More than anything, Esther wanted some straightforward answers, but all Sam could say was that Macy wanted someone to guard the two of them.
“I just hope Mira can learn to live with this,” Esther said as she and the deputy made their way to the governing district. “I don’t understand why she reacted to Shafer’s presence so aggressively.”
Sam peeped at her from the corner of his eye, uncertain about speaking further on that matter. He began with an almost quivering start. “Is she someone who values her privacy?”
Knowing where they both came from, either of them being anal about privacy seemed more than a little hypocritical. Things would have been different this morning if Shafer was a servant to the Mother, but the fact of the matter was that he had no ties to the Mother – probably didn’t know who Mírre was.
“I don’t think that was really the point of her outburst,” Esther argued after a long pause. “It’s just that even when the Domain was looking over us, it was at least the same people every day. She just must not like the idea of a man watching her sleep.”
“That’s a fair point,” Sam acknowledged. “Well, I’m sorry you guys didn’t get the best wake-up call. Originally Macy asked me to do it, but – ” He trailed off.
“Really?” asked Esther, looking somewhat amused. “I think Mira would have liked that better.”
That last comment almost made him double-take. “You think so?”
“Well, you’re definitely friendlier than Shafer.” And without any words on Sam’s part, the two endured a shared moment of silence as Esther, lost in thoughts that Sam could not begin to comprehend, drifted slightly to the side, catching herself before going too far off-course.
One question had alluded her the entire time and had continued to do so as Sam guided her through town: “Is there something specific the Director wants to talk to me about?”
“Like a topic of interest?” Sam inquired. “He honestly didn’t say anything about that – just that he wants to see you both soon.” He paused. “He would have rather seen both of you at once, but I told him about Mira’s condition and he accepted that that’ll have to happen some other day.” To say he accepted it was a little misleading.
“He didn’t tell you anything at all?” asked Esther – to which Sam simply shook his head. Her voice coming nowhere near as hesitant as she had intended, Esther almost regretted her next few words. “Is the Director okay?”
The question had clearly struck some kind of nerve; Sam’s grimace was enough to make that clear – even if he did try his best to clear the reaction from his face.
Still he played coy, almost stopping when he asked, “What do you mean?”
She remembered the conversation she and Mira had had with Shafer the night before. Knowing she couldn’t back out now, she continued. “I just heard from someone that the Director’s beliefs are…uncouth.” She struggled to come up with the nicest way to say it. “Just that I shouldn’t try arguing with him unless I want trouble.”
While he hadn’t completely stopped them in their tracks, the silence on Sam’s part was enough to solidify that she had misspoken. “Sorry – that’s just what I heard.”
More silence ensued – and now following behind as opposed to walking side-by-side, Esther had little way to tell what he was feeling, but she could guess when she heard a light snicker. “Whoever told you that isn’t entirely wrong,” he confessed.
“How’s that?” Esther asked, rushing up to meet his side again.
“You’ll find out when you meet him.” Out of everything about this conversation, the only part that called for some concern was the fact that someone had already told Esther about the Director’s oddities.
Knowing Esther must have been itching to get away from the topic of discussion, Sam attempted to change the subject. “But hey – it’ll be a bit before we’re there, so I want to know: was there anything else down in that tunnel you found that we weren’t able to get through yesterday? I know we were kind of quick about it and you seem to be doing better now than what I heard you were like when Rand found you.”
The woman had almost forgotten about how sickly she felt shortly after escaping the river. Even so, there was little outside the major details she had already brushed up on – until she remembered some of the documents she had read.
“I did read a paper I found down there. There was a really dusty room with a bunch of documents. It must have been written when the previous owners of that place just got the generator.”
His attention clearly grabbed, Sam inquired further. “Were there any Autorian documents – stuff that looked like it was written by the Domain?”
“No,” she replied. “Any talk of anything Autorian was completely reserved for Autorise S.A.”
“Oh, good God!” Sam chortled. “How old was that doc?”
“About sixty years. And what’s more is that the paper was complaining about a change in converters – and the converters I saw once I got down to the generator were outputting to a format that the Domain doesn’t use anymore.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “You know what the formats the Domain uses? Were you some kind of technician for them?”
Again she wished she had stopped herself while she was ahead. “I worked with the AI there,” she half-lied. “So I know that the plug that the generator used doesn’t work with anything the Domain is making now – not without yet another converter.”
Heeding her words, Sam nodded, which she took as a prompt to continue.
“And the generator,” she began. “I don’t know how it’s still running if it’s been sixty years since that place was operational or since this town was operational, but it’s still running – and it needs to be turned off soon because – ”
“Whoa, whoa – hold on!” Sam interrupted, finally stopping them in their tracks. “You’re telling me that the generator has been running nonstop all this time? That’s actually what it looks like?”
Tilting her head up to meet his gaze, Esther blinked, coming within a handful of millimeters from touching him. “I think so,” she replied. “But I don’t think it’s actually generating anything anymore; it’s just running by itself without any rhyme or reason.”
