“What are you doing in here?!” Mira shouted.
Suddenly awoken from her spot beside the bed, Esther raised herself, only to bump her head on the bed’s ledge. The blow made her ears ring as she still struggled to assess what was going on.
Through it all, Shafer barely reacted as Esther rubbed the spot she had just hit. “I’m keeping watch,” he answered from where he sat, a hand at his side and legs crossed. “We still ain’t sure if you ladies are trustworthy yet, so I’ve gotta keep an eye out.”
Esther retracted her hand from her scalp, relieved to not see any liquid. In a less panicked state, she turned her head up to Shafer. “Wait – you were watching us sleep?”
There would have been a lot more shouting, screaming, scratching, and biting at that point if the women in front of Shafer were not artificial. Instead the Autorian visitors sat in silence, sensing an immeasurable distance between themselves and their own invasive guardian despite him being practically within arms’ reach.
“Well,” Esther began, her voice monotone, yet firm. “We’re awake now and we’re not going back to sleep.”
“I can see that,” Shafer said, nodding again.
“Leave.” Mira spoke. Esther whipped her gaze around to see the still-disabled woman’s untwitching countenance hyperfocused on Shafer, her green stare completely still, refusing to ask again or even blink as every part of her screamed for the man to follow her command.
Shafer followed along. Mira continued to stare.
A smirk ran along his face as he gave in, picking himself off his seat. “If you insist, Missy – I’ll just be outside.” The man spoke not another word as he let them be, taking his chair with him and placing it just beyond the tent’s flap – which he proceeded to zip closed.
Only once Shafer left the room did Mira finally blink again. Following this retraction of her partner’s state of supposed fury, Esther asked, “Are you okay?”
Mira turned her head to Esther, avoiding eye contact and blinking rapidly almost as if she were fighting back tears. “I guess I’m okay,” she replied. “But what was that? He’s just allowed to come in whenever he wants?”
“Is that a surprise to you? It seems like that would be the case, since the people here are keeping us close under their watchful eye, anyway.” Esther paused. “And if you didn’t have to worry about your leg and this place had some kind of military district, I’d be surprised if we weren’t harbored in the military district instead of the medical tent.”
It was a good point, she knew. Her lips pursed, Mira beckoned Esther over; Esther obliged without a word.
“I already do not like that man,” Mira whispered. “After the threats he made on my part while he dragged me into camp, I’m hesitant to believe he would want anything more than to kill us while we sleep.”
In some ways, the idea that he would kill the two of them before they had a chance to meet with the Director seemed so silly an idea that Esther almost had to feign sarcasm. “Right – you said yesterday he threatened you, but – ”
“I alluded to it,” Mira corrected.
“Right,” Esther said again. “Let’s just wait for now, okay?” Her ear almost seemed to twitch at some noise from outside. “At least we know this: if he shoots a gun at us right now, the girls are going to hear and I don’t think he wants that kind of attention from children.”
Mira said nothing.
Amity awoke with a start, the wind knocked out of her at the same time hear ears started ringing. In her panic, she lifted herself out of her lying position, looking here and there to find only Cynthia nearby – who stood by with a smile on her face.
Feeling as if the girl had just tied her stomach in literal knots, she resisted the urge to punch that smiling face. “What was that about?” she snapped, rubbing her belly when she noticed the large slab that Cynthia had anchored on top of her. On further inspection, this slab appeared to be some kind of book.
“Happy birthday, Amity!” said Cynthia. “Miss Macy said she wants to see you once you’re dressed – and she also wanted you to have this.”
Amity opened it up to find all the pages were completely blank. “It’s a…journal?” Suddenly she factored in the weight. “It’s really thick – damn!”
“I wouldn’t know anything about it; Macy just said you should have it. What would you need a journal for, anyway?”
Her thoughts still buried in sleep, it took Amity a moment to remember why she would need such a heavy collection of paper: something few people had in such quantities. Once she did remember, she still hesitated to reply. “I have my reasons.”
Because it was her birthday – specifically the day of her transition into adulthood – people would make a big deal whether Amity wanted them to or not. Suddenly she remembered that tent she still needed to finish sewing together, cursing at herself when she realized she could have done that the day before. If it wasn’t finished by the end of today, she was probably never going to forgive herself.
