Chapter 68: Sonya

Hello, dear readers. Another Saturday means it’s time for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we join Sonya Barista, who you might remember from Olsen’s adventures in book two, An Almost Tangent. Read on to see what she’s been up to since we last left her, and if you enjoy that, don’t forget that you can pick up a copy of the book in print or ebook format on Amazon. If you purchase a copy of the print book, we’ll even throw in an ebook version for free. Enjoy, now.

< LXVII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXIX. Chief Mondragon >

LXVIII. Sonya

Sonya loved her job. She spent more time at work than she did anywhere else—including her own home. These people were her family, and she’d rather spend time with no one else.

She was there, behind the bar, at The Bar—what the regulars called it even before the long forgotten name on the sign had faded out of existence—cleaning a dirty glass and listening to a story she’d heard too many times before, a story she would no doubt come to hear again and again with the way the worlds were turning.

“I mean, shit,” Annie Painter complained, gulping down another drink and slamming the empty glass on the table. “I’m the best damn worker on that entire construction site. And I’m not bragging or nothing, either. That’s a verifiable fact based on the way they determine our pay. I do more work faster than anyone else, and now I’m being fired because of it.”

Sonya shook her head, setting another beer on the bar so Annie didn’t have to ask for it.

“You know I can’t pay for this one,” Annie said, drinking it anyway.

“And you know I wouldn’t ask you to, given the circumstances,” Sonya said. “Consider it on the house.”

“Well, thank you.” Annie took another big gulp, draining half the glass, and Sonya set a full pitcher on the bar next to her, nodding for Annie to go on.

“Like I said,” Annie did, “I’m being fired because I’m the fastest worker out there. I wasn’t always. I used to be stuck around fourth place, never even on the winner’s podium at the end of the week, but it seems like the closer we get to finishing this stupid Wall the more they try to slow us down.”

While Annie gulped her beer, Sonya said, “You’re not the first to tell me that.”

“I bet not.” Annie chuckled a little before scowling again. “I bet not. You prolly got my predecessors coming through here. The three that were fired before me. Did they run up a tab, too?”

“No tabs for the recently unemployed,” Sonya reminded her. “Including you. But yes, I talked to your friends, and they told me the same story you’re telling me now.”

“Well you know then,” Annie said, taking a swig of beer and topping off the glass. “First each of them were fired, one by one in turn, and now it’s me. And old Lenny Sexton’ll prolly be next, too. But fire us all they want, there’s no stopping it. Even with the slowest of us, they’ll finish that Wall eventually. Hell, it’s almost done as it is.”

“Do you have any idea why they’d be trying to stall construction?” Sonya asked. “That’s what I don’t understand in all this.”

“Why are they even rebuilding the stupid thing in the first place?” Annie asked with a scoff. “Why do they do anything? Who the fuck are they? You’re telling me that’s the only part of this shit show that you don’t understand?”

“Well, no. You’ve got a point there. But do you have any opinion as to why they’d be slowing construction?”

“Whoever decided to build the shit is having second thoughts. I don’t know. Maybe someone hasn’t paid for it yet. How the fuck am I supposed to know? I’m just trained to lay line.”

“And you’re damn good at it,” Sonya said, topping off Annie’s pitcher one more time. “The best in the business from what I heard.”

“Until they fired me,” Annie said, holding her drink over her head like she was giving a toast. “I have no idea what the fuck job I’m supposed to find now. Y’all need any help around here?”

Sheeit,” Sonya said with a chuckle, thinking about all the work they could use help with. “We got more work than you’ll ever know, but nothing we can afford to pay you for so it wouldn’t be helping you at all.”

“Hey, I’m here to help,” Annie said. “I mean to pay for these drinks somehow. Even if I can’t pay for them. So you don’t be shy about asking me to do anything—for you or the bar.”

“Only thing I need you to do is get another job. That way you can take care of your family and get back to frequenting our fine establishment here like you used to. In the meantime, don’t worry about your drinks. They’re on the house. You worry about your family first. We’ve got your back on that.”

Ugh.” Annie groaned, stumbling sloppily off the barstool. “Speaking of which. Guess I better go break the news to them now. Wish me luck.”

Annie finished her half pint of beer and stumbled out of the bar while Sonya called after her, “Good luck! I’ll keep my ears open for any work that might be good for you.”

It was a shame, really. Annie’s story. But nothing new. Nothing new under the Sun. Sonya had thought it was bad when the walls between worlds Five and Six were torn down, she had thought that unemployment, hunger, and desperation were at their worst, but now that the wall was almost back up again, she was coming to realize that the worlds could get shittier if they wanted to, and from the looks of things, there was a shit circus in store before anything would ever get better. More people were going to lose their jobs, and with that, more people would grow drunk and desperate until inevitably all that pent-up energy had to be released somewhere. Sonya didn’t look forward to it, per se, because she knew a lot of innocent people would be hurt in the process, but Tillie and others like her had been preparing for just such an occasion since before the walls went down, and with any luck, they would be able to guide that energy release toward building a better society and not just tearing down the old one.

As Sonya cleaned up what was left of Annie’s mess, in came one of those people who also organized toward that same better future which Sonya was working toward, her coworker Barkeep.

