Three Act Structure: The Most Basic of Basics

Find the original /r/writing post here.

Today I realized I had been going over all this story structure theory for beginners and I hadn’t even touched on the most basic of basics, three act structure. I’m sure everyone here already feels like they have three act structure pretty well understood, but it never hurts to do a little refresher every now and again.

One of my favorite places to start with studying three act structure is the often trusty Wikipedia. Particularly, I like the plot line graph they use in the article, which includes a few extra points (pinch 1 and pinch 2) that aren’t often included in images illustrating three act structure.

Three Act Structure Plot Line Graph

Here’s a short blog article from Karen Woodward that talks about pinch points, with some examples from Star Wars. To quote it:

First Pinch Point:

The first pinch point reminds us of the central conflict of the story.

Second Pinch Point:

The second pinch point, like the first, reminds the audience of the central conflict of the story, but it also is linked to the first. It shows the audience the threat (whatever it is that still stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal). The pinch point scene lays out what the hero has yet to conquer/overcome/accomplish.

To put three act structure more simply, however, we need only turn to the always trusty TV Tropes:

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”

Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back Producer Gary Kurtz, LA Times interview

The entire article is a pretty useful simple explanation of three act structure as well, so be sure to give it a read. That, along with this little rehash of everything you just read (found on the College of DuPage website), should get you feeling comfortable with the most basic of basics and ready to go over the previous tips again (especially Miéville’s) if you didn’t feel comfortable with three act structure already when reading them the first time.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

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Chapter 13: Pardy

Today brings us Tom’s second point of view chapter, and you might notice he’s thinking of himself as Pardy now rather than Officer Pardy.

But before we get on with that, I wanted to comment a little on yesterday’s last chance for first editions post. It looks like (I’m sorry hipsters) I’m going to extend that last chance until next Saturday because I realized that this coming Wednesday is my birthday. I think the author’s birthday might be a pretty good marketing opportunity, and I don’t want my updates to make the novel unavailable for purchase on that day, so I’m just going to wait until next Saturday to do it. Yes, you heard that right people, that means you have one more full week to slip into the hipster parade with us. Just click through here to buy the full paperback first edition and you’re a member of the club. Easy as that.

Now that we have the business news out of the way, here’s Pardy’s chapter. Enjoy:

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

XIII. Pardy

Pardy couldn’t stop wondering if he had made the wrong decision in asking for Outland 6. He had been on patrol for only a few hours and he already knew that the populace hated him, they disappeared any time he came near. There was no point in him walking the streets but to send the Sixers back inside for the few seconds it took him to pass by. This was what he chose, though. He wanted to find something out about that woman’s daughter, and this was the only way he knew how to do it.

He had filled out his forms, just like the Captain asked, and sent them straight to her first. She made him sit down so she could read them over, and when she was satisfied, she asked him which patrol he would like. She hinted that Outland 3 was flashy and upscale—with a lot of celebrities—but Outland 5 was where protectors went to make a real name for themselves, to go down in history. When he told her he wanted Outland 6, she didn’t believe him. She gaped at him, wide-eyed, then laughed. “Good one, Pardy,” she said. “But really. What patrol do you want?”

When he insisted that he was serious, she tried to convince him that he was making a mistake, that Outland 5 would serve him much better than Outland 6, which no one anywhere cared about, but he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t have it. He had to find that woman’s daughter and protect her, even if he couldn’t tell the Captain that was why he wanted 6 in the first place. She was going to have to accept that and send him there or deal with her superiors about the death of Rabbit. But he hadn’t told her that, either. She knew her career was in his hands as much as he knew his was in hers.

And so she gave it to him: Outland 6. But she made him go on a solo patrol which started not moments after his initiation was over, after his partner had died and Pardy had killed a mother. As a result, he found himself walking along the streets of Outland 6, in the dark of night, looking for a boy he wasn’t sure he would recognize, to ask him about a girl he wasn’t sure existed. He figured his best bet was to find the kid he had seen in the tree—the only person who hadn’t run when Pardy came around in protector gear last time—and the only place he knew to look was the last place he saw him.

His path to the Neutral Ground from the last checkpoint on his patrol took him through the alley he had killed the woman in without his realizing it until he was already there. He stopped when he did. The ground was still dark with her blood. No one cared to clean it. There was no point. This was Outland 6. Pardy pictured his son again and set off toward the Grounds with a renewed sense of urgency.

Even the Neutral Grounds were empty. Word of his coming had come before him. That, or no one cared to be out at this time anyway. He heard a rustling in the trees down the street and darted back into the alley to watch the very kid he was looking for—plus a little girl—chase after a cat along the Neutral Ground in front of him.

They were so small that they might as well have been walking. Pardy could have caught up to them in a few long strides, but he didn’t want to scare them away before he found out where they were going. He had to keep stopping to let them get further ahead before he continued his pursuit from alley to alley. At one time he thought the little boy looked back and saw him, but the kid kept running, trying to keep up with the little girl who was much faster than him. They turned down an alley, and Pardy had to sprint so he didn’t lose sight of them.

When he turned around the corner, the girl had climbed up on a dumpster, chasing the cat which seemed to disappear into the wall a few feet above it. “Hey! Stop!” Pardy called, running down the alley towards them, probably not the best idea if he actually wanted them to stop he realized too late.

The boy turned to see him storming down the alley, then sprinted wide-eyed the other way and disappeared around the corner. The girl tried to jump up to where the cat had vanished into the wall, but she couldn’t get high enough, so she crawled down the pile of boxes to get to the top of the dumpster just as Pardy got to the bottom of it.

“Stop right there,” Pardy said. “I need to talk to you.” He dodged back and forth to bar her escape.

“Yeah. Right,” the girl said. “I know better than that.” She faked one way and stepped the other, but Pardy was too fast. He was there to stop her no matter which way she went.

“I’m not going to hurt you, girl. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

“I’m not a girl,” the girl said, pulling a slingshot out of her back pocket and taking aim.

“No. I—”

“I’m not.” Sh—er—not-she held the slingshot steady, aiming it directly between his eyes. His helmet scanned her heartbeat and breathing which both indicated she was calmer than her voice betrayed. “You gonna kill me now?” she asked.

“What? No. I—Of course not. Why would you ask that?”

“That’s what your kind does,” the girl said. “Isn’t it? That’s what Pidgeon says. He knows.”

“Pidgeon?” Pardy remembered Rabbit.

“Do it, then!” the girl yelled, stomping her foot on the dumpster lid with a loud thump. “I know you want to! What’re you waiting for?”

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no.” He reached slowly to his cargo pants, and she backed closer to the wall, keeping the slingshot aimed at him. “Look,” he said. “I have some beef jerky here. I’ll give it to you if you put your weapon down and answer a few questions. That’s it. I promise. I would—I would never…kill you.” He grimaced.

The girl slowly let the tension out of her slingshot, slid it into her back pocket, and crept up to the edge of the dumpster to sit down with her legs dangling off, reaching her hand out toward him expectantly. “Well,” she said.

He fumbled through his pockets some more, searching for the jerky he had grabbed to give him some energy for this stupid shift. He hadn’t eaten in he didn’t know how long, but the girl seemed like she could use it more than him anyway. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in days. “There,” he said when had found the pocket it was in. “Here it is. Just like I said.” He handed it over and prepared to stop her from running off with it, but she just took a big bite and chewed loudly with her mouth open, kicking her dangling legs back and forth against the dumpster.

Pardy took off his helmet, lodging it up under one arm, and ruffled his hair. He could breath so much better without it on. “I—uh…” he said. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t trained to investigate or interrogate, he was trained to observe, find law breakers, and dispense justice. But he had to do something, this was the first and only person to actually stop and talk to him.

“Well,” the girl repeated through a mouth full of jerky.

“I—uhhh…” Why couldn’t he figure out what to say?

“You had some questions,” the girl said, still chewing. “I can’t give you your jerky back now… Unless you’re willing to wait a little while.” She giggled.

“No,” Pardy said, cringing. “Uh…No. That’s just—no. So…” He grasped for anything. “Do you know a lot of the kids around here?” he decided on. It was something at least.

“I ain’t snitchin on anyone if that’s what you’re asking,” the girl said, taking another bite of jerky and eyeing him suspiciously.

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no. That’s not—No. No one’s in trouble, okay. I’m just—I’m looking for a girl.”

She stood up and backed away, still chewing. “I told you I’m not a girl!”

“What? No. I—look. Have you heard about any of your friends, or anyone you know really, who—who’s lost their parents recently.”

She threw what jerky she had left at him. “Go away! I don’t want your stupid jerky!” She spit a half-chewed glob at his face and only barely missed.

“No,” Pardy said, waving his hands. “No, wait.” He fumbled through his pockets, looking for the necklace. The little not-girl was climbing the stack of boxes on the dumpster, trying to jump up to nowhere. “Look!” He held out the silver butterfly for her to see. “Look, I’m sorry. I have something for you.”

She turned to see the necklace, and her eyes widened in anger. She stormed down the boxes, leapt over the dumpster onto Pardy’s shoulders, and beat at his face with her tiny fists. “You! It was you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

Pardy dropped his helmet with a clang and pried her off, holding her out at arm’s length. The fury in her face brought tears to his eyes as she struggled against him, flailing her fists and kicking her legs. He tried to fight the tears back, but they wouldn’t surrender. They weakened him. He couldn’t hold her any longer. His arms gave way and the flurry of fists resumed. He had no recourse but to cower into the fetal position on the concrete and let the tears flow.

“It was me,” he said. “It was me. I’m sorry. I didn’t—I don’t deserve to live. I did it. I can’t even say it. I’m sorry.”

The tears kept coming but the pain of the fists had gone. He was still lying in the fetal position on the rough alley concrete, sobbing, and sniffling, and crying like a child. Then he felt two tiny arms wrap around him in a warm embrace. For a second he smelled his wife, and pictured his son, and he felt good. He was doing his best. For them. And he had found the girl he needed to protect.

As his sobbing subsided, he realized the arms weren’t around him in an embrace. They had intent. They were fumbling through his belt for something, and he only realized what it was when it was too late. He backed toward the dumpster, crab-crawling on hands and feet, and stared at the little not-girl pointing his own gun at him.

“Please,” he said. No more tears in sight. This type of danger he was trained to overcome. “If you pull that trigger, it won’t end well for either of us. There’s a biolock. If you try to fire it, it will explode in your hands.”

She took a step closer. “Explode in my hands, explode in your face, what’s the difference?”

“I deserve this. I know. What I did was wrong. But you don’t deserve it. There has to be a better way.”

“I don’t know, pig. I think there was probably a better way to handle my mom and dad, too. But you didn’t care about that. Did you?”

“You’re dad!” Pardy said, remembering why he had come in the first place. “You’re dad. He—he’s not—dead. I know where he is.”

He could see her grip on the gun loosening. “Yeah,” she said. “Right. How do you expect me to trust a lying pig?”

“I’m not…I’m not a pig. I’m a protector.”

“Protector, pig, same difference.”

“Look at me,” Pardy said, pointing at his eyes. “Just look at me for a second. Okay. I’m at your mercy. You can commit the same wrong that I did, and add your life to the count, or you can trust me just a little bit. I won’t even ask for the gun back. I just want you to take your finger off the trigger.”

Her hands started to shake. Pardy squirmed back a little closer to the dumpster. She wanted to pull the trigger, he could tell, but she wanted to see her father, too.

“You’re lying,” she said.

“No. I’m not lying. I swear it. Look.” Pardy felt around the ground for the necklace and held it out again. “See? We took your father, okay. They took your father. I’m not—I can’t help them kill anyone else. And I will get him back.”

“I don’t believe you!” She shoved the gun closer to his face.

“Here,” Pardy said. “Take it.” He dangled the necklace right in front of the gun’s barrel.

The girl took one hand off the trigger and grabbed the necklace. She slipped it into her pocket then put the gun right back to his head. “All that means is that you killed my mom,” she said.

“No. It means that I cared enough to keep it. It means that I came searching for you, and I found you. It means that I’m here to help you. I want to protect you. That’s what it means.”

“I don’t need your protection!” the girl yelled. Pardy flinched away from the gun. “Look at you.” She laughed. “I stole your gun while you were crying on the ground like a baby. If anything, you need my protection.”

As if on cue, a group of hooded figures came into the alley. They stopped at the Neutral Ground entrance and one yelled, “Hey! You two. What’s going on down there?”

The girl turned and pointed the gun at them. “None of your business!”

Pardy stood up. He searched for his helmet out of his peripheral vision but couldn’t find it quick enough without a 360 degree view. He reached for his gun before he remembered the little girl was still holding it. Just what he needed.

“Now move along!” the girl yelled, shaking the gun at them.

“You. Girl,” the voice from down the alley came again. “You the Server kid?”

“I’m not a girl!”

The hooded figures started to creep closer. The girl backed up, and Pardy stepped between her and them. “Give me the gun,” he said, his hands behind his back, not looking away from the slowly advancing gang. She handed it over and he pointed it at them. “Stop right there, citizens,” he called in the deepest voice he could muster. He wished he had his helmet on, with it’s voice modulator and aiming assistance technology, but he had practiced enough without a helmet to take care of this small problem. “Turn around and go on your way.”

Ha ha ha!” They laughed, still slowly approaching. “No,” one of them said. “We’ll take the girl, pig. She belongs to us now. If you go on your way, maybe we won’t roast you with her. And that’s a one time offer. You got that?”

They were closing faster, and some of them had started making loud animal noises, halfway between oinks and barks. The girl tugged on his vest. “It’s not worth it,” she said. “We can ditch them. Follow me.”