The materials that made up Amity’s project were placed in a stack in Macy’s tent. As luck would have it, she, Toni, and Cynthia needed to meet up with their mentor today – as with Amity’s graduation from the medical area, there followed a large slew of tasks that would be left unhandled unless the other two assistants agreed to pitch more of their time in.
Once they were properly dressed, the three of them left all the other girls to their devices and made it over to Macy – who proceeded to run them through their tasks for the week. After that, Macy opened the much-needed discussion of Amity’s approaching leave.
Perhaps disrespectfully, the first question raised was who would be replacing Amity, if anyone. Amity did not wish to offer any ideas for potential new pupils.
She was barely listening by the time she heard Cynthia blurt out one of the names she wanted to hear least. “What about Miss Esther for now?”
A bolt of electricity flashed through Amity’s blood. “We’re not doing that!” she argued, her unblinking eyes locked on the youngest girl’s. Toni and Macy seemed to disappear from the conversation entirely as the tent went almost completely silent, save for the electronic hum of the MDA station. “You’re not going to force me to be her mentor.”
Just as quickly as she had vanished, Macy returned. “Oh, don’t make any assumptions about that,” she said, waving her hand. “I will be the one who teaches that woman, if things were to come to that.” She paused. “Did you truly think you would replace my position by the end of the day?”
“Well, no,” Amity replied, then cast another annoyed glance at Cynthia – who sat back without further argument.
Again the tent went silent, Macy keeping an eye on the now-adult Amity. The girl had certainly blossomed in the time she had spent as one of Macy’s assistants, sticking through wherever their camp’s Director decided to carry them all next. And now, just as they had reached their supposed final destination, Amity needed to make her own move into adulthood. It was not a position that most specialists often found themselves in.
An empathetic hesitance to her countenance, Macy stepped up to the young woman. “You aren’t feeling too troubled about all this, are you, dear?” asked Macy. “I know this must be a dizzying day for you, Miss Amity – lots on your mind?”
Caught slightly by surprise, Amity tilted her nose in the air to meet the older woman’s gaze. “Not really,” she lied, eyes locked with Macy’s. “Just a few things I want to talk about once we’re alone.” She resisted the urge to eyeball the other two in the tent as her mentor seemed to draw closer. She could sense the other two peering at her, knowing there was much more locked behind those tight lips; Amity resisted the urge to look back as Macy took a step back herself.
Macy, Cynthia, and Toni continued discussing task reassignment, with Amity only piping in when directly called upon. More than anything, Amity hoped her departure would be the kick in the pants Toni – now to be the oldest – needed to finally start taking initiative and acting more assertive with all the other kids. It had certainly helped Amity’s growth when Zoe – the oldest before her – made her departure almost three years ago.
Thinking about Zoe made Amity sigh; that woman hadn’t been seen by anyone since the split just a year after her adult life began. Perhaps if this settlement in Kortrick truly was to become the next big place that some were hoping for it to become, then she and Zoe might meet again – but so far their wandering tribe had had no such luck with any other location, giving Amity little hope that it would happen this time, despite whatever Sam or her uncle told her.
As promised, Amity stayed behind once the other two girls had left, now standing to Macy’s eye-level. It had been a few days since she and Macy were the only ones in the same room, completely sealed off from the rest of the world for just a bit. Even her Uncle Shafer was hardly around to provide such luxuries.
Rather than have Amity speak immediately, Macy started with a question of her own. “I’m surprised; did you leave that journal in your bed?”
“Yeah,” Amity replied. “Cynthia just gave it to me without really explaining what it was for. Was there something you were wanting to tell me?”
Macy chuckled as if she expected the woman to know – and, in all honesty, she did know, but needed validation. “It’s about all the things you’ve written on the MDA I’ve been lending you,” Macy clarified, lowering her voice on the last few words. “You still haven’t let anyone else know about that, have you?”
The fledgling woman shook her head. “No, nobody’s caught me using it.”
With a smile, Macy turned around to the docking station and pulled one of the devices out: a slab covered in tired gray-blue plastic. The nubs on the buttons had worn out over time due to excessive use on Amity’s part.
