’m offering you the ensured safety of your career here and your Jonah at home. I’m offering you the world on a platinum platter. So, Officer Pardy, what do you say?”

What could she say? “Sir, yes, sir.”

#     #     #

< LX. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LXII. Ansel >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Come back next week for the next chapter or pick up a full copy of this novel and the previous two in the series through this link. Either way, have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.