For the first time since they had met, Sam faced away without a word, as if worried she would catch a glimpse at him in his weakened state. He mumbled something she could not hear, then flipped around to face her, though he refrained from looking directly in her eye. “That could mean a few different things,” he started, taking a deep breath before he continued. “Either someone is down there maintaining that thing, or the generator is on a path to self-destructing any day.”
Had he not interrupted her, Esther was going to say that last bit out of his mouth. “Right.” She wanted to say something else, but nothing else would come out.
Continuing their walk to the Director’s tent, Sam went ahead with his explanation, Esther in tow. “You see – we suspected there was a generator somewhere down there,” he acknowledged, then paused again as a new thought occurred to him. “But the fact that it’s running and hasn’t broken means – ” Another pause. “It makes me think it could be a coil spinner.”
Where usually she would have preferred to play dumb at the mention of such technology, Esther genuinely had no idea what he was talking about.
“Some old energy format that failed,” he clarified. “One of Autorise’s competitors back in the day tried to make something that would be quicker and cheaper than the regular Sednium rods – which means that if the generator blows up now, the blast won’t be as bad as it would be if it were using rods.” After saying this out loud, the man heaved a sigh. “We wouldn’t deal with anything on a nuclear scale, but it still won’t be pretty if that thing goes off. Something needs to be done about that generator once we’re done with the Director, assuming he doesn’t have other plans for you. Coil-based systems might be more efficient than sednium in the long-run, but there’s no way that thing can still be functioning without some loose bolts scattered around.”
Hearing him talk about loose bolts reminded Esther of all the pieces that had fallen off that robot. If that many pieces had fallen off one android, she didn’t want to think about how many had shaken off the generator in its volatile state.
“Going back in there sounds dangerous,” Esther commented, as if she wanted to dissuade the man from doing his work.
To that, Sam shrugged, the corner of his lips turned up just enough for Esther to notice. “A lot of what I do is dangerous; it’s all part of the job. Plus it would potentially be more dangerous if we just left that thing as it is.” He paused. “Speaking of dangerous: some of those traps that you and your friend walked into are set up around that area, so just keep close to me when we get there.”
But for now, they had someone to meet. “I can see the Director’s tent,” said Sam.
This must have been the government district, then – at least that was what Esther could infer from Sam’s claim that the Director’s tent was nearby. If he hadn’t said anything, she never would have guessed this was where the government was gathered, as there were no banners or any other signs of authority hung up. If the goal of not carrying on such an age-old tradition was done in an effort to keep the local leaders’ homes as inconspicuous as possible, these luocans succeeded. As age-old as flag-hanging was as a practice, the authoritarian AI of the Autorise Domain still recognized it as a legitimate form of marking territory. To the flesh of the Domain, it was the most natural way to signify alliance to the state – yet the Disconnected sought to abandon such principles.
Only one of the tents in the area was guarded – and it was the tent Esther and Sam were headed toward. “Oh, damn,” he mumbled, eyeing the guard. “James wasn’t there when I left.”
The guard stood short, yet firm, a rifle in his hands. “What is it, Sam?” he said, gesturing the barrel at the the ground in front of the visitors’ feet.
Sam gave him a smile as he gestured toward the woman at his side. “This is one of the new visitors we have been talking about,” he said. “James, meet Esther!”
“If you’re expecting me to shake hands with her, you know I can’t do that,” the guard grumbled, gaze locked on the woman. “Not when I’m on duty.” Turning his gaze toward Sam, he continued, “I take it you want to introduce her to Director Persson? Because I still can’t let you in. The Director has said he will be busy all day with his work.”
To the surprise of the three of them, a voice called from the tent behind James. “I am actually able to see people now!”
The three of them all hesitated to react, James eyeing Esther as if she were to blame for his looking like a fool right now. Without argument, he shrugged and slid to the side to allow the two of them in.
Esther and Sam stepped in without a word.
While Sam had grown accustomed to the Director’s archaic method of organization, Esther struggled to figure out if there was a method behind the placement of the paper schematics, cartographic tools, and weapons she saw about the place. The Director was smart enough to keep all his weapons on the side of the desk opposite of the opening – but the fact that she could see them stacked on top of each other at all was definitely cause for concern. Beyond the weapons, the lone MDA on his desk was the most polished item in the area. Were it not for the beard, she might have assumed he was younger than Sam – for once he revealed himself from behind the desk, hidden behind a slab of plywood, his aura changed from that of an overworked man to that of an excited boy.
“Oh yes – thank you for coming, both of you!” he cheered, speaking faster than the newcomer had anticipated. “Sam, my boy – I take it this is Esther, yes?”
“Yes, she is,” Sam replied, noticing as his commanding officer had already locked eyes with the newcomer.
“Splendid!” he beamed, urging the two of them to take their seats in front of his desk as he went to do the same. As her eye drifted away from his, Esther caught the map in the middle of the desk, noticing several of its spots had been marked in red or blue. It was only after the Director raised himself in his seat when her gaze returned back to the center of attention.
“And the other one,” he began, still beaming. “That would be Mira, correct?”
