Chapter 69: Chief Mondragon

Hello, dear readers. Welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today’s chapter is Kevin Malone’s favorite based on the number alone.

But to get serious, today we see the world through the eyes of Chief Mondragon, the highest ranking official on—and leader of—Mr. Walker’s protector force. If you enjoy this chapter and can’t wait to finish the entire novel, don’t forget to pick up a full copy in print or ebook format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

LXIX. Chief Mondragon

Ugh. Shit. Chief Mondragon was exhausted. Tired of everything. Something was going to have to give soon or she was going to snap. She stood in her private locker room, strapping on and straightening her plated armor vest in a wall-sized mirror, and she knew that much at least. Something had to give.

When she was still just an Officer, Chief Mondragon had thought that her superior officers were making excuses to hide their own irrational decision-making when they would complain about their hands being tied behind their backs by even further superior officers. When she had been promoted to Captain, she found out firsthand that they weren’t excuses after all. Her hands had been strictly bound by the orders of the Chief, even if it looked from the lower ranks like she had more freedom than she really did. And now that she was finally the Chief herself? Of course, she felt no freer than she ever had throughout her entire career as a protector.

Sure, she got to order everyone around, from the Officers at the bottom on up to the Captains right below her and everything in between. Yes, every member of the Protector Force was required to stand and salute any time she entered a room. And okay, nominally, she was the one who decided the direction in which the Force’s efforts would primarily be directed on a day to day basis. But these were nothing more than illusions of power. She was still being ordered around, not only by the traditions, rules, and entrenched institutions of the Force’s bureaucracy itself, but by the owners whose abundance of wealth somehow granted them supreme control over a fighting force which they had not the first of how to oversee. Still she was forced to stand, bow, and acquiesce any time one of the fat, out-of-shape office jockeys decided to let their pneumatic pants carry them out of their mansions and into the real worlds. In short, she was no more powerful or free than she had ever been in her entire career as a protector, even as the Chief Officer overseeing the entire Force.

None of that would have been a problem for her, either, except for the fact that the people who did have all the power and freedom, the owners of the Protector Force, hadn’t done a single bit of work to get into that position of superiority over her. Most of them, the current owner Mr. Walker and his anti-robot agenda along with them, inherited their wealth and power, explaining why they were so terrible at running the Force in the first place, but instead of admitting to that fact, the owners were too busy claiming responsibility for any of the Chief’s successes and blaming all their failures on the Invisible Hand.

I have no choice was Mr. Walker’s favorite refrain in response to any of Chief Mondragon’s disagreements. The Market demands obedience, and the Market knows best. Even when those decisions, dictated by the market, resulted in losses of profits, lives, and property, and even when criminals roamed free because of the decisions made by Mr. Walker, his excuse remained the same: The Market demanded it. And every single time, Chief Mondragon bit her tongue, protecting her position as Chief instead of saying what she really wanted to say: “If the Market was so damn demanding, how could it ever be free?”

Chief Mondragon was not free. She knew that much. She had only one course of action in front of her if she wanted to keep the career that she had dedicated her entire wasted life to. She put her helmet on her head, waited for her brain to adjust to the three hundred and sixty degree view of the world it provided, then brushed her mustache and goatee to perfection, before—satisfied with her appearance—she marched out of her private locker room, through whitewashed halls, and into the briefing auditorium without even a second to spare before it was time for her speech—the same one she had given every year since becoming Captain.

Some Lieutenant opened the auditorium door for her, Chief Mondragon marched up to the stage’s podium, and the entire room of rookies all stood at attention and saluted her. The Chief saluted back and said, “At ease.” surprised for a moment at the sound of her modulated voice as the entire auditorium of Officers sat in one fluid motion.

“Protectors of Outland,” the Chief went on, regaining her composure as she fell into the routine of oft rehearsed words. “From this day forward, that includes you. You have sworn to uphold the sacred duties of Protectorship, and you will uphold those virtues or perish in embarrassment. Now, children—because y’all truly are babies in the eyes of the Force—life out there is real, and we’re here for one reason and one reason alone: To protect the ideals of Outland. Protectors, what are those ideals?”

“Property, liberty, life,” most of the Officers staring back at her from their soft, cushy stadium seating spoke on top of and over one another. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Chief Mondragon.

“I said, protectors,” she repeated, doing what little she could to prepare these poor little noobies for the thankless, endless, Sisyphean career that lay ahead of them from this day forward, pumping them up like a football coach in the locker room before a big game. “What. Are. Those. Ideals?” she demanded.

“Property! Liberty! Life! Sir,” the room sang in unison.

“And without these basic freedoms, what are we? We are not civilization. We are not human. We are nothing. Today you are tried by fire. Every protector is baptized into the Force the same way. If you cannot make it in Outland Six, then you are not strong enough, you are not fit enough, you are not enough to protect any of the Outlands. Do you understand me? This work is dangerous, protectors. You’ve been told the stories of your ancestors. You’ve been trained. You know as well as you can know what awaits you out those doors. So I’m going to ask you one more time. Protectors, are you ready?”

“Hoo-ra!” they replied.

“Hoo-ra!” Chief Mondragon repeated. “You know your vows rookies. I suggest you listen to your Sergeant if you want to make it through this alive. Lock and load.”

The mass of them stood and milled around to find their squad assignments, following the directions projected on their helmets’ viewports. One lucky pair—well, half lucky—would be grouped with Chief Mondragon instead of a Sergeant, and soon the new round of legends and rumors surrounding the most recent class of rookies would begin to take shape, further chaining future generations to the traditions of the past the same way that had always been done every year a new cohort graduated from the Protector Academy. The same as everyone else, the Chief was bound by the Market to act as she acted, greeting the two nervous recruits who had been assigned to her squad and preparing each for herodom in their own way.

“Officer Michelle Kelley,” the first of the two said, standing erect and saluting Chief Mondragon. “Reporting for duty, sir.”

“Officer.” The Chief saluted back. “And your partner?”

Officer Jones,” Officer Kelley groaned. “She’s kind of a joke around the locker room, sir.”

“Did I ask you what you think’s funny?” Chief Mondragon demanded. “Do you think I care what y’all talk about in the locker room? Why do you think I have my own?”

“I— No—” Officer Kelley stammered. “I don’t understand, sir. I—”

“If I want to hear about your jokes, I’ll ask you to say something funny. Right now, I want to know why you’re reporting to me without your partner by your side.”

“I— Uh…” Officer Kelley still didn’t understand.

I— Uh” Chief Mondragon mocked her. “You’ll come to find that your partner’s the only person in the worlds who has your back, Officer. Never leave their side. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, saluting.

And at the same time, Officer Nakia Jones marched into position next to Officer Kelley, saluting just the same. “Officer Jones, reporting for duty, sir.”

Chief Mondragon saluted back. “At ease, Officers. I selected you two specifically for this operation because I feel like you show the most potential out of our new class of rookies.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted again.

“I—uh… Me, sir?” Officer Jones started before saying. “I mean, yes, sir.”

“Yes, you,” Chief Mondragon said. “The both of you. But I can’t give you any more details until we’re in the field proper, so let’s get on with it. Go, go, go. Move, move.”

They followed the rest of their squadron out into the transport bay where Chief Mondragon ordered the machine to take them to Outland Six. The floor fell out from underneath them, and when it stopped again, the doors slid open and all the protectors inside flooded out onto the streets like a white water rapid, heading toward lower ground at their designated sectors where they would march, patrol, and put on a show, doing nothing of any importance while Chief Mondragon initiated the traditional culling ceremony for a new rookie cohort.

#     #     #

Chief Mondragon led the two rookie Officers along the green grass of the Neutral Ground while Sixers split in front of them like the Red Sea afraid of Amaru’s wrath. Construction on the border wall was coming along nicely, and the Neutral Ground was almost a continuous strip of green grass again, but off in the far distance, Chief Mondragon could still see patches of skyscrapers blocking what was once a straight line view into a beautiful blue and green infinity.

They followed the Neutral Ground for a while before turning into the streets where the skyscrapers ate them like darkness. Chief Mondragon leisurely wound her way through the boulevards and alleys, even doubling back in some places, not only so she could enjoy the stark, brutalist architecture, but also to test her charges’ sense of direction as they made their way toward destiny.

When she stopped their procession in front of the door she was looking for, hidden deep in a dark alley and flanked by dumpsters, she turned to find both of her charges confused under their screaming facemasks—Officer Kelley tried to cover her reaction up as quickly as possible, but Officer Jones let her confusion linger.

“Here we are, girls,” Chief Mondragon said, trying to lighten the mood a bit since they were going to be getting into character soon anyway. “You two ready?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted.

“Ready for what?” Officer Jones asked.

“You’ll see,” the Chief said, opening the door and letting the rookies in first before following them inside and locking the door behind her. “Come on in.”

They stepped into a costume closet. It was one of many that the Force had requisitioned from Outland Three using their powers of eminent domain. Now, instead of dressing up some artsy-fartsy thespian hippies who would use the costumes for nothing more meaningful than playacting, these outfits would go to a more productive use: allowing protectors to go undercover in protection of the ideals of humanity: property, liberty, and life—in that order. Of course, they would also be used for the annual culling event, but that was just as important, and in this instance, one in the same.

“Where are we?” Officer Jones asked.

“You just walked here,” Chief Mondragon said, chuckling—she loved when she got an opportunity to use that joke. “You tell me.”

Uh. It looks like a costume closet?”

“Very observant, Officer,” the Chief said with a smile. “And what do you think we’re doing here?”

“Going undercover, sir,” Officer Kelley said with a salute.

“Well, yes, Kelley,” the Chief said. “But I didn’t ask you. And you have no need to show off. Trust me. But, yes. We’re here because we’re going undercover. We have intel saying there’s a cache of stolen printers in this sector. Hopefully we get the chance to make some arrests today.”

Hoo-rah,” Officer Kelley intoned.

Uh— Undercover, sir?” Officer Jones said, not as excited about the prospect as Officer Kelley.

“Undercover, Officer,” Chief Mondragon repeated. “All three of us. They did go over that in the Academy, didn’t they? Jones, you’ll be playing my lovely lady wife. So do dress appropriately. And Kelley, you’re just a normal Sixer. So pick something trashy. As long as you don’t stick out too much, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

“I— Your wife?” Officer Jones said, taking off her helmet and looking even more confused without it on.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, picking out a costume and changing into it.

“Yes, my wife,” Chief Mondragon said, mocking offense as she changed into her own costume—a simple blue jeans and t-shirt combo that most of the Sixers seemed to wear. “Do you have a problem with that? Should I be offended?”

Oh. No, sir,” Jones said, stumbling around, trying to take off her shoes. “I didn’t mean to offend you, sir. I— I—” And she almost fell over before she finally did get her boots off.

“Careful, Jones,” Officer Kelley said with a smirk. “I already told you, take your shoes off before your helmet. If you’re not careful, you’re gonna give yourself a concussion.”

The Chief let them chuckle and joke together while they got dressed, then she performed an inspection. Officer Kelley was wearing a similar blue jean and t-shirt combo to the one that the Chief was wearing, which was perfectly acceptable, but she also still had her gun strapped over her shoulder.

“Lose the rifle, kid,” the Chief told her. “Side arms only. This is undercover. No flashing guns.”

The Captain turned to Officer Jones who wasn’t carrying her rifle, that’s for sure. She was wearing a purple flowery sundress and blushing under the Chief’s inspection.

“Officer Jones, a dress?” Chief Mondragon asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, embarrassed. “I thought I was supposed to be your wife. If this won’t do, I can change.”

“You look fine,” the Chief said with a wink—she looked fantastic, in fact. “But where exactly do you plan on putting your sidearm?”

“Right here, sir,” Officer Jones said, flipping her skirt up to pull her sidearm out of her garter. The Chief had to admit, she was impressed.

“If you don’t mind flashing the world to get to it, I don’t mind seeing what you’re packing,” Chief Mondragon said with a laugh.

“Maybe it’ll be a useful distraction,” Officer Jones said, chuckling herself.

“Alright, then,” the Chief said. “Looks good. I’m to be referred to as Ms. Mona Mondragon from here on out. You’re my wife, Nakia Mondragon. And you’re back up. Give us seven minutes exactly to scope the place out, then if we haven’t called down an abort, you come up to assist with the arrest. Can we handle that?”

Hoo-rah!” Kelley cheered while Jones said, “Yes, sir—erhoo-rah.”

“That’ll have to do.”

The door they were looking for was squashed tight between two others that were too close on either side, like the one they were using didn’t belong where it was, plucked out of some other world entirely and squeezed here into this one. It led them into a short hall and up a tall staircase, both too skinny just the same as the door, so much so that Chief Mondragon’s gun, hidden in her pants waist, scraped along the wall as they climbed.

“Just let me do all the talking in here,” the Chief said, taking step by creaky step. “I don’t need you messing anything up.”

“Yes, sir,” Officer Jones said, breathing heavily from the climb.

“And no more sirs. It’ll give us away. To you, I’m Mona.”

“Yes, sir—er. Okay… wifey?”

Seriously.” The Chief scoffed. “Just let me do the talking.”

Ms. Mondragon—now fully in character herself—knocked the secret knock, and after a moment, the door at the top of the stairs swung open to reveal an empty room with chipped vinyl floors, moldy crumbling ceiling panels, and two doors besides the one they went in through, one closed tight behind the man who had answered their call, and the other, the exit, slightly ajar.

“No one told me there’d be two of ya,” the man who had answered the door grumbled, looking between Ms. Mondragon and Nakia nervously.

“No one told me I couldn’t bring my pack mule with me,” Ms. Mondragon said, smacking Nakia—who responded with a yelp—on the butt. “Thought I might need some help carrying my purchases, see.”

The Sixer didn’t like it, though. Scum that he was, he still knew enough to be suspicious, even if he had no choice but to go along with the transaction anyway—no matter how shady. Ms. Mondragon had flashed a stack of cash to get into this meeting, and all that the trash on Six ever thought about was money, so he was sure to go along in the end. Same way they did every year.

Mmmhmmm…” He liked the sound of that. “Well, if ya’re buying so much ya need two people to carry it, I guess I don’t really mind. But in the future, ya need to give us some forewarning. Or else.”

“Sure, sure,” Ms. Mondragon said, waving the man’s concerns away. There’d never be another next time for him. “In the future. But let me ask you, where are these printers of yours? I’ve always wanted to see one up close.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the man said, shaking his head. “Boss’s orders. We keep the printers locked up in the other room and the customers here in this one. It’s called the airlock system.”

“Airlock system?” Ms. Mondragon sighed. “You know that really was half the reason I came out here in the first place. If I knew I wasn’t going to get to see one in action, I would have just sent the mule to get everything on her own.” She tried to smack Nakia’s butt again, but this time wifey was expecting it and jumped out of the way.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at the floor. “Those are the rules. Maybe ya just should have sent her.”

“The rules?” Ms. Mondragon repeated. “Put in place by your boss, I assume. The same woman who I negotiated with to purchase the knock that got me in here. And what a high price I paid, might I remind you. Is she here, by the way? Locked up with the printers, I assume. Letting you vet the possible infection in the airlock. Well, we’re not contagious. There’s nothing to worry about.” She smiled wide, trying to make the man believe, but he still didn’t.

“Those are the rules, ma’am,” he said, still looking at his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“Is she here?” Ms. Mondragon demanded, tired of playing games with this piece of trash—she never was a fan of kick the can.

“I— Uh— Who?” the man stammered.

Your boss. Let me speak to her.”

“I—uh…”

Now.”

And at that, the man kind of jumped up and yelped, exactly like Nakia had done when Ms. Mondragon had goosed her earlier. He turned and ran out through the closed airlock door, locking a deadbolt behind him.

“Don’t ever touch me again,” Nakia snapped.

Ms. Mondragon chuckled. “Calm down, woman. You’ve got bigger problems ahead of you.”

“I will not calm down. You just sexually… What did you say?”

Ms. Mondragon pulled her gun out of the waist of her pants and pointed it at Nakia. “I said you’ve got bigger problems to worry about. It’s almost time for Kelley to come up, and she’s never late. Not by a second.”

“Yeah. So?” Nakia said, slowly backing towards the exit while keeping her eyes on Ms. Mondragon’s gun. “That’s no problem.”

“Not for me, it isn’t. But for you, I’m afraid, it’s a culling.”

“A culling, sir?” Nakia asked at the same time that the airlock door opened and out came the giant, limping robot who Ms. Mondragon had really come for, distracting her for just long enough that when she pulled the trigger, Nakia had time to dive out of the way of the bullet, shoot one back that grazed Ms. Mondragon’s arm, and escape through the exit, her purple, flowery dress flowing in a wave of ripples behind her.

“What’s the meaning of this—” the robot demanded before Ms. Mondragon swung her gun around and put a bullet between the limping machine’s eyes, exploding its plastic face all over the frightened airlock attendant who ran away to lock himself inside with all his precious printers. Ms. Mondragon hoped he was willing to die for them, because she was going to make sure that he did.

She was rubbing the red-hot gunshot wound on her arm, trying to decide whether to chase that fucking traitor Nakia or to kick down the door and kill the Sixer asshole first, when Kelley came bursting into the room, reminding Ms. Mondragon that she didn’t have to do either for herself, she had backup.

“I— Sir, what happened?” Kelley asked, her gun already out, staring confused at the obviously dead but not bleeding robot corpse on the floor.

“That way,” Mondragon yelled, pointing out the exit that Jones had escaped through. “She shot me. Officer Jones. Get her.”

“I— What? Who?” Kelley hesitated, still confused.

“Now!” Mondragon yelled, and Kelley sprinted out in pursuit of Jones.

Ms./Chief Mondragon lay on the cold vinyl floor next to the dead robot, resting for just a moment. At least she had gotten that much right. The ringleader was dead. Mr. Walker could get off her back about that. But Nakia was still alive, and she could end up causing more trouble than Mondragon cared to deal with. Maybe Kelley would take care of that in the Streets so Mondragon didn’t have to. Probably not. Nakia had gotten a pretty good head start and she was smarter than any of them had given her credit for.

Either way, all Mondragon could do was wait. Wait for backup to come clear out bodies and printers alike. Wait for the medics to bring pain relievers and patch her arm up. Wait for Mr. Walker to come up with another impossible demand that she’d have to find some way of complying with. And wait for Nakia to be served the justice that was coming for her. That last one was what Mondragon most looked forward to, and just imagining the scene filled her with a wave of relaxing serotonin as she closed her eyes, waiting for everything to come.

