The best shelter these people could afford their newest visitors was a small tent that they had already set up for medical use. Mira was given a bed, blanket, and a long shirt to cover her up just enough for when the luocans worked on her leg while all Esther had was a small sleeping bag and some new clothes for herself. As the gynoids situated themselves, a man named Shafer – who had operated the vehicle with Rand – was tasked with guarding the front of the tent as they waited for further medical services from the woman in charge.
Shafer stood idly by, wary of the slightest sound coming from inside, though much of it was clouded from all the noise outside. With so many noisy children nearby, it could not have been easy for the man to stay focused. It must have been doubly difficult to keep his sanity when he had no assistance from any of the things that Autorians tended to take for granted.
No proper architecture, infrastructure, or enforcement existed to keep the land in order, yet somehow Shafer and all luocans like him had managed to come together and move as a family united under one roof – if a woven, flapping cobble of cloth, hide, and synthetics of a bygone era was applicable as a roof. In this otherwise flat spot set among the hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, forests and swamps the luocans called their home, several broken houses – long-abandoned by their previous owners as the city crumbled into rubble from years of neglect – remained as the only visible parts of civilization.
And then there was the passage.
The gynoids had no doubt the passage would become a topic of interest among luocans. The fact that Rand had managed to find Esther down there supposedly without any prior knowledge about the place led them to believe that either Rand was being coy and that the luocans actually did know all there was to know about the passage or that Esther was the only person to step into that place in years. Given the dust, she was willing to bet on the latter.
Her voice low so as not to let the man outside hear, Mira spoke to Esther from her bed as Esther rested her elbows on the frame. “It sounds like the man who brought you here was less hostile than the one who brought me in.”
Rand wasn’t the least bit hostile, but his demeanor had done nothing to let Esther’s guard down. Still, hearing Mira bring up such a topic of discussion left her curious. “Did you argue with him about something?” she asked.
“No, nothing like that. I barely talked at all on the way back.” Mira hesitated to continue. “Your man didn’t threaten to kill you?”
“No,” Esther replied with her own air of hesitance. “But maybe we should consider ourselves lucky. They know we’re outsiders and they probably know that – ” She dropped her voice even lower than it already was. “ – that we are Autorian. So the fact that they didn’t kill us after seeing the way we tried running away is a good thing, isn’t it?”
“I suppose.” Yet, in an almost deflective move, Mira argued, “The men here don’t seem to like women at all, unless I was just unlucky. The man who brought you here is probably much less xenophobic than a lot of the others around here.”
Esther had already known about how human beings could act when faced with someone who represented an opposing ideology or party. In their Disconnect, bigotry among the luocans was free to run rampant without the state to step in and handle such social unrest. But even with this in mind, Esther wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure it’s a matter of sexism and not just our background?”
“The men don’t seem to like the women,” Mira replied. “Why else would they segregate the children?”
While her partner seemed to be pushing the definition of xenophobia, Esther did not see any need to push back. “Let’s hope for our sake that it is just a few men here who truly think women are inferior,” she said, not wishing to discuss any further.
Xenophobic or not, the luocans had already let the gynoid visitors fulfill the first half of their mission. The other half: rise with the luocans, exploiting their systems until their base of operations fell apart, hopefully sending a ripple effect to other luocans as they sought to rise from the Disconnect.
Feeling the need to move the subject back to the intended topic, Mira wondered more about Esther’s plundering. “What was that robot you said you found?” she asked, catching Esther almost unaware. “Is he still there?”
“He is,” Esther answered. “But he died while trying to transfer data over.”
“Oh.” She almost looked surprised. “And there weren’t any others?”
“All the others were dead – and the one I found had to be activated first. He wouldn’t turn on until after I plugged him into the generator. It must not have been a strong connection, either – or if it was, his circuits must have been destroyed at some point if he died when he did.”
“Maybe another one of them can get you data on that sednium generator. But what kind of data would you expect to find about a machine like that, anyway?”