“How’s the shop treating you today, Barista?” Barkeep asked on her way in. “Lovely as always, I imagine.”

“The bar never disappoints me,” Sonya said, hanging up a clean pitcher to let it dry. “It’s the worlds outside that always seem to let me down.”

“They let us all down,” Barkeep said, taking inventory of the incidentals in preparation to relieve Sonya as the next bartender on duty. “So don’t think you’re special. But tell me, what’s got you bothered this time?”

“Annie Painter’s tab’s on the house.” Sonya sighed. “Until further notice.”

“Annie, too? Sheeit. It’s only gonna get worse before it gets better. Honestly, she’s prolly lucky to be looking for a new job now, before the rush really starts. We all know a mass layoff’s coming at the end of this fucking super project border wall bullshit they have going.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

“There ain’t no reason to be afraid of something you know’s gonna happen. Only thing we can do is—”

Be prepared,” Sonya finished for Barkeep, knowing that she had done her best to prepare, but only hoping that she—and all the rest of them, cogs in a giant revolution machine that they were—were ready for what was to come. “I know. But I’m not sure anyone could ever be prepared for something they’ve never experienced. Especially something as big as this.”

“You experienced it plenty enough when that wall came down,” Barkeep said. “And you’ve been preparing with us ever since. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be. That’s more than enough. More than most people can say, at least.”

“I don’t know. I—” Sonya started, but this time Barkeep cut her off.

“I do know, Sonya. I believe in you. I believe in all of us. We’re gonna be prepared the next time they need us. Trust me.”

“Yeah, well, I really hope you’re right.” But Sonya wasn’t sure that she could believe in everyone—herself most of all—as much as Barkeep did.

“I’m sure I’m right,” Barkeep said. “But before we can get there to find out, I need you to check the bathrooms, refill the freezer with ice, and clean the last few glasses from your friends who are leaving right about… now.”

“Have a good one, Sonya,” a group of regulars called from the front of the bar as they left. “Put it on my tab. And Merry Christmas.”

Sonya cleaned their table, did their dishes, scrubbed and mopped the bathrooms, and refilled the freezer with ice before her shift was finally over and she could sit on the other side of the bar to drink a beer served to her by Barkeep.

“Don’t you ever get tired of this place?” Barkeep asked while filling up a pitcher for another customer. “After my shift, I’m out of here as soon as I can. But you? Look at you.”

“Don’t know where else I’d go,” Sonya said, sipping her beer.

“Home, for starters.” Barkeep laughed. “Anywhere but here.”

“Only thing I want to do after work is drink a beer and rest my feet. I’d rather not drink alone, and it’s easier to rest when I don’t have to walk to the elevator and beyond, so what better place could I be than right here right now?”

“And besides,” a scratchy voice said behind Sonya who turned to find Ellie McCannick’s wrinkly-faced smile. “Here, everyone knows exactly where to find you.”

“Which can sometimes be dangerous,” Barkeep said, laughing loudly, though Sonya knew she was only half joking. Barkeep didn’t trust Ellie and the people who she worked with, and so Barkeep didn’t like it when the old woman came around. Sonya didn’t really trust the resistance group that Ellie worked with, either—they were highly secretive, even to insiders, and all their actions seemed to end up buffering the system instead of destroying it like their rhetoric promised—but Sonya had no problem with Ellie as a person, and even liked the old woman. Ellie had been working hard, doing her best to help her fellow workers despite the obstacles in her way, for decades, and Sonya hoped that she could be as enthusiastic about the struggle as Ellie still was when she was that old.

“Thankfully, this time it’s not dangerous,” Sonya said, patting Ellie on the back. “It’s always nice to see my friend Ellie. Why don’t you get her a drink, please. On my tab.”

“Now, you don’t have to,” Ellie said, bowing her head. “I can afford my own drinks. I’m just here for the company.”

“I insist,” Sonya insisted. “Make that an entire pitcher, Barkeep. It’s almost Christmas. We should all be in the spirits.”

“Well, if you’re gonna twist my arm about it…” Ellie smiled, taking a glass and filling it from the pitcher that Barkeep had set on the bar in front of them.

“So how’s the activist life treating you?” Barkeep asked. “Y’all make enough in donations to support a few full-timers by now, don’t you?”

“We do nothing alone,” Ellie said, taking a sip of her beer. “I’m blessed to be working with a good crew. And my pity promotion netted me an early retirement, so I don’t really require anything more than meals and expenses from the organization. I’m blessed, though. I’ll never forget that. We do nothing alone.”

“Expenses like this bar tab here?” Barkeep asked, obviously annoyed as she continued the interrogation.

“Well…” Ellie said, not letting on that she had noticed Barkeep’s attitude—whether she had or not. “Thankfully, the lovely Sonya here has graciously offered to pay for this round. But I did come here expecting to buy at least one myself. And yes, that would be done with our organization’s expenses. Building working relationships like this one here is one of the major reasons we raised these funds in the first place. Buying a round of drinks with the money’s exactly what’s expected of me.”

We do nothing alone,” Barkeep said sarcastically. And then, “Including drink. But I’ve gotta go take some more orders. Enjoy, you two.”

“She does not like me one bit,” Ellie said when Barkeep had left down the bar to serve some other patrons.