#     #     #

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

And there you have it, dear readers, the sixty-ninth chapter in the Infinite Limits series. If you enjoyed that and what to read the rest right now, or if you just want to support my future writing endeavors, please do pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, we’ll see you back next weekend for another chapter in the story. Until then, take care, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 62: Ansel

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

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

LXII. Ansel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pshh. What’s the difference?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get to the point.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, no.” He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Luckily for us. Lab.”

The elevator fell into motion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’re—” Ashley said.

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

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

“Haley Walker?” Ansel said.

“My true name.” The Scientist nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By the elevator?” the Scientist asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Beyond your imagination.” The Scientist nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ashley already told you most of it.”

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

Ansel nodded.

“And what did you see?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s Four?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well…” Ansel said.

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

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

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

“What does it matter anyway?” Ansel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scientist smiled. “Name a few.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

Chapter 60: Roo

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back to the Infnite Limits saga. Today we join Roo for her third and final point of view chapter in book three of four, Dividing by Ø. Roo has been given a choice between joining Rosa and Anna in their work, joining the Scientist in hers, or continuing down the independent path Roo has been travelling all her life.

Read on right here to find out what she decides, and if you’d like to finish the entire novel right now, don’t forget to pick up a copy in print or ebook formats through this link. That’s enough talking for today, though, folks. Enjoy your read.

< LIX. Anna     [Table of Contents]     LXI. Chelsea >

LX. Roo

All Roo wanted to do was bend, but life kept getting in the way.

First of all, she would have been happy in her closet—er—secret lair, though it was hard to keep calling it that after she had seen what other benders were working with, but she would have been happy there, bending one path at a time, hacking into the system from the outside, if it weren’t for Anna and the Scientist. Anna had shown Roo the true art of bending. She set the bar for what one person with limited equipment could possibly accomplish by themselves. While the Scientist, on the other hand, had bending down to a science. Instead of the warm creativity of a gut feeling, the Scientist relied on cold hard data fed through intricate algorithms until it was gobbledy-gook that only robots could understand. Both methods offered their unique benefits and drawbacks. Going Anna’s way, Roo could remain the free, independent outsider she had relished being for so long now, while going the Scientist’s way meant she could command control of a wider sweeping stretch of the universe than she ever even knew existed. It was an almost impossible decision to make, made actually impossible for the moment thanks to point number two, which was that, second of all, Roo still had to go to school.

“You can’t be serious,” she complained to her mom when she had finally got home from being with the Scientist. Though she hadn’t agreed to anything yet, Roo still took the system out for a test drive and she didn’t leave the Scientist’s lab until early in the morning. Roo would still be there bending, too, if the Scientist hadn’t forced her to leave and go make her decision. Well how was she supposed to decide anything now with stupid school getting in her way? “It’s just one day, Mom,” Roo begged. “Please. I haven’t taken a sick day in weeks.”

“That’s because you haven’t been sick for weeks,” her mom said, shaking her head. “And you’re not sick now. So, no. You’re going to school and that’s final.” She handed Roo her backpack.

“But, Mom, I—”

No buts. You can make your decision—or play your bending game—or whatever it is you’re so eager to do after class. Now go on. You don’t want to be late.”

“But—”

Go.”

Roo heaved a big sigh as she grabbed her bag and strapped it on her back. “Fine,” she said. “Whatever.” And she stomped out of the house, towards her secret lair rather than towards school despite her mom’s demands. Roo never should have asked for the day off in the first place. It was always easier to ask for forgiveness than it was to ask for permission, anyway.

She was walking by instinct, giving no thought to the path she had traveled so many times before, trying to find some way to decide between the art and the science of bending, when she ran into Mike—literally—and tumbled to the ground in a heap with him.

“Oh—uh—I’m sorry,” he said, standing to help her up. “Oh, Roo! It’s you. Just the jumpie I was looking for.”

“I’m not a jumpie,” Roo groaned, wiping the dirt off her pants.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Mike rolled his eyes. “But I just had to find you, okay. You’re never gonna believe what happened after you left.”

Roo scoffed. “I wouldn’t really call what happened to me leaving. It was more like I was kidnapped.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mike said. “I guess you can call it that. Where’d you end up going anyway?

Roo gritted her teeth. She kind of wanted to punch this annoying kid in the face. He was just another in a long line of distractions that were trying to prevent her from deciding her future. “Do you really care?” she asked.

“What? Yeah, of course I do.” Mike almost looked offended. “You’re my friend. Especially after you—well—at least you tried to help me find my mom.”

“Tried? What do you mean tried? We did find her. Anna said—”

Mike shook his head. Roo was afraid he was going to cry for a second—she had no idea how to comfort sad people and didn’t have time to learn—but he quickly snapped out of it and half smiled. “No, well, Anna was protecting us. Her and my mom both were. And, technically, you did help me find her, though there was no her left to be found.”

Roo held her hand to her mouth. “You mean…” she said.

Mike nodded. He made a motion like a knife slitting his throat so he didn’t have to say the words, and Roo wasn’t sure which would have been worse. She noticed her jaw was open—and probably had been for some time—then forced it closed only to fail at opening it again to spit out words.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Mike said after Roo had tried to talk and failed at it for long enough to be embarrassed. “You know, it’s kind of for the better, actually. I know, I know, it would obviously be better if she weren’t dead, but at least I know who she really was now.”

“Who was she?” Roo asked, happy her vocal chords were able to sound at least three short words.

Not a jumpie,” Mike said, stomping a foot as if he were crushing the idea of it like a bug. “She wasn’t addicted to anything. She was protecting us. You saw what those people were capable of.”

“What who was capable of?”

“Oh, well, you know. The people who took you or whatever, for starters. And the one’s who killed my mom, right? Especially them.”

“But who killed your mom, Mike?” Roo was getting worried. Mike’s ideas didn’t seem to connect. It was like he was reciting taught information that he didn’t quite understand yet. “I never saw them.”

“Well, no. Me neither.” He shook his head, looking more confused than ever. “But Anna did. She told me it was the protectors, or whatever. That’s who Mom was protecting us from.”

Of course. Anna and the Human Family were behind this. No wonder it was like arguing with a student instead of a master. “The protectors?” Roo asked. “That’s why your mother left you all those times? To protect you from the protectors?”

Mike nodded emphatically, like he was trying to convince himself, too. “That’s right. She was fighting to keep us safe. All of us humans. You, too.”

Right.” Roo nodded, not really believing the kid’s story but not wanting to burst his bubble about his dead mom either. “So who’s supposed to take care of your brothers now? Just you?”

“No.” Mike scoffed. “Ugh. I couldn’t handle that. As a matter of fact, for the first time ever, I won’t have to. I’m free, Roo. I’m finally free to live my own life.”

“But who if not you?” Roo asked, dreading the answer.

The Family. That’s who. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Anna and Rosa said I—said we could come live with them. Isn’t that awesome?”

“You’re going to live with Anna?”

“And Rosa.” Mike nodded. “She’s not supposed to be that cranky all the time, by the way.”

“And all because they told you that your mom was working with them? Because they told you that she was fighting to protect their Human Family, or whatever.”

Exactly,” Mike said, smiling. “So now the Human Family is going to take care of us. Isn’t it great?”

“And the Scientist already knew about Anna and her capabilities a long time ago. She wasn’t afraid at all, otherwise she would have done something about them.”

“The what? What are you talking about now?”

“There has to be some connection between the two, some reason the Scientist continues to let Anna’s transport system exist. Some thing is holding those two together, and I’m going to figure out what it is.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”

“You said they were letting you live at their house, right? Or the Home, or whatever. Did they give you a room yet?”

“Oh my God, yes. You wouldn’t believe it. I get my own bed, okay, my own desk, my own toy box. I don’t have to share any of it. It’s insane.”

“You know, I’d really like to see it,” Roo said, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him toward the Family Home. “How about we skip class and go take a tour instead?”

“I—but—” Mike complained, pretending to fight but not really trying to stop her from taking him wherever she wanted to go—no one ever really wanted to go to school. “What if the teacher get’s mad at…”

The Family Home was a few blocks away. They made quick time of it as soon as Mike stopped pretending to want to go to class and carried his own weight. When they got to the block the building was on Roo pulled Mike into the shadow of an alley.

“So you have your keys, right?” she asked him.

“Oh, it’s never locked.” Mike chuckled. “The doors to the Family Home are always open to any human in need,” he recited as if he were mocking someone’s voice—probably Rosa’s or Anna’s.

“So is anyone gonna be there?” Roo asked.

“Yeah, prolly. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “What’s it matter, anyway? I live here now.”

“But Anna, is she going to be there?”

I don’t know. Why do you care? We’re just going to see my room. I’m allowed to have friends over.”

“Alright, alright,” Rosa said, turning him around to face the house and patting him on the back to calm him. “Settle down now, cowboy. I was just asking. Let’s go see it already.”

“Wait,” Mike said, stopping and turning back around to her. “I’m not as stupid as you think I am, you know. Just because I don’t know about the fourth dimension—or whatever—and just because I don’t know about jumping and all that doesn’t mean I was born yesterday. You got that?”

“Woah, now,” Roo said, waving her hands in mock defense. “I don’t think you’re stupid.”

Mike scoffed. “You sure treat me like it.”

Roo felt a little ashamed. He was right about that, but she wasn’t ready to admit it. It wasn’t that she thought he was stupid, per se, just that he wasn’t as smart as she was. No one was. So if she thought he was stupid, she thought everyone everywhere was stupid, and Mike really had no reason to complain anyway because he wasn’t unique in that aspect. “I don’t think you’re stupid,” she repeated trying to placate him. “I’m sorry if I made you feel that way. So, please, can we go see your room now?”

“Then prove it,” Mike said, crossing his arms. “Tell me what you really want to do here. I know you’re not interested in seeing my bedroom.”

“I—well…” There was no hiding it now. She would just have to convince him to go along with her plan—or at the very least not to spoil it. “I did have a little something else in mind. Yes.” She nodded.

“Well…” Mike tapped his feet.

“Well, I just wanted to get another look at Anna’s transport system, you know,” Roo said, unable to think of a lie even if she wanted to tell one. “Her consoles are more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen, and I thought I might find some inspiration for the design of my own secret lair.”

Mike scoffed. “Your janitor’s closet?” he said. “You’ll never be able to—”

Roo slapped him on the arm. “My secret lair needs work, I know, but that’s why I want to look at Anna’s. She’s bending the walls without even being tapped directly into them, and I want to know how she does it. It’s almost like she’s creating her own walls right there in her basement.”

Mike scoffed, shaking his head. “That’s just a bunch of jumpie jargon,” he said. “It means nothing to me. You know, maybe I shouldn’t let you in after all. I don’t want to ruin a good thing for myself on the first day of living here. C’mon. Let’s go back to class.” He took a few steps in that direction but stopped when he saw that Roo wasn’t following.

“Never call me a jumpie again,” she said. “I’m a bender.”

Fine,” Mike said. “Then it was bender jargon. There’s no difference. You’re addicted, and I’m not going to enable you. Now c’mon. We’re already late for class.”

“I’m not your mother,” Roo said.

Mike scoffed. “Leave her out of this. She wasn’t a jumpie. Anna told me the truth about her.”

“Lies. Anna told you lies and she’s gonna keep telling them to you to keep you in her stupid family. It’s a trap, Mike, and now’s the time to get out while you still can.”

“You’re wrong.” Mike looked like he was going to cry again. Roo felt a little bad that she had to talk about his late mother like that, but it was too late for pity. Pity would only put him in further danger. “My mom believed in the Family, too,” he said. “She gave her life for it.”

“She gave her life for Anna’s benefit and the benefit of her cranky partner. No one else. Not you, not your brothers, not some mythological Family which doesn’t even exist. She was trapped just like you are, and if you don’t get out now, you’ll end up dead just like your mom.”

“Fuck you, jumpie!” Mike was crying now, and spitting while he screamed, “I never should have come to you for help in the first place. You’re toxic! You can find your own fucking way in. I’m leaving.” He stomped away toward school, whether he was going there or not.

Roo stood in the alley, shaking her head in silence. She hated to piss Mike off like that—on some level—but he needed to see the truth despite his denials of its verifiability. Hopefully he’d wake up to it before the trap was sprung—that is if it hadn’t been sprung already.

She turned to face the family home, that central hub of evil with its tendrils emanating through all four dimensions. Her mission would be more difficult without the bedroom tour as cover, but if anyone questioned her as to why she was there, she could just say that she was looking for Mike, was he home? She watched the door from her alley corner for some time—no one entering or leaving—before she cautiously slunk over and extended a trembling hand to the door knob.

She took a deep breath, opened the door to an empty entryway, and blew all the air out of her lungs in a too loud huff. Grinning at her luck, she made her way to the basement door and pulled it open to reveal stairs she didn’t recognize. Climbing down them she found stacks of supplies rather than the transporter system she was sure was there before.

Ugh.” She groaned as she climbed back up the stairs. This had to be the place. She knew it was. She closed the door and scanned the still empty—thank God—halls but her reconnaissance only proved to her that she had gone in the right door. She opened it again and ran down to groan at the empty supply room before running back upstairs and slamming the door closed behind her.

She huffed, leaning her back on the stupid door. What did this all mean? This was the door, the transport system was supposed to be down there, what was she to do now?

The door tried to open behind her, but by reflex, she braced against it, shutting it tight. She only had a split second to decide what to do next and ended up diving into an office instead of the kitchen. The door swung open again and out came Anna and her cranky partner who was complaining loudly.

“I can’t believe that stupid door got stuck again. I can’t take it anymore.”

“It was probably just someone going to the supply closet,” Anna said, her voice moving toward the kitchen—thank God. “You can’t have two doors in the same place like that at not expect to get some crossover.”

“Yeah, whatever,” her cranky partner said as Roo dove into the basement door they had just come out of right before it closed.

The stairs were different now. They were the stairs Roo recognized. She climbed down them to find the two consoles and six transporter rings she had been looking for. It was now or never.

She only booted up one of the consoles. Two would be too many to control and more to shut off if someone found her out. She got distracted playing with the thing for a while before she remembered where she was and what she was there for, then she started searching through the console’s recent history.

A lot of it was random. Another lot of it directed at the protector’s world where the Family must have been doing some type of thing. Then there was the anomaly. It was a place that had been searched often but never visited. It seemed more like it was being surveilled. Roo zoomed in on that spot and there weren’t a lot of paths in or out, maybe two or three: printing, disposal, and a single entrance—a single entrance for now.

Roo’s hands flew over the console’s touchscreen, levers, and keys. The universe unravelled before her. A path opened up and she put it into place. Soon the transport ring was humming and she knew someone would hear the sound, but whoever it was would be too late. The secret was found out. She stepped through the door just as it fwipped closed behind her, silencing the voices that were calling for her to stop as they ran down into the family’s basement.

She was in a giant office now. The carpet was red and soft, and there were paintings of big fat people dressed up in black and white costumes all over the walls. Behind a gargantuan desk sat a flabby fat man who was wearing the same costume as the people in the paintings. At Roo’s appearance, he coughed and choked on something from the huge pile of food he was eating in front of him. It reminded Roo of the scene she had seen from above when lines of similarly clothed fatties ate from similarly giant piles of food. She was disgusted and wanted leave already, but she stood her ground despite that.

“Who—Ho ho—” The big fat man in black and white said through his coughing. “Who are you? Wh—What are you doing here?”

“Who are you?” Roo demanded, walking straight up to his desk, which was too high so she had to push a chair close to it and jump up to be seen.

“I am Lord Walker, master of everything you see and have ever seen,” he said, sweeping his hands in a grand gesture over the vast desk. “I demand to know who intrudes on my private time.”

“How do you know Anna?” Roo asked, ignoring his demands.

“The Sixer? She’s Rosa’s partner. I’d be rid of your Anna if I could, though.”

Roo nodded. “So you do know them, then.”

Enough.” Lord Walker slammed a fat fist on the desk and the sound of it rang in Roo’s ears. “Who are you? I demand to know.”

“And the Scientist? You know her, too. Don’t you?” Roo went on.

The fat man scoffed. “That’s about enough,” he said. “Haley! Come get this child out of here. How did it even get in here in the first place?”

Wait.” Roo had to think fast. “Wait, wait. I’m just kidding, okay. I—”

“Who are you?” the fat man demanded. “Stop toying with me. Are you—ooooohhh—of course, you’re the director I’ve been talking to. Is that it? Aronostly is it? I didn’t expect anyone so… So…”

“Stop right there,” Roo said, about to pee herself she was so nervous but continuing her show of confidence nonetheless. “Just tell me, why are you working with Anna?”

“That’s exactly what I asked you here for, old boy. I’m working on a movie with her. She’s hired a director, but he’s not living up to my standards. I need someone with more vision. Someone like you. I’ve got a big project for you, now. Bigger than anything you’ve ever worked on. What do you say?”

Roo didn’t have anything to say. She didn’t really know what she had gotten herself into or how she was supposed to get out of it.

A door opened somewhere behind her. In walked a woman who was wearing black and white, too, but her costume was a short, lacy skirt with no top hat. She strutted up to the side of the desk, between Roo and Lord Walker, and curtsied. “Yes, Lord,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Why didn’t you tell me our guest had arrived?” he chided her. “We need refreshments, dear. I’ll take an old-fashioned and our guest will have…”

“Guest, sir?” the woman looked confusedly at Roo.

“What would you like?” the fat man asked her. “Any drink you can think of, we have it.”

“Oh—uh…” What was she supposed to say? “I’ll have a milk, please.”

“Milk?” the fat man said, a strange look on his face. Roo’s body wanted to run away at the sight of it, but before it could, the fat man started laughing. “Ho ho ho. You heard the man. Milk it is. A real old fashioned drink, that one. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir.” The woman curtsied and left through the only door in the room.

“So,” the fat man said. “Your milk’s coming. Ho ho ho. And you’ve heard my offer. Now tell me, what do you think?”

“I, uh— Well, sir… I’m still not entirely sure what it is you’re offering,” Roo stalled.

“A job, my boy. Ho ho ho! You’re not truly so dense are you? No, of course not. I’ve seen your body of work. I know better. You’re just pulling my leg, aren’t you? This is an act. Ho ho ho. Good one, my boy. You Threes never quit entertaining, do you?”

Roo groaned, hoping the gesture wasn’t audible, but what was this fatso going on about? Directors and movies had nothing to do with Anna and her transport system for as far as Roo could tell, while this Lord Walker, whoever he was, kept going on about some sort of job. He thought that Roo was someone else, someone who could probably still walk into the office at any minute and blow her cover, so she’d have to get what little information she could out of the fat man as fast as she could then get out of there soon after—if she could even find an escape when the time came.