“Well, you always used to tell me that we should take whatever data we can,” Esther pointed out. “So I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to gather some data about the power generators while we’re here.
“But there was something else I found before the robot started transferring data to me.” Esther closed in. “He knew about the Mother.”
That was enough to startle Mira. “About Mírre? Or some other Mother of days past?”
It occurred to Esther that she had never asked. “I don’t know.” There very well might have been a Mother not like the one she had known, but one that Autorians in the days of Autorise S.A. and the early Domain would have considered the Mother. “If it really was a different Mother, do you think she would have been more primitive than the one we know now?”
“I have no doubt she would have been,” Mira scoffed. “What he called the Mother might have been of even lower intelligence than one of us.”
“I don’t think his Mother was that old. The documents I found there were dated roughly sixty years ago.” As she spoke, her nose started to run; the fluid that had invaded her airways had yet to fully find its way out. Esther sniffled. “By the way: how is your leg?”
Their conversation was immediately cut off by some mumbling from just outside. Shafer was speaking with someone; it took a moment for the gynoids to realize it was Macy: the woman in charge of child education and general medicine in the camp.
“Those partners in there seem to be doing alright,” he droned, his voice so monotone it almost made the nearby robots blush. “Haven’t tried breaking out yet.”
“That is good,” came an older, female voice. “I still need to get the blonde one more properly treated in case the wound reopens.”
Mira replied to Macy’s concern with a snort.
After enough back-and-forth, Macy and Shafer unzipped the opening of the tent and brushed through. The differences in their attire gave for quite the striking dichotomy – Macy clad in a tan shirt, brown overalls, and thick gloves more becoming of a gardener than a doctor or teacher, whereas Shafer’s drenched cargo pants and protective vest almost made him look like a poor version of what the visiting women once were. If they didn’t know any better, the Autorians would have assumed Shafer was Macy’s overprotective son.
“Ladies,” Macy began as the aloof Shafer almost took a step back. “Are you both doing alright so far?”
Both of them would have been well within their right to complain, but they instead nodded their heads and let the instructor continue. “Good; the girls are busy and Shafer will be looking after them for a bit. One of my apprentices will be here to help me get the two of you in better shape.” Pausing, Macy leaned to her left, attempting a better glance at Mira’s leg. “It hasn’t started bleeding again, has it, dear?”
Sitting up in the bed, Mira reached a hand under the sheet and touched her wounds to find an unfortunate streak of red coolant tracing along her fingers. She cast a nervous glance up at Macy. The substance had the look and texture, but not the smell of blood; having Macy put some stitches in the wounds was risky enough, but further examination would have brought the partners closer to being caught.
“Oh – that will definitely need some proper bandaging. But you should be fine until Amity arrives,” Macy assured, then cocked a look at Esther – who, embarrassed, hid her face behind a hand, giving the lightest of sniffles. Knowing of her plight, Macy pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to the woman. “Here you are, dear,” she said as Esther gratefully brought the cloth to her face. “And might I ask, Esther: is it just a cold you’re dealing with or is it something else?”
“It’s just a cold,” she assured, her words muffled behind the cloth. “Just the typical coughing, sneezing, and dizziness.” She spoke with such clarity that it almost would have been hard to believe she were dizzy or stuffy if she had not stated it outright.
Macy, meanwhile, put a palm to Esther’s forehead. “We don’t have anything to check your temperature for sure,” she admitted, taking her hand back. “But the fact you’re able to speak full sentences without stopping to breathe tells me you don’t have a flu. And you don’t have a fever, either”
Esther nodded and wiped her nose with the cloth.
Emerging from the background, Shafer cleared his throat, alerting Macy, who had almost forgotten he was there. “The Director wanted you both to know that he needs to meet the two of you as soon as possible. I told him he will have to wait – especially with you.” He gestured to Mira. “But he now knows everything about how we found you both and what you were doing outside. I’m sure he will have plenty more questions for you both when the deputy takes you to him.”
Neither of them had any doubts on that last fact.