“She doesn’t know you,” Sonya tried to explain, though it was hard to deny what Barkeep’s actions suggested. “That’s all. It’s not that she dislikes you or anything. She just doesn’t trust people she doesn’t know.”

“Yeah, well, she’s had plenty of time to get to know me better. I’m pretty sure it goes beyond simple ignorance at this point.”

Sonya didn’t respond to that. She had no way to, really. There were no arguments. Barkeep didn’t trust Ellie and she had no intention of altering that fact. There was no point in talking further about it. They drank on in silence for a while—each thinking about how to trust the other—before Sonya broke it to say, “So, how’s life been treating you?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” Ellie said. “I can’t complain any more than I ever have. Plenty of food on the table. Warm bed to sleep in—even if it’s not too soft. And I’ve got a whole host of friends and family whose company I actually enjoy. So, no. There’s nothing new for me to personally complain about. Just the general unfairness of life under the oppressive system we’re forced to abide by. You know. Oh. Wait. Also, we’ve got our Christmas party planned. You’ll be there, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sonya nodded. She looked forward to Ellie’s Christmas party every year and wouldn’t miss it for the worlds. “I’ve got a special surprise dish I plan on serving. You’ll see. I’ll be there with bells on.”

“You better be.” Ellie winked. “This year the guest list’s so long that we’re expanding to four apartments instead of our usual two. Ol’ Tanner and Kitchens have finally offered to give up their homes for the day. So I promise you, this one will be a Christmas for the legends.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Sonya said, chuckling at the mere thought of the celebration. “But I know that’s not the only reason you came out here. So spill it.”

“Oh, well…” Ellie looked around at everyone in the room, suspicious now that it was time to get down to business. “I don’t know. Maybe we should take a booth. This particular matter’s a little more… private.”

Ah. Of course.” Sonya nodded. “But first, Barkeep, an order of table fries, please.”

Barkeep printed an order of fries, then Sonya and Ellie carried that, their drinks, and the half-full pitcher of beer to the deepest, darkest corner booth in the bar where Ellie scanned the room suspiciously one more time before speaking a word.

“So, dear,” she finally did say, pausing there as if Sonya should be able to decipher some meaning out of those two words alone. Sonya never could.

“So…” Sonya said.

“The worlds are changing,” Ellie said, frowning in a particular way that seemed to accent her wrinkles and crow’s feet. “The worlds are changing.”

“Don’t they always,” Sonya said. Not a question. A statement of fact.

“That they do, child,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “But they don’t usually turn for the worst this fast. And when they do, we know for sure that something big’s coming.”

“And for how long have y’all been predicting that something big’s gonna happen? Huh? Long as I’ve known you, it seems like you’ve been making the same prophecies.”

“And the change I predict’s still coming along, ain’t it? Quicker than ever now. You’ll see. I’m sure you already do. You can feel it in the air, but you don’t quite understand it yet.”

Sonya sipped her drink and nodded. She couldn’t argue against what Ellie was saying and there was no point in trying to. Sonya had been discussing exactly that with Annie and Barkeep before Ellie’s arrival.

“You see?” Ellie went on. “You can’t even disagree with me now. I know you don’t like the way our organization prepares for what’s to come, but you definitely think there’s something to prepare for. Am I right?”

“You’re not wrong,” Sonya said, still not wanting to cede the point.

“It’s not often that I am.” Ellie smirked. “And on the off chance that I do make a mistake, I never repeat it. Do you understand me?”

Sonya nodded.

“I’m not sure you do, okay. But we’ve changed. All of us. The entire organization from bottom to top—including myself. We’re a different beast entirely. We’ve even settled on a name for ourselves. We’re going public. No more secrecy.”

“Oh yeah?” Sonya nodded, not too impressed. “And how long have y’all been arguing over a name?”

“C’mon, now. That’s not fair,” Ellie complained. “You know we’ve got a lot more on our plate than this. And it’s more than a name when you get down to it. We’re putting words to our organization. That makes it real. Those words will reflect what our organization does, and our actions will reflect our name. I’m telling you, we’re serious.”

Sonya was starting to believe that maybe they were. “So what’s this name then?” she asked.

The Scientific Socialists,” Ellie said, sitting up straighter in her stool and refilling both of their beers with a proud smile.

“Scientific Socialists?” Sonya repeated, not liking the sound of that. “Are y’all still working with that Scientist woman? She was willing to open up about her secrets with you?”

“Well, not exactly. No,” Ellie said, sipping her beer and thinking about what to say next. “The Scientist is dead. She never would have opened up to us. You’re right about that. But there is no her anymore. So she’s nothing to worry about.”

“But you still call yourselves scientific,” Sonya said.

“Yes. Because we use the scientific method to determine our course in political life. We’re scientists of history.”

“So you are still working with the Scientist, then?”

“No. Well, yes. Sort of… We’re all scientists now. And some of us literally call themselves the Scientist still, but it’s nothing more than a meme anymore. The Scientist is gone. I assure you of that.”

“Is this all you came to talk about?” Sonya asked, suspecting it wasn’t. “If so, let’s go play some darts. I need to get out of this booth and stretch my legs a bit.”

