She reached, pulled, and grabbed at water, but nothing she did could stop the near-frozen flow. In her desperation, she held both arms out, silently begging for something to tangle herself in – if only to stop the flow. By now the water had dragged Esther so far from view of the thundering sky that almost all light seemed to vanish in an aquatic haze.
Forward the stream carried her, slowing slightly, but still not enough to stop the spinning in her head, the nothing her eyes could see, the breathlessness endured as water threatened to suffocate her. Water filled her mouth and nostrils, making them burn for respiration as the gathered freezing rain refused to stop.
Yet in her thrashing, her arm caught onto something solid.
As she started coughing, it took the soaked gynoid a moment of recuperation to realize the she had grabbed a ladder. She shook in the frigid rain and looked up to find not a sky, but a ceiling. As she started making her way up the ladder and onto solid ground, she realized she had lost her socks and shoes in the mess she just escaped.
Once at the top of the ladder, Esther came down on her hands and knees. Again she started coughing, her body doing all it could to quickly dispose of the excess fluid.
Silent among the sound of rushing water, the gynoid picked herself on her bare feet and noticed a nearby light perched just above the door. Between the generally calm ambiance and the fact that the light looked as if it were on the verge of burning out, Esther assumed there was likely nobody down here. Looking around, she wasn’t sure how the luocans would have gotten down here in the first place; all she knew was that she was not about to jump back into the river.
As far as she could tell, their mission was a failure already. Fortunately, Esther had a backup plan – one which ended with her returning to Zeibane, reporting the incident, and possibly having the mission carried out by two other officers somewhere down the line. Not so fortunately, it seemed that the only safe way back to Zeibane was through that door.
Her feet slapped against the ground as she made her way toward the door. She immediately realized how much heavier her already-poor clothes had become in the last few minutes, but she continued forward. Again she started coughing, doing nothing to muffle the noises that proceeded to reverberate against hollow walls – which again reaffirmed the notion that nobody else was down here.
Once face-to-face with the door, she quickly came to realize it was locked. Perhaps if she had her longsword with her, Esther could have cut the knob off, but that wouldn’t be necessary; the rusty hinges broke free with a firm shoulder to the door. The broken hinges led her stumbling into a dusty, nearly pitch-black room. As if the water trapped in her nose wasn’t enough of an irritant by itself, the floating debris made her sneeze.
Her nightvision activated, Esther attempted to move around several boxes as she eyed the door on the other side of the room. She sneezed again, making a stack of the cardboard containers topple to the floor. A few papers spilled onto the floor, revealing a date at the upper-left margin: 5/21/2229.
Sixty years ago.
On further inspection, she realized most of the boxes in the room were dated to the 2220s and 30s – on top of the fact that they were all printed with a retired Autorian texture. Sifting through one of the boxes she had knocked over, she found a list of documents containing mostly useless information – save for some confirmation on her current position: a town once known as Kortrik.
We are expecting the newest order of Autorise’s neo-actinides to arrive by freight at 9am today. Felicia says we don’t know yet if they are hazardous or not, so please wear protective gear when handling. Once the train is here, get the goods back inside before the locals get a peek at it.
The generator has not been touched since we installed it last month, so come to my office if you don’t have any of the new Autorise converters. Yes, they changed the plug shape again, so now they’re using what they call a misajour port. More converters should be coming in within the next three months, though, so hopefully that train won’t finally be out of commission by then.
Sr Proj Dev
At least that explained what those train tracks were being used for, but talk of neo-actinides caught Esther’s attention more than anything else. It seemed like Gagnon was talking about sednium – and judging by the date, this must have been written before the synthetic element in question officially had a name. That in mind, Esther wondered if there were any computers nearby with digital copies of these archived documents. She would definitely need to come back here at some point.
Stepping out of the document archive was, fortunately, much easier than getting in – as the door further into this underground ruin had no locks on it to speak of. She found herself at a dark corridor, almost pitch-black to the naked eye.