“Well, this week will need to be the last time you use it,” said Macy as she handed the MDA over. “That is why I gave you the booklet; it was the biggest one I could find and it has more clean paper than I have seen in anyone’s possession – not since Director Persson’s predecessor.”
While part of her wondered where Macy would have found such a voluminous collection of what was considered a somewhat rare material beyond the Domain’s borders, she sought not to question it.
“I also have a pen here you can use to copy all the things you wrote down on the device – just in case you lose or break your own. But once the week is over and you have fully moved out, I will need the MDA back.”
Only a week? In that time, Amity would be lucky if she hadn’t developed carpal tunnel from all the text she had to copy over. Would she even be able to keep the text legible?
On top of that, she still needed to finish the tent. That would most certainly need to come first – especially when she was so close to finishing it as it was. Once finished, she would probably place it somewhere at the northeastern side of camp, albeit this was a little close to the ruins for her liking. Thinking about ruins made her wonder why she needed to make the tent when the possibility of living in stable architecture was well within their reach.
Despite all the thoughts swimming in her head, Amity nodded her understanding to Macy. “I’ll get it all done,” she said. “But if I get wrist cramps, it’s your fault.”
Macy couldn’t help chuckling at that last remark. “Very well, then. If you’re going to be busy, I’ll go take care of the other girls.” As she retreated to the opening flap of her tent, she uttered a few last words: “Good luck, Miss Amity.”
A light breeze blew in as her former mentor stepped out.
In the time it took for her to remember what she was doing, Amity had nearly dropped the MDA in her hand. She swore at herself and proceeded to turn it on, flipping the switch as the non-lit screen came to life. Once about a minute had passed, she traversed through the system menu and read the notifier beneath all the text files:
File Storage: 129kb / 2048kb.
All of that was text. Basic text, no properties or metadata. No special formatting outside of the manually-inserted characters. Her head started to hurt when she realized how many words that amount of data actually took up. Her wrist started to hurt just as much.
So long as Shafer kept his promise to stay out of the passage for the time being, Sam could breathe easy for the day.
“They weren’t too happy, but what’re you gonna do?” Shafer said upon his arrival. “I’m just happy they didn’t smack me.”
Sam, meanwhile, had half a mind to ask the scouts’ leader about the message he had found – but seeing the man here now, all Sam could muster was a barely-related question: “Did Macy get you the MDA back?”
“That she did,” said Shafer, nodding. “Thanks again for sending the message out.”
His brain itched with the desire to ask, but still nothing else came out, providing an awkward silence between the two men. With few words beyond that, Sam left the scout leader to watch over his boys.
Perhaps the Director would know something about those highwaymen – or anything contained within Shafer’s message. Sam only hoped the Director wouldn’t tell Shafer that he was snooping through the MDA.
The last time he and Persson had met up, the Director expressed a need to see both of the newcomers at the same time on that very day, only to be more than slightly disappointed when nobody was willing to bring Mira over in her condition. It would have been a simple procedure, according to the Director, but apparently it was not simple enough to warrant anyone’s support.
A plate of half-finished breadcrumbs and jelly decorated Director Persson’s desk as Sam walked in, himself standing tall and clad in a tightly-knit outfit compared to the loose shawls around the Director’s limbs and torso. Sam almost questioned if Persson was even ready for their meeting before the commander in question beckoned him in. The desk smelled as if Persson had spent the night on top of it – which Sam told himself was impossible; the Director wouldn’t succumb to using strewn-about papers as a mattress!
Before Sam, the slouching man urged both of them to sit down, his nimble body barely taller than Sam’s. Scratching a beard that made his chin appear almost three times larger than it actually was, the Director sat at an unusually-tall seat behind his desk, viewing his right-hand man from an egoistic vantage point above the mess as Sam took his seat at the chair in front.
“So, then!” the Director began, noticeably jittery where he sat. “Sam, my boy – have you seen the two new women at all this morning?”
“Not yet, no,” the deputy confessed. “Last time I saw them was last night – and that was just so I could get to know them. Shafer was looking after them for Macy this morning, but now they’re awake and he’s back with the scouts out east.”