“If you take one more step, I’ll have no choice but to use deadly force,” Pardy said, ignoring the girl.

They didn’t stop. “Yeah right, pig. Try and stop us.” A couple of them broke into a run, and Pardy fired, knocking both to the ground with one shot each. The others stopped in shocked silence.

The girl pulled on his vest again and yelled, “Come on!”

They sprinted off, twisting and turning down the alleys, away from the Neutral Ground and into the streets, before the gang could gather themselves. They sprinted a few zigzag blocks, then ducked behind a dumpster. Pardy was breathing so heavily he could barely hear the footsteps running past as the gang went looking for them.

“Y—You shot them,” the girl stammered when the sound of them running by had disappeared. “You actually shot them.”

“Why were they coming for you?” Pardy said.

“You just killed two of those guys, didn’t you? You’re a killing machine. Is that the only thing you know how to do? Pidgeon was right.”

“They were coming after you. It was us or them. Why did they want you?”

“Because you killed my parents!”

Pardy stood up and peeked over the dumpster to see if anyone had heard her. There was no one to see. “I—We’re going to get your dad back,” he said when he crouched back down to her. “But why would they chase you because of that?”

“To put me in their orphanage. Duh. You took some of their best employees, and now, they want me as payment.”

“What orphanage?”

“I don’t know.” The girl shook her head. “But Pidgeon didn’t make it sound good.”

“Who’s Pidgeon?”

“Pidgeon,” she said, scoffing. “That kid you chased away earlier. He was supposed to go to the end of the Belt with me. I knew he’d never make it, though. But he lived in the orphanage. He would know. If he was here, he could tell us.”

“Okay,” Pardy said, nodding. “Well. The first thing I need to do is get out of this gear. Let’s go back toward the Grounds—er—Belt. I have a change of clothes there. C’mon.” He got up as if to start on their way, but she didn’t budge.

Um…No. They’ll be looking for me there. The only safe way is to go toward the Streets.”

“I can’t walk around in these clothes anymore,” Pardy said, looking down at himself. He had lost his helmet, but he still stuck out like a Sixer in Amaru’s Temple. “Not while we’re here. It draws too much attention. Everyone will be looking for a protector walking around with a little girl.”

“I’m not a girl!”

“Whatever,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “They’ll find us. I need to change or get back to the precinct. One or the other, and they’re both towards the Neutral Ground.”

“Whatever that is, I’m not going there,” she said, crossing her arms. “So you’ll have to leave me behind or come this way with me.” She turned her back to him.

Pardy sighed. This was the point of no return. He had found the girl he needed to protect, but how much was he willing to put on the line to do it? He was going way off regulations already, but hadn’t the Captain encouraged him to do just that? Not only that, she had pushed him into it by giving him this shift. “I’m not leaving you,” he said.

“Well then.” She smiled. “Let’s go this way. We’ll get a little further from the Belt, so they’re not looking for us, then head west out and beyond their reach.”

“But we won’t be able to get your father back unless we go back to the transport bay,” Pardy said in one last ditch effort to get her to comply. He didn’t have time to go running around Outland 6, and he didn’t want to have to pick her up and carry her where he needed to go.

She was about to head the other way but stopped. “You’re really serious about this?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“I’ve heard that before.” She shook her head.

“I mean it,” Pardy said. “Look.” He pulled the picture of his son and wife out of his pocket and handed it to her.

“This looks like a baby Pidgeon,” she said with a laugh.

“That’s my son. I see a lot of him in you. If I was…gone, I would want someone to protect him for me, so I want to protect you. I will protect you. I promise.”

She rubbed her finger across the picture. “He looks like you, too. You look like Pidgeon.”

Pardy laughed. “I wish I hadn’t scared him away. Maybe he could help us right now.”

“Maybe he’s trying to,” the girl said, shrugging. “Help me, at least. He hates pigs.”

Pardy laughed again. “Are you ready to go back toward the transport bay? I know a place where we can lay low for a while.”

“If that’s where my dad is,” she said, eyeing him.

“It is.” Pardy nodded. “I promise.”

“Well…” She shrugged. “Let’s go, then. But let me lead the way. I have more experience in the Streets than you do.”

“Okay,” Pardy said. He didn’t care as long as she led in the direction he wanted her to go. “Just take us toward that tree your friend was climbing. Do you know the one?”

“You saw that?” the girl said, blushing.

“I—uh…yeah,” Pardy said, blushing himself. “I used to climb trees when I was a kid. It was the first thing I ever saw in Outland 6, that tree.”

“Outland 6? What does that mean?”

“You know, Outland 6,” Pardy said. “The world you live in. The one we’re in now.”

“I know the Streets and the Belt and that’s it. This Outland you’re talking about must be someplace else.”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Pardy said, shaking his head. He wasn’t supposed to be talking to a Sixer about the other worlds anyway, even if he was already this far off regulations. “My shift is supposed to end soon. We need to get to the costume closet and get you set up so I can figure out how to get your dad out.”

“Costume closet?” The girl raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll see,” Pardy said. “Come on.” He started around the dumpster, but she pulled his arm to stop him.

“Hey,” she said. “Me first, remember. I know this place better than you.”

“Oh,” Pardy said. “Right. Go ahead.”

She poked her head around the dumpster then started moving in bursts. She crossed the street into another alley and stopped in the shadows to make sure no one was coming before she went a few steps further and stopped to peek around the alley’s corner. He kept track of their position as they moved and she seemed to be taking them a roundabout way but in the right direction.

“The closet’s on this alley,” he said when they got far enough back east.

“Alright,” she said. “How close to the Belt?”

“Right off it.”

She sighed. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said, shaking her head. “Alright, well, we’re not taking the straight route, that’s for sure. Follow me.”

As they dipped and dashed through the alleyways, Pardy thought that this gir—er—or, whatever she was, didn’t need any protecting. She was leading the way. She knew what she was doing. She was taking a circuitous route like he had been trained to do, and she was only a child from Outland 6. How could she be so competent without any training? She was smarter and more able than his son, and his son must have been a few years older than her. How was that possible?

He was still thinking about it when he felt the thud on the back of his neck and his mind blacked out to nothing.

#   #   #

Pardy woke to the sour aroma of waking salts. He tried to jump up into a defensive position, but his arms and legs were tied to a tiny chair with linen. Two dark shadows blocked the light shining in his face, blinding him. One of them spoke.

Tsk tsk tsk. You’re all alone now, protector. You know that much at least. Don’t you?”

He struggled against the restraints and grunted.

Aww. He still thinks he’s in control of his life,” the second voice said.

“Protector. What’s your name?” the first voice said.

“Where’s the girl?” Pardy demanded. “What did you do with her?” He fought against his restraints.

She’s not a girl!” the second voice said in a mocking tone. “And it’s you you should be worrying about, protector.”

“Now,” the first voice came back. “What were you doing with her? What use is a little girl to the likes of you?”

“She’s no use to me. I’m not trying to use her. I want to protect her.”

“Protect? Ha ha ha!” The second voice cackled.

“Like you protected her mother, yes?” the first said.

“I know that was wrong,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “I want to make it right. I—I already talked to—”

A door groaned and more light poured in from behind the two shadows. Two shorter figures came in, one of them yelling, “I told you to get me when he woke up! He’s the only one who can get my dad!”

“We told you to stay out!” the first voice said.

“No,” the girl said. “You don’t own me. Set him free so he can get my dad!”

“Listen to her,” Pardy said.

“Shut up!” the first voice yelled. “Shut up all of you!”

“But I—” Pardy protested.

“No! Shut up. Answer this, protector, why are you here?”

“To protect her,” Pardy said, nodding in the direction of the shadow he thought was the little girl.

“You know you’re not gonna be able to get her dad out,” the first voice said. “I know that badge and your uniform. You’re an Officer. You don’t have the power it takes to affect something that important.”

“What?” Pardy said. “No, I—”

“Get her out of here!”

The second form ushered the two small shadows out of the room and closed the door. It was only Pardy and the first voice left.

“Look, protector,” it said. “What’s your name?”

Pardy didn’t answer.

“The girl wants you to get her dad back, but you can’t. We both know that. It’s not your fault. Now whether or not it’s your fault that you killed her mom is a little more of a gray area. Or a white area, should we say? Protector’s white.”

Pardy struggled against the restraints again, moving the chair with his effort. “I didn’t want to kill her,” he grunted. “She threatened me.”

Ha ha!” the voice laughed. “Sure. Sure, protector. It wasn’t your fault. No, you were just following orders, weren’t you? You’re a cog in a big machine and you alone can’t grind against the forces that tell you which way to turn. Sure, protector. Believe that if you must. You are only human, aren’t you? You are human, right? You bleed?”

Pardy struggled to break free, but the shadow only laughed.

“Oh. I know you are protector. It takes a human to fight like that, a human to gnash against chains he never expects to break free of. You are a human, protector. Not a cog. And you pulled that trigger. No one else.”

The door opened and closed, letting the second figure back in.

“Do you have everything under control?” the first said.

“Yes, yes,” the second said. “She won’t bother us again. She knows what the deal is now.”

“Did you hear that, protector?” the first said. “She knows what the deal is now. She knows what we’re going to do to you for what you did to her. Do you know, protector?”

Pardy struggled against his restraints and the two figures laughed together.

Struggle, struggle, all you want,” the second voice sang.

“Protector—huh huh—protector. It’s okay.” The first voice forced down its laughter. “Protector, we aren’t going to do anything to you. That’s why the girl won’t come in. She knows we won’t hurt you. In fact, my partner here has some food for you.”

The overhead lights flipped on. Two short, dirty-haired, dirty-everythinged women crouched in front of him. No, they weren’t crouching. They were standing, but their backs were so hunched as to produce the illusion of crouching. They looked so small and frail. He almost wanted to laugh at the thought that they could hurt him. He chastised himself for somehow being caught by them, a giant knocked out by ants. One of them was holding a bowl of steaming something, and the other was empty-handed. Pardy looked around the room for his gun but it wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Ha ha! You called it,” the one holding the bowl said, the second voice.

“Your gun’s not here, protector,” the woman who owned the first voice said. “You can stop searching. We got rid of your comm link, too. Don’t worry. They won’t know where you are. In fact, they’ll think you’re in two places at once. Huh huh.”

They burst into laughter again. Pardy looked at his wrist and his comm was gone. “How did you know?”

“You’re not the first protector to try to help a Sixer.” The old woman shoved the bowl into Pardy’s chest, spilling hot slop over his white uniform. When she realized he couldn’t use his hands, she put it on his lap and untied them. “And you won’t be the last.”

“Settle down, now,” the other said. “Let me talk to him. You go take care of the girl.”

The door slammed and Pardy’s stomach growled. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He sniffed the soup and looked closely at a spoonful.

“Don’t worry,” the woman with the first voice said. “She made it, not me.” She pointed over her shoulder at the other woman who had already left. “It wouldn’t kill you either way, but this way it tastes better going down.”

Pardy took a big spoonful, and it tasted much better than he had expected, much better than all the nutritionally balanced meals he had eaten in his life, the ones designed to make him a perfect protector. He couldn’t help shoveling it into his face.

“That’s real cooking there, protector,” the woman said, laughing. “Homemade by human hands. You can have all of it you want, too. So don’t be shy. Heh heh.”

Pardy ate and ate until the spoon couldn’t scoop anymore.

“Now. Protector,” the woman said. “Your arms are free, I couldn’t stop you from leaving if I tried, and we’ve fed you from our own feed stores. My name is Rosa, and I want to help you help the girl. So, do you think you can trust me with your name?”

He didn’t trust her still. She was right, though. With his hands free he could easily get past these frail, old women, but she probably also knew that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He had to see to it that the girl—he still didn’t even know her name—was protected. These people seemed to also want to protect her, but he wasn’t sure how they could. Still he had no choice. He had to at least hear them out until he could find a better way to protect the girl. Maybe they could help him find that way.

“Pardy,” he said.

“Pardy?” Rosa repeated. “That sounds like a surname. Do you have anything more…intimate?”

He didn’t understand why he didn’t want to tell her, but he didn’t. “Tom.”

“Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Was that so hard? It’s so nice to finally meet you, Tom. Would you like me to untie your legs? That can’t be comfortable.”

Pardy started untying them himself, but she helped with the other leg. When they were done, he stood and stretched his muscles. He had to stoop so he didn’t hit his head on the short ceiling, and Rosa looked even smaller from the new vantage point. He still didn’t understand how he could let them knock him unconscious.

“There,” she said. “That’s better. Isn’t it?”

“What do you plan on doing with me?” he asked, finally back in control of his fate, gun or no.

“Do with you?” Rosa laughed. “No, Tom,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought it was clear that we couldn’t do anything with you if we tried. We don’t want to do anything with you at all. We want do it for you. And for the girl, of course.”

“Where is she?” Pardy demanded. “I want to talk to her.”

“Yes, well, you will. But first you have to understand that you can’t get her father back. Now do you understand that?”

“You don’t know that. I’m a protector. I can—”

“You can shoot her mother when a superior officer is nowhere near?” Rosa frowned with her lips in a tight line. “We know how it happened, Tom. If you can’t resist the other cogs when they’re nowhere near you, how do you expect to go into the heart of the machine to bring her father back out?”

“I—I could—”

Y—You would fail. Get arrested yourself. I don’t intend to sound rude when I say this, either, but you have to know that we can’t lose whatever chance of protecting Ansel you actually do offer us.”

“Ansel?”

“That’s her name, Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Ansel. And her parents were Eva and Andy. You killed one and locked the other up. No one else, Tom. You. And do you know why?”

“I was ordered—” Pardy stuttered. “I was ordered to stop her.”