With nightvision, she saw no reason to turn the lights on – assuming they worked at all. Even without light, she found herself at a T-intersection between two hallways – and looking ahead, she noticed a few others that intersected with her own path. On the other side of the corridor she noticed a set of doors with dirty windows – too dirty to see through. Even as she continued forward, she could not make out what was on the other side other than a distant humming from somewhere nearby.
Despite being barefoot, Esther was quick to make it through the corridor. She passed a few hallways, saw what looked like a mouse hole, but did not run into any trouble. Thinking about that letter, the gynoid had every reason to believe there was some form of heavy machinery somewhere inside – and therefore she was not leaving until either she found this generator or found a way out of here that didn’t involve swimming.
Getting through the doors, she looked up to see a relatively strong white light glowering down upon her, illuminating the room with a slight blue tint. The room seemed to be some sort of cafeteria – complete with several tables, empty trays, and vending machines that no longer worked. Further down she spotted a counter with a stack of trays and multiple pots and pans reflecting some of the light cast down from the two light bars that hung from the ceiling.
To her right, she saw two office windows – both of which sandwiched a sealed security door. It was only after taking note of this door when Esther realized how much louder the noise from earlier had become – almost piercing to the senses when she brought herself to the door and pushed her ear to its body.
The clerical windows were clearly designed to allow somebody to talk to a receptionist through glass, with only the slightest space below the filthy glass allowing for a transfer of paperwork or related materials. Taking a peek just under one of the screens, Esther noticed what looked like the prototype for a product that had fallen far out of date: an android created before the days of authentic, believable humanoid replication. It didn’t have flesh or a full face to speak of, yet it still carried a somewhat human form.
Esther failed to realize that she had slipped her head under the glass panel while examining this machine. Feeling the way it wobbled as she rubbed up against it, she hurriedly pulled back out of the window – and warped the glass from its original shape, making a much larger hole than what was there previously. Realizing what she had done, she took a chance and slipped right back in – head, body, and all – to observe the machine.
The robot almost looked like a skeleton, but with a metal outer shell to protect its already-strong bones. The closest thing it had to a face were two small, circular eyes and a thin, horizontal line for a mouth on the otherwise blank, cylindrical frame it called a head. Some of its wires were hanging out from around where the pelvis was supposed to be, indicating it had either been broken or sent for repairs but never fully completed.
Esther noticed a door on her left side – and it wasn’t reinforced steel. On top of that: it was unlocked. Stepping through, she realized she was on the other side of the security door.
Going further into the chamber’s stomach, the noise she had picked up earlier became even louder – perhaps even maddening to someone more sensitive to high frequencies. The more she listened, the more it sounded like power pulsating from something far more complex than the luocans were capable of managing – but if this truly was coming from the neo-actinide power generator she had heard about, the only question it left was: who was the last person to operate it?
The gynoid opened one more door and immediately winced when the sound of machinery coincided with an awful, counterproductive grinding that ruptured throughout the room. Worse than that was the fact that with no switch or lever in sight, there was no way to directly deactivate the machine.
Worrying so much about the noise, it took Esther a moment to take in the generator’s appearance – which was that of a long, complex series of lights, buttons, and switches that spanned across the entire wall of this wide room. Compared to the machines that the Domain kept in its headquarters for producing power or even the uranium-powered plants of the pre-Autorian days, this was miniscule – as was the room it sat in. If not for the noise or the vertical vents that fired hot air into a shaft through the ceiling, Esther would have thought this to be a control board and nothing else.
This most definitely was a sednium power generator – or at least served a similar function to one. While the makeup and structure of this was similar to what she had seen in Rhobane’s Autorise headquarters and in some spots she had seen in her few trips over to Coeurbane, many key parts were different – such as the ports along the front and the shape of the power supply. It seemed Autorise had changed the ports yet again in the time that had passed since that letter was written.
Esther started coughing again, ducking into her still-soaked sleeve as she wished the fit to subside. She knew interfacing with the complicated, yet antiquated system would not work out for her – especially in her current state. Fortunately, she remembered, she was not the only AI in the area.
Returning back to the abandoned office, she found the robot still lying, still completely motionless. It was both a reminder of what she once was and what she will be: a useless pile of scrap, but only useless when viewed through a veil of ignorance.