No—n—n—no, no,” Ellie said, stopping Sonya from getting up. “Now, I’d love to beat you at darts when we’re done here, but we haven’t even started.”

“I’m all ears,” Sonya said, waiting.

Ellie gulped down a half a glass of beer and sighed before she went on. “Okay, well… Now, I know you don’t trust the organization that I work with for one reason or another. And I respect your opinion, okay. I’m not asking you to change anything about it. But I do want to know if you trust me as an individual. Do we even connect at that level?”

“I— Wha— Yes,” Sonya stammered, caught off guard by Ellie’s admission of vulnerability and feeling vulnerable herself because of it. “Of course I trust you. I really do consider you a friend despite our political differences. I wouldn’t be drinking with you now if I didn’t.”

Exactly. Okay,” Ellie said, setting her beer down to take Sonya’s hand in her cold, clammy ones. “You trust me and I trust you. We trust each other. We’re friends, and friends trust each other, right? And now I know that you, Barkeep, and dozens of others—at least, probably more—are all already planning your robot revolution—or whatever—with Momma BB. Okay. You’re not secretive about it. Right? And we’re trying to learn from you, trying not to trick people into doing things for us, okay. Instead we’re convincing them that it’s actually in their best interests. Right. Which is why—”

“Get on with it,” Sonya cut her off. The more Ellie beat around the bush, the less Sonya wanted to hear what she had to say. “Just ask your question already.”

“Well…” Ellie smiled half a smile, more of a pathetic, pitiful grin. “Do you think you could trust me enough to at least meet with my people? We need y’all’s help for an operation on Christmas day.”

#     #     #

< LXVII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXIX. Chief Mondragon >

And there you have it, dear readers: another chapter in the Infinite Limits universe. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel through this link. Have a great weekend, enjoy yourself, and we’ll see you right here again next Saturday.

We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 19: Ellie

Here’s Ellie’s third and final chapter for y’all to read today. I especially enjoyed writing the scene with everyone drinking around the table at the end. I hope y’all will enjoy reading it, too.

There are only two more weeks before you can read the entire novel here on the website, but you can still go to Amazon to order a copy before then. Either way, thanks for reading along. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Ellie McCannik

< XVIII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XX. Tom >

XIX. Ellie

She pounded her fists against the cold metal until her knuckles were bloody and numb. She flung her body at the door in vain and slouched down sobbing uncontrollably with her cheek on the rubber conveyor belt.

The door was closed. Her chance was gone. She had waited too long to bring her son to the beach, then she waited too long to live the experience for him. She failed again and again. He wasn’t even alive, and she continued to fail him.

She wept and wept with her cheeks on the belt before she remembered that she had already set some of the discs. She picked one out of the pouch and pressed the little red button to see how long she had left. Five minutes. Five minutes. Was it worth it to try to leave? What did she have to live for anymore? If she stayed here and held the disc tight, they would all think that she decided to stay on the beach. She would disappear from existence just like that, erased from memory. She almost felt calmed at the thought of it.

But she didn’t. She still hadn’t kept her promises. She could probably set more of the discs before she left. And if they could get her to the beach once, they could do it again. Couldn’t they? By that time she could do enough to pay for the privilege and not have to worry about making the same stupid mistake and missing her chance again. She had to do something. She couldn’t give up and wait for the explosion to erase her responsibility. That would be doing even more of a disservice to her son.

She opened her eyes and picked herself up to jump down off the conveyor belt. The disc said three minutes now. She peeled off the paper backing, stuck it to the screen which told her what particular piece of crap was supposed to come down the conveyor belt every day, the machine that guided her work, the robot who used her, and she sprinted out of the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building entirely, not stopping until she left the front door, and then only slowing to a fast walk—she didn’t really have time to act nonchalant. She was only half a block away from the building when she heard the explosion.

Her heart pounded at the sound, and her feet tingled. She could feel the ground moving beneath her, as if the whole world was shaking. She felt like she wanted to run, but she stopped herself. Then she wanted to look back. She stopped herself from looking at first, then thought it might be more suspicious not to look and decided to turn and see what she had done. An entire floor of the building—not as high as she thought it would be—was blown out, but the rest of it was still standing. There was a blasted-out gash, bleeding rubble, water, and electricity. Not as much damage as she had expected, she thought the whole building would come down, but she had left a mark at least.

She turned and hurried on her way toward the elevator to ride it to her bar. What else was there for her to do? She had just laid bombs in her workplace and blown it to smithereens. She had been to the beach and back in less than fifteen minutes. She had kept all her promises and broken all of them all at the same time. What was she to do but get a drink and enjoy the rest of Christmas?

The public elevator had no one. The street to the bar was empty. The bar was dark when she got there. It was closed. Of course it was closed. Even the bartender had a family to spend Christmas with. Even Gertrude. Everyone did. She kicked the door.

Stupid stupid stupid. She had drank her last beer and eaten her last egg before she went on her mission. She wasn’t supposed to be coming back. She should have been on the beach, figuring out how to make a fishing rod or a spear, but instead, she was standing in front of a closed bar with nowhere left to go.