“Ordered by who, Tom?”

“By my Captain—My superior officer.”

“And who ordered your Captain to order you?”

“I don’t know. The Major, or the Chief, or—”

“Exactly, Tom. There are more and more. Your boss, your boss’s boss, their bosses. But where does it end? Is it bosses all the way up? What exactly are you protecting?”

“Property, liberty, life,” Pardy replied by reflex.

“Exactly,” Rosa sneered. “Property first, then liberty, then life. In that order. You’re protecting someone else’s property, too. Not ours. Not here. Not in Six. Have you ever heard of property being returned to Six?”

“Six has no property,” Pardy said. “Everything they have they’ve stolen.”

“That’s not true, Tom.” Rosa shook her head. “You spend some time here with us and you’ll learn that.”

“I don’t care about any of this.” He was getting annoyed. He clenched his fists. He had to fight the urge to hit this trash for talking to him like she was his superior. He couldn’t keep the edge out of his voice. “Where’s the—Where’s Ansel? I want to see her.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll get her. But I’ll need to talk to you after you’re done telling her you can’t save her father. I can offer you a way to actually protect our mutual friend. That’s what we both want, isn’t it? Now, I’ll go get her. You and I will speak again soon enough.” She swept out of the room, and shortly after, Ansel stormed in.

“They said you can’t get my dad out,” she said, crossing her arms.

“They might be right,” Pardy said, shaking his head.

“But you said you could.”

“I thought I could. I was lying to myself, though. I’m just an Officer. I don’t have that kind of power.”

Ansel hit him on the arm, and he flinched away, hitting his head on the roof. “You also said you wouldn’t lie!”

“I didn’t know I was lying,” he said, rubbing the quickly forming knot on his head. “I wanted it to be true, so I thought it was. That’s not the same as lying.”

“A lie’s a lie.” She hit him again for good measure.

“I may not be able to get your father back, but I still promise to do whatever I can to protect you.”

“They told me you’d say that, too. They told me it may not be true either.”

“They don’t know me, Ansel. How would they know what I’ll do?”

“How do you know my name?” Ansel asked, raising her hand to hit him again.

“I—they told me,” Pardy said.

He relinquished himself to the slaps as she said, “And I don’t even know yours! They know you better than I do! And they knew you were lying even when you didn’t!” One slap on the arm for each word of the accusation.

“I—well—yes,” Pardy said. “That’s—”

She hit him again. “Then they know you better than you do.”

He didn’t know how to answer. He gave up and plopped back down into the short seat. He huffed and looked at Ansel’s size compared to Rosa’s, wondering how old she actually was. She could be older than his son. “Tom,” he said.

“What?”

“My name’s Tom,” he said. “Tom Pardy.”

“Well, Tom,” Ansel said, extending a hand. “I’m Ansel Server.”

“Nice to meet you Ansel,” he said, taking it.

“You said you’d do anything to protect me, right? Well Rosa and Anna said they have a plan that you could help them with. Pidgeon seems to think the world of them, but I wouldn’t trust his judgment. I don’t even know if their plan has anything to do with getting my dad back, but I need you to figure out what it is before I can decide what to do next. What do you say?”

Tom didn’t trust Pidgeon’s judgment either. Nor did he trust Rosa or Anna. He didn’t trust their methods—ambushing him in the alley and tying him up—and he didn’t trust that they wanted to protect Ansel. He didn’t trust a Sixer to look out for anyone but themselves. But who was he to talk? He was the one who had killed Ansel’s mother. He had gotten ambushed by two scrawny, old, hunchbacked Sixers. He was protecting a Sixer, and maybe a Sixer was exactly the help he needed to figure out how best to do that.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”

“I ain’t asking you to trust them.” Ansel scoffed. “Just hear them out and tell me the plan, then I can decide from there.”

He couldn’t argue with that logic. Even if it would be him deciding from there and not her. “I’ll hear them out,” he said, nodding.

#   #   #

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

Thanks again for joining us. And don’t forget, you have only one week left to be a hipster among hipsters and buy the true first edition of The Asymptote’s Tail through this link. Thanks for reading along. And have a great weekend.

Chapter 12: Ellie

We’re back today with Ellie’s second point of view chapter. Thanks for sticking with us this long, and if you don’t want to wait any longer, don’t forget you can purchase a full copy of the novel on Amazon here.

Ellie McCannik

< XI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XIII. Pardy >

XII. Ellie

She sat in the same booth she had when Gertrude first opened her eyes to the truth of the world only yesterday. The air had the same stale, smoky smell, and most of the same people were there. That is, everyone who was there now was there last time, but not everyone who was there last time was there now. Ugh. Did it really matter? She was just distracting herself from the reality of the situation.

That woman—the Scientist as she like to call herself for some egotistical reason—she was the one who had really given Ellie the opportunity. She had given her more than just an opportunity, though. She had given her responsibility. What else was opportunity but the responsibility to put that privilege to use?

The Scientist had said that she could fulfill Ellie’s desire to see the beach. She looked a little upset when Ellie asked for it, but Ellie didn’t care. She had always promised her son that she would take him to the ocean, and even though he wasn’t alive to see it for himself, she still wanted to hold true to that promise. But would she stay out there forever, or would she come back to help the Scientist fight for freedom?

“Fight for freedom” though? Ptuh. Ellie didn’t even know what that meant. The Scientist wasn’t specific about it, either. But that’s what this meeting was supposed to be about, right? To get the specifics about what she was supposed to do for “the cause”. And they didn’t even know when she was supposed to do whatever it was she was supposed to be doing. It didn’t give her much confidence in the plan she was becoming a part of.

Her beer was getting low and it was a bit past the time she was supposed to be contacted. She swirled the dregs of her drink around and took a small sip, surveying the room again. It was still just the regulars, no one she didn’t recognize. Who would the Scientist send, anyway? They would have to be able to keep a secret to be a part of the Scientist’s organization, so the anonymity of her bar would be protected, but how was she supposed to recognize the person other than the fact that she didn’t recognize them?

She topped off her beer and thought about leaving when the door opened and in came Gertrude, walking like she owned the place. She went straight to the bar and ordered without looking over at Ellie in the corner booth. Maybe she hadn’t seen her.

Ellie walked up behind Gertrude and patted her on the back. “Trudy, friend,” she said. “I thought you said this was a secret you could keep.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shrugging her off. “Do you see anyone else here with me?”

“I thought you understood I meant from yourself as well.” Ellie smiled.

“Dear,” Gertrude said, looking into Ellie’s eyes. “I know it.” The bartender set two beers in front of them. “Here. Take this and let’s go to the booth. I’ll explain.”

Ellie took the beer and stared at Gertrude. She let her walk to the booth first, eyeing her every step suspiciously. When they sat down and Gertrude said nothing, Ellie said, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh. Come on, dear,” Gertrude said, waving the question away. “You’re smarter than that. And you don’t dislike me that much, do you? You wouldn’t like to have a beer with your dear friend Trudy every now and again?”

Ellie took a swig. “So you’re the contact.”

Gertrude looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Of course, dear,” she whispered. “The less you know about the organization the better for everyone. That way you know nothing they would want to get out of you, and if they did get it out of you, it’s not enough to take down the entire thing.”

“Get it out of me?” Ellie said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, get it out of you. The Scientist did tell you that you’d be risking more than death, didn’t she?”

Ellie hadn’t realized how serious those threats were until Gertrude repeated them. She took a gulp of beer and nodded. “She did.”

“Okay. Then you know what I mean by get it out of you. Are you still willing to go through with it? If you want to walk away, it’s better that you do it now. After you know your mission, you’ll be in considerably more danger.”

Ellie nodded.

“Well then,” Gertrude said. “As it turns out, the operation begins tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Ellie’s faith in the plan dwindled a little further.

“Yes, tomorrow. And you won’t be the only one going through, or coming back. So there’s no leeway on that.”

Ellie nodded.

“Good. You’re scheduled as the only QA worker in our building for tomorrow afternoon. You’ll work your shift as normal—and this is going to be a looong, boring shift, because everyone’ll be at the Christmas Feast—but when the bell rings at the end of it, you have fifteen minutes to visit the destination of your choosing by crawling through the conveyor belt.”

“Fifteen minutes isn—” Ellie said.

After fifteen minutes,” Gertrude cut her off, “the door will close, whichever side of it you’re on. Fifteen minutes isn’t a lo—

“That’s what I’m saying,” Ellie said, taking a drink of her beer.

“Ellie, listen to me. Do you want to do this?”

“Of course I do. But fifteen minutes? That’s not worth—”

“Fifteen minutes is more than most people get, sweetheart. Most people never get to see the other side for their entire life. The other sides, Ellie. There are more than just two.” Gertrude had gotten a little loud so she looked around to see if anyone was listening.

Ellie knew she was right, though. Gertrude was risking herself just to give Ellie a chance that no one she had ever known had ever had. And what was Ellie doing? She was complaining that they weren’t giving her enough time. She could take all the time she wanted, she only had to worry about surviving over there on her own to do that. Who was she to be upset at Gertrude for passing on information, anyway?

“Have you ever seen it?” Ellie asked.

Gertrude shook her head, looked into her glass, and took a sip. “Not yet, dear. No. That’s not the place for me. Nor the job. I’m too set in my ways. I’ll see it when we’re all done here and no sooner.”

“You mean the—errevolution.” The word tasted bad in Ellie’s mouth, it was hard to spit out. She took a sip of beer to get rid of the aftertaste.

“If that’s what you want to call it, dear,” Gertrude said with a smile. “I prefer the struggle. I’ll do my duty until I’m of no more value to the struggle, then maybe I’ll take a gander at that beach of yours. I hear that’s what you’ve chosen. Am I right?”

Ellie blushed. She took a sip of beer. “That’s just a silly old dream we used to have.”

“I hear it’s wonderful.” Gertrude smiled. “The Scientist has told me all about it.”

Ellie looked at her suspiciously. “How much do you know about this Scientist, though?”

Gertrude looked around again then leaned in close to whisper her answer. “That one is an enigma. Hardest person to find gossip on that I’ve ever met. No one knows much of anything about her. Though there are stories. Rumors mostly. But they’re all so outlandish it’s hard to believe any of them.”

“But she can control where the conveyor belts let out,” Ellie said. “I know we don’t send stacks of bacon and eggs to the beach. So she can—she can change where it goes or whatever. Like teleportation or something.”

“It’s the same way the elevators work, dear,” Gertrude said, shrugging. “She can control and direct those, too. There’s no denying her knowledge or power. It’s her intentions and history that I have a hard time getting my grasp on.”

“But you trust her,” Ellie said. “You think she’s doing the right thing.”

“If I could be said to know anything about what she’s doing, I would say it’s the right thing. She’s never hesitated to answer any of my questions—well, she’s answered most of them—and she’s shown me things you would never believe. I’ve known her for a long time now, and I’ve never seen her do anything but the right thing. So, yeah, I guess you could say I do trust her.”

Ellie took a sip of beer. “Now I just have to decide if I trust you.”

Gertrude laughed. “And I you.”

Ellie realized again that Gertrude was putting just as much faith into her as she was putting into Gertrude. It was a mutual dependency, a mutual distrust. “What is it I have to do to earn this opportunity, then?”

“Oh. No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “It’s not like that. The Scientist asks that I’m as clear as I can be on that point. This isn’t a payment you’re making. This is another option you have. It’s an opportunity, not a requirement.”

“So I could just go and sit fifteen minutes with my toes in the sand and come back to my normal life with no problems at all?”

“With no problems from the Scientist. And she’d do everything she could to make sure you had no problems from anyone else, either.”

“Everything she could?”

“She’d cover your digital trail. Everything else would be up to you.”

“Digital trail?” Gertrude seemed to be talking in code.

“Security recordings and conveyor belt logs and all that,” Gertrude said, waving her hands. “The things the protectors would use to find you. I don’t know.”

“And if I stayed on the beach for longer than fifteen minutes?”

“You’d be on your own.”

Ellie shook her head. “What’s my third option?”

“Help us in our concerted attack on the system that prevents any other worker from visiting the same beach you’re visiting.”

Ellie took a swig of beer. She didn’t know what help she could be in something that sounded so militaristic, but she was intrigued. “Concerted attack?”

“Like I said, you won’t be the only one going through. Not even close. We’ve been planning this maneuver for months. That’s why it’s so easy to get you across unnoticed. Their security will be preoccupied.”

“But what part am I supposed to take in all this?” Ellie still didn’t think she had any valuable skills.

“It’s simple. You take these.” Gertrude set a pouch on the table. “Each one is a little disc with a red button. You take the paper backing off, stick each disc to each door in your hall, and press the red buttons to activate them. After that, you have ten minutes to get out of the building or you’ll be there when they…blow up.” She whispered the last two words.

Blow up?” Ellie whisper-yelled back.

“They’re,” Gertrude looked around the bar to make sure no one was eavesdropping, “explosives.”

“Explosives!” Ellie said too loudly.

Gertrude laughed unnaturally loudly herself in response. “Ha ha ha! Yes! An explosive drink that one. I’ll order two.” She slapped her hand on the table and stood to go to the bar.

Explosives? The Scientist wanted her to blow up the QA hall. That was her “opportunity”. What kind of opportunity ended with her destroying her workplace, her entire means of existence? That was no opportunity. That was payment. That was stupid. Why would anyone ever agree to it? The Scientist should have come out with that from the beginning. No. She wouldn’t do it. Especially if she could go spend fifteen minutes on the beach and come back to her normal life either way.

But what kind of life was that? Working for the people who had killed her son until she could find some other way to get back at them. Well here was a way to get her revenge right now.