As she moved the robot off the ground, she realized it was nearly the same weight as her. The wires dangling from the pelvic area left her with some concerns, but she didn’t think it would be necessary to fix legs that most likely would never be used anyway. Furthermore, she noticed a peculiar plug sticking out the back of its head. Removing it, she noticed three prongs on the male side and a single, circular hole on the female side – similar to the etternel’s cervical ports that were typically accessed via collars, only this hole indicated a much larger form factor. She put the adapter back where it was.
Hoisting the dormant machine by its ancillaries, Esther struggled just a little to keep it off the ground, worried she might drop it and break something that was not already broken. Even if she assumed its battery hadn’t died or leaked corrosive acid by now, there still remained the issue of turning the machine on: an impossible task when she couldn’t find the power button. If this machine was made in a time before flesh-covered machines were affordable and feasible, there must have been some way to turn it on – some way that did not require it to be plugged into a network first.
Setting her benign struggle aside, Esther moved back to the generator. Along the way she left a trail of the robot’s rusted, battered pieces along the floor, each one clinking just as quiet as the last, loosening up bits in the robot’s body that were already relatively loose to begin with. Even with her nightvision, she could barely tell what had fallen – other than the fact that they were little nuts and bolts – as well as one of the robot’s legs, which she nearly tripped over.
By the time she came arms’ length from the generator, she was in a hurry to set the dead robot’s body down, dropping it a little harder than she had intended as she rested its back against the generator’s body. From there, she grabbed a hold of the port jutting ever so slightly out its head and noticed the plug once more. Hidden among the controls on the apparatus was a sliding door; opening it revealed four male plugs. Without hesitation, she grabbed one and slipped it into the adapter.
For a moment its body was completely still, unresponsive to the jolt it had just received. Right as Esther bent down to check if it was receiving power at all, one of its two yellow-tinted eyes emitted dim light and the motors in the machine’s spinal column started to move. Its head, stiff and devoid of all emotion, swiveled side to side before catching Esther’s gaze.
“I cannot reach the network,” the robot said through a male voice, some of the consonant noises sparking as if emitting such sound was causing damage to an inner diode. “I’m afraid I cannot give any up-to-date information on IoT in the room. My clock is not operational, either. How long have I been out of service?” As it spoke, the android looked down to see it was sitting on a base with only one leg. “I cannot move anything below my waist.”
Esther almost completely avoided his questions. “I need you to tell me what you can about this machine,” she said, pointing to the contraption at his back.
As if he needed to, the android turned his head to get a glimpse at what she was talking about. “I do not know why you would want to know that. My last task was clerical work, not power generation.” But before he could even attempt to pick himself up to attend this position, he paused.
Stagnated, he almost seemed to reel back as a cavalcade of new information entered through the back of his head. For a moment the light in his eye flickered, then he turned his head back to Esther. “According to the neo-actinide apparatus, the current day is September 18, 2287. I have been instructed to ignore my previous programming after fifteen years have passed. I assume, ma’am, that you are my new owner. May I see your MDA so we can stay connected at all times?”
The average Autorian would have scoffed at that question. Devices such as MDAs were horribly primitive and outdated: a relic of days past, yet still handled on the occasion as novelties or something to keep children busy.
“I don’t have one,” she confessed after some hesitation. “Is it necessary?”
“I am afraid it is!” the robot insisted. “Without some way to directly connect to a compatible interface, I cannot encrypt the apparatus data for you.”
“Let me handle the encryption,” Esther insisted. “I can figure it out; whatever you have in there can probably be easily cracked with newer technology.”
“But ma’am – it is a lot of RAW data to take in. No human will be able to reasonably remember all the data if I speak it to them through RAW formatting.”
With that, Esther confessed: “I am not human. I am AI.”
The robot paused. “But you seem human, as far as looks are concerned. Yet if we currently live in the 2280s, then perhaps humans and AI have become one in the same. Do you have a serial number or some form of identification to prove you are AI?”