The door opened behind her and Roo almost jumped out of her seat at the sound of it. Luckily it wasn’t the director she was impersonating but the servant woman in the short skirt with their drinks. She set a brownish liquid in front of Lord Walker and a tall glass of milk in front of Roo.

“Is that all, sir?” she asked with a curtsy.

Lord Walker downed his drink in one loud gulp. “I’ll have another of these,” he said, slamming the empty glass on the desk with a loud clang. “What about you, old boy? Do you need anything else?”

Roo shook her head. She didn’t even want the milk she already had, but she took a sip of it anyway so she didn’t have to speak.

“Then just the old fashioned, dear. Move along.” He waved the woman out of the room and she left with a curtsy.

“What do you think of that one, eh?” Lord Walker asked, winking at Roo and pointing at the door the woman had just left through. “Legs that go on for miles, if you know what I mean. Ho ho ho!”

Roo nodded and laughed even though she had no idea what he meant.

“Yeah, I know you do, old boy,” Lord Walker said in a conspiratorial tone. “I saw you oogling her.”

Roo blushed. “I—”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker slammed a fat fist on the desk. “No need to worry, my boy. You’ve done nothing wrong. I won’t chastise you. She’s nothing more than an object, after all—another one of my possessions. She’s meant to be looked at, designed to like it even. She likes you looking at her, boy, and I do, too, so go right ahead and do it. Ho ho ho!”

Roo nodded and smiled. She had met boys who thought the same about girls before, but never one who thought that she was a boy, too, and as such, revealed to her what was truly on his mind. No matter how much she disagreed with it, though, she had to play along or blow her cover. She needed to get out of there sooner than ever.

Oh ho ho!” Lord Walker went on. “I know, my boy. It leaves you speechless, doesn’t it? All that concentrated beauty in one single package, and all at my beck and call. I snap my fingers and she’s there. My stomach grumbles and she’s already making me breakfast. Time to take my pants off and she’s by my side.” He winked and Roo almost choked on the milk she was sipping. “Oh you ol’ sport.” Lord Walker grinned. “You heard that right. She’s next to my bed, under it, or in it, however I require. Ho ho ho!”

The conversation had already gone too far and Lord Walker just kept taking it further. Roo had to say something to put an end to it, but what?

Uh—Right, sir—er—Lord.” Roo smiled, trying her hardest not to look as disgusted as she felt. “But I’m not sure what this has to do with me or the job you’re offering.”

Ho ho ho,” Lord Walker chuckled. “Don’t play sly with me now. You know good and well what I’m getting at. I’m sure you have fantasies of your own, the perfect woman lifted from the best attributes of characters in the movies you’ve made. Well, my boy, it’s not just a fantasy anymore. I can make all your dreams come true, no matter how depraved they might be.” Lord Walker grinned and winked his monocled eye.

Roo couldn’t take it anymore. She wanted to gag, or to spit out some insult and run away, but she choked down both urges. “And if my fantasies can’t be fulfilled with a woman?” she asked. “What then?”

Ho ho ho! Really, my boy? I know things are different in Three, but I never took you for the type. And yes, we have men, too, if that better suits your desire. Ho ho ho.”

No,” Roo snapped. “I mean, no, sir—uh—Lord, sir,” she went on more calmly. “What if no slave at all could fulfill my desires, man or woman?”

“I take offense to that term, slave,” Lord Walker huffed. “She’s no more a slave to me than your camera is to you, or the elevator you rode in on is to anyone else. She’s a robot, not a human. She can’t be a slave.”

A robot? That was impossible. Something so lifelike couldn’t be anything but human. Lord Walker was just making excuses for his abhorrent behavior. He was a sexist pig—almost literally a pig at his size—of a slave master, and Roo had seen enough. As if on cue, the woman—who was clearly a human after looking at her again—came back in and put another drink in front of Lord Walker with a curtsy.

“There you are, sir,” she said with a smile—a human smile. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No, sweetheart. Not right now,” Lord Walker said, shooing her away. “We’re trying to have a conversation here. Be gone.”

“Actually, sir,” Roo said before the woman could curtsy and leave. “It’s a little embarrassing, but I could really use the bathroom right now.” She did a little dance in her seat like she really had to go.

Lord Walker looked shocked for a moment, like Roo had started speaking a foreign language all of a sudden. “The bathroo— Oh. Of course. Ho ho ho.” He slammed his ham fist on the desk with his bellowing laughter. “The restroom. I thought you meant to take a bath. I wasn’t going to say anything about your stench, but I didn’t think you needed to go so far as request a bath mid meeting. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, well…” Roo said, still dancing and actually getting an urge to pee as she pretended to have one. “Do you mind?”

Oh ho ho! Of course not, sport. Forgive me. With these pants I never think twice about it, you know. Ho ho ho. You heard the man, Haley, dear. Show him to the restroom, please. Ho ho ho!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Haley curtsied and turned to Roo. “Follow me, please, sir.”

Roo scooped up her backpack and followed Haley out of the door and into a long hall. Roo kept going toward the metal doors at the other end of the hall, but after after Haley had closed the wooden door they had just left, she called Roo back. “This way, please, sir.”

“Oh,” Roo said, crossing back. “I’m sorry, I thought—”

“Yes, sir. We only use the one door here, though. So if you’ll please.” She opened the door and instead of the office there was the biggest bathroom Roo had ever seen, with too many toilets and just as many gold plated sinks. “I’ll be out here to escort you back to the office when you’re done.”

“Oh—uh, thanks,” Roo said, stepping into the bathroom as Haley closed the door behind her.

Roo dropped her bag on the ceramic tile and rushed over to vomit in the toilet. She didn’t know if it was all the adrenaline from almost being caught or the disgusting combination of Lord Walker’s sloppy face and creepy words, but she had to get everything inside of her out. After she had eradicated it all from her body—including her mouth by washing it with water from the faucet a few times—she sat on the toilet to take the pee she had faked needing and figure a way out of this Hell hole.

She could just try to finish the meeting then leave like she was always supposed to be there, but that came with plenty of risks. First, she’d have to sit through more conversation with the disgusting Lord Walker. Second, the person who she was impersonating could walk in at any minute—then she’d really be screwed. And third, when she did get to leave, there would be no telling where they would send her. Three, by the sound of it, almost certainly wasn’t the world she wanted to go to, her world, home. So that was pretty much out of the question.

What else was there, though? She could burst out of the door and make a break for it. But that Haley would be outside waiting, and even if Roo could get past her, she wouldn’t know how to use the crazy doors they have which obviously relied on some advanced automatic remote bending system of some kind that Roo had never seen the likes of—except maybe at the Scientist’s lab.

Which brought her back to the real crux of the situation, back to the problem that was eating at her mind even more than her need to escape the rat trap she was caught in, the fact that her future, her entire universe even, was being controlled by three old fogies she had never met before in her life. Anna had her transport system, capable of forming new walls in remote locations and run by the most competent bender Roo had ever witnessed, Anna herself. Lord Walker here had his magic doors and elevators, and no doubt countless other secret control systems hidden away in his labyrinth of pompous, fat, sexist slave mongering. And the Scientist had the most technologically advanced four dimensional bending system possible with the current standards of technology. All three of them were stuck in their old fashioned ways, all three had too much control over Roo’s universe, and all three lacked one vital attribute which alone could save them from collapsing in on themselves: foresight.

Roo finished, flushed, and washed her hands then set to pulling her handheld transporter console out of her backpack. The bathroom door had to be connected to the walls, it was the only way it could work the way it did, opening onto different rooms like that. She looked around for something hard, found a plunger under the sink, and used the wooden end to bust open the drywall next to the door jamb. She worried at first about the noise but gave in and smashed without reserve. Hopefully Haley was worlds away, not just on the other side of the drywall.

Behind the filthy white wall she found exactly what she needed, a mash of multicolored wires almost teeming with electricity. She ripped one out, careful not to shock herself—not that she hadn’t felt that pain a million times before already—and jacked her portable console in. In the next second it was on and she fell deep into the fourth dimension. Every one of them were going to come face to face and admit what they had done, admit what they had colluded to keep alive, Anna, Lord Walker, the Scientist, and anyone else who stood in Roo’s way. It was time for them all to see that their grip on the universe was slipping and the era of a new generation of bender was dawning.

 

#     #     #

< LIX. Anna     [Table of Contents]     LXI. Chelsea >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Only three more to go in Dividing by Ø and then it’ll soon be time for the fourth and final book in the series. I hope you’re as excited to read the finale as I am to share it. Either way, have a great weekend, and please do think about picking up a copy of or leaving a review for any book in the series right through this link. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 59: Anna

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we rejoin Anna for her third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø. She’s just find out what kind of bending feats the Scientist is capable of, and now she has to come up with a way to fight back, save Roo, and help poor little Mike find his missing mom all at the same time.

Enjoy the story, and if you do, please do think about leaving a review for this one and all the novels in the series through this link. Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

< LVIII. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LX. Roo >

LIX. Anna

That was her. That was the Scientist who had told Rosa that she was watching the Family. She had enough power to steal Rosa en route through the fields, and she had enough power to hack into Anna’s pathways, bending them to the Scientist’s own will. It had to have been her. Anna knew it. But what was she supposed to do about it?

“What the fuck was that?” the little boy who had come looking for his mom said, cowering at the foot of the stairs where he had been sitting when the doors opened and the monstrous mechanical arm came storming in to snatch the little girl away and disappear with her. “Wh—Where’s Roo?”

“Roo?” Anna shook her head. Who was Roo? She couldn’t think of anything but the Scientist’s cold grip on the universe, her power to bend and shape it, not only to her own will but against Anna’s.

“Um… Miss, uh…ma’am,” the boy squeaked in a cracking, trembling voice that was ready to break down into full on sobs at any second. Anna almost felt a tear in her eye at the sound of it. “Where’s my mom?” the boy asked, crying now. “I want to go home.”

And Anna’s tears came, too. She couldn’t stop them. The universe, and bending, and the Scientist’s control over every aspect of every tiny detail of every single human’s life evaporated from her mind. Anna had lost sight of what truly mattered. She had forgone Family and Home for power and influence, and now she was on the verge of forgetting this little boy who was standing in front of her—this little boy whose name she couldn’t even recall, only driving Anna to further tears—this little boy who had just lost his best friend in their search for his missing mother, and all he was asking for was to go home.

“Oh, child, no,” Anna said, still weeping as she moved to embrace the boy who backed away, crab crawling up a few stairs, before giving in to her hug and sobbing in rhythm with Anna’s sobs, comforted in the knowledge of being unjudged. “You are Home,” Anna went on in a soft voice. “I’m your Mother now. One of them at least. You can call me Anna.” She soon controlled her own tears and comforted the boy until he stopped weeping himself.

“W—What happened?” the boy asked, done sobbing now but still wiping tears from his eyes.

“Someone kidnapped your friend,” Anna said, patting him on the back. “Did you say her name was Roo?”

The boy nodded, looking like he could break down into tears again at any moment. “Who would do that?”

“I think I know the answer to your question, and I have a way to find out for sure. I might even be able to get your friend back. But first we need to take care of you.”

The boy shook his head, eyes welling up with tears again. “No, but— Roo, she…”

“No buts,” Anna said, standing from the stairs and pulling the boy up with her. “You look hungry. I know you just ate, but wouldn’t some dessert sound perfect?”

The boy grinned a little despite the tears still tumbling from his eyes and the rush of red blood still flushing his face. “I like ice cream,” he said. “Though Mom never buys it.”

“Of course,” Anna said, leading him upstairs to a seat at the bar in the kitchen. “That’s why you were here in the first place, wasn’t it? You were searching for your mother. What was her name again?”

“Melody Singer,” the boy said, climbing up into the stool to cross his arms and lay them on the counter. “Chocolate, please.”

Hmmm. Melody Singer,” Anna said, searching the freezer for ice cream—Rosa usually liked to keep a little around when they could find it, and she had stocked up with the printers in use. “And your name is?”

“Mike, ma’am,” the boy said with a grin. “Mike Singer. What’s yours?”

“Anna Chandelier,” Anna said, plopping a bucket of ice cream, chocolate—Rosa’s favorite, too—on the counter between them. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mike.”

The boy laughed and sniffled, wiping a big glob of snot onto his sleeve. “And you, ma’am.” He grabbed the spoon and swallowed a scoop of ice cream that looked too big to fit in his mouth.

“I only wish we could have met under better conditions,” Anna said, still standing across the bar from the boy and watching the poor child as he ate, taking each heaping spoonful straight out of the bucket. His mother was Melody Singer. She was one of the bodies who had been taken by the scum protectors, probably to be desecrated for kicks. This little boy had been through so much Hell already and it was only looking to get worse for him. Anna pitied the boy’s tiny face as he teared up again, sobbing through a big bite of ice cream because he somehow knew what Anna was about to say.

“Better conditions?” the boy asked, his trembling lips sending slops of chocolate ice cream all of the counter. “Y—You mean, my mother. She’s not at home, is she?”

Anna grabbed a towel to wipe up the mess then hurried around the counter to comfort the sobbing boy. “She was an honorable woman, your mother,” Anna said, because it was true. “She died fighting to give you a better life.”

Dead?” The boy dropped his spoon now, creating another mess which Anna ignored in order to pull him up out of the stool and into a hug. “She can’t be!” he demanded, as he fought against her, crying in anger and pain.

“No, no, no. Shhhhh. It’s okay.” Anna patted his back and rocked him like a baby, reassuring him until he settled to the occasional sob and a trickle of tears—not to mention a lot of sniffling. “She was a good woman, your mother. She was doing what she thought was best for you. She was doing what was in your best interests. She deserves our respect for that much, for everything she did for you and the Human Family in general. She was a good woman.”

Hah.” The boy scoffed, gaining enough composure finally to wriggle away from Anna and stand up, wiping the tears from his eyes and sniffling. “Yeah, right. We must be talking about different people then. Maybe my mom isn’t dead after all.”

Anna’s heart broke just a little bit at the sound of this little boy’s beautiful, tragic hope. She shook her head, fighting to hold back more tears of her own. “I wish that were true,” she forced through them.

“It is!” the boy yelled, stomping a foot. “That’s not my mom! My mom wasn’t honorable. She was an addict jumpie who forgot about her kids because she needed to… Oh my God.” The boy crumpled to his knees on the kitchen floor, bawling again. “My— What am—I— My brothers—” And his day became worse than Anna had already imagined it to be.

“W—We’ll take care of your brothers,” she said, only barely controlling her own sobs and having more trouble the more she tried to speak. “And you. But you can’t talk about your mother like that. She loved her Family.”

“You know nothing about our family!” the boy screamed. “You didn’t even know I had brothers! You’re the reason my mom’s dead. Why would I trust you to take care of us?” He looked around as if he were searching for an escape.

“Because I am your family, dear. Me and Rosa are the Family your mom’s been coming to help. She’s no jumpie.” Though she also never mentioned having any kids, but Anna wasn’t about to tell the boy that. “She was helping us, helping build a better world for you and your brothers to live in.”

The boy scoffed. “You’re a jumpie. Of course you wouldn’t admit that she was. You’re a jumpie, my mom who you got killed was, and Roo who you got kidnapped was. Now I’m getting out of here before you try to turn me into one, too, and something equally as bad happens to me.” He made for a door but it went to the office, deeper into the Family Home instead of out of it.

Anna followed him, blocking the doorway so he couldn’t escape. “I’m not a jumpie,” she said. “And neither was your mom. I’m telling you. Why won’t you listen to me?”

“Listen to you?” the boy said, still searching for an escape that Anna wasn’t going to give to him. “I am listening, but you aren’t saying anything. You keep talking about some family I’ve never even heard of, acting like it’s my family, too, when you didn’t even know I had brothers. You don’t even know their names. You probably don’t even remember my name, either, and I just told you.”

Anna tried to go back in her mind to when he had introduced himself but his name still wouldn’t come to her. Her mind was still filled with the problem of the Scientist and where she took that girl to. The only name Anna could think of was the boy’s last name so she said that. “Singer.”

“Yeah,” the boy urged her on. “That’s the easy part. What’s my first name?” He waited for an answer but Anna just couldn’t think of one. “Exactly my point,” he said. “You don’t know the rest. You don’t know me at all. I’m not who you think I am and you better let me go.” He rushed at her, trying to push through her arms to the other side of the door, and he did in a way, but only inasmuch as he and Anna fell in a tangle to the ground, both struggling to their feet and ending up in the position they had begun in, the boy searching for some way out of the office and Anna blocking his every exit.

“Hold on, hold on, now. Wait a second,” Anna said, breathing heavily. The fall and ensuing struggle had taken more out of her than she’d care to acknowledge. It made her feel so old next to this tiny young thing who would never give up fighting by the looks of him. “You’re right. Okay. You’re right. Settle down.”

The boy stopped searching for an escape for just a moment, taken aback by this admission of ignorance from so old and decayed a woman as Anna herself. Anna took his momentary lapse as a point of entry and continued her speech.

“I’ve come too far and lost my way,” she said. “But I was pushed here, Lord. I was pushed here. And you…” She paused, shaking her head and letting one tear fall from her eye, just one. “Yes, dear child of the one true Family, you are correct when you say that I know nothing about you and your maternal brothers. You are correct when you say that I have lost sight of your names. But child, sweet, innocent, pure, and living human child, you are wrong about why I have lost that sight.”

The boy made to speak but the weight of Anna’s words, and her heavy eyes staring, kept him quiet.

“You, sweet child, say that I do not care about you, that I am not your real family,” Anna went on in his silence. “You think I forgot your name because I don’t care to remember it. I say, no. No! Your face is forever in my memory after this day. Your love is forever in my heart. Your infinite potential as a free and autonomous human being is forever in my mind. But forgive me your name. Please. Name’s pile up with the years. There are too many countless whose flames have gone extinguished and whose light we must continue to reflect in order to keep them alive. Your mother: Melody Singer. Who died protecting you and your brothers from evils she hoped you would never have to face. Yujin Moon and Isha Tender, two of our Family members who died on the same day as your mother and in the same manner. The countless brothers and sisters taken from our lives on the day the protectors invaded our homes and murdered our Family for sharing our food with one another. Do you want me to list the names? I can: Billy Serkin, Rwanda Driver, Audrey Baker, John Ryder, Jason Garifo, Treyvon Baker, Aneesha Holmes. I can go on and on and on, but I won’t. I assume you get the picture. Names upon names upon names of people I personally knew and cared for. My Family. Our Family, yours and mine. And all dead for what?”

The boy just shook his head, tears all dry by now. “How am I supposed to know?” he asked. “You tell me.”