Her hand flicked over the address card in her pocket. Well, almost nowhere. Gertrude had invited her over. She wanted to know all the details, Ellie was sure. She’d probably have a drink to share, and some food. It was Christmas after all. And it would be nice to tell someone about what had happened, to unburden some of it somehow. Though she wasn’t quite sure how much of it she wanted to tell. She pulled out the card and made her way to the nearest public elevator.

Gertrude’s street looked just like Ellie’s, though the buildings were different colors and in slightly different degrees of dilapidation. She held her breath as she pressed the buzzer next to Gertrude’s name: Trudy Weaver. It took a minute for a response to come, and Ellie was on the verge of leaving when a staticy voice said, “Yes? Um—ahem—Excuse me. Hello?”

“Um…Yeah,” Ellie said, leaning close to the intercom and talking too loudly. “I was looking for Gertrude.”

“Oh, Trudy, dear,” the voice said, apparently Gertrude’s. “Please. And this is she. May I ask who’s speaking? You sound like a robot.”

Ellie heard laughter from the background. “Oh—It’s uh…It’s Ellie,” she said. “Ellie McCannik. From QA.”

“Oh. Ellie, dear. Come on up. Up up up. Have a drink and tell us all about your day.”

Ellie felt like she was intruding on something. “No—I, uh,” she said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” But it was no use because the door had already buzzed open and the intercom link had popped shut.

The inside of Gertrude’s building looked exactly the same as the inside of Ellie’s building. Her room was at the top floor, much like Ellie’s was. When Ellie got there, she noted it was in the exact same place, too, though it was a different number, even instead of odd. She didn’t know if she should knock or walk in, and she still hadn’t decided when the door opened and Gertrude handed her a full glass of eggnog. “Merry Christmas, dear,” Getrude said, hugging her. “Drink this and have a seat. I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

The room was full of people, but Ellie could tell it was emptied of things to make space for them. There was no bed in sight, and from the looks of it, this was the only room there was. Instead of a bed, there was a foldable table in the middle of the room with three people sitting around it. Ellie didn’t recognize any of them, and she could tell by the arrangement that she was taking Gertrude’s seat. She couldn’t see any more chairs, either. She felt even more like she was intruding despite the full drink in her hand.

“Oh, no,” Ellie said. “I couldn’t. I just wanted to come—”

“Oh, no,” Gertrude said, guiding Ellie to the seat. “Nonsense, dear. Sit down. Drink.” She tilted Ellie’s glass to give her a good long swig. Ellie did feel better for it. “Now. This here pretty, young face you see is Aldo,” Gertrude said, pointing to a kid with disheveled hair sitting in the back corner of the small room. “Aldo, say hello to Ellie.”

He smiled, and blushed, and took a big drink out of his glass.

“Aldo’s shy but he has deft hands,” Gertrude said. “Nimble little fingers. He works on the discs for us.”

“Trudy!” Aldo gasped. “You’re not supposed to tell.”

“Quiet, dear,” Gertrude said, waving his concerns away. “Please. Ellie here just placed some of your discs in her QA hall. Didn’t you, Ellie?”

Ellie blushed, too. She agreed with Aldo. She didn’t really want Gertrude talking about what she had done in front of a bunch of strangers. “Uh…” she said. “Yeah, well—”

“She knows what discs are,” Gertrude went on, ignoring Ellie. “And she doesn’t know anything about you besides how cute you are. So what’s the harm?”

“Still,” Aldo huffed. “It’s not right.”

“Oh, lighten up, dear,” Gertrude said, smiling. “It’s Christmas, a time for celebration. Your discs went off with a bang.” She laughed.

One of the others at the table leaned in toward Ellie and said, “So you’ve joined the cause.”

Ellie didn’t know how to answer. She took a long sip of eggnog to buy time. Technically she didn’t choose to join the cause. It was just the only option she had left. So maybe she had joined the cause after all. Whatever. It was easier to nod along either way.

“Welcome,” the woman said without waiting for further answer. “I’m Vicki. This is Alena.” She pointed to the fourth person sitting at the table. “We’ve known Trudy since before she got promoted and moved to this high class place.” She smiled and winked at Gertrude who laughed.

Oooh, dear,” Gertrude said. “A long time ago that was, too. These are my best friends, Ellie. They’re family. Vicki and Alena work down at a coal plant. They had a shift today, too. And they set their own discs.”

“Trudy!” Aldo complained again.

Aldo!” Gertrude replied in a high-pitched, mocking tone. “I want Ellie to know that she’s one of us, that she’s put herself on the line but she’s not alone. You don’t expect her to tell us what she did without a little leverage of her own, do you? It’s four against one.”

“Yeah, well.” Aldo huffed. “She better not tell.”

“Of course she won’t,” Gertrude said, turning to Ellie. “Will you dear?”

Ellie shook her head. She didn’t know who she would tell.

“You see,” Gertrude said. “You have nothing to worry about, boy. No one does. It’s Christmas. The operation is underway. Our glasses are full, and we have good company. Now, where were we? Vic, you were telling us about how your shift went. Why don’t you go back a little in the story for Ellie’s sake.”