Feeling he had nothing else to speak about on this matter, Shafer rubbed his chin and asked, “Anything the director needs to know about you two before I get Amity?”
Perhaps there were things he would like to know, but nothing he truly needed to know. “I don’t think so,” replied Esther. Mira, subsequently, shook her head.
“Alright then.” With that, Shafer started on his way out, but paused mid-step. “One other thing: the Director believes some strange things about the Domain, so try not to argue with him, okay?” He left before anyone could respond.
As sure as she was that her assistant was on her way, Macy sauntered over to a small wooden bin full of clean, white aprons. “Amity should be here in just a few minutes. She’s that apprentice I told you about.” She slipped on a pair of gloves. “She’ll be turning fourteen tomorrow, so we’ll have to get used to doing things around here without her soon!”
“Why is that?” Mira asked.
Almost immediately she regretted asking that, as Macy’s first reaction to that question was to stare somewhat bewildered at Mira’s words.
“Well,” said Macy, glancing to the side before looking back to meet Mira’s gaze. “She’ll be her own woman! Some of the girls are working on stitching a tent, but it’s mostly been Amity who’s worked on it. In, give or take, a couple weeks, she should have it all ready to go.”
Before she could speak further, someone cleared their throat from behind her.
Macy turned around. “Oh – Amity!” She turned around again, stepping aside to let the girl in through the tent’s open flap. “Mira and Esther – here she is.”
Stepping forward, a tall, blue-eyed girl clad in tight-fitting cotton and denim and a thin skirt that almost went down to her knees greeted the two of them, a tired smiled on her face.
“Miss Esther, Miss Mira,” she greeted. “It’s great to meet both of you.” She spoke in a tone that indicated enthusiasm, yet her worn-out expression – far from vernal or wide-eyed – told the newcomers that she was anything but excited. Amity turned her head toward her mentor as she moved to retrieve some gloves and an apron for herself. “Shall we start?”
Rather than answer up-front, Macy gestured toward the bedridden Mira. “We will need you to turn on your side, dear.” She then tilted her gaze to Esther, who immediately stepped back as Amity walked over, putting a knot in her apron. At the same time Mira shifted to lean on her left shoulder, exposing the marks on her bare leg.
Despite the fact that Amity stood at nearly the same height as Macy, the age difference between them couldn’t have been clearer – especially with the wrinkles about Macy’s cheeks and the slim traces of pudge about Amity’s.
“Macy?” Esther said, sitting by. “Are you sure Amity is able to do this kind of thing safely?”
Almost flinching, Amity whipped her head around at such a comment, her straight black hair momentarily caught in a flurry as she did. Yet before she could open her mouth, Macy put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I have trained Amity since she was seven years old, dear,” she assured. “The children from your home may have been under-taught in real-world application, but I make sure all my students get the training they need – especially my apprentices.”
As Macy turned to assess the marks on Mira’s leg, Amity hesitated for a moment, looking down her nose at Esther, then returned to assess the damage.
“Oh, gosh,” Macy commented, chewing a gloved finger. “That looks bad, but I’m sure it’s nothing we won’t be able to fix up.” She went to retrieve some supplies from around where the aprons and gloves were.
“What’s wrong?” wondered Mira, trying to catch a look at the back of her leg as she continued to lay on her side.
“One of the stitches snapped just now,” Amity explained. “It’s bleeding out pretty bad.”
“In addition to the few that already broke!” Macy added as she returned, handing Amity a cloth and sanitizer. Amity proceeded to douse some of the cheaply-made disinfectant to the rag before pressing it up to the open wound. Just behind her, Macy proceeded to weave a thread through a needle.
Mira had more reason to worry than either of the two operators did. If she lost too much coolant without replacing it, she might end up cooking herself to death. With this procedure also came the concern that Macy and Amity would catch a deep glimpse into Mira’s inner workings, yet their work was only skin-deep.
Amity took a deep breath as Macy handed her the needle, eyes locked on the torn flesh. Making as much of an effort as she could to keep her hands still, she inched the needle through a fold of the skin little by little, then finally poked and started weaving through, stitching everything back together as best she could. Afterward, Macy cleaned the blood off a few spots around the now-sealed wound.