Gertrude sat back at the booth with two tiny glasses. She set one in front of Ellie. “Cheers,” she said, holding up her own tiny glass.

“What is it?”

“A fireball,” Gertrude said with a shrug. “I don’t know what it is. I just had to get something explosive. Now tap my glass and take the shot.”

Ellie picked up the tiny thing, tapped it against Gertrude’s, and downed its contents in one gulp. Living up to its name, it burned all the way down her throat and made a fireball in her stomach. “Explosive,” she choked out.

“Now this is the best you can do for us on such short notice, dear,” Gertrude said, unphased by her own fireball. “It requires no training, and it goes a long way to furthering our multi-prong approach. And I know what you’re thinking, but you won’t lose your job over it. They’ll just move you to another hall to do your work. The Scientist, dear, she already took care of it. I made sure. I work in the same building, you know. And if you do lose it, she’ll see to it that you’re taken care of anyway. She lives up to her word, Ellie. Trust me.”

“But only if I do this for her,” Ellie said. “If I set the bombs and blow the place up.”

“There won’t be any people there, dear. It’s just a building we’ll destroy, a tool they use to oppress us. And I told you, she’ll take care of you whether you set the discs or not. This is all up to you now, remember. It’s your choice. You can go and live on the beach forever, or visit the beach and come back to your normal life, or visit the beach and do something to stop them from preventing anyone else’s seeing it. Whatever you decide, the Scientist supports you and she’ll do everything she can to help.”

“This sounds too good to be true,” Ellie said, shaking her head.

“It is too good to be true. But it’s also true. You have the discs now. And you have the timing. That timing’s strict, do you understand? That’s the one aspect you have no control over. There’s no helping that.”

“So her power’s not endless,” Ellie said.

“No one’s is.” Gertrude shook her head.

“And that’s it, then?”

“That’s it. Until tomorrow. And remember to work your entire shift as normal. Security won’t be down until after that.”

“How will I let you know if I did it?”

Gertrude laughed. “We’ll know, dear. It should be obvious when we try to go back to work in the morning, don’t you think?”

Ellie couldn’t help but chuckle at herself. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess you’re right about that. As long as I do it right.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Gertrude smiled. “It’s simplified. Easier than work on an assembly line. Just rip, stick, press, rip, stick, press. You do that, you have twenty five minutes after the end of your shift to get out. You can’t mess it up.”

Ellie finished her beer. She noticed Gertrude’s had been empty for some time. She was going to say something about it when Gertrude cut her off before she could get started. “You need anything else, dear?” she said. “I’ve got the family to see back home, it being the holidays and all.”

Ellie was confused. She thought Gertrude had lost everyone. That was supposed to be why she had gotten her pity promotion. She wanted to stop her and ask about it, but she knew the feeling of not wanting to be where you were, so she settled for one last question. “With all the work you do, and all the danger you put yourself in, do you—Is it worth it?”

Gertrude smiled. She looked into Ellie’s eyes, but she looked through her, not at her, seeing something else. She eventually nodded and said, “Yes, dear. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever found worth doing. I never feel like I’m doing anything wholly moral unless I’m working to move the struggle forward.”

“I hope you’re right.” Ellie shrugged.

Gertrude stood from the table. “Me, too, dear,” she said. “Me, too. Now don’t forget your pouch. If someone finds that, the Scientist may not be able to protect you. Have a good night, too. And have a great Christmas, whatever you decide to do. If you need somewhere to enjoy the holiday, don’t be afraid to stop by, dear. Here’s my address.” She set a slip of paper on the table next to the pouch

“Thanks, Trudy,” Ellie said, putting the address and the pouch in her pocket, careful not to press any of the buttons on the discs inside. “You have a good Christmas, too.” She didn’t think she’d be visiting the old lady, but she did appreciate the gesture.

“I will, dear,” Gertrude said. “Bye.” She waved as she left.

Ellie sat staring at her empty glass, deciding between getting another here or drinking one at home. Ugh. Why did Gertrude have to be such a nice, likeable, good person? It was so much easier to hate her for what she appeared to be than to truly get to understand who she was. But now that Ellie was starting to know who she was, it was impossible to hate her. It was impossible not to see her as an omen of the future, too. An omen of Ellie’s own future.

She never thought she was being moral unless she was furthering the struggle. What was that? Was she being pious or honest? Was she lording superiority or offering her actual opinion?

Ellie shook her head. No. Gertrude was helping. She was saying what she honestly believed. Ellie was taking out her frustration over the decision she had to make on Gertrude. She needed a drink to settle her nerves, and she didn’t want to stay out in public with a pouch full of bombs in her pocket, so she decided that going home was the best option.

When she looked up from her glass, the bar was empty except for her and the bartender. She brought her glass to the bar and thanked him, then headed out into the cool, dark air.

The street was just as empty as the bar. Everyone was home with their families, even Gertrude. Trudy. There was an elevator between Ellie and home, but the cool air and exercise was welcome, so she decided to walk down Elysian instead of taking the shortcut.

What was morality anyway? Nothing. Anything. Whatever you made of it. Gertrude thought the struggle was moral. The Scientist did too, probably. And her classes and church had taught Ellie that toil was moral, work was honorable. But what did they have to say about the price she had paid?

Nothing.

What was moral? That was a hard question to answer, no doubt. But she did know what wasn’t moral. She knew the way they worked and toiled to produce things they would never see was immoral. She knew the loss of life for that production was immoral. She knew those things were wrong, but what was right?

Fighting against that had to be right, didn’t it? Fighting against the immoral, righting wrongs. How could that not be moral? How could it be?

She groaned and wished she had taken the elevator. She needed that beer now more than ever, and two blocks was still too far. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the sight of a small, dark form, running along beside her to sit down directly in her path and meow.

“Git!” she yelled, stomping to shoo it away.

The cat ran a little further down the street and meowed again.

“What do you want? I don’t have any food.”

The cat waited until she got a few steps away then ran off ahead again. When it got to Ellie’s apartment, it rubbed its face on the door jamb as if it knew she were going in that one.

Ellie kicked it away when she got there. “Shoo,” she said as she opened the door, but the cat ran through her legs and up the first flight of stairs.

“You’re not coming with me,” she said, climbing up after it. “And now you’re locked inside.” She chuckled.

When she got almost to the top of each flight, the cat ran up to the next. It licked itself a few times, and ran up to the next, licked itself as she climbed, then ran up to the next, all the way to the top floor where Ellie lived.

She got out her key and unlocked the door then turned to the cat and laughed. “See,” she said. “You’re not coming in. Now git!”

She slipped through the door as quickly as she could and slammed it shut, ensuring the cat couldn’t follow her. Satisfied, she carefully slipped the pouch out of her pocket and set it on her dresser. With a sigh, she crossed back to the fridge to get a beer—her last one—then collapsed onto the bed.

This was her home. One room and a bathroom. Her bed was on the same wall as the door, and when you walked in, you walked straight into the fridge. There was room enough between the fridge and the bed to walk, but not to open the fridge all the way. On the other side of the fridge was the door to the bathroom. The dresser was at the foot of the bed, and the last wall had a counter with two stove tops and a sink. She took it all in, sighed deep, and sipped her beer, staring at the pouch on her dresser.

There went her long weekend. At least she would still get Monday off. Or she could be sitting on the beach, fishing for food, and sleeping under the stars, instead of sitting in this tiny room. Could she do that?

Could she set bombs in the QA hall and blow the place to bits? That she thought she could do. She wouldn’t feel great about it, a little vindicated maybe, and it would never bring her son back. They would probably never even know it was her who did it, but then she could at least say that she had done something, changed something, affected something. And it’s not like anyone would be hurt. It would be a few halls, one building. That’s it.

But that wasn’t it. There was a concerted effort. She was just a piece in a bigger strategy. A pawn? No. Pawns didn’t have a choice. Did she have a choice, though? Gertrude had made it sound like she did, but she made it sound like she didn’t, too. She was full of contradictions. This entire thing was. Ellie’s understanding of it was continuously in flux. She wasn’t sure if Gertrude was a senile old lady, not worth the time of day, or a wise old soul, sent to guide her on the path to morality.

Pffft. Here came morality again, creeping its ugly head into the conversation. There was no morality. Even if there was, no one cared. Morality only works if it’s reciprocal. Unless others are moral, you have no room to be. Then again, if no one is ever moral, then no one will ever be moral. Another contradiction. What came first, morality or the moral?

She took a big swig. Moral didn’t matter. What mattered was what she was going to do. Gertrude’s morality had no bearing on that. Gertrude and the Scientist had done all that they could to get her there, now it was up to her to walk through the door.

She sighed again, but this time it was a sigh of relief. Tomorrow she would finally see the beach, she would bury her feet in the sand, feel the breeze on her face, and on top of that, she would throw a wrench in their machine on her way out. She took another swig and caught some movement out of the corner of her eye. There on her counter, rubbing its face on her sink faucet, was the black cat from outside.

“How did you get in here?” she said, opening the door and going around the bed to shoo it out. “How did you even get in here?” She stomped her feet, but the cat stayed under the bed. “Get out. Git!” she yelled as she stuck her hand under the bed to shoo it out the door. “And stay out!” She jumped over onto the bed to slam the door closed.

Stupid thing. That was strange. But the bed was so comfortable. She might as well try to catch a few winks.

#   #   #

It was somehow harder to wake up on Sunday than on any other day of the week, even though she normally woke earlier. But she was no stranger to doing what she had to do, and so she did it.

It was harder to wake up, but the commute to work was easier to balance it out. The streets were barren, there was no line at the elevator, and the entire building was empty of employees. She checked her pocket to make sure the pouch was there as her footsteps echoed magnificently in the emptiness of the halls. She almost thought that, without all the angry employees standing around and gossiping, this place might not be half as bad as it normally was. But then she got behind the conveyor belt, expecting her normal beginning of the shift burst of work to get her warmed up for the rest of the day, and after five or ten minutes, the burst still hadn’t come.

Gertrude had told her this was going to be a long shift, that everyone would be at the Christmas Feast. That meant that whoever it was that usually got their things through her conveyor belt wasn’t in their normal place. Instead, they were at some Feast. Feast? What did Feast even mean? A Christmas party? No. It had to mean more than that. Most of what came through the conveyor belts was food, and cooking utensils, and clothes. The only place people needed all those at once was at home. So it went to someone’s home. Or a store. A store that sells all three things? If you can, why not sell anything? But no. Eggs and bacon and pans and clothes together? Someone was cooking and getting dressed. It had to be a house.

Ugh. She had gone through all of this before. She already knew it was a house. She still had no idea what a Feast was. She was still as ignorant as ever. But not for too much longer, now. Soon she’d experience the beach.

She patted the pouch in her pocket. Would she lay the bombs? Yes. Of course she would. She knew she wanted revenge, and here was just that. Or some small piece of it, at least. But could she do more?

Gertrude thought she could. Gertrude thought it was moral to do so. Why did she keep going back to Gertrude’s morality? Because Gertrude gave her this opportunity, and she owed the old lady something for it. Because Gertrude reminded her of herself in the future. Because Gertrude was kind and tried to help. But that’s why she was going to set the bombs, right? That was her payment, even though Gertrude said it wasn’t. Yes, tha—

The bell rang. Ellie jumped. The screen said cat food. Cat food? A bowl came rolling through and out the other side. Apparently someone was still at home. And now they had cat food.

Ellie stared at the conveyor belt for a while longer, waiting for another quick burst of work, but nothing came. This was going to be a long shift. Gertrude’s words echoed through her mind again, setting her off on the same line of thoughts she went over earlier.

#   #   #

She had no more idea what she was going to do when the final bell rang than when she had sat down for her shift. The cat food was the only thing that came through the entire time, and she thought she was going to die by the end of it, but the last bell went off, she looked at the screen to make sure it wasn’t more work, and when she saw nothing, she realized it was time to decide.

She felt for the pouch in her pocket. It was still there. She thought about going to set the bombs so she didn’t have to come back after she had seen the beach, but she didn’t know how long it would take to set them all, and she wanted to make sure the beach was really there before she did anything.

She climbed up over the railing and stood on the conveyor belt. She had always wanted to be there, and had often imagined herself seeing “Ellie” on the screen then making sure it was her who went through. She laughed a little, then remembered where she was and that she had a time limit.

She crouched down and tried to see as far into the “in” port as she could now that she had a better perspective. All she could see was darkness, even from there. She tried to reach into it, but her hand met a cold, hard door.

She turned to peer through the other side and there was light coming through, and a cool breeze, and the scent of salt water and fish. The beach.

She crawled on hands and knees through the “out” port onto soft sand. She couldn’t believe her eyes, or her skin, as she stood with some difficulty. Before her was a short stretch of white sand with the deep blue tide beating and beating against the shore in some absurd attempt to reach dry land. She dug her feet into the smooth, fine pebbles and brushed her hair—which had been blown into her face by a cool ocean breeze—out of the way, smiling like she hadn’t smiled since her son had gone. Since Levi had gone. He would have loved to see this, to feel it, to smell it. She fell down on her knees in the sand and started to weep.

She was here. This was it. The one promise she had made to Levi and she had fulfilled it too late. It wasn’t enough. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough. She had to take it all in, experience all of it. She had to do it for him. She knew it. This was moral. Keeping her promises. But she couldn’t stay here without paying the price. She owed it to Gertrude and the Scientist. She had to keep her promises to them as well.

She struggled to her feet and stared out again at the endless water and the endless sky. She almost wanted to forget the bombs entirely.

Helloooo!” a voice called from down the beach. A figure far away made its way through the tide toward her. “Hey! Did the Scientist send you, too?”