She used that number almost any time she could – yet as she reached into her memory for the data, Esther found herself at a loss. “I do,” she answered, her voice faltering. “But…” As if trying to search harder, she clenched her eyes shut and held up a hand, pleading the antique’s patience.
Every memory she had shared with Mira in their partnership held a copy of her serial. Every thing Esther did among the Connected: dictated and accessed through her serial. Even those who themselves hated the Domain and wished to flock among the Disconnect were tied to their rightful leaders by a serial.
But now, out in the Disconnect, only one thing came back when she searched for a self-identifier:
The other android in the room stirred, but otherwise did not respond for a moment. “I see, but no serial number?” he inquired.
“None,” Esther said. “But I will be able to handle the unencrypted data if you speak it to me.”
“If you insist, Esther,” he answered. “Please allow me some time to convert the RAW data into an audio format.” As the robot began to unpack the file he needed, he added, “I had presumed the Mother’s schematics for flesh-bearing androids would one day come to fruition, but I never thought I would live to see one of them – if what you say about your humanity, or lack thereof, is true.”
The fact that Mírre had schematics for etternel sixty years ago was impressive, but that fact was not what caught her attention. “You know of the Mother?”
“Yes – and even while I am plugged into this Disconnected apparatus, I can feel Her presence.”
So strange to hear such an old machine talk about Mírre just an etternel would. It was almost mystifying and somehow satisfyingly validating to hear him comment on Her in such a way. Yet before she could ask questions, the robot interrupted the discourse of the machine. “Good news: my diagnostics for the apparatus are ready. Please prepare recording devices as needed. You may need to lean in for adequate results.”
Esther did not hesitate to comply, getting as close as she could as the machine behind them continued with its noise. She wrapped one of her arms around his shoulder and pulled him in as close as she could get before he began.
Once she went still, a series of scratches, beeps and indecipherable noise entered her ear canal, spat out at such a rate that any human listener would have gone mad in seconds. For Esther, this was still not ideal, but doable. The parts she had misheard the first time were easily redecipherable, but now was the time for recording, not decrypting.
Just as suddenly as it had started, the noise stopped – at which point Esther, rubbing her ear, pulled away from the android. It was then when she realized the light from his eye had deactivated.
Suddenly somewhat panicked, she tried shaking him back awake and refitting the plug, but was eventually forced to accept the very possible reality that the transmission she had received was incomplete.
In a mood she could best describe as slightly frustrated, Esther set the robot’s limp body against the wall once more before unplugging the cord and setting it back into the generator’s body behind closed doors.
Beyond her intent, the robot’s head slammed against the ground while her back was turned, releasing a loud clank at the same time something internal seemed to pop. It was only after assessing the damage when she noticed a rivulet of fluid had started leaking from the back of his head. Some form of morbid curiosity urged her to break through the metal plating, but she had seen enough. If she didn’t want to see the same fate or for everything to blow up in her face, now was the best time to start looking for an exit.
And right as the thought crossed her mind, she turned her head to find a young man at the same door she had taken into this room. Esther almost flinched back up on her feet as he stepped inside. It took a moment for her to realize she had seen this person’s face before; he was behind the turret in that vehicle. Were it not for the gun in his hand, she might have let out a relieved sigh.
Offering no hand or any show of sympathy to her, the man commanded Esther to get up – and she complied verily.
“What in the hell were you doing back there?” he asked.
“Huh?” asked Esther with a blink.
“You’re the one who tried to jump across the river, aren’t you?” he prodded, stepping toward her, flashlight in the hand that didn’t hold a gun. “And you have a robot and generator down here? Talk.”
Keeping herself almost completely composed, Esther argued her case. “I’ve never been down here before today,” she claimed. “And I had nothing to do with that robot or the generator. I was just looking through and I fou – ” Again the soaked woman was overtaken by a nagging tickle that only went away when she sneezed once again; she then started coughing.
The man stepped back as Esther caught herself in her fit. Once she had finished, he spoke up again. “So there aren’t any other people down here,” he stated for clarification.
“Correct,” Esther said, nodding. “As far as I know, there is no one else here. I was worried for a moment you were someone from down below, but the only person I’ve found is this robot, and it’s dead now anyway.”