The two luocans repeated a similar procedure with a few other spots on Mira’s leg. After some time, Macy peered at their progress with a smile. “I think we’re almost done – yes; okay!” She walked over to look at Mira. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” said Mira. “If I could balance myself better, I might be able to hop around camp without difficulty.”
That was enough to elicit a chuckle out of Macy. “We will just need to get some bandages on them, then we will be done. Amity – could you get them?”
The apprentice did as instructed, going to the supply corner one more time. She barely had a moment to sift around when a screaming girl rushed through the tent flap.
Startled but refraining from flinching, Macy turned toward the source of the noise.
“Miss Macy!!” the girl shouted, caught in such a flustering panic that she ran by Esther without realizing she was there. The stationary woman was quick to notice that even when standing straight, the girl barely stood an inch taller than her.
The hot tears rolling down the girl’s red cheeks were enough to soften Macy’s demeanor from the initial slight annoyance that came with her shriek a moment before. “Hazel? What’s going on, dear?” she asked.
“It’s…we can’t find Shelley! No one knows where she is!” the child claimed, wiping her eyes and sniffling. “Cynthia and Toni don’t know, neither!”
For a moment the room went completely silent, with the only exception being Hazel’s heavy breathing and sobbing. The girl looked as if she had to fight the urge to hug Macy for comfort.
“Amity,” the mentor began. “Can you take things from here?”
It didn’t seem like she had much of a choice, yet for a moment Amity looked as if she wanted to bargain. But, of course, even she knew that Hazel was not going to accept any other deal. “Go ahead,” she said, sighing. “It’s just bandages now, anyway, right?”
Without further hesitation, Macy and Hazel left the two visitors with the apprentice. A decent distance separated Amity from the others, yet it almost felt like not enough distance.
“Okay,” Amity began, taking slow steps toward Mira. “Just to be safe, I want both of you just stay where I can see you, alright?”
Esther, still sitting, gave a single nod, eyes locked on Amity as Amity switched her gaze between the two of them. The luocan girl clearly saw the two of them as some kind of threat. If she only knew.
Still Esther kept where she was as Amity rolled out some bandages to wrap around Mira’s wounds. Neither Esther nor Mira could tell if Amity was trying to hurry along with the process or if she typically bandaged people in such a hurried manner – but in either case, she made quick work of the wounds and wiped the rest of the blood clean off with an air of charismatic precision that the women thought was only possible from a machine.
When it was all done, Amity finished with a sigh. “There you go!” she exclaimed, putting the rag in the pocket of her apron. “You can roll on your back again.”
Mira nodded and started lowering herself once more. “Thank you.”
“Not a problem, Miss.” Amity sighed again, then put away the rest of the bandages and took off her apron and gloves. Things went silent between the three of them as Amity gazed upon the tent entrance – only for nobody to walk through. “Wonder where that other girl went.”
Neither of the other two in the tent responded.
Amity bit the inside of her cheek. Trying not to sigh again, she ran a hand through her hair. “So what all did my uncle tell you guys while he was here?”
Mira blinked. “Your uncle?”
“Right – he usually goes by Shafer,” the girl explained. “I guess soon enough he’ll be the only person left with that as his last name, but yeah.”
“Just things about the deputy and how the Director wants to see us soon,” Esther answered.
“Nothing about what kind of work you two will be doing here?” asked Amity.
The newcomers exchanged a confused glance with each other before looking back at Amity. Esther asked the inevitable question: “What do we have to do?”
“Basic things!” she began. “But the first thing is that you’ll be able to work with Toni, Cynthia, and me in helping Macy around here. Believe me: sometimes everything just goes completely out of control when my uncle or Deputy Sam or some other temporary assistant isn’t around to help the old lady.”
“Would this mean we would be babysitting?” Esther prodded.