Ellie was going to ignore the person, but hearing the Scientist’s name intrigued her. Plus, as he came closer, he didn’t look like any threat she couldn’t handle.

“Hello! Do you hear me?” he called when he was close enough that she obviously did.

“Yes,” Ellie said. “Yes and yes. Who are you?”

“Oh. Ho ho.” The man chuckled. “Just a worker. Just like you. I asked for the beach. You asked for the beach. There’s only so much beach—and a lot less of it that we can be on without anyone knowing.”

Ellie tried to count how long she had been through the door already. It could have been five minutes, it could have been ten. “I don’t have much time left,” she said

“Much time? Ha ha! You’re going back? Are you crazy?”

“No. I—I didn’t pay my debt. I need to before I can—”

“Oh, ho ho, child. There’s not much time now. You better forget about that. You’re already out here, why don’t you just stay? Otherwise you might not get the chance to come back.”

“No,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“You don’t really have a choice, you know. Your time’s runn—”

He kept talking, but Ellie wasn’t listening. She crawled back through the conveyor belt, and his voice disappeared behind her.

She jumped down off the belt and the floor felt so much harder after the softness of the sand. How much time did she have left? She sprinted out the door, slammed it shut, jerked the pouch out of her pocket, and fumbled through it for one of the discs. She didn’t know what to do with the pouch while she set the bomb so she dropped it on the floor.

Rip, stick, press? Rip, stick, press? As if.

The paper backing on the disc was impossible to get off. It took ten, fifteen attempts, especially with her hand shaking at the fear of missing her time limit. She finally got it off, stuck the disc on the door, and pressed the button which turned green and displayed a little clock counting down from thirteen.

Thirteen minutes? Fifteen minutes at the beach, ten minutes to set the bombs and get out of the building. She looked up and down the hall. She could place some, but not all, of them if she wanted to make it back to the beach before the door closed. She had to set as many as she could.

She scooped up the pouch and tied it to her belt loop, jogging to the next door. It only took five tries to rip the paper backing off before she could stick and press. She pulled a disc out and started on it on her way to the next door when she got into a rhythm.

Rip, stick, press.

Run.

Rip, stick, press.

Run.

She watched the timer closely as she activated each one. Eleven and a half minutes, the clock said, and that’s all the time she had.

She sprinted down the hall, back into her workroom, and jumped up onto the conveyor belt. She could still feel the cool breeze and smell the fish and salt. She even looked forward to getting to know whoever it was that waited on the other side of the door. She looked down at her cubicle one last time, never would she have to see it again.

“Hurry,” she heard from inside the “out” port.

She dropped to her knees and crawled toward the beach, only to hit her head on a cold, metal door.

#   #   #

< XI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XIII. Pardy >

Thanks again for reading along. I hope to see you back again next Saturday and throughout the week. And don’t forget, the full novel is available through here.

Chapter 11: Mr. Kitty

Today brings us Mr. Kitty’s second chapter, marking the halfway point of the novel. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it so far and continue to join us in the future as we reach the conclusion of The Asymptote’s Tail. And remember, if you don’t want to wait the ten weeks that’ll still take, you can order a full copy of the novel (in paperback or eBook format) on Amazon through this link.

Enjoy, and happy Saturday.

Mr. Kitty< X. Russ   [Table of Contents]   XII. Ellie >

XI. Mr. Kitty

He was dreaming about a fat, juicy pigeon. The kind that was stupid enough not to fly away as long as he moved in short bursts, stopping for a moment in between. Humans the pigeons understood. It was easy to tell when a human came barreling down the sidewalk toward you, all eyes on their destination, no thought to spare for the stupid birds flapping about. But Mr. Kitty would slink a little closer and stop, slink a little closer and stop, each time going a different distance or speed, or stopping in between for a different amount of time. It was that erraticism, that randomness, which kept the pigeons unsure of how long they had to scrape for food before it was time to fly away or be torn to bits and eaten alive. He was shaking his tail, gathering his haunches, about to pounce on a particularly plump pigeon when the sound of Tillie rushing into the spare room and slamming the door behind her woke him from his nap with a jump.

Tillie didn’t even notice him. She threw her purse on the chair and plopped down onto the bed. Mr. Kitty walked over to knead her lap, but as he put his first paw on her, she flung him off, locked the bedroom door, then sat back on the bed with her head in her hands, sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Un. Seen. Hand,” Tillie said. “Unseen Hand, Unseen Hand, Unseen Haaaaand,” she moaned. “I can’t believe I did that. What did I just do? Why would I just do what that woman told me to do? I don’t even know her. Unseen Hand, Unseen Hand, Unseen Haaand.”

“Tell me,” Mr. Kitty meowed, jumping onto her lap. “Maybe I can help.”

“Oh. Mr. Kitty, I’m sorry,” she said, petting his head and starting to cry again. “I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just not fair.”

Mr. Kitty purred.

“I mean, what am I supposed to do about it?” Tillie complained. “Who am I? You saw what they did to Russ when he almost outed them, and he’s a huge star. Imagine what they’d do to me if they ever found out what I did. What did I do? Unseen Hand, what did I do?”

Mr. Kitty tried to roll over on his back in her lap and show her his belly to make her feel better, but the phone rang, and she jumped up to grab it out of her purse, pushing him down onto the floor. She stared wide-eyed at the screen, then sighed in relief and answered it.

“Shelley,” she said. “Unseen Hand. You’re never gonna believe this. I have to—You have to come see me right now.”

“No, Shelley. No.”

“Because I can’t leave my house right now. That’s why.”

“No, look. No. I’m not—No. It’s not a prank.”

“I can’t tell you over the phone or I would have told you already.”

“Yes! The Hand. Just come over already.”

“Good. I’ll see you soon.”

Tillie hung up the phone, sat back down, and scooped Mr. Kitty up. “Ugh. I’m sorry again Kitty. I suck. I’m just—I’m a little on edge right now, you know. I—Well…I did something kind of stupid and reckless, and I might be in danger because of it. But what am I talking about? You wouldn’t let anyone hurt me. Would you, Mister Kitty?

Mr. Kitty purred in response.

No,” she said in her baby voice. “I know you wouldn’t. You sweet wittle fing you.” The doorbell rang. Tillie stood up, pushing Mr. Kitty onto the floor for the third time, and crept over to the bedroom door. She turned the deadbolt as quietly as she could and cracked the door to peek through with one eye.

Tiiilllliie! Doorbell!” her dad called from the living room.

She didn’t answer. Mr. Kitty tried to push his way through her legs, but she scooted him back with her foot, so he sat on the floor behind her and licked himself.

“Tillie, honey!” her dad called. “Can you get that? I’m in the middle of a game!”

The doorbell rang again.

“I’m in the bathroom, dad!” Tillie called back. “It’ll be a minute! Can’t you?”

With one more ring and a groan, her dad called, “Alright!” then walked slowly backwards out of the living room, trying not to miss any bit of the game. When he had gotten far enough into the hall that he couldn’t see the TV anymore, he turned to the door straight away and opened it.

Mr. Kitty could tell that Tillie was holding her breath, even from his view sitting under her feet. She only let go of it when her dad stepped aside to let Shelley in. Then she opened the bedroom door and went right out to them. “Thanks, dad,” she said. “Sorry. Had to wash my hands, you know.”

“Of course, darling,” her dad said, getting back to his game in the living room. “You and your friend feel free to order anything from the printer,” he said with a wave, not looking at them.

Oooh, I think I’ll have—” Shelley started, but Tillie grabbed her arm and dragged her back into the room where Mr. Kitty was waiting. She tossed Shelley on the bed, then closed and locked the door behind them.

“Dang, girl!” Shelley said, sitting up. “You do not want to get physical with me. Don’t make me remind you how you know.”

“Okay,” Tillie said. “Okay okay. I’m sorry, Shelley. I’m sorry.”

“That’s right you are,” Shelley said, shaking her head. “Here you are sittin pretty with your in-house printer, and your dad offers me one thing and…what? You drag me into the spare room, lock the door, and fling me on the bed. Girl, are you crazy? I mean, do you know what a 3D printer does? Do you know what he was offering me? Of course you do. What am I talking about? You have one you can use any time.”

“Yeah, Shelley,” Tillie said. “I do know how a printer works. That’s the entire reason I asked you to come here in the first place. Do you know how a printer works?”

Uh, yeah.” Shelley scoffed. “Of course I do. You tell it what you want and it gives it to you. Everyone knows that.”

“But where does it come from, Shelley?” Tillie said with a sigh. “I’m not asking if you know how to operate a printer. A baby could operate a printer. I’m asking if you know how they work.”

Mr. Kitty jumped up onto Shelley’s lap. He rubbed his head on her arm and meowed to say that it was okay for her to admit that she didn’t know.

“I don’t—” She pet Mr. Kitty on the head. “You’re not making any sense, Tillie.”

“It’s simple,” Tillie said. “Where do the things that the printer gives you come from?”

“They come from the printer,” Shelley said with a shrug. “Where else?”

“The printer just makes them out of thin air?”

“No,” Shelley said. “I—It rearranges the atoms or something. I don’t know. That’s elementary school science, Tillie. How am I supposed to remember?”

“Right,” Tillie said. “Okay. So that’s what the school system teaches us, right. That the printers rearrange atoms. But if that were the case, then why would we need assembly line workers?”

“But we don’t have assembly line workers,” Shelley said with a smile. She thought she had gotten Tillie with that one. “We have robots.”

“Then why do we have the robots?” Tillie said, standing up and getting close to Shelley, towering over her. Shelley was leaning so far back on the bed to get away from her that Mr. Kitty was sitting on her stomach instead of her lap.

Shelley guided him off so she could scootch around Tillie and stand up herself. “I don’t know, Tillie,” she said. “But if you only invited me over here to yell at me and demean me, then I might as well leave.”

She made for the door, but Tillie stopped her. “No,” she said. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—I’m just really stressed right now.” She sat down on the bed with a bounce, and Mr. Kitty jumped onto her lap to purr.

“I can see that, girl,” Shelley said, sitting beside them and patting Tillie’s back. “Tell Sister Shelley what’s bothering you. She’ll make it all better.”

“I—I don’t know if you can,” Tillie said. Moisture welled up behind her eyes, and Mr. Kitty purred louder.

“Oh, I know I can, honey,” Shelley said, snapping her fingers. “Just tellin me’ll make you feel better. I guarantee it.”

Tillie chuckled and smiled. “Like the commercial.”

“Who say, I say, I say, let em have it…with nooo problem. I guar—un—tee!” they sang in unison then laughed together.

“Shelley,” Tillie said when they were over their laughter. “I did something stupid.”

“Well, who hasn’t, girl?” Shelley said. “Spit it out.”

“No, Shelley,” Tillie said, looking at her lap. “I mean, this—this was really stupid. And dangerous.”

Shelley smiled. “What’d you do, girl? Got a little wasted at the bar? Did you cut in line at the elevator?” She lowered her voice as if someone was listening. “Did you have unprotected sex?”

Tillie scoffed and pushed her away. “No. Ugh. No! Nothing that bad. Except. Maybe it was worse.” She kind of half-grinned and half-frowned. “I don’t know, Shelley. I shouldn’t have brought it up. You’re never going to believe me if I tell you anyway.”

Shelley shook her head. “No, girl. Uh uh. C’mon now. We’re sisters for life. Every secret safe and every word spoken true. You know the deal, sweetheart. We pinky promised, and swapped spit, and pricked our fingers to mix blood. There’s no breaking those vows. So tell me what you have to say and I’ll trust it entirely, and keep it secret until my grave.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Tillie said. “I mean no one.”

“Cross my heart,” Shelley said, crossing her heart. “You know I won’t. Have I told anyone about—”

“Alright,” Tillie said, stopping her from bringing up any of a number of embarrassing stories. “Alright alright. I believe you. But I may be putting you in danger by telling you.”

“Shoot, girl. Ain’t no one gonna know but your cat here, and he won’t put me in any danger. Will he? Will you?” She squeezed his cheek.

“No,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” Tillie said. She took a deep breath to gather herself. “Well I—It all started when I saw that episode of Logo’s Show. Did you see it?”

“Girl, you know I watch every episode,” Shelley said. “Which one you talkin about?”

“I’m talking about the most recent episode, the show that was cut short.”

Awww shoot. Yeah, girl. What was that? They played some rerun from last Christmas instead. As if I wanted to see Christmas reruns. That’s what the Christmas Rerun Marathon is for.”

“Right,” Tillie said. “But didn’t you wonder why they cut it short?”

“Well, he couldn’t finish the show, girl.” Shelley scoffed. “Obviously.”

“But why couldn’t he?” Tillie said, losing control again. “This is just like the 3D printer discussion!”

“I don’t know, girl!” Shelley said, standing again. “Why?”

Tillie took a few deep breaths and patted Mr. Kitty on the head. “I’m sorry. But if you had seen what I saw…Shelley. You know the assembly lines.”

“The robot assembly lines?”

“No, Shelley. Yes. But no. I’m saying—I’m saying printers don’t rearrange matter and the assembly lines aren’t worked by robots.”

Pfft.” Shelley scoffed. “Sure, girl,” she said, nudging Tillie and laughing. “Then where does everything come from?”

“From people, Shelley. Human beings work on the assembly lines. They make everything we order from the printers.”

Shelley laughed. She shook her head. “I don’t know, girl. That sounds ridiculous. How could humans make things instantly when we order them?”

Tillie frowned. “They don’t make it when we order it. They make huge supplies of everything so it’s ready before we order it. Anyway, I thought you said you’d believe me.”