“Oh, no,” Ellie said, taking the drink she was sipping away from her mouth. “Don’t mind—”

“Oh, no,” Vicki said. “It’s no problem. So, like Trudy said, Alena and I work in the coal plants. Well, that used to mean shoveling and all that, but they mostly replaced shovelers with robots so we just stand around in the fumes in case anything goes wrong these days. Then maybe a bot malfunctions, you know, and we take over the shoveling until a new one gets there or whatever. That’s abou—”

“Is all that necessary?” Alena interrupted her.

“Uh, well. I don’t know,” Vicki said, shrugging. “I don’t know how much she wants to know. Anyway. We worked our shift, right. And at the end of it—just like the Scientist said—the bots all turned off at once.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that. And we…Well, we were free to do what we had to do without interference.

“So we set the discs, and we got out of there, and we were waiting for the elevator to come when we heard them go off. And did they ever go of? Whoooeeee. I mean, we couldn’t stop to see the damage, you know, but from the sound of it, they won’t have any power from that plant anytime soon.”

Aldo smiled and sipped his beer.

“Brilliant,” Gertrude said, beaming. “Wonderful. Amazing.” She sounded tipsy. “You fill my heart with joy. Tis the best Christmas gift a girl could ever ask for.” She walked over and planted a big kiss on Aldo’s forehead.

“C’mon man,” he said, wiping it away in disgust.

“You blew up a power plant?” Ellie said. Everyone in the room looked at her, and she regretted opening her mouth.

“See!” Aldo said, as if she had already told someone about his involvement.

“Quiet, Aldo.” Gertrude said.

“Yes,” Vickie said. “We did. This particular plant powers most of Outland 1’s communication capabilities. Without it, their response to the rest of the operation will be crippled.”

“But can’t they just—I’m sorry.” Ellie shook her head. She had almost let her mouth run off on its own again.

“No,” Vickie said. “Go ahead. Your opinion’s valid.”

Ellie looked around at everyone else in the room. They all seemed to agree with Vickie, even Aldo, so she went on. “Well, I was just thinking…I mean, couldn’t they just reroute the power from somewhere else?”

“I…uh…” Vickie looked to Gertrude for an answer.

“Yes,” Gertrude said, frowning. “They could. And they will, dear.” She smiled. “Probably they already have. Ha ha! But it’s still not fast enough to catch us.” She laughed. “It’s not about shutting down their communications forever, you see. We only had to do it for long enough to get what we needed on the other side.”

“So what was it that I was doing then?” Ellie asked. “Blowing up the conveyor belts to their homes? What good is that?”

“No, dear. No.” Gertrude set her glass on the table and took Ellie’s face between both hands. “You were a redundancy,” she said, talking too close and jiggling Ellie’s face as she did. “Quality assurance. Each of your discs went out to a different part of the operation. You played an important role.”

“I—I didn’t set them all,” Ellie blurted out, pulling away from Gertrude’s embrace. She took a big swig of eggnog.

“Where are the rest?” Aldo said.

“Right here.” She tossed the pouch on the table and Aldo snatched it up. “I’m sorry.”

“No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head and waving it away. “No need to apologize. At least you came back. And you set some. There’ll be plenty more for you to do, if you’re up to it.”

“But I didn’t…” She shook her head.

“You did what any human would,” Alena said. “You did what you could. There’s no changing that now. All you can change is what you do in the future.”

“I did the same thing on my first go,” Vicki said. “She sent me undercover to a plant I had never been to and expected me to download files from the mainframe. Me. I asked her why she didn’t just do it herself. She’s connected to everything. She can change our elevator paths and our shifts and turn off the robots, why couldn’t she do something so simple as downloading a little bit of data for herself? But she just said she couldn’t do it, that I had to. So I went all the way into the control center of the plant, and I was going to download everything, but a cat jumped out—I shit you not, a cat—and it spooked me so much I had to get out of there.”

Alena laughed. “Scaredy cat,” she said.

“Hey,” Vicki said, raising her hands in defense. “If you were there, you would have run, too.”

I downloaded my files,” Alena said with a grin.

“Yeah, well,” Vicki said, shaking her head and chuckling. “You didn’t get chased out before you could.”

“By a cat!” Alena laughed.

“You placed some, dear,” Gertrude said to Ellie. “That’s all that matters. You did your best and you’re back to try again. You did more than just set discs, though. Didn’t you? Tell us about that.”

“Oh, yeah. Well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

“Ellie works in QA,” Gertrude said to the group. They all looked at her like that meant something to them.

“Well, I got to see the beach,” Ellie said when the attention had grown to be too much.

“The beach?” Aldo said.

The beach,” Alena said.

“Tell us, dear,” Gertrude said.

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “It was—It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Have you ever gargled with salt water for a sore throat?”

Aldo cringed.

“Imagine that smell all around you,” Ellie said, smiling at the memory. “Everywhere. And the faint hint of tuna dinner fresh out of the can. And that was just the smell!”

“I hate fish,” Alena said, crinkling up her nose like she could smell it then and there.

“But it wasn’t just that.” Ellie shook her head. “The sky was this endless deep blue with no clouds in sight. And it butted up against the endless deep blue of the ocean water. And while the sky seemed so far out of reach and aloof, the ocean just wanted to reach out at you again and again until you finally agreed to meet its wet touch.”

“Beautiful, dear.” Gertrude smiled.