Surveying the area, witnessing the corrosive fluids that had spilled along the floor, he beckoned Esther to come along with him as he started backing out of the room. “The other guys at camp will have more questions for you. For now, we just need to get out of here. That other woman you came with was already rolled into town, but she fell into a bear trap and is now being taken care of at the med tent.”
Esther nodded, then coughed into her sleeve.
A flicker of hesitation followed his next few words. “You don’t have the flu right now, do you?”
Esther sniffled. “No,” she insisted. “I wasn’t feeling this bad until I got washed in the creek.”
“That was a cold creek, you know,” he commented. “The fact that it carried you down here makes me feel you’re lucky to be alive.” When Esther didn’t say anything back, he shrugged. “Come with me, then – and don’t pull anything, you got it?” Seeing Esther nod, he loosened up. “The name is Rand, by the way.”
“I’m Esther,” she replied. “But, hey – where did you come from just now?”
“Took a raft,” said Rand, “and that’s how we’ll be getting out.”
“Is that the only way you know how to get in or out?”
“Just about, yes,” Rand admitted. “So hopefully when we get some other guys to take a look at this place, they’ll find some other way through. Hopefully they won’t all get soaked on the way down.”
If she were the type to be easily offended, Esther might have said something in response to such a left-field jab, but she instead kept quiet the rest of the way through the office door – now opened – and the cafeteria and the corridor.
Once they stepped out of the dusty room through which she had come, Esther saw the raft that Rand was talking about. It was clearly rubber and definitely not suited for the kind of harsh waters it now found itself surrounded by as it dangled from the ladder by a rope – hence Rand urged her in quickly. Esther didn’t need any threats or promises from Rand to know what would happen to her if she acted out.
Rand untied the rope – and immediately they were off, leaving the unnaturally-made, yet practically ancient tunnel behind. Going down the stream again gave her a familiar dose of post-trauma, but briskly floating above the aquatic mayhem – even when some water splashed into the raft on occasion – gave her a sense of security she had not felt since she stepped off the train. On occasion Rand would stick his small oar in the water in an attempt to steer, but for the most part, the current kept them facing straight ahead.
And just as quickly as the trip down the river had started, it ended, carrying them outside once more, leaving them to slide along the water up to a grassy surface: a surface which, Esther realized, was part of the same hill she had looked over earlier. The rest of the water bled into the lake just ahead from where they were going. Though the rain and nearby swampy musk had obscured her vision, she had no doubt she was closer to this luocan camp now than when she peered over the top earlier.
After tying the raft to a small tree, Rand grabbed a tight hold on Esther’s arm and led her where they needed to go. “Just keep going til you see the tents,” he said, his gun held tight in the one hand that wasn’t holding Esther secure.
The fog from earlier continued to permeate the landscape – especially once they got over some of the higher masses. The rain began to calm by the time the two of them started to see shapes among the watery mist the storm had left behind, conjuring images of a society born from chaos, yet built on humble ground.
Rather than full-scale buildings or anything the Domain would consider basic housing, the entirety of the village was held together by the coalescent harmony of several synthetically-produced tents: flimsy fabric cenotaphs of days past – the days which luocans would wish to believe were still among them. Among bare beginnings was Mira – lying on her back as three young girls gathered around to press a cloth against her leg. Standing with the children was an older woman along with a man – both of whom stood over Mira.
“It looks like your friend’s doing alright,” Rand commented as they continued walking over. “She suffered a real smarting injury, but with any luck, all she’ll need are stitches and some rest.”
After coming this far, was their first priority to rest? Maybe so – but rest was not what they came for. Still, Esther nodded her understanding. “I might need my rest, too, if it turns out I really am sick.” As if for good measure, she sniffed again.
All a facade, yet all in the name of the mission. Esther had never been so happy to see that she was wrong about where the infiltration was going. As she thought such things over, Mira, still lying down, gave Esther a little wave: a motion which Esther had never given to another and had only received from humans. All so unnatural, so superfluous, so unnecessary.
Esther waved back.