Ooooh, girl.” Shelley shook her head. “I did say that, but I wasn’t expecting this. I mean, you’re telling me that everything I’ve ever been taught is wrong. How am I supposed to believe that?”

“You said you would. And I’m telling the truth. I met with one of the workers, Shelley. I’ve talked to them. They’re real.”

“What are you talking about?” Shelley said, waving her arms and shaking her head. She seemed to be getting as frustrated with the conversation as Tillie was. “How?”

“I don’t know. I saw this photo on my dad’s computer, then I started looking into it, and before I knew it, I was taking the elevator to the library, and I ended up at some woman’s house instead.”

“A woman’s house?” Shelley said, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know, Shelley,” Tillie said with a sigh. “She told me how to meet with one of them, and I followed her directions, and I saw him. He told me that they work every day for twelve hours, and they get just enough money to make it to the next week, and they have no choice but to work from the time they’re old enough to hold a broom or they’ll starve. He said they made everything we get out of our printers, and they teleport it to us when we order it. Shelley, they do all that so we can have what we have.”

Shelley shook her head and made for the door. Mr. Kitty jumped out of Tillie’s lap and onto the ground, searching for an escape. “No,” Shelley said. “I don’t believe it. Why are you telling me all this? If you didn’t want me to use your printer you should have just said so. But this? This is ridiculous.”

“No, Shelley,” Tillie said. “Why would I care about that? I need help. We have to stop this.”

“Stop it? Ha! Stop what? You’re delirious. I’m out of here. Get back to me when you’re feeling better.”

“No, Shelley. Stop!”

Shelley left the room and Mr. Kitty followed her. Tillie hurried out to stop her before she got through the front door. “Shelley!” she called. “Shelley, wait!”

Shelley stopped, sighed, and turned around. Mr. Kitty didn’t stop, though. He was tired of listening to them. He’d figure out what Tillie meant to do about it later. For now he had to get out of the house. He had been caged up like a human for too long and he needed to stretch his legs a bit.

The house had a big yard, and it was only a short walk from there to the public elevator system. Mr. Kitty took his time slinking through the garden along the yard’s metal fence, rubbing his face on every hard stick he passed, smelling every other plant, even taking a bite or two out of a few pieces of grass—important for his digestion. He was so lost in the smells and colors that the sound of Shelley’s feet coming down the walkway toward him made him jump. She went one way down the sidewalk, toward the elevator entrance, and he went the other, toward his favorite tree to climb.

He stopped at the base of the tree to sharpen his claws on its roots. He loved the sound it made when his claws sank into the wood, and the feeling as they caught in the meat of the root which could only give way under the brute force of his animal strength. He gathered his haunches and zipped up to the first fat branch overlooking the neighborhood. None of the houses looked like they belonged next to each other with their extreme shifts in architecture and landscaping, but one thing they all had in common was that they were all huge and all set on a lot of land. Mr. Kitty pitied them down there, trapped in their houses, stuck in their web of sidewalks. They had access to more knowledge than most humans Mr. Kitty knew, but somehow they understood the least about the world.

A sound of talking from above caught his attention. He recognized the voices. Those two kids were closer to freedom than anyone in the houses below him—except for maybe Tillie, who was making strides. He really liked those kids, too. They didn’t give up. They deserved a little reward for their perseverance, and he was in the position to give just that to them. He climbed up to the branch he was looking for and jumped into the air, gliding out where it looked like there was nothing to land on. He ended up landing on Pidgeon’s lap.

“The cat!” the other kid said, standing on the branch.

“Mr. Kitty!” Pidgeon said. “Where’d you come from?”

“Where’d it come from?” the other kid said.

“Settle down,” Pidgeon said. “He’s not going anywhere. Look at him.”

Mr. Kitty kneaded Pidgeon’s lap and purred. The other kid sat down, holding out a hand for Mr. Kitty to sniff, it smelled a bit like rat, a not altogether undelicious smell.

“I’m Ansel,” the kid said. “Where’d you come from?”

“Through the hole,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“He’s trying to tell you,” Pidgeon said.

“Yeah, right,” Ansel said.

“Here, I’ll show you,” Mr. Kitty said. He jumped off Pidgeon’s lap and hopped from limb to limb down the tree.

“Follow him!” they yelled together.

Mr. Kitty heard the sound of leaves rustling and branches breaking as they chased down after him. He hoped they hadn’t broken his landing pad in their descent—he would hate to find that out the next time he decided to come through that way. He stopped for a second on the soft grass to give them a chance to catch up, licking his feet to taste the difference in the soil, and when the sound of them chasing after him was close enough, he bound down the green strip towards a hole that could send them where they wanted to go—if they were willing to follow him.

The hole was a few blocks away, and Mr. Kitty was much too fast for the little two-legged humans, so he had to treat them like pigeons in reverse. He would run out ahead, then stop to lick himself while they caught up, then run out ahead again, and repeat for the four blocks distance to the alley he was looking for. At the end was the tricky part. He could get into the restaurant easily enough—jumping through the broken window—but they wouldn’t follow him that way. He could wait for someone to open the door so they would be more likely to follow, but the timing on that was a long shot. Then there was the alley side of the hole, and from the looks of it, there was just enough trash for him to get the boost he needed.

He let the kids get a little bit closer, so close they were shouting at each other, then he heard another human voice he didn’t recognize. It was too late to turn and find out who it was, though, because he was already bounding toward the dumpster. He jumped up onto a soggy box that almost gave way under his weight, onto the dumpster lid, then up two more boxes to claw his way into the building itself, giving him the last bit of momentum he needed to make the extra few feet into the hole to fall far and fast onto the carpet on the other side.

He licked the pain out of his feet and listened for the sound of the human children following him. He heard some sounds, but nothing quite like they were climbing up after him. More like they were going the other way. He shook his head in pity. At least they had a new goal to work toward.

Mr. Kitty sniffed the air. It took him a second to remember where this side of the hole let out, usually he used the side that was inside the restaurant. The feeling of the carpet suggested he was where Haley lived, but the smell gave it away. There was a vaguely chemical scent—something synthetic—and the air smelled extra oily. He walked down the hall and pushed his head through a door.

Behind it was an office with a long desk. A huge window that looked out onto a vast wilderness with trees, hills, and animals everywhere made up the far wall of the room. There was no one sitting behind the desk, but Rosalind and Huey were sitting on two puffy chairs in the corner, staring out the window in silence. Mr. Kitty meowed to announce his presence and both looked around with a smile.

“Mr. Kitty,” Huey said. “So nice of you to join us.”

Rosalind stood to get something out of the desk and sat back down. “You want some treats, Mr. Kitty?” she said, pouring a few crunchy, delicious-smelling bits onto a side table. Mr. Kitty jumped up to eat them while Rosalind and Huey took turns patting him.

“Thanks,” Mr. Kitty meowed when he was done eating.

“Of course,” Rosalind said, patting his back a few more times. “Mr. Kitty, would you like a new collar? We need to get a message through, and you’re the only one who can deliver it.”

“Are you gonna give me some of that wet food?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Of course we are, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said with a smile. “We would have given it to you even if you said no.”

“That’s why I keep coming back,” he meowed.

Rosalind took off his yellow collar and snapped a red one around his neck.

“You know,” Huey said with a smile. “Red is your color, Mr. Kitty. It stands out beautifully against your dark fur. What do you think, Roz?”

“Beautiful,” she said, scooping Mr. Kitty up and kissing him on the head while he tried to squirm away from her. When she set him back on the table, he licked his paws and rubbed the kiss away.

Awww, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said. “Don’t rub it away. You know it means I love you.”

“You know I hate it,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yeah, but you love it, too,” Rosalind said. “One of life’s little contradictions.”

Mr. Kitty continued licking himself. He got started, he might as well get the rest of his coat while he was at it.

“Contradictions,” Huey said, shaking his head. “I’m tired of contradictions. But you will be visiting Outland 4 today, won’t you Mr. Kitty?”

“Outland what?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“The Scientist, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said, patting his head and smiling. “You know. She wears the long white coat. She’d like to see your new collar.”

“Sarcasm,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “But I need the elevator.”

“Of course,” Rosalind said. “Just let me get your wet food first.“

She shuffled through the drawer again, and Mr. Kitty jumped off the table onto the desk to hurry her up. She pulled the tin open and set it down, and he licked all the juices off the top as quickly as he could then meowed that he was ready to go.

“I’ll let him out,” Rosalind said, walking toward the hall he had come in through.

“Thank you, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, waving.

Mr. Kitty stretched his legs and followed Rosalind out to the elevator at the other end of the carpeted hall. She opened the doors and Mr. Kitty climbed in.

“Alright, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said. “She’ll be expecting you. And thanks again.”

The doors closed, and the floor fell out from underneath him. When the elevator stopped falling, the doors opened and Mr. Kitty climbed out into a hall with hard, cold vinyl floors instead of soft carpet. He hated walking on the stuff. No wonder humans wore shoes all the time with the ridiculous concrete and vinyl they put everywhere they were supposed to walk.

He turned through the hall into an office and jumped up onto the desk. No one was sitting there, but he knew she would be back soon. He licked his feet to get the cold, unnatural feeling of the vinyl floor away. There were more computer screens here than there were on Tillie’s dad’s desk, and the numbers seemed somehow more interesting, plus, the Scientist liked to watch TV while she worked, and Mr. Kitty enjoyed a little television himself every now and again. He wanted to see what was going on in the computer world, so he walked across the keyboard to get it going when the Scientist came in, holding a plate with a sandwich on it.

“Mr. Kitty!” she said, setting the plate on the desk next to him. He sniffed it and started eating the meat out of the sandwich. “Finally, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said. “Red! Eat all you want. I’ll make you more if you’re here when I’m done.”

“I’m full anyway,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Oh. You have no idea, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said with a smile. “Sic bo shines down on you. I’ve been waiting for you to come in with that beautiful red collar for you don’t know how long.”

“Thanks,” he meowed. “See ya.”

“Alright, Mr. Kitty,” she said. “I’m gonna get to work.”

Mr. Kitty walked out of the door, and instead of into the hall, he came out into his yard. He looked back, and as the door closed behind him, it disappeared. He walked through the spot in the air where the door had been to make sure it was gone. Satisfied, he turned and bound through the grass to sit at the front door of the house.

“Anyone home?” he meowed as loud as he could. He knew her dad wouldn’t hear him, or care, but he thought Tillie might pick his voice up and prevent him from having to take the long way in. “Helloooo! I’m out here!” he tried one more time, then sat down to lick his feet.

Maybe she wasn’t there. Or maybe she was actually in the bathroom this time. Either way, it didn’t seem like she was coming, so he got up and went around to the back of the house. He climbed up a big oak tree in the backyard to jump up onto the roof. This roof was just a little lower than the previous house’s, so it took him two jumps to get high enough to fly through the hole, out onto the metal grating on the other side. He landed with a clang and looked around with puffed up fur to make sure there was no one there to see him. There wasn’t.

The floor here was even worse than the vinyl. If he wasn’t careful to keep his claws in while he walked, they would catch on the holes in the metal grating and break off when he lifted his foot. Even when he was careful he couldn’t prevent it from happening sometimes. And the stairs he had to climb down were made of the same metal grating. On top of that it, was impossible to stay silent while walking on it. He had to constantly look this way and that to be sure no one heard him.

Finally, at the bottom of six flights, came the worst part of this entrance into his own house. It was a long, skinny strip of metal grating that curved around a wall into a tunnel of darkness with no escape but to go straight back the way he had come, that is if he could react fast enough when he finally saw who was coming. Luckily they couldn’t walk quietly on the metal grating either, so he usually heard them long before he saw them.

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and sniffed the air. It smelled stale, and oily, and there wasn’t much oxygen. He had to breathe deeply, even from walking down such few flights. He turned this ear then that toward the black tunnel and there was no sound. He slunk his way into the darkness, wishing there was another escape.

He paid extra attention to keeping his claws in, stopping every few steps to be sure no one was coming. He had counted the steps so many times, he knew how close he was by reflex. Thirteen bursts of three steps, eleven bursts of two, and seven bursts of one. Not in that order, but do that number and he’d be there. He was fifteen steps away when he smelled it. It was oil, but it wasn’t oil. He knew that smell, but from where?

He took a few steps closer and heard sobbing. Why would someone be sobbing down here?

A few more steps and he saw the form on the ground, right in front of his exit. It didn’t see him yet, though. Or hear him. Or smell him. He could run up, use it as a jumping platform, and be gone before it had time to realize what had even happened.

He was gathering his haunches to do it when he caught the smell again, and this time he recognized it. It wasn’t oil, it was cooking oil. And there was shampoo and soap mixed in there. That wasn’t someone. It was—

“Tillie!” he meowed.

She jumped up and stopped crying all at once. The sound of it echoed through the empty tunnel. “Mr. Kitty. I—Is that you?” she said, taking the hood off her head.

Mr. Kitty walked up to her and brushed his cheeks on her legs.

“Mr. Kitty!” She perked up. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Oh no,” Tillie said, slouching down. “I don’t know how to get out of here, either.” She started to sob again.

“I know the way out,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “It’s right here.”

“I know, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I’m so stupid. I never should have gotten involved in this. I don’t know how I got you wrapped up in it with me.”

“Wrapped up in it?” Mr. Kitty struggled to get away and ended up clawing her chest.

Ow, Mr. Kitty!” she yelled. “Settle dow—Where—”

Mr. Kitty jumped through the hole into Tillie’s dad’s office where he was sitting at the computer, watching numbers change on the screen, paying no attention to the cat who had just appeared in the room behind him. Mr. Kitty turned to see if she would come on her own, but he only heard the faint echo of her calling his name and sobbing. She was confused just like a human.