“All for you, precious child. All for you and your brothers. Your mother hid you from us because it was the only way she could hide you from the truth of the worlds, but the truth of the worlds took her so now there’s nothing left but reality from here on out. You are still a child, though. You’re vulnerable. I mean, I’m sure you could take care of yourself if it was only you who you had to worry about, but you have your brothers, too.”

“Ron and Bob.” The boy shook his head.

“You have Ron and Bob to worry about,” Anna said, sensing the boy’s interest intensify at the mere mention of solid names he recognized and could grasp onto. “You would never dream of leaving them to fend for themselves, they’re too young.”

The boy was still shaking his head. “Never,” he said. “They’re my brothers. I’m the oldest now so I’m the one who has to take responsibility for them. That’s how it works.”

Anna didn’t know whether to chuckle or to cry. The boy looked so earnest in what he said, and he probably truly believed it—and that was probably how the worlds should work—but he was oh so wrong. It was never the oldest, the humans who had been there the longest, giving them the most time to make a mess of things, who paid for all the fun and foley the Family inevitably fell into. No, it was always the youth, the next generation, the ones who had nothing do with anything, who only inherited a mess that no one could teach them how to handle because no one knew how to handle it in the first place, it was always the youngest and most vulnerable who faced the ultimate consequences of all the sins of every human who came before them.

“That is how it should go, my son,” Anna said, kind of chuckling and tearing up at the same time. “And that’s how it will go in the future that we’re building. But you’re not the oldest, you hear me? You’re too young to be taking on that much responsibility. One life is too many for you to take care of, not to mention three. No. I told you. You’re a part of the Family now. You always have been, even when we didn’t know you existed. Your mother was a dear good friend of mine, and I swear on her grave and the grave of my own mother that I’ll do everything in my power—which is a lot if you’ll excuse a momentary lapse of humbleness—to ensure that you and your brothers will have everything you need to continue your life as usual, if not more than that.”

The boy scoffed. “What?” he asked. “Like two moms?”

Anna had to suppress a grin. He had played into her hand so perfectly. “On the face of it,” she said, “yes. You will have two moms directly in myself and my partner Rosa—that is if you would like to stay here, we have more room than ever and more than enough to accommodate you—but even more than that, you’ll be gaining every single mother in the Human Family. Your mother was one of us when—God rest her soul—she was still alive, and now you will meet and be loved by the rest of us.”

“I don’t know.” The boy shook his head. “I don’t know. How do I trust you?”

“How do you trust anyone? Why did you trust your mother?”

The boy laughed. “She was always there for me. She’s my mom. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I thought you said she forgot about you and your brothers.”

“Yeah, well…” The boy was looking bashful now. “Not really, you know. Like she always came back just in time or whatever. You know. I mean, we’re still alive aren’t we?”

“You are.” Anna smiled. “More alive than ever. And your mother did everything she could to keep you that way, including working with us and making connections in the Human Family. It was her insurance. I know you don’t know what insurance is, but that’s what it was. She was making sure you and your brothers would be protected in case anything ever happened to her.”

“No, but…” The boy was fighting two sides of a lose lose battle in his head. The cognitive dissonance was visible on his face. “I don’t even know you. She would have told us something about you if she wanted this, anything.”

“She was protecting you, son. Not from us, but from everything we’re fighting against. But now, I’m afraid, the fight has come to your doorstep and you’re left only with two options. You can give up and run away, try to make it on your own protecting your two brothers by yourself, or you can join the Family that’s waiting for you, choose the option that’s best for yourself, and more importantly, choose the option that’s best for your brothers.”

“No, but…” He shook his head.

“But what? Where else do you have to go?”

He looked like he was going to burst again. This time, though, not into tears, into something else entirely, something which Anna couldn’t predict, only wait to unfold. “But—”

The front doors burst open instead, and Anna could hear it even though it was a few rooms away. Feet stomped from the door, through the conference room and kitchen, until they were stomping up behind Anna who turned to see Rosa as pissed as she had ever been. “Anna! Anna!” she called as she stormed through the Home. “You’ll never believe what the—” She stopped in her tracks when she saw the kid, still trying to decide what his future would be. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, I…” Anna said, glancing between them.

“Mike,” the boy said, saving Anna from the embarrassment of still not remembering. “Mike Singer, newest member of the Family—apparently.”

“Mike Singer?” Rosa said.

Mike,” Anna said, embracing him. “Really?”

“You said so yourself,” he said, squirming away a little but not trying too hard. “I can’t take care of my brothers myself, can I? I need a family. I need you.”

“Yes, yes, oh yes,” Anna said, kissing him on the head then turning to Rosa. “Did you hear that, Rosa dear? You’ll never believe it. We have three new children.”

Great,” Rosa said, rolling her eyes. Obviously the meeting about the movie didn’t go too well or else she would be in a better mood. “Just what we need. some kids running around the House with all the new guns we have.”

“Guns?” Mike said, wide eyed and excited by the prospect.

“I told you I didn’t want them in the House,” Anna said. She had forgotten about that little discussion in her need to overpower the Scientist, but now that she remembered it, she would have to be sure to take extra precautionary measures in storing the armory away so the kids couldn’t get to it.

“And I told you we had no other choice,” Rosa said. “We’ve talked about this already and I don’t have time to go over it again. Any arguments?” She shot a look at the kid which Anna thought didn’t bode well for the future of their growing nuclear family. “No? Then if you’ll excuse me,” she stepped between them into the office and gently showed them out, “I have some planning to get underway and there’s no time to waste. Good day.” And she slammed the door behind her.

“Shit,” Mike said, holding a hand to his mouth as if Anna would chastise him for using the word. “I mean, she was cranky.”

“You must forgive her,” Anna said, showing Mike back to the kitchen. “It’s been a rough day on her—a rough few weeks, as a matter of fact. She’s not always like this, though. I promise that, cross my heart. She’ll warm up to you and your brothers. You’ll see.”

“Um, yeah. About that,” Mike said, playing with the hem of his shirt. “So does that mean we’re supposed to move in here or what? We wouldn’t be able to stay in our own place, would we?”

“Oh, no.” Anna shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. There’s no telling what would happen when the owners of the apartment found you boys living there without paying rent, but I can tell you for sure that, whatever it is, it won’t be good. No, you’re going to have to go get your brothers right now and pack all your things up then come back here where we can set you up with a room of your own.”

“I get my own bed, though, right?” Mike asked, holding up a finger as if his question were a demand and this conversation some kind of negotiation. “I’m not sharing again after I only just got my own. Waking up in a puddle of pee every night is no way to live.”

“Of course, dear. Each of you can have your own bed. Bunk beds, as a matter of fact. Three stacked on top of each other. You hurry up and get your brothers, then I’ll show you.”

“Bunk beds?” Mike said, excited, scurrying for the front door now that he knew which it was. “I call top!” he said and he slammed the door behind him, off to bring two other new children back into the Family. Oh how it continued to grow.

Anna groaned. All she wanted to do was get back on the consoles to hunt the Scientist and the missing girl, but she knew she had to see what was bothering Rosa first—problems with the execution of her precious movie, no doubt. Anna had tried to tell her that Threes couldn’t be trusted, their entire profession was lying, but Rosa insisted that they needed professionals to do the job if they wanted it done right.

Rosa was sitting behind her desk, scribbling in one of the many notebooks that were strewn all around the office, when Anna entered. Rosa didn’t look up at the sound of the door opening or closing, or even at the feel of Anna’s hands massaging her too tense shoulders. She only looked up when the thought in her head was all out on the paper, and then she did it with a sigh. “You won’t believe what I just went through,” she said, shaking her head and getting into the massage now. Finally her muscles started to loosen. “Though it sounds like you’ve had an adventure of your own today.”

Anna chuckled, shaking her head though Rosa couldn’t see the gesture. “Besides the three kids we just adopted,” Rosa groaned, “another one was kidnapped right out of our basement.”

“Out of our basement?” Rosa asked, turning to look at Anna. “How? By who?”

“The Scientist,” Anna said, crossing around to take a seat on the other side of the desk so Rosa wouldn’t have to crane her already tense neck. “And some giant robot arm. I’m pretty sure I can find where she took the girl to, though—and get us there, which might be even harder.”

“Great.” Rosa sighed. “Just what we need on top of everything we’re already facing.”

“So how’d your meeting go, then?” Anna asked, trying to change the subject even though she could already predict the answer to her own question based on Rosa’s mood.

“Horrible. Terrible. No good. Very bad. Worse than I could have imagined. Worse still because of our dear Lord Walker’s involvement. I’m not sure we can rely on this project to spread our message at all anymore. It may be time to abort the mission entirely and start over at a more opportune time.”

“That bad, huh?” There weren’t likely to be any more opportune times than this one. Now was the moment they had been waiting their entire lives for.

“Worse. They’re not following the script we agreed on.”

“I told you we shouldn’t have given them their equipment until after they shot the movie for us.”

“But then they couldn’t have shot the movie at all.” Rosa sighed. “We had no choice.”

“So how different can it be, though?” Anna asked. “Can’t we just make them change it back?”

“Too different.” Rosa scoffed. “It’s still anti-robot, but that’s only half the message—the less important half, at that. All mention of the Family and its supreme importance: Whoosh.” She made a gesture with her hands as if they were flying out the window.

“But we had an agreement.” That was worse than Anna had thought it could be. She didn’t care nearly as much about the anti-robot message as the pro-Family one. To her, that was pretty much the entire message, not just half of it. “We’ll make them change it or take back everything we’ve given them. It’s the only way we can respond.”

“Oh, I’ve thought of that already,” Rosa said, chuckling and shaking her head. “That was my first thought, in fact. But I’m afraid it’s impossible. Our great and powerful Lord Walker has taken control of things, and anything we took from those no good Threes would simply be returned to them from Lord Walker’s own stores. In the end it means nothing to any of them who they’re working for or which of our printers their equipment comes out of, they just want to work.”

Great.” No wonder Rosa was ready to scrap the project altogether. Anna would have no problem scrapping it, either, if the pro-Family message wasn’t going to be included, but, “Wouldn’t Lord Walker just continue filming without us anyway? So what’s the point in scrapping the project?”

“That’s the exact point,” Rosa said with a big smile. “We sacrifice this project because we’re not going to be able to change their minds, and they’ll still make half our message without us doing any work. This way we can direct our time and attention toward tactics with a higher chance of success and revisit this one if it becomes feasible again in the future.” She leaned back in her chair, satisfied with her assessment of the situation but not looking happy about it.

“And what tactics did you have in mind, exactly?”

“I’ve been waiting for you to ask just that,” Rosa said, leaning forward again and putting her arms on the desk. “I think we should leave our Lord to his play acting—never alerting him to our exit from the project, of course—while we get back to reality.”

“I wish you’d stop calling him Lord,” Anna complained, smacking her lips like she had a disgusting taste in her mouth. “It sounds so blasphemous.”

“Whatever,” Rosa said, waving her hands. “That’s not the point. He’s nothing compared to our Lord, and he has nothing to do with what I plan next, anyway.”

“Which is…” Anna said, slightly comforted by Rosa’s words.

“Which is to bring the fight to the people who deserve it the most, to bring it to the things that cause all our problems in the first place. I’ve had enough of dealing with flabby, fat tuxedoed owners and slippery, sly, lying Threes. It’s time for us to take our fate into our own hands by taking the fight to the robots’ front door.”

“The robots’ front door?” Anna scoffed. “Do you even know where that is?”

Rosa twiddled her thumbs on the desk and put on her puppy dog—I’m innocent of any evil ever—face that Anna knew all too well. “Well, darling.” Rosa smiled, a twinkle in her eye. “That’s where you come in.”

“Of course.” Anna sighed. “And do you have any idea how hard it is to do something like that? Do you know how much work it takes? The energy?”

“I know that my Nanna is the greatest four dimensional composer known to all of Humankind. I know you can do it.” She smiled wider. “I know I love you.”

Anna scoffed despite her blushing grin. “And how do you know all that when you don’t even know the work it takes?”

“Because I know my Nanna Banana,” Rosa said, coming around the desk to sit on Anna’s lap and kiss her all over her face. “She can do anything in that fourth dimension of hers. She’s the Queen of it, master and commander.” Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. “You are, though, aren’t you? You can do it,” Rosa said, standing and going around to massage Anna’s back. “You can do it.”

Anna groaned in pleasure as her muscles gave way to Rosa’s touch. “Well, yes,” she said. “That is,” she added, correcting herself so as to not sound too pretentious. “I think I can find your robots for you—not that I think I’m the Queen of the Fourth Dimension, or whatever you called me.”

Rosa laughed. “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” She retook her seat behind the desk. “So you really think you can find them?”

“Yes.” Anna nodded. “I do. On two conditions.”

“Go ahead.” Rosa smiled.

“One: You have to come down there in the basement with me while I do it so you can see just how much work it takes. Maybe then you won’t be so willy nilly about how you throw the fourth dimension into your plans in the future.”

Rosa chuckled. “I can do that. What’s number two?”

“We talk about the kids before we do anything.”

Rosa groaned. Anna knew this would be the only way to get her to discuss the matter, though, so she pressed on. “They need us,” she said. “They need a Family, Rosa, and their mother died helping ours.”

“And why them?” Rosa asked, shrugging. “Why not one of the countless other human children across Six—and beyond—who all need the same exact thing?”

Anna hadn’t exactly thought about that. How many other Mikes were there out there? How many orphans were created on the day the protectors came storming through their streets, guns ablazing and looking for a target? Too many, Anna was sure, but they would have to wait. First she would take care of these three who were right in front of her, then she would take care of the Scientist who had created the androids and promoted the killing of her Family, then she’d take care of the rest of the needy children after all of that. “Because these three landed on our doorstep,” Anna finally said. “Because their mother was killed in our assault on the protector’s facilities and that makes us more culpable in their situation than the situations of the other orphans in Six. Because I already told the boy we’d give him and his brothers a place to stay. And because we have more than enough food and room to accommodate them with our countless transporter rings and printers.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Rosa said, giving in. She had fought too many battles already that day to keep arguing this unwinnable one. “What about the guns?”

“I’ll keep the armory on lockdown,” Anna said. “And you’ll make sure everyone else keeps close track of theirs. In the meantime, we’ll teach the kids proper safety precautions. Everything will be fine as long as we’re not stupid about it.”

“And maybe we can get a few more little soldiers out of it.” Rosa chuckled.

Anna frowned, even if it was just a joke.

“Alright, alright. I was just kidding,” Rosa said. “Can we go find those robots now? I want to set the battle plans as soon as I can.”

“So that’s it?” Anna asked. “You agree just like that, now on to what you wanted to talk about in the first place?”

“Well, did you want me to argue further?”

“No. Of course not. But I do want you to actually consider what you’re agreeing to, Rosa. We’ll be their parents for the rest of their lives. There’s no turning our back on that responsibility once we’ve agree to bear it.”

“Which you already did,” Rosa said.

“Yeah, but—”

“So there’s nothing more to discuss until the kids actually get here, right?”

“I guess, but—”

“Then let’s do what’s best for the Family and find those robots.”

Anna cracked a smile despite her annoyance with Rosa’s flippancy. “You know, you’re lucky I want to find that Scientist so bad,” she said.

“Oh yeah?” Rosa asked, crossing her eyes. “Why’s that?”

“Because I think we’ll find her and the robots in the same place. Now come on.” Anna grabbed Rosa by the hand and led her down to the basement.

“Well, then,” Rosa said. “Demonstrate, my Queen of the Fourth Dimension.”

“Stop that,” Anna said, chuckling and slapping Rosa on the arm. “Now look. You see this?” She flipped both consoles on at once and set them into motion.

“Yeah, so?” Rosa shrugged.

“This is the solution to all your problems. Look at this.” She tapped and swiped a few times, one hand on each console, to bring up a map of all seven worlds spanning both the screens. “This is the universe as you know it.”

“I don’t see anything,” Rosa said, but Anna didn’t hear her. She wasn’t paying attention anymore. Something was going on in the fourth dimension that she had never seen before. She swiped and typed and clicked and tapped. The notes of the universe arranged themselves into patterns so complex as to be impossible. She searched for a source, expecting to find the Scientist in control of this symphony, but it came from somewhere else, somewhere familiar. Then she knew where it was.

Anna looked up from the consoles, calling, “The girl!” but even though Rosa was there to hear her, it was too late. The basement had vanished around them and they were in a new world entirely. A world like nothing Anna had ever seen before.

 

#     #     #

< LVIII. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LX. Roo >

So there ends another chapter. Anna has found someone bending space beyond what she thought possible and now she’s stuck in the new world created by said power. Read on next week to find out if Anna escapes the danger she finds herself in, or if you can’t wait that long, pick up a full copy of the novel through this link.

Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend.

Chapter 58: Laura

Hello, dear readers. Today we rejoin Laura and crew as they work on the anti-robot propaganda film they’re making for the new alliance between the Human Family and Mr. Walker. So, to find out if Laura will ever repay her debt enough to get Mr. Walker off of her back, continue reading here for Chapter 58 in the third book of the Infinite Limits saga, Dividing by Ø. And if you just can’t wait to read the last five chapters of this one, remember that you can always pick up a full copy of the novel right through here.

< LVII. Nikola     [Table of Contents]     LIX. Anna >

LVIII. Laura

The assembly line ran and none other than Adam Torrence slip, snap, clicked furiously at Fortuna knows what. He was much faster than Emir—there was no doubt about that—and the post-production editing would be easier because of it. That was at least one thing made easier by this whole messed up situation.

Alice Walton came on camera to say, “No. You.” holding her trembling hands to her mouth, on the verge of crying.

Adam peeled his eyes away from the work, losing no speed on his slip, snap, clicking, and grinned a wide, evil-looking grin. He didn’t have to make a sound to elicit a deep feeling of discomfort in the audience—or in Laura, at least.

“It can’t be,” Alice went on. “What about my coworkers? What about our families?”

Adam chuckled. It’s the only word Laura could think of to describe what Adam did, but the term didn’t do the acting justice. It was more like a half chuckle, half cackle which turned out entirely spine tingling. So this was what it felt like to work with a true professional. Laura could get used to it.

“I am a robot,” Adam said, still cackling. “I don’t care.”

“No, but…”

Adam stood from the assembly line, finally stopping his slip, snap, clicking. He crossed to Alice in two long strides and grasped her by her shoulders, holding her face close to his. “I am a robot,” he repeated. “I don’t care.”

He jerked her closer and Alice leaned in to kiss him.

“Cut!” Cohen yelled. “What the fuck was that, Jen?”