“And the sand,” Ellie went on, unable to stop reminiscing. “Oh, the sand. It was amazing. I just want to bury my feet in it right now and feel the ocean breeze. It was like the biggest sandbox you had ever seen. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I was a child again for fifteen minutes.” She remembered Levi and finished her drink.

“Would you like some more eggnog, dear?” Gertrude said, already getting a pitcher out of the fridge. “In the Christmas spirit.” She poured some into Ellie’s glass.

“I went to the mountains,” Alena said. “I always thought they were the prettiest thing ever. I don’t know why.”

“Because they’re so big,” Vicki said. “And old. Bigger and older than anything we’ve ever built.”

“And they’ll be there longer, too,” Aldo added.

“Oh. Now, Aldo,” Gertrude said. “Don’t be so cynical at your young age.” She tossed a piece of ice at him. “We’ll be here for a good long time yet. Not us but us. You know what I mean.”

“You’ll be here longer than any of us,” Vicki said, laughing.

Aldo and Alena joined in, too. Ellie gave a little chuckle herself.

“I can only hope so, dears.” Trudy smiled. “I can only hope so.”

Ellie sipped the eggnog and it felt warm throughout her body. She looked around the room and actually enjoyed the faces she was surrounded by. It was a feeling she missed. She didn’t know these people, but she felt like she did. She felt like they knew her, too. Though not even Trudy did. But did any of that matter anymore? Did anyone know anyone? No. And these people were welcoming her into their family.

“You didn’t choose to stay in the mountains?” Ellie asked, a little embarrassed by the question. Of course Alena didn’t choose to stay in the mountains, otherwise she wouldn’t be there to answer the question.

Alena chuckled.

I wanted to stay,” Vicki said. “I had studied up on how to build shelter and hunt in the cold, and I knew we could make it out there on that beautiful mountainside. Alena, here, convinced me otherwise.”

“Just in time, too,” Alena said with a smile.

“Well, I couldn’t live without you,” Vicki said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “Could I? Not even out there.”

Alena blushed.

“How’d you convince her?” Aldo asked. “I think I’d stay if I ever got the chance to leave this shit hole.”

“Aldo!” Gertrude said, spitting up some eggnog.

“It’s true!” Aldo said.

“Honestly,” Alena said. “I’m not sure I have convinced her still to this day.”

“She stepped through the door,” Vicki said. “That’s all it took. All the freedom in the worlds wasn’t enough if she wasn’t there to share it with me.”

“And she still tries to convince me to go back every day.” Alena laughed.

“Well why don’t you want to leave?” Ellie asked.

“That’s a good question,” Alena said, looking into her drink and really thinking about what she wanted to say before answering. “And a difficult one to answer, I’d say. I know Trudy talks about morality and all that, but it’s something different for me. I would—I don’t know how to say this better—but I would feel guilty if I left, you know. Like I was taking advantage of others because they had been taken advantage of with me. If that makes any sense at all. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Besides, if we all leave when we get the chance to leave, then who’s going to fight for the people that never get a chance to? You know. I don’t know. I just—I would feel too guilty if I didn’t do everything I could to help. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been talking forever.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Someone else say something.”

Aldo scoffed. “They can fight for themselves,” he said. “We are.”

Ha, child.” Trudy laughed. “What exactly do you think you’d be doing if we hadn’t come along and let you into the family, huh?”

Aldo sipped his drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Well, something. That’s for sure.”

“Something, dear?” Trudy laughed again. “You wouldn’t even know who to fight or that the other worlds existed. You’d be just as ignorant and helpless as everyone else.”

“I’m not ignorant!” Aldo slammed his glass on the table, spilling some eggnog. “Don’t call me that.”

“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, cleaning up the mess he had made. “We all are. It’s not an insult. It just means that you don’t know something. And none of us would know any of this if no one ever told us. That’s exactly why I choose to stay, Ellie, dear. I plan to tell as many people as I can before I die and get more people to stand up and fight with us.”

“Stand up and fight?” Aldo scoffed. “I’ve never heard of you doing any fighting.”

“Nor me you, dear,” Trudy said, smiling and whipping the wet rag playfully towards him. “But we all contribute to the struggle in the best way we can. For me it’s recruiting and communications, for you it’s tinkering with technology. They’re both as necessary as the other. They’re both vital to the struggle. You and I fight just the same as our friends here who go on the front lines and place your discs.”

“Well said.” Vickie raised her glass. “Well said. You do have a great gift for communication, Trudy.”

Everyone laughed. Ellie, too. She was feeling more comfortable the more eggnog she drank.

“We all know that,” Vickie went on. “But how great is Aldo’s gift at tinkering? Ellie, tell us, did you get to see the outcome of your disc placement?”

“Oh, well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

“You don’t have to tell us, dear,” Trudy said. “But it would be a Christmas gift to have some news of the operation.”

“Well…” Ellie said. “I didn’t place all of them, you know.”

Aldo scoffed.

“Yes,” Trudy said, ignoring him. “That’s fine, dear. But how close were you when the ones you did set went off? Did you hear them? Did you see any of the damage they created?”

“Oh. Well…” Ellie looked around the table at expectant eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, it was kind of hard not to. The ground shook underneath me. It was like a small earthquake. And it was so loud I couldn’t hear for a minute afterward.”