“Come on!” he meowed.

Tillie’s dad turned and said, “Mr. Kitty. Shut up. How’d you get in here?”

“Tillie!” Mr. Kitty meowed. “Go through the wall. Like platform 9¾.”

Cat! Shut. Up,” her dad said. “Have you seen Tillie?”

Before he finished his sentence, she appeared in the room right next to Mr. Kitty. She gasped, scooped him up, and kissed him on the head, crying. “You did it, Kitty!” she said. “You’re so smart.”

“I worked for it,” he meowed.

“Oh, I love you, too, Kitty,” she said, squeezing him tighter and driving the air out of his lungs.

“Tillie!” Her dad had finally gathered himself for long enough to respond. “Wh—Where? How did you…”

“Dad.” She dropped Mr. Kitty and went to him. “I’m sorry. I—I didn’t. You have to understand.”

“Understand?” her dad said, looking around the room. “You just—You appeared from nowhere. The door’s locked. I look away. Then I look back. That’s not—It’s not—It’s just not.”

“Dad,” Tillie said. “I can explain. I—”

Explain! Explain? Well go ahead then, dear. Go ahead. Try to explain that.”

“Well, I—Well…” Tillie said. “You know those pictures I saw.”

“The pictures I told you not to tell anyone about.” Her dad crossed his arms.

“Right,” Tillie said, smiling a big, fake smile, and looking this way and that with her eyes. “Riiight. Those pictures. Well—and I didn’t show them to anyone, okay. And I didn’t even tell anyone about them, you know. But—I mean, I couldn’t forget them, you know. It’s not like I could delete them from my memory, Dad. I can’t unsee them, okay. And I just—well, I don’t know, I had to know the truth, you know. I had to do something. So I did.”

“No, Tillie,” her dad said. “It’s not okay. That—that doesn’t explain anything. So what? So how did you get here?”

“Dad.” She rubbed her hands on her cheeks, trying not to cry. “Come on. You can’t tell me—You can’t tell me that you don’t know. You have to know. You’re a Manager.”

“What, dear?” her dad said, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. “I have to know what?”

“I mean, where I was,” Tillie said. “How the world works. What’s really going on beyond the numbers. We talked about this, dad. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here.”

“Yeah,” her dad said, nodding. “Well. Okay. Yeah. I know how the world works, honey. But you’re talking in riddles. If you’d just ask me a direct question instead of being so emotional, then I’m sure I could give you a direct answer.”

Tillie didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mr. Kitty could see it on her face. She scoffed, and chuckled, and sobbed, and giggled, and blew a big glob of snot out of her nose. “Dad,” she said. “You’re asking me to disregard everything I think and feel. I have emotions, you know. And they’re real. And just because you go by the numbers alone doesn’t mean there isn’t more to the world than that. Can’t you see you’re asking me to stop being myself?”

“Tillie, dear,” her dad said, standing from his desk and turning to try to comfort her. “Tillie I’m sorry. I just want to help you. I was confused. You appeared out of nowhere. It must…it must have been some fault in the Walker-Haley fields. Am I right?”

“So you do know, then,” Tillie said, pushing him away and wiping her face with her sleeve.

“Of course I know, dear,” her dad said. “Of course I do. I manage the robot workers. How could I not know that printers don’t actually rearrange matter?”

Tillie faced the contradiction of wanting to laugh and cry all at the same time again. She was never one to hide her emotions. “Dad. You don’t know. You don’t understand at all. You’ve only penetrated the first layer and you think that’s all there is to it, but there’s so much more.”

“What are you talking about, dear?” Her dad frowned, shaking his head.

“They’re not robots, dad. That was a picture of human kids I saw on your computer.”

“Tillie,” her dad said in a pleading tone. “They said on the TV that it was a hoax. They played it on the emergency broadcast system. Every channel.”

“You’re the one who told me that I shouldn’t believe what I see on TV.”

“Yeah, well, then you shouldn’t believe what Russ told you, either. He’s a celebrity. He’ll do anything for fame.”

“But one side has to be right,” she said. “Either they’re humans, or they’re robots. It can’t be both, right?”

“No—Well, no…That is true. But there aren’t humans on the assembly lines, dear. I assure you. I would know if there were.”

“And the TV has said that they are humans, and it’s said they aren’t, so can we at least agree that it doesn’t matter what the TV says.”

“Yes,” her dad said, nodding. “And that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said. It’s what I’ve been trying to say all along, dear. But, still, there are not humans on the assembly lines.”

“Dad. I talked to one. He said that every single one of them has a job on a line, or running, or cleaning. He told me that he had never seen a robot in his entire life.”

“No, dear.” Her dad shook his head. “Well, that’s a—he lied to you!”

“Who did, dad? My eyes? My ears? I talked to him myself. While we sit here with our printer, eating everything they make and throwing away what we don’t want, they survive on scraps. You have to know how much of the world’s resources are dedicated to them, dad. You are a Manager, aren’t you?”

“Yes, well,” her dad said, shaking his head. “O—of course—of course I know. I know what portion of our finite resources we put toward the robots of Outland 5, dear. But that’s all they are. Robots.”

“So you don’t believe me then?” Tillie said, shaking her head.

“No, dear,” her dad said, shaking his head and avoiding eye contact with her. “Of course not. How could I?”

Ugh, fine!” Tillie stormed out of the room, and Mr. Kitty chased after her.

“Tillie!” her dad called, but he didn’t get up from his chair to chase them.

Tillie went into the spare bedroom and started packing her things.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Kitty meowed, standing on her backpack.

She scooped him up and set him on the bed. “Sorry Kitty,” she said. “I can’t stay here with him anymore. You can come with me if you want.”

“Where are we going?”

#   #   #

< X. Russ   [Table of Contents]   XII. Ellie >

Thanks again for reading. And don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon today. Have a great weekend.

Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit

The /r/writing self post this is quoted from can be found here:

This is taken from Dan Harmon’s Channel 101 post, found here, and it is one of the many great ways to look at story structure which might help you follow China Miéville’s advice on novel structure for beginners, found here. Now back to Harmon:

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.

Divide the circle again horizontally.

Starting from the 12 o clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.

Dan Harmon Story Circle

Here we go, down and dirty:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.

I will talk in greater detail about this pattern in subsequent tutorials.

Next article:Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory

And do be sure to check out Story Structure 102 and beyond. Dan Harmon is great at what he does. Enjoy until next time.

[For more writing advice for beginners click here.]

Margaret Atwood’s Happy Endings and 10 Tips for Writing

Today I’d like to discuss Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors. Here she is in video formattalking about why we tell stories. She thinks it’s in human nature to do so, much like Dan Harmon did in an earlier tip post .

Moving on to a short story she wrote, Happy Endings, we’ll find again some of Atwood’s thoughts on storytelling. With the odd structure of this “story” she seems to be saying, “It’s not the end of a tale that matters but the meaty bits in the middle.” Right here you can find a decent, if short, analysis of the story to serve as a jumping off point for conversation.

And finally, it seems that every author has their own list–this one taken from the Guardian article here–so here’s Atwood’s. Enjoy:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Chapter 07: The Scientist

Here comes Saturday number eight with the introduction of the last point of view character, the Scientist. We’ll start off with an illustration of her then dive straight into the chapter. Enjoy, and if you do, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the novel, through Amazon here, in order to support my future writing endeavors.

The Scientist

< VI. Officer Pardy     [Table of Contents]     VIII. Haley >

VII. The Scientist

Every day the same. Every day different. The only constant is change. Reality was filled with just such contradictions.

She stood in front of the printer—as she did every meal—and imagined the people who grew, reared, and harvested, built the things to make possible, and sent along the food she was about to consume. She always ordered her meals as raw as they came so those people were forced to do as little of her work as possible. Her personal thrift was only a drop of water on the face of the sun, and she knew it, but it made her feel a little less responsible, a little less complicit, and it wasn’t anywhere near the end of her actions.

One egg, one piece of bread, two strips of bacon. She placed the same order she placed most mornings and it took no more than seconds before each item was in her hands and ready to be prepared. She had done this so many times before that her movements were instinctual. There was no thought in cracking the eggs, cooking everything all at once, and spreading the jam on the pan-fried toast just as the bacon was crisp to perfection. She woke up, and before she knew it, it was done. Just like that. As if she hadn’t woken up until breakfast was cooked and ready even though she was the one who prepared it herself. She was sleepcooking.

With the smell of bacon following her from the kitchen, she brought her breakfast back into her office to start on the day’s security checks. She set the plate in front of the keyboard and bank of monitors on the big oak desk—overlooked by a wall-sized window with a  view of a functioning assembly line—and slid into the fluffy, leather chair. She hit the spacebar to wake the computer, picked up her plate, leaned back in the chair, and started on breakfast while the machine warmed up.

The screen flashed “Good Morning” in pale green on a black background before it hummed away, getting down to business. She chewed her toast as the various checks were performed. First the top tier printers of Inland, those which were owned by the owners. They were the most important printers according to company protocol. Of course, being the property of the owners themselves, they were the newest model printers, and as such, the least likely to malfunction. Still, they were the “most important”, and they were to be fixed before any others. The computer went down the list marking every unit green for fully functional as expected.

Then came the printers in Outland 1. Being the center of the defense of property, liberty, and life, Outland 1’s printers were on a tier with the owners’ own. A few were slightly older models in comparison, but even those were from the previous year at the earliest, and all were highly unlikely to malfunction. The computer ran through these, and there was a minor plug in one of the printer streams, but a mechanic bot was already working on clearing it out, and the bot looked to have everything under control.

Then came the Walker-Haley fields. She always suggested that they run this check first, as it was the basis of the entire system and making changes here could affect the printers she had already inspected, but she wasn’t in charge, the owners were. They had the money. They owned the property. They decided that their printers, and their soldiers’ printers, were more important than their walls or her time. She had no choice but to comply, so she did. The computer went down every single Walker-Haley line, checking every square inch of field for proper wave function. There were more miles of Walker-Haley field lines to check than there were miles of roads at the height of the automobile era, and every morning she sat and watched the computer check every single one, inch by square inch.

The holes came next. You couldn’t separate the worlds like that without leaving connections. What would be the point? No, that’s where the holes came in. So many of them. Transport bays, elevator ports, printers, communication portals, heat transfer—to prevent weather aberrations which plagued early attempts—repair hatches, you name it. Those and the holes that formed from the natural wear and tear of the system, holes like the one that was flashing red on the screen to her left.

“Woah now,” she said, spinning in her chair to get a closer look. “Where are you?” She tapped off a few keystrokes. “Outland 2? That’s odd. Let me just…” She typed a few more strokes and touched the screen with her hand then clicked on the mouse. “Ah,” she said. “Well is that so?”

A video came up on her center monitor, surveillance footage from the area where the hole was. A college-aged woman in a black hoodie was talking to someone in the shadows, maybe an assembly line worker who had found a hole, they had been getting more restless in Outland 5. More than likely it was a Sixer, though, left there to rot in a sea of skyscrapers, fighting over the only strip of green. It was brilliant really how the owners handled that problem, and equally disgusting. Made all the worse by the fact that the Scientist was the one who mended the walls that propped their entire system up, by the fact that she had invented those walls without knowing how they would be used.

She let them talk a minute more, finishing her breakfast and cleaning the dishes, before she called the mechanic bot to fix the hole and set the emergency lights to flashing—which sent the conversants running in opposite directions. She watched the video until the bot got there and set to work, then she switched back to the maintenance scan and leaned back in her chair.

The computer started its check over again from the beginning. Exactly the inefficiency she had warned about, but money didn’t care. There was always more. Nothing had changed, so the computer skipped from Outland 1 to Outland 2 and on down the line. There were less and less printers to check as it went, but more and more of them had problems. She sent bots to those she could afford to, but it wasn’t many, and they were mostly in Outlands 3 and 4. Five would have to wait and 6 wasn’t supposed to have any printers. It was a complex job, managing which bots went where, but she had a sixth sense for the triage needs of the system, which was why they still had her doing it instead of a computer.

As she set to deciding who in Outland 3 would be least likely to complain about a short delay in delivery so she could send a few bots to 5, a black cat jumped onto her lap and meowed.

“Mr. Kitty,” she said, clicking a few more times before she looked down at him “Still in yellow I see. Are you sure you don’t want a change?”

He meowed again and jumped onto the keyboard to lick himself.

She scooped him up and brought him into the kitchen. “I know,” she said. “But I have work to do.” She scratched his head and put him on the counter, then thanked the people behind the printer for the cat food. Mr. Kitty ate it greedily as she went back into the office to work.

She really didn’t have much to do but watch the mechanic bots and computer do their jobs, so she leaned back in her chair to get comfortable. It was almost serene watching them fix her creation. Until she remembered how things used to be. She used to spend all her time working with her hands and her mind, creating new inventions that the world had never experienced before, putting machinery into configurations which had never been attempted. She was herself then. Even though she still worked for Wally World Llc, she felt as if she worked for herself.  If she had an idea she could follow it and see where it led her. She was free to work on the projects she thought were worth her time.

Then she had made the discovery. She created the Walker-Haley fields. The Walker-Haley fields led to “printers”—a masterstroke of advertising if there ever was one. Printers led to the creation of the Outlands. But still, even with all the work it took to build and maintain such a massive and complex system, still she found time to invent, she found time to create, and she came up with her third great invention, her masterpiece, the customizable, almost-human android with full AI capabilities. And when for the third time Lord Walker ripped her creation from her hands and claimed it as his own, she vowed that she would never invent for him again. But still he needed her to maintain his system, to keep up the status quo, and she needed his printers to reproduce herself. So there she sat, building up his walls for him, biding her time until she could finally tear them all down again.