Jorah—now Jorah again, no longer in character as Adam and seemingly an entirely different person because of it—pushed Jen—formerly Alice—away in disgust. “Please, people,” Jorah complained. “This is serious business. Do you think I enjoy being here with you no name nothings?”

Jen blushed. “I—I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’ll—”

“I’ll be in my dressing room,” Jorah said, storming out. “Get this under control before I return.”

Cohen waited until the studio exit door slammed closed behind Jorah to scoff. “Or else what?” he said, chuckling to himself and looking to Jen and Laura for support, neither of whom were offering any. “He’s just an actor. I don’t care how big of a star he is, he has no power on my set.”

“He has more power than you do.” Laura scoffed.

“I’m so sorry,” Jen said, still flushed crimson. “I didn’t mean to— I don’t know what came over me.”

Cohen scoffed again. “Oh, I know what came over you.” He chuckled. “Just don’t let it happen again. Lord Walker wouldn’t want anything to happen to his Jorah. Laura’s right about that much.”

Laura scoffed again, too. It seemed like they were all doing so much scoffing ever since Jorah joined the crew. “Alright there, Cohen ol’ pal. We know how buddy buddy you and Lord Walker are now that you’ve had an all of five minute conversation with him, so why don’t you tell us exactly what it is that your Lord Walker would want?”

“I—well…” Cohen didn’t know what to say. He rubbed his thighs with probably sweaty hands and fidgeted in his uncomfortable director’s seat.

“It won’t happen again,” Jen said. “I swear.” She crossed her heart.

Laura was still laughing at Cohen’s lack of spine when Jorah returned from his dressing room. “Does everyone have their libidos under control?” he asked, standing in the door still, apparently not wanting to enter until he was sure the answer was yes.

Jen blushed, trying to sneak off set without being noticed, but Laura could still see her—and the camera always saw everything.

“Everything’s under control,” Cohen assured Jorah, moving closer to try to grab his arm and guide him on set while Jorah dodged all Cohen’s advances to walk on unassisted. “I’ve had a speaking to with the girl, like any proper director would, and she’ll be good and ready for the next take. It’ll be the best yet. I assure you of that.”

“I hope so.” Jorah scoffed, taking his place at the assembly line. “The sooner we’re done with this stupid shoot the better.”

“Alright, alright,” Cohen yelled, clapping his hands and retaking his director’s chair. “Everyone to your places,” he added, though everyone was already in their places. “Roll the line, please.”

Laura flicked a switch and the assembly line started moving. Jorah started putting pieces together automatically—even without the cameras on—and all of a sudden he turned into Adam Torrence again.

“Lights!” Cohen called.

Laura flipped another switch and the lights changed, producing a bright white halo aura around Adam’s head.

“Cameras rolling!”

Laura flipped the cameras on. She didn’t have to look through the viewfinder to know that the shot was perfect. They had already gone through this scene once before and the camera hadn’t been moved since. All she had left to do was wait and watch.

Adam Torrence slip, snap, clicked furiously at Fortuna knows what. Alice Walton came on camera, holding trembling hands to her mouth, on the verge of crying, to say, “No. You.”

Adam peeled his eyes from the line, not stopping his slip, snap, clicking. He grinned an evil grin and didn’t have to make a sound to communicate—

Laura’s pants vibrated to the horribly loud sound of her once favorite song—which after this instance, would no doubt lose that high pedestal in her mind. Jorah was pissed—made obvious by the fact that he had so quickly slipped out of Adam—Jen seemed happy that it wasn’t her making a fool of herself this time, and Cohen yelled, “What the fuck is that and why is it interrupting my perfect take?”

Laura slipped the phone out of her pocket and groaned at its glowing face—she was sure she had turned the damn thing off. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to take this.” and she answered it.

“Laura Concierge, you fucking degenerate,” Cohen said. “You hang up that goddamn phone right now.”

“What is this?” Jorah demanded, offended by another interruption.

At the same time Laura said, “Hello, Lord Walker. How can I help you?” loud enough for everyone to hear.

“You tell Lord Walker how much we appreciate his support,” Cohen added, trying to cover for himself. Jorah just nodded, keeping silent.

“How’s the shoot going?” the voice on the other end of the line asked, Lord Walker’s voice. “I’m sure Jorah’s working out for you. Am I right?”

Laura nodded then realized she was on the phone and Lord Walker couldn’t see her. “Yes, sir,” she said. “He’s right here next to me. Do you want to talk to him?” Why was he calling her anyway?

“No, no,” Lord Walker’s voice said. “Not now. No need. All I needed to say is that I’m coming to see you on the set.”

“You’re coming here?” Laura asked, more for the benefit of Cohen, Jen, and Jorah—who were all trying to eavesdrop without appearing to be listening—than because she couldn’t understand what Lord Walker had said.

A low deep groan emitted from Laura’s phone’s speaker “I’m almost as surprised as you are,” Lord Walker grumbled. “I want to be there much less than you want to have me, trust me, but it just cannot be avoided, I’m afraid. I’ve promised the writer—the real writer, that is, I knew no kook from Three could be capable of writing such a brilliant manuscript—but anyway, she wants to personally observe the progress of shooting. To dispense with the long story and finally end this tedious conversation, suffice it to say that we’ll be there shortly.”

“How shortly?” Laura asked.

Lord Walker grumbled and groaned through the phone. “I’m getting into a car now. Haley! Don’t forget my hat!”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said, but Lord Walker had already hung up. “Well,” she added for the room, making extra certain that her phone was silenced before pocketing it again, “they’re on their way.”

“No shit,” Cohen snapped, hurrying here and there to adjust, re-adjust, and un-adjust every tiny detail of the set design. “We need to get this place in order.”

Jorah scoffed, plopping down onto the stool he was supposed to start the scene from.

“They?” Jen asked, fixing her appearance even though she was dressed and made up to look like a dirty assembly line worker. “There’s more than one of them?”

“I don’t know,” Laura said, following Cohen around and fixing everything he had messed up in tampering with the set. “He said he found the writer or something.”

“Guy?” Jen asked. “Where has he been anyway?”

“No, not Guy,” Laura said. “The original writer or whatever.”

Cohen stopped moving around everywhere, finally taking his clumsy hands off of Laura’s perfectly set rigs. “The original writer?” he asked, swallowing hard.

“Yeah, the investor or whatever, I guess. You’ve met them before, haven’t you?”

But Cohen didn’t have time to answer because in came Haley, wearing her black and white maid uniform and calling everyone to attention. “Hear ye, hear ye,” she sang. “Now entering is the distinguished and unique Lord Walker, treasure trove of efficiency and master of self-reliance, accompanied by honored guest, denizen of the lowest of worlds, and your writer for the present production in progress, Rosa Chandelier.” Haley curtsied.

Jorah stood from his stool and applauded, staring at the door in eager anticipation of the honored guests’ arrival. Jen blushed and tried to fix herself up one more time before joining in the applause with a demure clap of her own. Cohen seemed to try to hide behind the camera, afraid of someone more powerful than he was. And Laura just stood there waiting. She knew what to expect from Lord Walker, and she just wanted to get it on and over with.

In waddled mushroom shaped Lord Walker, flabby body folding and rolling over his tuxedo pants, in the same top hat and monocle that seemed to be a part of his body, attached to his head since birth. He was followed by one of the shortest, tiniest, frailest old ladies Laura had ever seen. Laura thought at first that she only looked so small in comparison to Lord Walker’s massive girth, but when the woman came in and stood next to anyone or anything else in the room she still looked like the world was too big for her.

Ho ho ho! I say,” Lord Walker said, holding his stomach as he laughed. “This is a rather fine set up you have here.”

The frail old lady tutted, scurrying around the room with the same haste that Cohen had exhibited earlier, investigating every tiny detail of Laura’s set.

“What do you think, Rosa dear?” Lord Walker asked her as she scurried around touching everything. “Does it live up to your standards?”

She just tutted again in answer and kept on with her tedious investigation of the set.

“And Jorah, my boy.” Lord Walker crossed to Jorah who bowed low before him.

“Ever in your service, my Lord and master,” Jorah said, kissing Lord Walker’s hands then flashing his twinkling teeth.

“Now now, my boy,” Lord Walker said, grabbing Jorah’s hand and pulling him in for an unexpected—by the look on Jorah’s face—embrace. “We’re good friends here, all of us. No need for that Lord and master bit you always find so funny. Got it?”

“I—uh—Yes, sir,” Jorah said, struggling to free himself from the too long embrace. “I mean.” Suddenly he transformed into another character entirely. “I mean, yeah, buddy. We go way back, don’t we?”

“Alright, alright.” Lord Walker finally let go of his bear like grip—if only he would do the same for the metaphorical grip he had on Laura’s life. “And you, Laura,” he said to her, as if he had read her very thoughts. “Is everything up to schedule? I’m counting on you to ensure this production gets underway in a timely manner. It’s in everyone’s best interests that you do.”

“I—uhahem,” Cohen said, coming out from behind the machinery and cameras to finally speak up for himself now that Laura was getting a little bit of attention. “I think you meant to say that to me, sir,” he said, raising a finger in the air like he were a school child who wasn’t quite sure whether or not he had the correct answer to the teacher’s question. “I’m Cohen, sir. The—uh—the director of this project.”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker laughed, turning on Cohen who shrunk back towards his safe hiding space behind the machines. “Cohen, my boy. I recognize your voice from the phone. You’re having no troubles with our new arrangement, are you? If so, speak up now or forever hold your peace. We can always find another eager young director who’s capable of handling a platinum platter when served to them. I assure you of that, dear boy. Ho ho ho!”

Cohen shook his head. “No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. No problem, sir. I am capable, sir—or—Lord. I just—”

“Good. Good. Very good, my boy.” Lord Walker turned to Laura again. “He is telling the truth, isn’t he?” he asked.

Laura glanced at Cohen, trembling in his too expensive loafers, payed for no doubt by his inheritance from a famous director in the family long since dead. Cohen got more visibly nervous at her pause—wiping his hands on his pants and pulling his collar in the universal sign language motion for “Is it hot in here?” He probably would have pissed himself if Laura had taken any longer to nod and say, “It’s been fine so far. I guess.” Then she added less confidently, “Though this visit might put us a little off schedule.”

Lord Walker grinned at her, a much better—though nonetheless grotesque with his face—reaction than she could have hoped for. “Well, dear, don’t let us get in the way,” Lord Walker said, looking around at his tiny companion. “In fact, I rather think we would like to see your work in progress. Isn’t that right, Rosa?”

Rosa scurried off set and into Lord Walker’s shadow to say, “Show us what you’ve got.”

“Well then, get on with it,” Lord Walker demanded.

Jorah jumped into his first position without hesitation. Jen took her cue from him and went to her first position, too. Only Cohen still stood dumbfounded by the presence of such a very fat—very demanding—man and his tiny friend.

“Well…” Lord Walker said, tapping his cane and urging them on.

Cohen,” Laura snapped. “You’re supposed to be a director. Direct.”

All of a sudden Cohen snapped out of his haze and jumped back into the director they all knew and hated. “Okay, okay,” he said, clapping his hands and taking his position behind Laura’s back. “Everyone to their places, please,” he called, though everyone already was. “Lights!”

Laura flicked a switch. Everything disappeared into darkness—Lord Walker and his tiny friend, judging every motion, Cohen, too proud of himself, Jen, unfixing herself for the start of the scene—except for Jorah now Adam, surrounded by a halo and slip, snap, clicking air because the belt wasn’t rolling yet.

“Cue the belts!” Cohen called.

Laura flipped a switch and Adam’s hands, though maintaining their exact pace, picked up bits and pieced them together.

“Cameras!” Cohen called.

Laura flipped a switch and the cameras rolled right along with the conveyor belt and Adam’s fluid motions.

Aaaaand action!”

The room held its breath. Adam slip, snap, clicked. Jen, slightly off cue and not quite Alice, entered. “No.” She gasped, holding a hand to her mouth. “Not you.”

Adam slip, snap, clicked, not paying attention to her, intent solely on his work, as a good robot could only ever be.

“But—but—” Jen stammered, having some trouble getting into it still—perhaps because of  the added pressure of their new audience. “But what about my coworkers? What about their families?”

“I am a robot,” Adam said, turning to smile at Jen. “I don’t—”

“Wait, cut!” a voice called, but it wasn’t Cohen’s. It wasn’t Lord Walker’s, either—Laura knew that voice all too well from their phone conversations. Instead it was the tiny old lady, Rosa. “Cut, cut, cut!” She waved her arms, storming out to the center of the set and blocking the cameras. “This isn’t right. Cut!”

Jen blushed, not sure whether to look to Cohen or Laura for help. “I—but—” she stammered. “Those were my lines, right? I didn’t mess them up.”

“Those might be your lines, but they’re not mine,” Rosa said, shaking her head and pacing up and down the conveyor belt. “You see, this is exactly why I requested this visit, to be sure you’re making the right movie, my movie, which by the looks of it, you’re apparently not.”

Ho ho ho, now,” Lord Walker said, jiggling and looking to Laura for confirmation. “Is this right, girl? You’re not shooting her script?”

Laura shook her head, not wanting to get involved. Whatever deal they had made was between Rosa, Cohen, and Guy. Laura had nothing to do with that part of it. “This is the script you read,” Laura said. “We’ve been using these lines since day one.”

“They’re not my lines!” Rosa stomped her tiny foot. She almost looked like a child except for her wrinkles and curly white hair. “The assembly line worker is worried about her Family, the Human Family as a whole, not about the separate individual families of her coworkers. Your line says what about their families. My line says what about our Family. Do you understand the difference?”

Um, Alice, ma’am,” Jen said, almost too quietly to be heard.

“Who?” Rosa demanded.

“The assembly line worker’s name is Alice,” Jen said, even more quietly than the first time.

“No. It isn’t.” The woman was getting angrier as she paced the line again. “The assembly line worker doesn’t have a name. She is no one and everyone at the same time. To give her a name is to humanize her. To give her a name is to compartmentalize her and separate her from the Human Family as a whole. She is not you, or me, or Sally Fae down the street, she’s all of us together as one, and to feign some fatal attempt at putting a name onto something so grand and holy as that is to defile the very reason that this film is being created in the first place.”

Two hands in applause and Lord Walker’s voice, the voice Laura so detested, came whooping and hollering as if this were a bar show. “Bravo, my dear Rosa. Bravo! I dare say you should take our incompetent Cohen’s position as director of this film, but I’m afraid you’re much too busy for such base work—if I can assume without making an ass out of us.”

Cohen’s face went white and it looked to Laura like he might pass out. Rosa smiled for a moment before going stern faced again. “If you want a job done right,” she said, “you have to give up everything else in your life so you can spend enough time to do it the right way yourself. Isn’t that what they say?”

“Oh, that might be what they say in your neck of the woods,” Lord Walker said, chuckling, “but where I come from the saying’s a little different. We say, if you want something done right, you just have to pay the right person the right price. Ho ho ho!”

“Tell me, then, Lord Walker,” Rosa said, shooting him a look that stopped his laughter. “Did I find the right people for this job? Because the price seems astronomical.”

“Well now,” Lord Walker said, turning an angry eye on Laura. “Don’t ask me. You’re the one who found them. Laura, dear, are you and your crew going to be able to live up to your requirements, or are you going to remain shackled to your past blunders forever?”

“We can get it right,” Laura replied fast. They had to get it right. She couldn’t live like this forever. “We just need the right script. Like I said, this is the one we’ve been working with since day one. I thought Cohen and the investors had already agreed on this one or else we wouldn’t have started shooting with it in the first place.”

“I never agreed to any edits,” Rosa said, staring at Cohen who cowered further behind the camera equipment. “Not these one’s for sure.”

“You did agree to some edits,” Cohen croaked and ducked behind the camera again.

“What was that, boy?” Lord Walker demanded, waving Cohen out of his hiding spot. “Come on out here and take responsibility for your actions like a man. And speak up, I can’t hardly hear you.”

“Um. I said she did agree to some edits—uh, Lord, sir,” Cohen said, creeping into the light. “When I gave her our demand list.”

“Demand list?” Lord Walker looked to Rosa with a furrowed brow. “What demand list?”

“The investment,” Rosa said. “And the script I approved said our Family.”

“And what do you say to that, my boy?” Lord Walker asked Cohen who stuttered and stammered his response.

“I—uh—well—we were— There were deadlines, you see— And I had to do what—or I had to make sure we got what we needed— We made the movie— And Guy— He—well…”

“So,” Lord Walker said, tapping his cane in annoyance. “What you’re saying is that you failed me, boy. You failed our dear old Rosa here. You failed the entire Human Family for that matter.” Rosa smiled at that last part, and Laura didn’t like the prospect of the fresh new Hell she would face shackled by the ankle to what was now becoming a two-headed beast. “And how should I make you pay for your mistake?”

“I—what?” Cohen begged. “No. It wasn’t a—a mistake. This version’s better. It— I— You read it. You—”

“That doesn’t matter,” Lord Walker said, shaking his head. “If the customer demands an inferior product, you give them an inferior product. It’s the law of the market, good business practice. In this instance Rosa and I are your customers, and you will do as we say or you’ll go elsewhere with your pretentious demand list. Do you understand me?”

Cohen tried to choke out words but he couldn’t. Laura pitied him a bit—knowing the wrath of Lord Walker from first hand experience—so she stepped in to try to save him a little face. Even if he was a huge jerk most the time, not even Cohen deserved Lord Walker’s wrath. “We’ll get you whatever you want,” she said. “Just get us a script we can work with. This movie is gonna be crap with or without the edits, anyway.” And she could tell she had gone too far by the reactions of her audience.

Jorah grinned a little, which showed enough because he was such a master of his emotions that he shouldn’t have reacted at all. Jen gasped and panted and fanned her face, the epitome of old-world feminine, deserving an A+ in any college level performance. Cohen stared at Laura blankly, unbelieving. How could Laura have the guts to say exactly what he wanted to when he didn’t even have them to do it for himself? Lord Walker looked like he was trying to hold back a laugh himself, though he was doing a much poorer job of it than Jorah was. Then there was the little old lady, Rosa. She fumed, no doubt pissed that Laura had called her precious script shit, which Laura couldn’t really blame her for even though the script was still shit.

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker bellowed. “I like your style, girl. However much I disagree with your substance. But I won’t have you insulting our writers to their faces any which way about it. The script’s not that bad, now. Is it?”

“Guy’s isn’t,” Laura said, ignoring Rosa’s anger and Cohen’s pleas for her to shutup alike. “It’s not entire shit, at least. It’s the best way to handle the theme you want covered—if there can be said to be a good way to handle it at all.”