Amity gave an unsolicited snort. “No!” she claimed, her face going a little pink as if she were either lying or embarrassed to be associated with such a task. “No – no I personally wouldn’t call it babysitting. Macy does all the teaching, but the other apprentices and I help her keep things under control while we get some specialized training.”
“What is she teaching?” asked Mira, her voice strikingly monotone.
“Things like the alphabet, basic math, how to properly socialize – !” Her voice lowered almost to a whisper. “ – obviously.”
“One sort of unrelated question,” Esther butted in. “But are girls the only ones who get schooling here?”
“Well, yes, Miss. The boys are taught by their dads to do stuff away from home – like how to catch and cook dinner.”
In the midst of her explanation, Macy’s voice sounded from outside, calling for Amity’s name. Her shoulder twitched. “Oh, shoot – gotta head back now!” Straightening herself up, she put on the brightest smile the women had seen from her so far – which was not saying much. “Anyway – it was great meeting the two of you and I hope to work with you both soon!”
That out of the way, Amity grabbed her slightly-bloodied attire and left the women alone, heaving a sigh the moment her face turned away from them.
By the time both women were sure the child was out of earshot, Mira was first to speak. “I thought she was going to smack you.”
Esther blinked. “Amity was?” she asked.
“When you asked Macy if she was capable of fixing me. I didn’t think she would react like that.” Sitting by as Esther made her way back to the bedframe to plant her shoulders on, she added, “I don’t think she likes us.”
“I don’t think her uncle did, either,” Esther said, nodding. “And we still have to see the Director of this camp soon.”
“Hopefully he will have a temperament more similar to Macy.” Mira sighed. “But whenever you meet him and whenever I meet him, it has to go better than it did with Amity just now.”
The girl clearly didn’t want to be in the same room as the gynoids – didn’t think she was even safe without her instructor to back her up. No matter how careful either of them were with the director, at the end of the day, their interaction with him would be another risk to jump through – but such risks were all they could carry through with for the sake of the mission.
Lost in their individual thoughts, the two of them amassed a shared silence – lasting almost a minute – as Mira seemed to almost fall asleep where she lied. Despite their disconnect, they each knew the other was thinking of failure: an option they could not take, lest they lose their chance to retrieve the data they needed and risk death in the wilderness.
It made Esther realize: “As long as they don’t figure out why we’re here, the Director shouldn’t see any need to throw us out so soon. Would they really want to throw us out so soon – especially while your leg is damaged and your pants are still being patched up?”
Mira almost didn’t respond. “You underestimate how awful human beings can be to one another. So often their behavior is so reprehensible that even pockets among them do not see each other as any higher in the animal kingdom than their primate counterparts. I thought you would know that.”
“I do know that – but just after the people here patched up your leg and agreed to patch up your pants, would they really want to throw us out so soon? They have already done a lot for us that they didn’t need to.”
It was as if Esther’s logic operated in a different architecture. Shaking her head, pinging a null network, Mira gave up. “I can only assume your firmware is working properly,” she said, “but – with or without a software infection – you just might be the strangest etternel I know if you really think that mercy at the hands of a few denotes civility among the many.”
Some may have taken those words as insult; others would have taken them as compliment; Esther took them as neither. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Amity certainly never expected to be pulled away in the way she was – but at least it was for something pleasant.
Toni and Cynthia had found Shelley in the nearby woods safe and sound, giggling at the thought of someone finding her, yet disappointed to actually receive punishment when brought to Macy. As their instructor and Shafer watched over the other girls outside, the three apprentices went to the children’s main tent to keep Shelley at her sleeping bag while the three of them cleaned and patched up Mira’s old pants as well as a bunch of other clothes.
The youngest of the three, Cynthia was tasked with fetching and warming up some water at the western side of camp. It always made Amity a little concerned to see the portly apprentice walking with such a hot bucket – even if she had never encountered any difficulties with it I the past.
As Toni and Amity laid several articles of clothing on the floor, Toni couldn’t help notice a pungent scent when she brought a hand to her face after patting Mira’s pants down. “I really need to wash this hand,” she commented, her voice low.