She flipped the center monitor to a television station and let the repairs run on autopilot for a while. She cycled through the channels. She had access to all of them with her clearance level, and she liked to guess which Outland each show was broadcast to based on what it depicted and who was acting in it.

Protector dramas were almost exclusively for Outland 1. She wondered how many different departments and cities they could plaster onto the names of the “different” shows before the people there realized that they were all the same thing.

There were a few different stock analyzers—all giving mutually exclusive advice—and a few political journalists—all arguing for one of two mutually exclusive positions—obviously directed at Outland 2, but they broadcast all the way to Outland 4 and in between.

Outland 4 was bombarded with documentaries and scientific programming of various levels and branches of study.

Outland 3 had everything because they made everything, but she knew that they only watched the self-indulgent, talking head, who’s who in celebrity culture programming. That was the one thing that talked about what they all loved the most, themselves.

Outland 5’s programming was all about the glory of toil and working hard for the common good in the hopes that you would make it big and become a middle manager. She thought that some of those shows actually carried good messages, but the creators didn’t put any effort into entertaining, just educating. Then again, they didn’t have to entertain. That’s all there was to watch in Outland 5. The Fivers didn’t know any better, so they didn’t ask for any better, and no one was about to tell them otherwise. Well, almost no one.

She stopped flicking through the channels and checked on the repair work. Everything seemed to be in good order. It was about time for her lunch meeting so she set a few bots on standby for emergencies with the owners’ printers and left the rest running on autopilot. She went into the kitchen and Mr. Kitty was gone. She washed his dish, staring out the window above her sink at the line of assembly line workers slip, snap, clicking, and collected herself. She sighed, then went out through the small hall to the elevator and said, “Outland 5, please. Frenchmen entrance.”

She came out of the elevator into the sun between classic New Orleans buildings, the kind with short stoops, sweeping porches, and lots of balconies. She was surprised they were left in Outland 5 but assumed they were too structurally damaged to be worth repairing enough for transport. They were good enough for the Fivers, though.

She walked down a sidewalk that was ravaged by tree roots, climbing up and down the concrete hills. This elevator exit wasn’t the closest to where here meeting was, but she had some time to kill, and she enjoyed the walk. She went through Washington Square Park, down St. Claude, to St. Roch to find the sign she was looking for. It just said “Bar” on it. Nothing else.

The bar was so dark she couldn’t see until her eyes had adjusted. She took in the stale smoke and the sound of pool balls clacking before she saw anything that was going on. She went straight for the bar when she could see, ordered a beer without asking—the bartender knew what she wanted already—and went to the back corner booth to wait.

There were three people at the pool table, two at darts, the bartender, and her. A song she liked came on the jukebox, and she couldn’t help but think that she’d enjoy a game of pool herself, but there wasn’t time for that now. Maybe after everything was under way. That and maybe all the worlds would be put back together in one fell swoop.

She laughed out loud at herself, and no one even glanced in her direction. She laughed again because she could, and while she did, the door opened. A dirty-haired, ragged-clothed worker with dark skin walked in, her chest pushed out for everyone to see. The worker caught the Scientist’s eye and went to the bar to get a beer before sitting at the corner booth with her.

There was a silence. They sat studying each others faces, sipping their beers. The Scientist found it was best to let them talk first. Usually they’d tell her exactly what they were there for with the first words that came out of their mouth. So she learned to wait and to watch, and she already knew what to answer before the worker said, “Are you the—”

“The Scientist,” she said. “Yes, Ellie.”

They drank some more. She knew that Ellie wanted to say the right thing, and she was willing to give her the time she needed to figure out what that was.

“I heard you know what’s on the other side,” Ellie decided on.

“That’s true,” the Scientist said, nodding. “I could tell you how many other sides there are, too. But I don’t think that’s what you really want.”

“I’ll decide what I want. Thanks.” Ellie sipped her beer.

“That’s fair.” The Scientist sipped hers, all part of the game.

“What I mean is…You know where everything goes, right. You know who we make it for.”

“I do.”

“Who then?”

“It’s people who aren’t you,” the Scientist said, with a shrug.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Ellie scoffed.

“What could I tell you about them that would satisfy you? They do less work than you do. Their work is easier, less soul crushing. They have better houses, bigger beds. Many of them own their own 3D printers, their own endless source of anything. And none of their children ever die in factory accidents. You can be sure of that.” She could tell she hit a nerve with that last one from the look on Ellie’s face.

“No,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “They wouldn’t. Would they?”

“No, Ellie. They wouldn’t. And they have property so they don’t have to. So what are you going to do about it now that you know?”

Ellie slammed her fist on the table. “Something, God dammit!” she yelled and still no one turned to look at them.

“I apologize.” The Scientist waved her hands. “I didn’t mean to imply that there was nothing you could do. I literally meant to ask what you specifically would do about it? I know what you want, Ellie. I want what you want. My interests are your interests. I have the privilege to live a life of pampered luxury with access to everything you would ever need to get what you want, to everything that keeps our society running. Don’t get me wrong, I too labor—nothing like you of course, but more than others—but you… I want to do everything I can to help you get what you want. So—if you will—tell me Ellie. You came here. You had no idea who I was. You have no idea who I am beyond the Scientist which means nothing to you. You took a risk coming because you wanted something. I want to know: What do you want?”

“I want to punish them,” Ellie said through gritted teeth. “The people who killed my son.”

“I’m not sure we can find one person and say that they were the one who killed your son.”

“Then I want to punish all of them.”

“It’s not just the people, though.” The Scientist shook her head. “The people are but the heads of a hydra. If you punish one, three will take their place, and those three will be worse than the first. Your son wasn’t killed by people, Ellie, he was killed by the system that puts those people in power. He was killed because he was forced to work in that factory, and he was forced to work in that factory because he lives in Outland 5.”

“I want it all to stop, then,” Ellie said, slamming her fist on the table.

“Do you know what that means, though? Do you know how big they are?”

“I don’t care how big they are! Do you know how big—how important to me—how huge my son wa—is?”

“Good, Ellie,” the Scientist said, nodding. “Good. I didn’t mean to rile you up, but I need you to know that this isn’t something you should undertake lightly. You’ll have to break the law to get what you want, and in doing so, you’ll be risking death or worse as punishment.”

Ellie nodded with a stern face. The Scientist smiled and took a sip of beer. Ellie looked surprised at the change in her demeanor and took a sip to cover it up.

“One more thing,” the Scientist said, still smiling and looking Ellie in the eyes. “Trudy. She’s the one who told you how to find me, right?”

Ellie had to think for a second before she connected Trudy to Gertrude and nodded. There was a hint of fear in her eyes, as if she thought she had done something wrong by giving Trudy away. Or maybe it was shame for revealing a secret.

“That one is a terrific judge of character,” the Scientist said. “And a dear friend of mine. We’ve been working together now ever since she got her promotion. She found me faster than any other, and she’s proven more valuable to our cause than anyone I’ve ever known. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Ellie nodded.

The Scientist laughed. “Oh, I’m sure you don’t. I’m sure I don’t understand what I’m saying half the time. But in time, it always reveals itself. Remember that and you’ll be just fine.” She took a big gulp of beer and finished her glass. “Let me get us a refill and we’ll talk about what you really want to talk about. After all, this is about you. Not me.” She swept off to the bar, leaving Ellie to think about what she had said while she ordered another round. When she sat back down, Ellie looked like she had something to say, so the Scientist took a sip and let her go ahead.

“Did you send that woman through the conveyor belt?” she asked.

“I don’t send anyone anywhere,” the Scientist said. “I force no one. I only give them the information they need to do what they want.”

“But you did talk to her.”

“I gave her some information. Yes. She wanted to meet a celebrity.”

“And you helped her do that?” Ellie scoffed

“Like I said,” the Scientist said, shrugging. “I’m privileged. I want to give back in any small way I can. I want what you want.”

Ellie took a drink of her beer. She didn’t seem to believe what the Scientist was saying.

“She came to me because she wanted to meet an actor,” the Scientist said. “I told her his name, and I directed her conveyor belt to where he was.”

“And that’s it? That was worth risking someone discovering that you had helped her.”

The Scientist chuckled. “Trudy is a fantastic judge of character. Did I mention that? No. I also told her that Russ—the actor she wanted to meet—thought that his clothes were created by androids. Having worked in costume construction before she got her promotion, she was devastated to know that he had no idea she had sewn most of his wardrobe while she was a tailor.”

“He really didn’t know?”

The Scientist shook her head.

“How? How could robots do what we do?”

“That’s the thing. Androids could do all the work that humans do, but humans are cheaper.”

“Then someone knows. They’re not all oblivious.”

“Yes,” the Scientist said, nodding. “But it’s such a small minority who benefits so much from it that they don’t care. In fact, they work as hard as they can to maintain the system as it stands.”

“And that’s why you helped her.” Ellie shook her head. “He’s a celebrity. He could—”

The Scientist nodded.

“What happened to her?”

The Scientist shook her head.

“What?” Ellie said. “Dead?”

“We think not. We hope not. Maybe. Maybe worse. You should know what you’re getting into. She would have stood a better chance if she could have waited, but she grew impatient. Now she’s nowhere to be found. In the end, though, it was her decision, and I can’t blame her for making it the way she did.”

“So if I wanted to go back right now and slip through the conveyor belt to meet a celebrity, you would let me.”

“I would advise against it.” The Scientist shook her head.

“But you would let me anyway,” Ellie said, pushing the point

“Whatever I could do to help you get what you want.” The Scientist shrugged.

“And why would you advise against it?”

“Well, in the near future we will be crossing en masse, and crossing for you would be safer because of it. The more people who go through at the same time, the less likely it is for each one to get caught.”

“Not a bad reason.” Ellie nodded, sipping her beer.

“We don’t know exactly when the operation will occur, though. Mary didn’t want to wait.”

“That was all she was supposed to do, though? Talk to an actor.”

“And tell him she created his clothes, not androids. If he knew, he might spread the word. He has the platform to spread it. He’s privileged in ways that even I am not.”

“Nothing else?” Ellie looked suspicious. Trudy knew how to pick the smart ones.

“A little something else. But its different for everyone, and there’s no requirement that the thing is done for you to get what you want.”

Ellie took a big gulp of her beer. She thought about what she had just heard, shook her head, and said, “And if I want to be put in a room alone with some of these people who know what they’re doing and do nothing to stop it?”

“I can get you close to them, but I can’t promise you’ll be alone. Not to mention I’m not sure that anything you could do alone with them would be of any use to getting real revenge.”

Ellie clenched her fists. She made as if to slam them on the table again but stopped herself. “Dammit. It’s so easy for them. Isn’t it?”

The Scientist nodded. She sipped her beer.

“What can I do, then?”

“What can you do?” the Scientist said. “You’re not personable. You’re no Trudy.”

Ellie laughed, shaking her head. “No. I’m not that.”

“You want to go across, don’t you? You want to see it.”

Ellie looked into her beer and nodded.

“You know, it’s not too different from here,” the Scientist said. “Though they do have all the great natural beauties. Oh, you should see the mountains.”

“Can I?”

“Yes. But you’d be doing them a favor. If you drop out, that’s one less person who knows what they’re doing wrong and wants to fight against it.”

Ellie shook her head, sipped her beer, and stared at it for a while. After a moment of silence she said, “You weren’t lying then.”

“I try not to.”

“Do you think there’s a way I can help? A way that I can get revenge?”

“I don’t think it will be easy, and I don’t know how long it will take, but I have a plan, and I know there’s a place for you in it.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“You’re in a position like our friend who wanted to meet Russ was,” the Scientist said. “Quality Assurance is the front line, it’s the perfect position for a revolutionary. I’m sure I can find something for you.”

“Revolutionary?” Ellie scoffed.

“You didn’t think it would take anything less to get what you want, did you? To get the revenge you deserve. To prevent them—or anyone for that matter—from doing to someone else what they’ve done to you and your family. You still have time to walk away if you’re not ready for this.”

Ellie took a long drink to resolve herself. “I said whatever it takes.”

“Good.” The Scientist smiled. “Then how do you feel about losing your job?”

Ellie had to think some more at that point. The Scientist knew it. That was the ultimate test of a worker’s commitment to the revolution, the threat of losing their livelihood. She liked to believe that she knew exactly what was going through Ellie’s mind at that moment. Ellie would be wondering how she would eat without her job, where she would live. Once a person got fired from a pity position they never got hired by anyone ever again. By that time they were too old, not valuable enough, their model was dated. But then she would remember why it was that she had come to this meeting in the first place, what she wanted. She’d remember the day they told her that her son had been killed. How they had waited until the shift was over when the accident had happened in the morning, and all because they didn’t want to risk losing productivity. How they had given her two days off then sent her to QA to do robot’s work. Then she’d remember her son, and the days her stomach roared with hunger because she only made enough to feed him. She’d remember all the blood, sweat, tears, and love she had invested in him, that she has nothing left to lose, that she had already lost everything a long time ago. And then she’d answer, imagining all the people who could lose everything just like her, lose everything for the same reasons, lose everything to the same people, and she’d know that they’re people she could help.

“Anything,” Ellie said.

“Good.” The Scientist smiled. “Very good. Well, dear. This is what you do.”

#     #     #

< VI. Officer Pardy     [Table of Contents]     VIII. Haley >

That’s all for chapter seven. I hope you enjoyed it. Come back next week to continue Haley’s–and the entire Infinite Limits universe’s–story, or click through here to order the full novel on Amazon.

Thanks again for all your support already. Have a great weekend.