“My script’s not shit,” Rosa complained. “This is shit. What you’re doing here now is shit. It’s lying, blasphemous, putrid bile, and you’ll get nothing out of me for producing it. Mark my words.”

“Now, now, now,” Lord Walker said, gesturing to calm the old woman down. “Settle down, old girl. First of all, I don’t see that much of a difference between what our lovely actor here—” Jen curtsied as he indicated her with a slight nod of his tall hatted head. “—said and what you say you believe should have been. It’s just semantics. ”

“There’s a big differ—” Rosa started.

“Now, now, now,” Lord Walker cut her off. “Let me finish. Where was I? That’s right. The big business. Second of all, your investment is nothing compared to mine. As a result, your power over this production has declined in proportion. I provide the studio. I provide the equipment now. I provide the star of the show.” He indicated Jorah who bowed low on cue. “I am the director, producer, and Lord of this entire gig, and as sole master of its fate, I will be the one to decide whether or not your script is shit.”

“And I decide whether or not the Family works with you,” Rosa said. “I decide if the Family fights for you or against you. If you don’t make the movie I asked for, the movie that’s best for the Family, then what point is there in us working with you at all?”

Lord Walker grinned, twirling his cane. “There is the little matter of that blank check, dear. Let us not forget its existence in all this excitement.”

“The blank check which we were reluctant to accept in the first place,” Rosa said. “The one you practically forced on us, as I recall.”

Lord Walker chuckled. “Everything was done voluntarily, my dear. You chose to accept the deal, now you must deal with the consequences of that decision. You’re not backing out on me now, are you? I have an army with or without your stupid Family, you know, and they will punish you for breaking a contract.”

“You have—” Rosa started, but taking everybody by surprise—Laura at least, though it was mostly because of the relief she felt at him finally taking some responsibility for this production—Cohen stepped up to interject.

“Now I—” he squeaked, stopping himself to cough and clear his throat before going on more clearly in his usual annoying deep voice. “I may have a solution to both of your problems.”

Lord Walker looked as surprised as Laura felt. He couldn’t think of anything to say before Rosa said, “Spit it out then, crook, and don’t you let it be a lie. You already have one strike in my book and this is not baseball.”

“Oh, well… I don’t know anything about baseball,” Cohen said. “But I do know a good bit about hammering out a script, and if we can have—forgive me, Lord—just a little more time and the ability to work face to face for a day or two, I think we can get something workable for both parties. I mean, her demand isn’t too difficult to work into Guy’s script, and I imagine that, other than minor details which can just as easily be changed, she’d be okay with the rest of the script as is.

“Who is this guy y’all keep talking about?” Lord Walker asked.

“What exactly are you proposing?” Rosa demanded.

Laura laughed internally, happy it wasn’t her under the spotlight anymore, but fearing the heat would turn on her again.

“Guy’s our writer,” Cohen explained. “He can’t be found right now but that doesn’t matter. You and I—uhRosa, can sit down together with the script we have and fix any problems you have with its content, starting with changing the their families to our family as per your request.”

Our Family,” Rosa corrected him. “It has to be capitalized.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Lord Walker said, nodding. “What do you think, dear?”

Rosa shook her head. She looked like she didn’t want to go along but had no other choice. Laura had been in that position for so long, making those same faces, she knew exactly how to spot them in someone else. “I get final veto on every word,” she relented.

I get final veto on every word,” Lord Walker corrected her.

“And if you’re veto doesn’t match with mine, then I—and the entire Human Family with me—will have something to say about it.”

Lord Walker chuckled. “Ho ho ho, dear. We’ll ride that elevator when we come to it. For now, though, there’s one more stipulation I’d like to make. Instead of your Cohen boy hammering out the script, like he so eloquently put it, I’d like my girl Laura to work with you. No offense to you Ice Cream Cohen—well maybe a little—” Lord Walker winked. “—but I trust her as much as I can trust a Three—not much—and I’d be more comfortable with her at the table than with you at it.”

“But, sir. I came up with the—” Cohen said, unable to finish what he had started.

“I don’t care who it is,” Rosa said. “As long a someone fixes it before we move on. You all decide for yourselves and send whoever you pick my way with a script.”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker chortled as Rosa stormed out of the room.

“Well,” Jorah said, clapping his hands and exuding a deep sigh. “I guess that means we’re done here for the day. I’ll be in my dressing room until further notice.”

Lord Walker stopped Jorah midway to the door so he could shake the star’s hand and hug him. “Good show today, Jorah, my boy. You prove your worth more with every new second. I’ll have Haley contact you when shooting resumes.”

“Please do, sir,” Jorah said, bowing low. “And please get me a better part soon. I play to the level of the role I’m given, and too much of this trash will wreak havoc on my acting abilities.”

“Will do, sir. Will do. Ho ho ho.” Lord Walker laughed and Jorah disappeared through the halls toward the elevators.

“Lord Walker, sir,” Cohen stammered. “But, I—”

Enough,” Lord Walker cut him off. “You’ve come too close to embarrassing me already. I’m not risking anything else on trusting you, boy. Now shut your mouth. Laura, dear. I expect updates on this. Get it right or you’ll never be rid of your past mistakes. Got me?”

Laura nodded.

“Good bye, then. All of you. I hope you do better in the future, for all of your sake.”

Lord Walker rode his pneumatic pants out of the studio and Laura could only imagine that she’d never rid herself of her past mistakes no matter how the stupid movie turned out.

#     #     #

< LVII. Nikola     [Table of Contents]     LIX. Anna >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, pick up a full copy of this or any of my other stories through this link here, and as always, have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 57: Nikola

Another day, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga, and today we rejoin Tillie and Nikola as Nikola’s parents try to convince them both to take on a dangerous mission designed to retrieve vital information about the worlds of Outland. Enjoy the story, and if you want to read the rest of the entire novel right now, pick up a copy through this link. Thanks for following along, dear readers. We do nothing along.

< LVI. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LVIII. Laura >

LVII. Nikola

“Uh, that’s not really what I had in mind, Dad,” Nikola said, looking to her mom for help. “I don’t know, I thought maybe we’d start on the assembly lines, or in the farms, or something. You know, something a bit more suited to someone without any basic training—no offense Tillie.”

Tillie didn’t respond. She was still staring blankly across the desk at Nikola’s dad.

“Give your American friend some credit,” Nikola’s mom said. “She looks strong and healthy from here. She seems to have put up with capture by those vicious protectors. You can handle it, right, dear?”

Tillie nodded.

Ugh, Mom.” Nikola sighed, looking back to her dad for help now. “Can’t you to just leave her alone for like a day. She’s only just gotten out of that prison. You can’t expect her to have gotten over it already.”

“None of us can say whether she has or not,” Nikola’s dad said. “Only she can decide that for herself. She doesn’t need you speaking for her, you know. Now, American, do you understand what we’re asking of you?”

Tillie still just stared blankly across the desk.

Nikola scoffed. “Her name’s Tillie, Dad. Not American. And no one understands what you’re asking of her. Not even me.”

“We’ve found the linchpin in America’s walls, dear,” Nikola’s mom said. “They’ve centralized control of them so much that we can shut down all transportation in one fell swoop. That includes 3D printers.”

“How would they eat?” Tillie finally spoke up, in a quiet, almost croaking voice.

“Excuse me, soldier?” Nikola’s dad said.

“Without printers how will they eat?” Tillie repeated, louder this time.

“The printers won’t be off for too long,” Nikola’s mom said. “You can be sure of that. But by the time they get turned back on, we’ll have a foothold on the inside. We’ll remain there, controlling and monitoring everything, long after they think we’ve gone.” She smiled.

“How long is too long?” Tillie asked. “My dad needs printers to eat, printers to get dressed, printers to feed Mr. Kitty, Hell, he needs printers for everything required to sustain his life. How long will they be off?”

“All of fifteen seconds is what we need,” Nikola’s dad said. “In and out just like that. And you’re gonna give it to us.”

“But why us?” Nikola demanded. “Isn’t there someone else who’s better for the job?”

“Why Tillie, you mean,” Nikola’s mom said. “She’s the key. I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to let you go along, in fact. What do you think, honey?”

“I’m not letting her go without me,” Nikola said.

“If it convinces the American to help,” her dad said, “it might be worth the risk.”

“Yes, but only the—” her mom started.

“Why me?” Tillie demanded.

Everyone turned to stare at her. Maybe she was ready for the mission after all.

“The Scientist, dear,” Nikola’s mom said. “We’ve been following her for some time, actually, trying to find our opening. It wasn’t easy, you know. She practices tight security. But what’s important is that we’ve been following the Scientist, and we’ve found that she’s been following you. Now since she’s already looking for you she won’t be surprised to find you on her doorstep. When she let’s you in you just have to garner enough trust to get near a computer then we can do the rest.”

“That’s it?” Nikola scoffed. “Get near a computer? She doesn’t even have to use it?”

“It doesn’t even have to be turned on,” Nikola’s dad said with a big smile. “Just wear this transceiver and get near the thing.” He held up a silver bracelet, grinning wide and proud of the little gadget—he always did love his electronic gadgets. “No one will even know you’ve done a thing.”

Nikola took the bracelet out of his hands so her dad would sit down and stop pushing it on Tillie who seemed to be lost in her own little world.

“So how do we get there?” Nikola asked, stalling for time since Tillie obviously needed more to work out how she felt about the situation. “To the Scientist.”

“That’s the tricky part,” Nikola’s dad said.

“And it’s not we yet,” her mom added.

“Why don’t you tell them, honey,” her dad said. “This is more of your area.”

“As I said,” her mom went on, “we’ve been following the Scientist following your Tillie ever since we helped her escape from that prison.”

Nikola couldn’t tell whether it was a cough or a scoff, but Tillie made a noise.

“Beyond that,” Nikola’s mom went on, not noticing the noise or ignoring it—probably the latter. “We’ve been leading the Scientist on a wild goose chase—if you’ll forgive the archaic saying.”

“She means we’re making the Scientist think we took you someplace where we didn’t,” Nikola’s dad clarified.

“The plan is to let her actually find you,” Nikola’s mom went on. “She’ll take you back to her lab, and then it’d be up to you to find the computer.”

“And if she doesn’t take us to her lab?” Nikola asked, not confident in this flimsy plan even though she was definitely going along with it if Tillie decided that she wanted to. “What if the protectors greet us instead?”

“They won’t,” her dad said. “And the Scientist will. She’s smarter and faster than those protectors, and she’ll want to protect your American from them. She’s got something in store for you, girl.” He chuckled, nodding at Tillie.

Nikola scoffed. “Dad!”

“And when are we supposed to do this?” Tillie asked.

Nikola’s mom smiled. “As soon as you can, dear. The sooner the better. We have an operation set up at fourteen hundred hours—that’s…two hours from now—but any later than that and we’ll have to find another suitable transfer point in the next two weeks or so.”

Tillie took the bracelet from Nikola’s hand and strapped it on her wrist. “And I just stand close to the computer?” she asked. “I don’t have to turn this on or anything?”

Nikola’s dad chuckled. “That’s my girl. And no. We’ll control everything from here. You just get us in range.”

“I’ll do it,” Tillie said. “Just tell me when and where.”

“Great!” Nikola’s dad stood and clapped his hands together. “Nikola, take our American friend to get some proper mission attire then meet us in the Central Depot at fourteen hundred hours. You’re doing a great service to all the World’s beings, dear girl. We thank you for that.” He grabbed Tillie by the hand to shake it vigorously while pulling her up out of her seat.

“Alright, Dad. We’ll be there,” Nikola said, prying Tillie’s hand away from his and showing her out the door. “Don’t worry.”

They didn’t talk again until they had traversed the halls and stairwells to Nikola’s room where she said, “You know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, right?”

“What? Wear proper mission attire?” Tillie asked with a little chuckle. “Good. Because I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway.”

“No,” Nikola said, shaking her head. “I mean you don’t have to go on this mission at all if you don’t want to. My parents can’t make you do it. No one can make you do anything here.”

“I want to,” Tillie said. “Trust me. It’ll be good to get back home anyway. Even if I won’t really be home for good.”

“Yeah, sure,” Nikola said. “I guess.” Though she wasn’t sure.

“Trust me, Nikola. I’ll be alright. There’s nothing to worry about. Now let’s go get some more of that free food before we go on this mission. I’m starving.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Nikola laughed. “The ants ate all yours earlier.”

#     #     #

They met Nikola’s parents in the Central Hub. Not really, though. After riding the bullet proof glass elevator down into nowhere they were probably far far away from the People’s France. They were in a tiny room with cement walls and a linoleum floor. Nothing else. Just the four of them staring at each other.

“Now you’re sure you want to do this,” Nikola said. “They have no control over you. You can still say no if you want to.”

Tillie nodded.

“And you have the transceiver?” Nikola’s dad asked.

Tillie held up her arm with the bracelet still attached.

“The Scientist might not take you directly to the world with her computer in it,” Nikola’s mom said. “She probably won’t. That’s likely to be a heavily secured area. So you two are going to have to do whatever you can to get her to bring you there.”

Nikola scoffed. “Like what?”

“Ask her about the walls,” Nikola’s dad said. “How they work and all that. Pretend like you don’t believe in them. She’s a scientist, she’ll want to teach you, prove them to you. She won’t be able to resist. I promise.”

“And what if she never takes us to the right place?” Nikola asked. “How are we supposed to get back home if you don’t have control over the system?”

“We’ll get you back,” her mom said. “We’ve done it once before, haven’t we?”

Nikola scoffed. “Barely.”

“With perfect timing is how I like to think of it,” her dad said with a smile. “How are you feeling, American?”

Tillie hadn’t spoken since they had left the food cart for the Central Hub. She fidgeted now, looking for the right thing to say. “Ready,” she finally did.

“Good,” Nikola’s mom said with a smile. “Your ride’s almost here. We’ll send you along to the alley then you wait for our signal there. Good luck, girls. The solidarity of our people rides with you.”

Nikola and Tillie stepped onto the elevator in silence. This was a different elevator than the one they had ridden in on. It was all steel—walls, ceiling, and floor—instead of glass and linoleum. The doors slid closed, hiding her parents from view, and Nikola breathed a sigh of anticipation. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked again. She hated sounding like a broken record, but she had to be sure they weren’t taking advantage of Tillie.

“There’s no turning back now,” Tillie said, and the floor fell out from underneath them.

When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open Nikola took a deep whiff of the world around her. She could smell America. There was something in the air that made it different. A camouflaged French revolutionary waved them out of the elevator and into an alley where they were left to wait for the next leg of the trip. Nikola paced back and forth from wall to wall as they did while Tillie stood still, staring off into the distance at nothing, lost in thought again.

“This is the last chance to turn back,” Nikola interrupted her revery.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

The revolutionary—who Nikola didn’t recognize somehow, she thought she knew everyone on the base if not anyone who’d be on this mission—shushed Nikola and waved for her to get closer to where he was hiding behind a dumpster. “Fat chance,” he said. “No turning back now. So shut up and get over here. You’re endangering the mission.”

Nikola stopped pacing. “Endangering how?” she asked, looking up and down the alley then back at the pushy soldier. “There’s no one even out here.”

“Not now there isn’t,” the soldier said in a whisperyell. “But someone could walk by at any minute. Now get over here.” He waved to her again.

“You have no control over me,” Nikola said, standing her ground. “I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m not trying to control you,” the soldier said, getting flustered. “I just want to ensure—” He held a hand to his ear. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter anymore. Your ride’s here. Follow me.” He jumped up onto the balls of his feet and made his way down the alley in a crouch.

Nikola tried to make a joke about it as they followed the crouching tiger, but Tillie wasn’t interested. She didn’t look when Nikola tried to tap her on the arm to get her attention, and she didn’t even grin or crack a smile, much less chuckle or laugh, when Tillie told the joke anyway. Maybe it was time to get serious after all. Nikola set her mind on doing just that, falling into line behind the solemn parade led by a crouching madman.

The soldier stopped in front of a public elevator a block and a half away and looked surprised when he turned to find Tillie and Nikola walking with a normal stride, not trying to hide themselves at all. “Get down,” he demanded, waving them toward the elevator. “Do you want to be seen?”

“I thought we were trying to get caught,” Nikola said, looking around to find the streets as empty as they had been the entire time. “Isn’t that the whole point of this operation?”

“You have to get caught by the right person. If the protectors get you, we’re fucked. Now get in.” The elevator doors slid open and the soldier pushed Nikola in.

“Alright, shit,” Nikola said, regaining her balance. “I’ll remember that.”

Tillie stepped into the elevator. “Door closed,” she said.

“You don’t even know my name,” the soldier said as the doors slid closed between them. “Or the code!” he added, trying, but failing, to get his fingers inside and pry the door open.

“Shows him,” Nikola said, chuckling. “We should let him stew for a while before we open them up again.”

“We don’t need the code,” Tillie said, staring straight ahead at the closed doors.

“What do you mean? How are we supposed to get to the Scientist?”

“I already know the Scientist,” Tillie said. “Well, I know of her. Emma knew her.”

“Emma?”

“Yes, Emma.” Tillie turned to Nikola and smiled. It was an eerie smile, more of a smirk, like no grin Nikola had ever seen on Tillie’s face before. She looked almost mad. “Emma was working with the Scientist. The Scientist gave us the keys we needed to destroy the walls between Five and Six. We did that, Nikola.”

No.” Nikola shook her head. It couldn’t be true. She had seen the intelligence reports on the operation. It was a false flag attack put on by the Scientist in order to distract the masses from her true plan. It had nothing to do with Outland Two. It—

“Yes. Emma, the Scientist, and I were all working together. There’s no way I’m about to sabotage everything we’ve worked so hard to build. And I’m not about to let you sabotage it, either.”

“No—but— She isn’t working with us,” Nikola pleaded, trying to knock some sense into the ignorant American before it was too late. “She holds their walls up for them. Without her the walls would crumble and our job would be so much easier. You can’t be working with her. It goes against your interests.”

“Without her Five and Six would still be separated,” Tillie said, sneering. “Without her I wouldn’t be in this fight to help you at all. Without her none of this would be possible, and I won’t let you ruin it now.”

“No. Tillie, listen—”

“The struggle itself is enough to fill one’s heart,” Tillie said and the floor fell out from underneath them.

“Tillie, please,” Nikola begged. “You can still do the right thing. Or if you want, give me the bracelet. I’ll do it and you won’t have to feel any guilt at all. But don’t ruin this opportunity for us. Please.”

Tillie scoffed. “Giving you the gun to shoot for me would be exactly the same as pulling the trigger myself.” The elevator stopped. “We’re here anyway. Let’s see what the Scientist has to say about it.”