“We’ll get a chance to once Cynthia’s back,” said Amity.
“I think it’s her blood,” Toni continued. “Her blood smells really weird…”
Amity rolled her eyes. “Blood just smells weird in general, you dork.”
Taking her hand away from her face, Toni cast a nervous glance at the older girl. “Are you sure it’s supposed to – ”
“If you’re going to make me smell your hand, forget about it.”
Too timid to continue their argument, Toni remained silent until the third apprentice returned.
“Here it is!” Cynthia squeaked as she stepped inside. “Did I miss anything?”
“No – Shelley’s been completely quiet,” Amity claimed, glancing over to see the girl in question return Amity’s stare from the corners of her red eyes.
As Cynthia put the bucket down and Toni readied the washing boards, the two of them eyed Amity in a curious manner. It only took a handful of heartbeats for her to realize they were looking at her.
She blinked. “Go ahead, you guys! You know how this works.”
Cynthia snickered. “No, silly – what were those women like?” Toni let out a little giggle as the youngest apprentice spilled the beans.
By then each of them had already dipped their hands into the bucket and grabbed some articles of clothing to work with. “Annoying,” Amity stated. “Ignorant. Confusing. I have a bunch of other adjectives I can use, if you want.”
As Toni bit her lip, Cynthia prodded further with a light grimace. “They were really that bad?”
“They’re not from here, for one thing,” Amity explained. “Not only that, but I think they’re Autorian.”
“Do you think they’re robots?” Toni wondered.
“That would be hilarious if they were, but no.” In her unfocused chattering, she managed to splash some water on her skirt. “They just come from a place where nobody cared about them for their humanity. The people in charge just saw them as a number and put them through the automatic system until they were done with school, then shoved them through whatever monotonous work the Domain likes to force on its people. It’s not like the Domain thinks its people are even p– Hey!” She shouted, casting a glance over Cynthia’s head. “Get back in your bed. Now!”
The other apprentices looked over to see Shelley, jumpy, return to her sleeping bag in a rush.
Catching Amity by surprise, Cynthia leaned over the bucket. “Are they really Autorian?”
“Stay back!” Amity had to nudge Cynthia’s shoulder to keep her from tipping the bucket over. She would have rubbed her temple if not for the fact that her hands were already doused in water. “I have a good feeling they are. Everything about them feels Autorian. But I don’t really know.”
Toni looked like she wanted to speak up on the matter, but again she remained quiet.
“What if they are?” Cynthia said, her voice raising in pitch to an almost intimidating degree.
For a moment, Amity could only sigh in response. “Then I guess we just learn to live with the Autorians and teach them how to become useful. Macy could give them a good teaching if she wanted, you know.”
“What if you become the next Macy?” Cynthia asked.
Amity paused. “I become the next Macy? So then I have to teach her?”
The short girl nodded.
The truth was that that was a possibility, given her skillset. Suddenly her current occupation of yelling at children for sneaking out or getting too close in her personal space felt like a better option. “God…I’d rather just stay here with all the kids for another year if that’s the case”
But she didn’t have a year. The stress that came with new beginnings had already started weighing down on Amity – and newcomers only added to the stress. No, there weren’t plans for a grand celebration and she certainly wasn’t going to be handed adulthood on a platter, but expectation kept her in check. There was an expectation to take Macy’s teachings to the fullest, to find a man to call her husband, to start living in her own tent among all the other adults in camp.
Yet here came two newcomers – both clearly adults, yet completely devoid of any knowledge of how the world really worked.
Amity huffed. Leaving her childhood behind was going to be harder than she thought.
I’m not dead!! (yet)
No, actually I have been spending the past month rethinking my writing process, rewriting a lot of stuff, and even finalizing the story bible for Infiltration. The actual revision of this chapter only took two days, believe it or not. With that said, you can start expecting to see more frequent updates on Infiltration!
I actually told my Discord to call the police if I don’t have Chapter 6 up by this coming Friday. So um…better jump on that.
Speaking of: Discord is open for all, as always!