Aldo grinned.

“How close were you?” Vicki asked, leaning in closer.

“Maybe a block away,” Ellie said. “My ears are still ringing.” She stuck a finger in one ear and wiggled it around to drive the point home.

“Did you see the damage?” Vicki asked.

“Yeah, well…” Ellie took a sip of her eggnog and glanced over at Aldo who seemed to tense up in anticipation of her answer. “There was a whole floor of the building gone, but the rest of it was still standing. It was like it had a huge wound on its side.”

“Is that right?” Vicki looked at Aldo.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Where were you? The QA hall?”

Ellie nodded.

“Well those were direct charges. Back up. Meant to take out specific targets and cause minimal collateral damage. If the building’s still standing, then it’s meant to be standing. Even if she set only one of those discs. I guarantee it.”

“That is right,” Vicki said. “Well done then.” She raised her glass. “To a successful operation.”

Everyone clanged their glasses over the table and took a big swig of whatever they were drinking.

“Now.” Vickie put an empty glass on the table. “If y’all don’t mind, I can’t speak for Alena here, but I’d like to get some rest after that long day of work—with overtime—so I’m going to bid my adieus.”

Ugh.” Alena stood from her seat. “Me, too, Trudy,” she said. “But you know we love the drinks and company as always.”

“And you know you two are always welcome, dear,” Trudy said with a smile, setting her own glass on the table. “Just come ringing, and if I’m here, there’s something to drink.” She winked.

“Well, we’ll be here tomorrow afternoon to get some more news,” Alena said. “Right?” She raised her eyebrows.

“I’m hoping as much as y’all are, dear,” Trudy said.

“Alright, girl,” Alena said. “See you then.” She hugged Trudy and waved to Aldo then turned to Ellie and said, “Nice to meet you. I hope to see you again soon.”

“You, too.” Ellie said, holding out her hand, but Alena came in for a hug instead.

Vicki shook hands with Aldo and hugged Trudy then stopped in front of Ellie. “You did good today,” she said.

“I could have done better,” Ellie said, shaking her head.

“No.” Vicki shook her head. “You can always do better. But you did good. That’s what’s important. You got that?”

Ellie didn’t know how to respond.

“I look forward to working with you in the future,” Vicki said. She shook Ellie’s hand. “Bye y’all. See you tomorrow.” She waved to everyone as they left.

The door closed behind them, and Trudy finally took a seat. Ellie felt bad for forgetting that she was standing for all that time. She wanted to say something to make up for it, but nothing was sufficient.

“Well, dears,” Trudy said. “Another round of nog?”

“Nah,” Aldo said, standing. “I should get going, too. I have some more tinkering to do.”

“Good luck with that, dear,” Trudy said. “You’re one of the best.”

Aldo looked at her like he didn’t believe what she was saying. “Uh…thanks,” he said. “And nice to meet you.” He nodded at Ellie and slipped through the door.

Ellie sipped the last dregs of her eggnog. She set the empty glass on the table.

“Well, dear,” Trudy said, finishing her own glass and setting it on the table. “I guess you’ve got something important to get to yourself. Don’t let old Gertrude keep you from it. I understand.”

Ellie shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “I’ve got nothing.”

“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, shaking her head. “Honestly. I’m fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. I don’t need your pity.”

“It’s not pity.”

“Oh. Sure…” Trudy gave a thumbs up, smiling and nodding. “Okay.”

“Trudy,” Ellie said, looking her in the eyes. “I honestly have nowhere else to be.”

“How kind.” Trudy winked.

“No. I mean…I tried to go to my bar before I came here. It was closed. That’s when I realized that the bar was all I had. But that’s not enough anymore. That’s why I came here in the first place.”

“So I was your second choice,” Trudy said with a smile as she went to the fridge to pour two new glasses of eggnog.

“Honestly.” Ellie sighed. “This entire place was my second choice.”

“I knew it!” Trudy said, almost spilling the drink she was pouring. “I knew it.

“You knew what?” Ellie asked, frowning.

“I knew something had to happen to keep you from placing all those discs. You had plenty of time if you chose to come back.”

“Yeah.” Ellie shook her head. “Well, maybe I didn’t choose to come back.”

“Maybe you did,” Trudy said, sipping her drink. “Maybe it was your subconscious choosing for you.”

“Maybe it was just a stupid mistake that I regret.”

“You know,” Trudy said. “I did the same thing.”

“What?”

“I wanted to stay over there, but I didn’t make it back.”

“I thought you had never been across,” Ellie said.

“I thought you wanted to join the struggle.” Trudy smiled and sipped her drink.

Maybe Ellie didn’t know as much about Trudy as she thought she did. “So?” she said.

“So I didn’t make it back either,” Trudy said. “But when I started working with the struggle, I knew it was what was best for me. It was difficult, yes. It is still difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ellie hated her and loved her all at the same time for that. Trudy represented everything Ellie could become. She set a bar for Ellie to reach merely by existing. “You know, Trudy,” she said. “I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.”

“Me, too, dear.” Trudy smiled and nodded. “Me, too.”

#     #     #

< XVIII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XX. Tom >

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