The elevator doors slid open to reveal a short empty hall. Tillie stepped into it right away but Nikola hesitated. Maybe she should just stay in the elevator and leave Tillie to deal with the Scientist, after all. By the sounds of it, Tillie wasn’t going to cooperate and Nikola would have a hard time finding a way back to the People’s France as a result. She knew she couldn’t do that, though, that she still had to try to complete her mission no matter how hopeless it looked, so she followed Tillie out into the hall and the elevator doors slid closed behind her.

“Now what?” Nikola asked Tillie who was slowing down, looking a little less sure of herself.

“Well there’s only one door,” Tillie said, pointing. “So there’s really no choice, is there?”

As she said it, the door opened and in stepped a tall, dark faced woman with a severe look about her. She was wearing a pinstripe pantsuit which only seemed to make her legs look longer as she took a few strides to cross the short hall and stand in front of them with a sneer. This couldn’t be the Scientist, could it? She didn’t look like she’d be willing to cooperate at all if she was, so Nikola certainly hoped not.

“Are you the Scientist?” Tillie asked her outright, seeming to stand taller as she said the words.

The woman didn’t answer, though. She just stared blankly down at Tillie, not even sparing a second glance for Nikola who didn’t regret that fact.

“We’re looking for the Scientist,” Tillie persisted. “It’s urgent. Can you take us to her?”

“Urgent, huh?” the woman finally said, and the deep baritone of her voice took Nikola off guard. Nikola almost let out a gasp but managed to hold her silence as the woman went on. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“W—We— Who are you?” Tillie stammered.

The woman chuckled and it sounded eerier than her voice. “I’ll be asking the questions here, girl. You trespassed on my property. Now who are you?”

“Tillie Manager, ma’am.” Tillie swallowed some spit, making enough noise for Nikola to hear it. “I need to—”

“And your friend, Tillie Manager, does she have a name, too?”

“Nikkie—” Tillie started but Nikola elbowed her to shut her up.

“Nikkie Manager,” Nikola said. “Who are you?”

The woman chuckled. “She’s a feisty one, isn’t she? No wonder you brought her along with you.”

“We need to see the Scientist,” Tillie said, a hint of anxiety slipping into her voice. “Where is she?”

“And what do you need to see the Scientist for? She’s a busy woman, you know.”

“We—I have information,” Tillie corrected herself. “It’s about an attack. I’m with Emma.”

“Emma who?”

Tillie tried to speak but nothing would come out. Nikola didn’t know Emma’s last name and she wouldn’t be surprised if Tillie didn’t know it either. Neither of them knew what to say now. At least Tillie hadn’t given away their mission yet. There was still a chance it could be a success.

“And you expect me to trust you?” the woman said, chuckling. “I’d be in my right mind to kick the both of—” The door opened behind her—interrupting her speech—and a big metal arm with a too human hand rolled out into the hall on giant tires. “Popeye,” the woman said, “not now. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

The hand waved then turned this way and that, as if it were trying to communicate something.

“Yes, they’re here,” the woman said. “Can’t you see them right there?”

The arm did another, slightly different, dance in response.

“I’ll bring them in shortly,” the woman said. “I’m just having a little bit of fun before I do. I am still allowed to have fun, aren’t I?”

The mechanical arm waved her away and rolled back into the room it had come out of.

“W—Was that—” Tillie said. “The Scientist?”

The woman chuckled. “Creator, no,” she said, shaking her head and wiping a tear from her eye. “We’d all be in a lot worse position if that no brains arm was the Scientist. Now come on. It looks like she’s ready for you.”

They followed the woman through the door at the end of the hall and into a huge office room with a giant oak desk, a circle of big fluffy chairs around a few side tables, and a wall-sized window looking out onto a vast, green wilderness scene. There were no computers, of course—just Nikola’s luck—only a white haired old woman in a white coat sitting in one of the puffy chairs and the big mechanical arm washing the giant window.

“Come in, come in,” the woman in the white coat said, standing from her seat and showing Tillie and Nikola to two of their own before retaking hers. “Have a seat, please. We have so much to talk about.”

“Are— Are you the Scientist?” Tillie asked, taking her seat. Nikola took a second to stare out the window at the rolling hills before sitting, too.

“I am, dear,” the woman in the white coat said. “And you already met Rosalind.” She indicated the tall scary woman who had received them at the elevator. “And of course Popeye.” The big mechanical arm waved then went back to washing the window. “And you two are?”

“I’m Tillie,” Tillie said, not choosing to speak for Nikola this time.

“Yes, Tillie,” the Scientist said. “I know that one already, actually. Your friend here, however…” She lowered her eyes at Nikola.

“I’m just a friend,” Nikola said. “No names needed.”

“Ah. I see,” the Scientist said, tapping her chin. “I can’t make you do anything, now, but I’m afraid I’d be more comfortable if I had a name I could call you by.” The Scientist waited for a response, but when it became clear to everyone that Nikola wasn’t giving any the Scientist said, “Have it your way, then. Friend it is. So, Tillie and Friend, how can I help y’all?”

“I need to—” Tillie started, but Nikola knew it was her last chance to interject before Tillie ruined everything.

“You could stop propping up the ownership class for starters,” she blurted out without thinking.

The Scientist gave Nikola a death stare. Rosalind, or whatever her name was—sitting at the desk and playing cards with herself—scoffed. The sound of it made Nikola feel a little more confident and seemed to perturb the Scientist who shot a glance in Rosalind’s direction. “Friend,” the Scientist went on, “if you’re going to talk to me like that, I’d rather we were on a first name basis.”

Nikola scoffed, almost perfectly mimicking the sound of Rosalind’s and surprising herself because of it. “Sure thing, the Scientist.” She held up air quotes around the woman’s “name”. “My name’s Friend, the Friend. Nice to meet you.” She stood and held out a hand for the Scientist to shake.

Rosalind chuckled at the desk, and this time the Scientist did more than shoot her a glance. “Don’t you think there’s a better place for you to play your cards,” she snapped.

“Not if I want to hear what y’all are talking about,” Rosalind said with a snicker.

“That’s exactly my point,” the Scientist said, turning back to Nikola and composing herself. “Now, Friend, where were we?”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Rosalind grumbled, making an effort to take a long time picking up the cards. “C’mon, Popeye. We’re not wanted here.” She waved the arm along to follow her slowly out of the room.

“Well…” the Scientist said, raising an eyebrow and trying to ignore Rosalind’s loud exit. “Go on, Friend.”

Nikola hesitated. She had lost track of the conversation. It wasn’t her turn to talk, was it? The ball was in the Scientist’s court. She took too long and Tillie ended up picking it up and running with it, “We wanted to tell you something.”

“No, that’s not it,” Nikola said, cutting the Scientist off before she could respond. “You were about to tell us your name. It’s your turn to offer up some information. You got Tillie’s name first, now you give us yours. Tit for tat. Your move.”

The Scientist smiled. She seemed to be enjoying this now, which didn’t sit well with Nikola. “I already knew Tillie’s name,” she said. “No new information was exchanged there.” Nikola tried to speak up but the Scientist raised a hand to stop her. “But. I will give you the benefit of the doubt by going first in an exchange of names, Friend.”

Fine,” Nikola said. “Go ahead then. I’m waiting…”

The Scientist made her wait just a little bit longer, that wry wrinkly grin on her face. After a few more moments of silence, letting Nikola stew in it, she said, “My name is Dr. Haley.”

“And…” Nikola said, motioning her on. “Dr. Haley… What? Not just a first name basis. A full name basis.”

The Scientist started to squirm in her seat a bit. Nikola scooted up to the edge of hers. Tillie did, too, apparently not as set on thwarting the mission as she had first seemed. “Now that wasn’t part of the deal,” the Scientist said, fidgeting still. “A name for a name, Friend. Now what’s yours?”

“You have my last name already,” Tillie cut in, and Nikola knew she had won the conversation. “You apparently knew it before I even told you.”

“Yes, well…” the Scientist said, looking for some escape, but she was trapped.

“Well what is your last name?” Nikola asked, confident the game was done.

“I—Well… Dr. Haley Walker,” the Scientist said—Dr. Walker said.

“Walker?” Tillie said, eyes wide. She looked to Nikola. “You knew, didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know you were working with her,” Nikola said. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know Emma was, either. If we had known, we wouldn’t have gone through all this. I promise you that.”

“Who are you, Friend?” the Scientist asked, standing up. “And how do you know so much?”

Nikola laughed. “It’s not so great being on the other side of the information divide, is it?”

“You’re related to Lord Walker, aren’t you?” Tillie said, her attention turned to the Scientist still. “That’s why you keep his walls up for him.”

“The former Lord,” the Scientist said. “Huey’s Lord now. But, no. I keep the walls up because we need them, child. How else would we eat? Our population is just too big. The 3D printers are necessary. That’s how you’ve gotten everything you need to live since you were a baby, you know. That’s how your father lives. None of us would be here now without those fields, and the second they go down is the second society crumbles.”

No.” Tillie shook her head. “But you— Emma told me that you gave us the entry code. You helped us tear down the walls between Five and Six.”

“One wall between two worlds,” the Scientist said. “That puny thing was causing more harm than good. If we could only get these riots under control, the economy would be running better than ever without it.”

“You hear that?” Nikola said to Tillie rather than the Scientist. “The economy. That’s the only thing she cares about. The Invisible Hand.”

“Oh, no.” The Scientist shook her head. “This hand won’t be invisible. It will be the rubber gloved hand of a scientist. My hand.” She held one up to underline the point. “With the help of the robots, of course, thanks to the very generous Mr. Walker who was cooperative enough to trade all control over the production of androids to me. Now all that remains to be seen is how cooperative you, my new friends, are willing to be?”

“Y—You’re one of them,” Tillie said, shaking her head and standing from her seat. “You’re no different from the people you sent us to fight.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, dear,” the Scientist said, standing to meet her gaze. “I’m very different from them. I’ll be able to use the walls and the robots together to provide goods and services more efficiently than ever. We’ve done it, Tillie. We’re finally in control. Everything you and Emma worked so hard for is finally coming true.”

Tillie scoffed, stepping away from the Scientist. Nikola stood and stepped between them, as if her physical presence could maintain the mental rift she had seeded with her words. “Don’t listen to her,” Nikola said.

“You’re no different,” Tillie said. “More of the same. You sit here benefitting from our exploitation just as much as those fat owners do, comfortable in your too big office with your too big view, literally mending their walls for your profit. If anything, you’re worse than they are. Without you, they wouldn’t know how to put the walls that keep us apart back together again.”

“No.” The Scientist shook her head. “Those walls do more than keep us apart,” she said. “Much more. You can’t see that yet—which is why you want to tear them all down at once—but the unintended consequences would be disastrous. You’re too young, too inexperienced to make a decision of this caliber, and you have no idea what you’d be in for if you tried.”

Nikola scoffed. “And you’re too old to change your mind. You’ve shown us nothing, told us nothing to convince us. What evidence do you have? Why should we believe you? We shouldn’t even be here listening to you right now. This is ridiculous. C’mon Tillie. Let’s go.” She grabbed Tillie’s surprisingly compliant arm and dragged her toward the door. While Tillie didn’t resist—she seemed too shocked to even think, by the look on her face—-the Scientist did everything she could, short of grabbing Tillie’s other arm and having a tug of war, to stop them. They were out in the hall—the Scientist still begging them to stay—when Tillie finally woke up to the world around her and shrugged Nikola off.

“You’re a bad person,” she said, turning to the Scientist. “You should have told us what we were really fighting for instead of keeping us in the dark like that.”

The Scientist shook her head. “I told you all I could, child. I’ll show you more now if you’ll stay.”

“No,” Tillie said, and she turned to get on the elevator.

Nikola got on, too, and told the doors to close behind her so the Scientist couldn’t beg anymore. “Take us home,” she said, happy with the outcome of the mission even if her parents would call it a failure, and when the elevator fell and stopped and the doors opened, they were not in the People’s France. They were nowhere Nikola had ever seen before in a world that seemed impossible.

#     #     #

< LVI. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LVIII. Laura >

There it is, dear readers, Nikola’s third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you return to read the rest of story. If you just can’t wait, though, don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel right here.

Thanks again. Have a great weekend. And always remember, we do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 56: Mr. Walker

Hello, dear readers. Good news. Yesterday I finished the handwritten draft of book four in the Infinite Limits series, 0.N Repeating. That means that after a good bit of transcribing and a few months of the first draft sitting in a drawer I’ll soon be editing and publishing the completion of the Infinite Limits story. Yay!

Today, however, we join Mr. Walker for his second point of view chapter which marks the 2/3 complete point in Dividing by Ø. So join us now as Mr. Walker tries to become Lord again and don’t forget to stick with us to see the exciting conclusion of the Infinite Limits saga. We do nothing alone.

< LV. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     LVII. Nikola >

LVI. Mr. Walker

“Waltronics Unlimited is seeing profits rise sky high as riots around the worlds increase demand for friendlier, more compliant employees at an exponential rate,” recited the big bald face on the television screen, beads of sweat glistening in the camera lights. “The cost of food and other amenities continues to plummet as cheaper robotic labor drives down profit margins at the benefit of preventing shortages in the luxuries we all need to live.”

Mr. Walker chuckled in his bed, the springs bouncing up and down with his behemoth movement. This newscaster knew nothing about the inner workings of the Free Market. He—like all journalists and most owners—was stuck in the fetishism of numbers. He and people like him had a money fetish, but Mr. Walker knew better. Mr. Walker could see beyond the glamour of the gold and green to the true source of money’s power: Power.

A bit redundant, sure. He chuckled again. But that’s why it was such a powerful realization when he had finally come to it. It was hidden in plain view. He could tell any owner in existence the secret to his success, and each and every one of them would no doubt laugh him off. The source of money’s power is power? they would say with a wry grin on their faces, not sure if good ol’ Mr. Walker was having a jest with them, making a fool, taking the piss. That’s ridiculous. It’s a tautology.

At which point Mr. Walker would smile and nod, still not letting on to whichever owner it was whether he were joking or not. Would he really give his secret away like that? But after all he would decide that it didn’t matter if any of them knew the secret because none of them were man enough to wield it anyway, and Mr. Walker would say, “Yes, my boy.” Maybe patting him on the back—because it would undoubtedly be a him, the owners were almost invariably men as the secretaries were almost invariably women—but Mr. Walker would pat whoever he was on the back to encourage him on a bit then say, “The source of money’s power is power. That is what’s truly important in life and in business. That’s my secret to success.”

Then Mr. Walker’s student would mull it over for a bit, unable to tease out the very truth which was so simply and plainly staring him in the face, only to laugh and pat Mr. Walker on the back, saying, Good one, old Lord. You had me going there for a second. At which time the poor boy would walk away to the next conversation, forever to be haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity and missed information.

“The Market as a whole is in a steep decline,” the sweating bald face on the television droned on mechanically, obviously reading from some eye implant. “Not since the historic rise and crash of the last century have we seen such steep and bracing freefalls in stock prices all across the board.”

Mr. Walker laughed out loud now. The fetish was blinding our dear newscaster again, only this time it wasn’t simply a fetishism of money but a fetishism of the Market itself. This particular fetish was probably more prevalent and harder to get past than the money fetish. Owners especially loved to hold the Market on high as a separate being worthy of being kept alive for the sake of principal. The Market should exist because it always had existed, was their motto, and who could blame them? For all intents and purposes it was the Market—and money—which gave these owners their power. Or so it appeared.

Mr. Walker knew better, though. He knew better than this idiot newscaster, of course, but better even than any other owner in Inland. That was how he had remained on top for as long as he had. Forever, really, until a minor lapse of attention on his part and one lucky decision—along with some mildly clever colluding with Mr. Angrom, he had to admit—made by the now Lord Douglas. But Mr. Walker was back in the survival mode which had made him Lord, the survival mode which he should have maintained even while on top of the food chain and which he would never come out of again—even when he finally and inevitably did regain his Lordship from the Standing Lord Dougy.

Mr. Walker understood that the Market was nothing more than a means to an end. That was it. It was no magical force. It was no independent actor. It was simply the culmination of billions and billions of tiny independent social interactions, all expressing themselves at the same time in a similar place. Each of countless billions of actors did what they themselves thought would get them most of what they wanted in life, and it was that exact selfishness that was the embodiment of the Market, its driving force.

So what if there were less economic exchanges occurring today than there were yesterday? So what if less wealth changed hands? Mr. Walker still ate fifteen square meals a day—more on weekends—and drank his old fashioneds to top off the night. So what?

It made no difference, but only as long as you hadn’t been caught up in the money fetish. Money isn’t power. Mr. Walker knew that. Money’s only power when it’s in style. That’s when it can best perform its magic trick illusion. And money’s only in style when times are good. When times are rough—when the worlds are rioting and there are plenty of robots to make all the commodities but no humans to buy them up—that’s when money loses its flair, the glamour fades, the fetish is revealed. Owners finally see what Fives and Sixes live through their entire lives: money is nothing but symbols. People, food, and electricity form real wealth. Those are the three basics any economy will always need: People, food, electricity. Power, power, power.

“The power went out in one Three neighborhood and they were not pleased,” a new voice said on the TV screen and Mr. Walker groaned. The propaganda sector was his least favorite section of Outland and he hated hearing their news. Still, he was deep into Three with this movie business—and only getting deeper as things progressed—so he would have to bear through it.

“We have with us live the one and only Jorah Baldwin—most viewed living actor—for an exclusive interview. So, Jorah, your building is at the heart of the affected area, you’re right in the middle of this brown out, is that correct?”

“Brown out?” Jorah said, frowning. Even Mr. Walker, with as little experience as he had in PR, could tell that Jorah’s makeup was off, like it had been put on by a broken robot. “What is that supposed to mean? You mean blackout?”

The camera cut to the news caster whose face had turned red, embarrassed. “Oh—Uh. I’m sorry. I thought that was— I didn’t want to offend you.”

Jorah scoffed and the camera cut to him. “Well, the blackout sucks, and there isn’t anything offensive about that, girl. My makeup is likely much more offensive. I had to put it on by hand, in the dark. So you can imagine how tough that was. I mean… damn.”

“Oh no, you look great,” the newscaster said, smiling and nodding—and maybe even flirting a little. Pretty creepy if you asked Mr. Walker. Jorah was his property after all. “Tell me, have you been able to get food or water? What about the elevators? Are they running? Are you trapped?”

“Oh, well…” Jorah bit his lip. “I’m afraid I haven’t tried the elevator, or gotten hungry for that matter. In fact, all I’ve done since the blackout is get dressed and prepped for this interview. Which was pretty hard, you know. Did I mention that I had to put my makeup on in the dark?”