At that, the Director drummed his fingers on his chair’s one arm. He didn’t seem to be listening to anything beyond the first handful of words. “And is there some fear that maybe you will catch Miss Esther’s cold?” he asked. “I don’t think Rand has caught anything from her, so what fear does a deputy have?”
Despite the many multiple reasons Sam could argue that his status in camp did not have an effect on his immunity to disease, he let that point roll off his shoulder much like the Director had just done with his explanation. “Well, I can’t imagine they’re too happy right now,” he tried explaining. “Most women would probably kill a man if they caught him watching them sleep. Shafer told me he managed to do his job without a scratch, but they can’t be in any mood to talk after that.”
“I hear they’re in that mood right now!” the Director argued. He gave Sam that condescending smile: the same one he cast down whenever he referred to Sam as a boy, despite the mere seven years between the two of them. It was that same look which suggested the Director was transmitting an unheard message to the person in his line of sight – and if that message was not properly deciphered within the next hour, the position of deputy was about to become that much less desirable.
Sam took a moment to respond with a silent message of his own, gaze unblinking and lips forming a straight line as if he were a wildcat stalking a rabbit. For a moment he almost felt as if he might actually pounce, but returned to reality when he blinked again.
The Director was no stranger to compromises – and, feeling the need to push his luck, Sam made an offer. “How about I just bring Esther?” he finally said. “Mira is in much too poor a condition after that accident she had with my trap, but Esther hardly seemed sick at all yesterday and I’ve already told them you wanted to see them soon.”
“No Mira?” the Director prodded. “I’d think someone with a lucky name like Mira would keep away from traps – but I suppose if the woman is hurting, then far be it from me to put her through more pain by walking her over!” With that, he lowered his seat a little, slightly reducing the strain on Sam’s neck. “Go bring Esther, then; I don’t believe I’ll be busy by the time you return.”
“Wait – there’s one other thing,” Sam ejaculated, then paused as if realizing he had just spoken out of turn.
Caught a little off-guard, the Director paused, sitting back in his chair. “And what would that one other thing be?”
Still Sam hesitated. “It’s about a message I found on Shafer’s MDA.”
“Still snooping through people’s devices?” Persson couldn’t help sneering. “Go on.”
The man gave a deep breath before explaining everything from Rouken to the highwaymen. “He told me Rouken might be coming back soon, so that’s why I went through the MDA. But now that I’ve read this stuff about highwaymen and how Shafer was apparently planning on going through the passageway before I told him not to do that yet, I feel like there’s something I’m not being told.”
Another smile crossed the Director’s face – this one much less condescending than the last, yet still enough to slightly bother Sam. “That’s because there is,” the Director confessed, lowering himself again. “Sorry if it disappoints you, but yes – Rouken likely will be coming back soon. By that point, you will hear everything you need to about those highwaymen from his mouth. He will know more than I.”
Sam may as well have not asked the question at all. With nothing left to say, he nodded. After further discussion on the general state of the camp, Sam left the Director to his work – whatever work that was. The deputy rubbed his forehead as he stepped out.
Looking around him, this camp of theirs felt like a miracle. The fact that they had found the ruins of a once-prosperous town and were now on their way to rebuilding it was nothing short of a work of God. Yet with these successes, the Director sought little more than to continually expand upon every single opportunity thrown at him – not for the betterment of the camp, but for the change to achieve further recognition or further pleasure. Perhaps it was his childhood upbringing in the Domain which had planted this greedy seed in his belly – a seed that had sprouted into a parasitic beanstalk that now drove his actions. It would explain the erratic thought patterns.
Compared to the Director, who was Sam Jacquard? The camp’s second-best: a worn-out, yet still shining figure who overachieved for the good of his people – in the hope that they would all one day live a life without the Domain’s fingers digging into every wild orifice it could find. The Domain served to spread its genes through what remained of the United States until everything was just as homogenized and inbred as artificially possible – and hearing the way Persson talked about the newcomers and thinking about how little he had helped since everyone had moved to Kortrick, Sam couldn’t help drawing parallels.
As he walked, Sam shook his head. He couldn’t go to Esther with these thoughts in mind.