“You heard it here fans,” the newscaster said, a serious look on his face as he stared into the camera. “They’re putting their makeup on manually and in the dark. And in case you were unaware, that is a difficult and annoying task. More in thirty minutes as the story progresses.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, wishing he had an old fashioned to sip after that story but not wanting to call Haley for it—really he shouldn’t have to call her, she should just predict his every need like a robot was supposed to do. He shook his head, ignoring Haley’s incompetence and bouncing up and down in his bed with more laughter. Putting on their makeup in the dark? Ho ho ho! That was an apt metaphor for his fellow owners if there ever was one. Mr. Walker, on the other hand, created his own light by which to see. Power, power, power. And he was ready to leverage himself into more of it.

Haley came in—finally—carrying an old fashioned. Mr. Walker sighed in relief at the sight of the drink but growled in anger at her tardiness. Robots, it seemed, were going out of style, and Mr. Walker needed to get himself positioned on the right side of that divide before anyone else did.

“I thought you might like a drink, sir,” Haley said, curtsying by his side table.

“I would have liked a drink five minutes ago,” Mr. Walker grumbled. “Now I absolutely need one. Gimme.” He snatched the drink out of her hand, spilling some on his nightshirt and the comforter in the process. “Now look what you’ve done,” he snapped, sipping the drink. “Clean it up!”

Haley was already cleaning it. “Yes, sir.”

“And you get out of here until it’s time for my meeting. I’m not to be disturbed. Do you understand me? I need to prepare.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied and left, slamming the door too loudly as she went.

If only Mr. Walker could fire her right then and there. He was so mad he wanted to chuck his glass at the TV but the drink’s soothing insobriety and the television’s priceless information were both worth too much to him and it would no doubt take Haley far too long to replace them both as it took her far too long to do anything these days. Mr. Walker would simply have to continue biding his time as he had been doing since that fateful day on which he had lost his crown as Lord of Outland.

He was no longer Mr. Walker at all, in fact. Instead becoming Mr. Red Queen, the Sisyphus of playing cards, always running faster and faster just to keep up—not to mention getting ahead—and he would find his way to the top of the deck again no matter what it took.

“The power went out in one Three neighborhood and they were not pleased,” the newscaster repeated, and Mr. Walker groaned as they played the same “live” interview with the same poorly made up Jorah. The power was out. Mr. Walker had gotten the point the first time around. This wasn’t a news story that needed repeating.

“Haley!” Mr. Walker called. “Haley, dear. Get in here!”

It took her much too long to open the door in a fluster and say, “Yes, sir.” with a clumsy curtsy.

“Get my pants, dear. I’m not waiting any longer. We’ll take the old boy by surprise. Chop chop, now. Hop to it.” He clapped his hands together, jiggling his belly with genuine mirth.

“Yes, sir.”

Getting dressed was the same struggle it had been ever since he had gotten this new model of Haley. Mr. Walker couldn’t wait until he could finally get rid of the ignorant, useless thing. Perhaps if this meeting went well enough, he could set that process into motion sooner than later. Not before getting the android to find her own human replacement, of course, but soon. He laughed then yelped as the idiot machine pinched his thigh in the restricting pants.

Damnit,” he snapped. “Be careful!”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied as she worked, pinching him again. “Sorry, sir.”

By the time he was fully dressed Mr. Walker was happy to have summoned Haley as early as he had. If he had waited any longer, her incompetence might have made them late. As it was they were almost five minutes early, which to Mr. Walker was right on time.

They parked in the cheap parking garage—the one that didn’t even have reserved owner parking—and Mr. Walker didn’t gripe once on the long walk all the way from the bus parking spots to the elevator. In fact, Mr. Walker had even insisted that they hold this meeting at Douglas Towers. He wanted Lord Douglas to feel comfortable on his own turf as they made the negotiations. The more comfortable Lord Douglas was the more likely he was to go along with Mr. Walker’s offers. That was Salesmanship 101. If it took parking in bum fuck Egypt with the busses and meeting in an austere conference room, then that was exactly what Mr. Walker was going to do.

Haley made an incessant tapping noise with her feet on the floor of the elevator as they rode it down to the conference room. Mr. Walker was about to yell at her to stop when the elevator doors slid open to reveal Lord Douglas’s grinning face waiting in the hall for them. Mr. Walker almost scoffed though he was able to hold it in. If he wasn’t mistaken, Lord Douglas’s hat had grown noticeably taller since they had last met.

“Wally the Walrus,” Lord Douglas said with a smile. “You’re just on time, five minutes early. As predictable as a secretary, you are.” He chuckled.

“Sometimes I’d wish they were more predictable.” Mr. Walker tipped his hat and bowed as low as his pneumatic pants would allow. “But you know that I prefer to treat my business associates with respect, Lord Douglas. Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unforgivable in my book.”

“Yes, well in that case, you were early so you were on time so you were late, and that, my friend, is unforgivable in your very own book.” Lord Douglas laughed, looking at Haley to join in but Haley only blushed and broke eye contact.

Mr. Walker fumed. What was his robot doing blushing at a single glance from his arch nemesis? What was he doing trying to make a deal with that very same enemy? Why hadn’t he spit in the insolent fool’s face, marched out of those shabby wannabe towers, and been done with this toxic relationship once and for all?

He smiled, regaining his cool, remembering why he was there, and said, “Of course, Lord.” bowing again, but this time not as low and without the hat flourish. “The contradictions are there for anyone to see. It’s just wordplay, though. You know what I mean.”

“Is it though?” Lord Douglas smiled. “Just word play, I mean. You honestly believe that someone who is not early is not on time, don’t you?”

Mr. Walker fiddled with the knob of his cane. He didn’t like this line of questioning one bit. He was losing control of the conversation already and they hadn’t even started the negotiations. This was going to be a long meeting if it continued on like this, but Mr. Walker had no choice. He had to answer in appeasement if he wanted to keep Lord Douglas on the line. He only wished he had ever actually fished before—rather than seeing it in old movies—so he could better understand the metaphor.

“Yes, well, that’s my personal motto,” Mr. Walker said with a smile. “I can’t hold everyone to it though, of course.”

“Yes, so if you’re early, you’re on time, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Walker said, groaning in his mind. And if I’m on time, I’m late. You’ve been there already. Get on with it so we can get to where I want to go.

“Then I’m sure you can see where I’m going from here,” Lord Douglas said, stepping into the elevator with Mr. Walker who stepped back in surprise to let him on. “But I’m not sure you’ll be able to predict where we’re going now.” Lord Douglas smiled.

The doors slid closed and the elevator fell into motion without another command from Lord Douglas. When the doors reopened Mr. Walker was speechless.

This wasn’t the drab gray conference room he had expected. No, this wasn’t Lord Douglas’s style at all. It couldn’t be. It was too grand, too beautiful, too…

The room was a giant office, at least twice as big as Mr. Walker’s own. There was a big desk—twice again the size of the desk in Mr. Walker’s office—and some fluffy looking chairs that surrounded a side table, all looking out onto a wilderness mountain scene.

“I see you like this office much better than my usual conference room,” Lord Douglas said, already seated in one of the fluffy chairs by the windowwall and indicating for Mr. Walker to take the seat across from him. “I thought it might be a bit more your style.”

Mr. Walker tried not to react as he took his seat, but he knew that not reacting was reaction enough for Lord Douglas to discern. “I didn’t know you had any taste,” Mr. Walker said with a smile. “Even this little,” he added, trying to play some small amount of offense in what had become a defensive game for him.

“Well.” Lord Douglas shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t take much credit for the decor in here—if any. I pay people to worry about such minor details for me. You know how it goes.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, fidgeting in his seat. “Oh, I don’t now. I like to do things the old fashioned way myself.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lord Douglas said, standing from his chair. “Did you need something to drink? I’m such an ungracious host. An old fashioned, though, right? That is your preferred beverage.”

“An old fashioned would be just fine,” Mr. Walker said.

“Very good, then.” Lord Douglas smiled and bowed. “I’ll return shortly.”

Mr. Walker couldn’t believe that Lord Douglas actually left the room to get the drinks himself after showing off with this magnificent office. What kind of madness was he getting at? Lord Douglas had a secretary who Mr. Walker had seen on many occasions, so where was she in all this? Mr. Walker turned around and Haley was still standing there, staring at one of the blank walls instead of out the window. She smiled and feigned a curtsy, conscious of Mr. Walker’s gaze, while Mr. Walker just went on wondering what kind of play Lord Douglas was making.

Lord Douglas returned with drinks in hand and gave one to Mr. Walker—who didn’t leave his seat to accept it, wanting to reappropriate some control of the situation. “There you are. One old fashioned for you and one for myself. Let us drink together to the Invisible Hand’s rule over all our fates.” Lord Douglas raised his glass.

Mr. Walker clinked his glass to Lord Douglas’s with a smirk. “To the Hand’s infinite wisdom,” he said

The old fashioned burned hot all the way down Mr. Walker’s throat and into his stomach, like nothing he had tasted since Christmas when the new Haley had come into his life and fucked everything up for him. She wouldn’t be in it for much longer, though. Not much longer at all.

“So,” Lord Douglas said, setting his empty glass on one of the side tables, unphased by the fire of his own drink. “You came here for a reason, Wally Boy. Let’s get down to it.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, trying to cover up the burning that was still going on inside his own mouth and stomach. “Of course I did, Douggy. It’s always business between us, isn’t it?”

Lord Douglas frowned. “Is it, Walrus? You don’t consider me a close personal friend?” Even Lord Douglas couldn’t keep a straight face saying something as ridiculous as that.

“Am I?” Mr. Walker asked, chuckling himself. “Is that what you’re looking for here, a friend?”

“No—Ha ha! No, Wally.” Lord Douglas put on a straight face again, abruptly halting his laughter. “Not exactly. I’m looking for something more than that.”

Mr. Walker felt like he was on the defensive again. He had initiated these negotiations, how had they gotten so far out of hand so quickly? He needed to retake control of the conversation and fast.

“But this isn’t about me,” Lord Douglas said, as if laying down his arms for the time being, giving up his advantage and letting Mr. Walker speak for some unknown and supremely suspicious reason. “You initiated this meeting, Walker, so you tell me what it is you want and I’ll decide where we go from there.”

“Yes, well…” Mr. Walker fixed his bow tie through his grizzly beard. “I hate to tread ground already walked upon, but I’m afraid we never made it to the end of the particular path in question. That is to say that I called this meeting to finish what we’ve already started.”

Lord Douglas didn’t smile or nod, but his eyes twinkled. “I assumed as much,” he said. “I also assume—forgive my presumptiveness—that you are talking about your desire to relieve me of my shares in the protector force. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

Mr. Walker smiled. Now they were getting into territory he had prepared for. Finally he could retake control of the negotiations. “No, you’re not often wrong. Are you Lord Douglas?” He diverted his eyes, being as earnest as he possibly could, feigning a sacrifice of position but only setting himself up for success in the long run.

Lord Douglas couldn’t help but grin, as Mr. Walker knew he would. “Go on, Walrus,” he said. “This flattery gets you nowhere.”

“It’s not flattery when it’s true,” Mr. Walker said, taking a page from Jorah’s book. “Only embellishments can be flattery. But let’s continue anyway. Stating common knowledge is no use to either of us. No, what’s most useful to both parties is for us to discuss the benefit that would accrue to you by consolidating ownership over the android and AI industry.”

Here Lord Douglas was caught speechless. His jaw didn’t drop but the subtle twitch of his eyes expressed his complete and utter awe at the prospect.  “Slow down there, Walton my boy,” Lord Douglas said, fidgeting in his seat. “I thought you were here to talk about the protectors.”

“Oh, yes, yes.” Mr. Walker laughed. “Of course the protectors factor into this, but that’s exactly the ground we’ve already tread upon.”

“I see.” Lord Douglas nodded.

“Do you though? Can you honestly see the possibilities? Have you been following the news at all, Lord Douglas? The numbers? The more the people riot the more the robots are worth and the the more the protectors cost. These are basic axioms of economics.”

“Sure.” Lord Douglas laughed. “That’s why you’re so eager to rid yourself of Waltronics for a bigger share of the protectorship. Right? Because androids are becoming more profitable and protectors are becoming less. That makes a whole lot of sense.”

“That’s where you get me wrong, Doug.” Mr. Walker smiled a tense smile. This was the hail mary, the lynchpin of his entire plan. It was all or nothing, full force or no force, and so he went into it with everything he had. “I’m not in it for the money, my Lord. I’m in it for something more than that.”

Lord Douglas scoffed. “Oh yeah? What more could there be besides money?”

Principle,” Mr. Walker said, slamming his ham fist on a side table and nearly crumbling the fragile thing under his brute strength. “The rule of law. The sanctity of private property and the Free Market. What more could there be in the worlds than that?”

Lord Douglas tapped his chin, thinking about how to answer—or at least wanting to look the part. He took his monocle out of his eye and blew some warm breath on it to rub it clean with his pocket square. “Principle, you say,” he said. “I think I understand all too well the principles on which you stand, and I’m not sure I would like those to be the driving force behind the protectors.”

“But they already are.” Mr. Walker laughed. “Ignoring the fact that I already own a majority share—however slight that majority might be—the principles I stand for are the principles we all stand for. They are the principles of the Free Market, foremost among those being the absolute utility of private property rights and the complete freedom of discretion with regards to one’s own property. What could you find to argue against in that?”

“I could argue with your performance, Wally Boy. That’s what. Talk all you want about ideals, the fact of the matter remains that you have yet to solve the two largest terrorist attacks in recent history, one of which occurred under your Lordship.”

“I’m afraid your information’s a little dated.” Mr. Walker smiled. “Both cases have been solved and the terrorists responsible are being held accountable.”

“Oh. Well then.” Lord Douglas gave a slow, sarcastic, palm clap. “Bravo. It’s only taken you this long. Do you want a cookie cake?”

“No,” Mr. Walker answered without hesitation. “I’m not proud of the time it took. I should have done better. I can do better. And I would have, but I didn’t have the proper resources. We’re running low in One, as you know. We’re pulling rookies up before they’re properly trained. Furthermore, the force is too fractured for it to be as effective as it needs to be in these particularly trying times—as evidenced by our little armory attack last afternoon.”

Your little armory attack, Mr. Walker.”

“Exactly my point, dear Lord. This is our protector force, meant to protect all of us, not just the ones who own them. If we had shared information instead of hoarding it, we could have prevented the attack instead of letting that scum get away with the guns. Now hold on a second there, Lord. Let me finish, please. You see, I know you’ll never work that close with me, sharing all the secrets you gain, and I don’t blame you for it. Information is too valuable to be sharing it like that. So the way I see it, for the good of every owner of Inland, I believe we should consolidate ownership of the protector force under one head so—whoever that head is—he will be able to properly utilize the resources and manpower that are needed to completely and thoroughly protect our economy in these dire times in which we find ourselves.” Mr. Walker was breathing hard by the end of his speech. He had to get it all out in one breath so as not to leave any spaces for Lord Douglas to interject. Now that Mr. Walker wanted him to respond, though, Lord Douglas was taking his time.

After what seemed like an eternity, Lord Douglas, with raised eyebrows, finally asked, “And why, then, should it be you at the helm of the protectors and not me?”

“Well, Lord Douglas.” Mr. Walker bowed as low as he could without losing his top hat—not far because the hat was so tall. “Do you really want to be at the helm of a sinking ship? The protector force is hemorrhaging money. Life would be so much easier taking advantage of the riots by selling robot replacement workers than it would be paying for the protectors who are supposed to put those riots to an end. Don’t you think?”

“Which brings us back to the question of why you would be volunteering to do the harder job in my place.”

“I’ve already told you. Honor, my boy.” Mr. Walker puffed out his chest. “Respect. I’m no longer Lord, you know, and it’s starting to sink in. Not only that, I keep falling further and further behind every day. I’m sure you know that. You watch the markets as close as any good owner.”

Lord Douglas smiled and gave a slight nod.

“I’m not catching up to you any time soon—even with complete control of Waltronics Llc.—and I know that. You know that. Every owner who can read a stock quote knows that because it’s a fact. I’m just trying to find another way to do something worth being remembered for, and I think stopping this riot might be the best course of action for me. You’re beyond all this protecting now. You’re Lord. Everything you do is honorable and destined for the history books. I, on the other hand, am forced to find other avenues through which to make my life a fulfilling one, and protecting is what I’ve chosen.”

Lord Douglas nodded. “And what exactly is it that you’re offering?” he asked. “What is it that you want?”

“I propose a one for one trade. I own ninety percent of Waltronics android facilities while you own ten percent of the same. I own fifty-one percent of the protector force while you own forty-nine percent of the same. I suggest an even exchange, my Waltronics holdings for your protector stocks. Straight up. Now, I know they’re not exactly—”

“Deal.”

“Wait a second. You can have some time to— What?”

Lord Douglas stood and extended his white gloved hand across the desk. “I agree to trade all my protector stocks for all your robotics stocks. Deal.”

Mr. Walker looked at the hand. This was way too easy. How was it so easy? Still, it was what Mr. Walker had wanted. He stood and shook Lord Douglas’s hand vigorously. “Deal, then Douggy,” he said. “I’m glad you could finally see it my way. You won’t regret this, now. Haley, my dear, you got that, right? You witnessed it?”

“The transaction has been processed, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy.

“Very good. Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker said, still shaking Lord Douglas’s hand. “It was so good doing business with you, Lord.”

“And you, my friend,” Lord Douglas said with a wry smile. “Better than you could imagine. But—and only if you don’t mind, of course—there is one last piece of business I’d like to share with you. If you would, please, sit down.”

Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker retook his seat, his stomach jiggling in glee. “Anything, my Lord,” he said. “After a deal like that, I’ll do anything you ask of me.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Lord Douglas said, leaving the room. “There’s someone I’d like you to see.”

Mr. Walker didn’t care who it was. He had gotten what he wanted out of these negotiations, and they were a success no matter who came through that door behind Lord Dug Bot. The fool had no doubt fallen into the same sense of ease that Mr. Walker had when he was Lord, and Mr. Walker was going to make him pay for it.

The door opened and Mr. Walker did a double take, looking back at Haley then forward to Haley again. No. It couldn’t be.

“I believe you know Haley,” Lord Douglas said with a grin, stepping behind her. “And I hope you don’t regret our deal, after all.”

 

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So there it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If so, don’t forget to go through this link to purchase full copies of all the novels in the series–and maybe leave some positive reviews, I could really use the exposure. Thanks again for following along. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend, y’all.