“Yes,” she replied, “that’s Mira.” Hoping to at least somewhat reciprocate his enthusiasm, she returned his grin with one of her own. “She is still in our tent, but she’s doing okay.” She swore she could see a sparkle in the Director’s eyes.
“The bear trap!” he interjected. “I must apologize; it is unfortunate that the trap caught you and not somebody more deserving of such punishment. I hope now you realize that the wilderness is no place for a lady such as yourself to wander. But by now you must have found refuge with us, yes?”
Catching on to his histrionics, Esther almost needed a moment to rethink the words he had spoken before replying. “Have we found refuge?” she said, repeating his words. “I think so. I have only been here for a day, but so far things seem good.”
Before she could speak another word, the Director cut in again. “But tell me,” he began, putting a cap on his energy. “You and your friend – you belonged to the Domain, yes?” Esther and Sam both flinched.
His seemed to have been intentionally worded to be as damning to answer as possible.
Sam could have sworn had he never told the Director that the newcomers were Autorian.
“From Toubane?” the man continued in his guests’ silence. “Or some other city?”
Esther blinked a few times, contemplating if she should answer the question at all. “Rhobane,” she answered honestly.
“Ah, I see,” he said, nodding. “I came from Toubane before that city was demolished. Most people were deported to other cities; others escaped. That’s just how it was.”
“Oh.” Despite what Sam had told her about many of these luocans bearing Autorian blood, she did not expect the Director to be of such a breed of luocan. “How were you able to tell I was Autorian?”
“Because you just told me!” he cried, cackling.
Sam wanted to groan.
In an effort to save herself before further questions arose, Esther continued. “Mira and I had a guardian who was walking with us outside the town’s border.”
“Interesting,” the Director murmured, hunched over his desk – quite uncomfortably, given the height of his seat – as he listened. “And what exactly was the Domain wanting to do with you out there?”
“We didn’t know. The guard took us outside Rhobane and left us with no resources.”
“And what do you think the Domain would have done to you if you tried going back in?” he prodded.
Esther swallowed. “I don’t know. And I don’t think I want to know, either.”
“Oh, I understand,” replied the Director, his tone as pathetically empathetic as he could make it. “And your friend doesn’t know, either?”
“No, sir,” Esther answered.
“I am sorry,” he said. “But if nothing else, I am glad to have you here now; that is more than what the Autorise Domain can say for its people.”
More than anything, the knowledge that this man had once been in the same system as her had Esther yearning to learn more – about his origins and what all he had done in the Domain. The fact that he had come from Toubane told her that he had joined the Disconnect about fifteen years ago – when he would have been a teenager, most likely. She wondered if they had crossed paths before, but she doubted it. Perhaps that was a good thing, as due to her lack of aging, it might have come across as suspicious to the Director if he saw the same person, unchanged, years after his departure from the Domain.
Catching Esther in her deep thought, Sam jumped back in. “We actually discussed a bit about the passage on the way here and I found out Esther apparently worked with the AI there,” he explained. “Apparently she knows a bit about the Autorian formats.”
The Director cast an inquisitive glance at Esther. “Is that so?” Well I would be happy to offer you some work to do in that passage once we get to know you better.”
An offer already? And from the leader of the camp? “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, elation shining upon her countenance.
“Yes – well, Esther: it was nice meeting you, but I must return to my work. There is a lot for me to cover and the chance to meet a new lady is just enough to break me out of it, but I must return to my work now.” With that, the Director motioned both of them to stand and leave.
As Esther hoisted herself from her seat, Sam interjected. “Wait –”
“Please, Sam!” Persson begged, lowering back to the space beneath his desk, his face hidden again behind the wooden paneling. “I will have someone call you over when I am done.”
Sam opened his mouth to speak again, but was stopped by a voice from outside. “You heard him, deputy!” James called.
His lips pursed, Sam took another look toward the desk, received no response, then gave in, gesturing Esther to come out with him. All the while James stood idly by, rifle still held tight as he eyeballed the two. Headed back to the tent where Mira now resided, it was only once they were out of the guard’s earshot when Sam let out a sigh.
“That was sudden,” Esther acknowledged. “And kind of rude.”
Sam rubbed a temple. “You don’t say.” He shook his head. “Sorry. I just wanted to tell him about the passageway and see if we could get some guys to come down with us, but he doesn’t seem to be in any mood to talk about it.”
“Well, you’re his second-in-command, aren’t you?” she inquired. “Wouldn’t you be allowed to take some people yourself.”
At that, Sam snorted. “He would probably think I’m attempting a coup d’etat if I tried something like that.” Another sigh. “But yeah – that’s the Director. Do you think you two will be able to get along?”
“I guess so,” Esther said. “I’m actually surprised how friendly he was when we got in, but he spoke so fast it was difficult to keep up with.”
“You don’t think he’s too nice?” Sam inquired.
If the level of nicety was meant to be some kind of warning, Esther was more than capable of keeping that thought in the back of her mind. She hesitated to reply. “Maybe he was,” she admitted. “Why do you ask?”
By now they had started to drift along the northern border of camp – indicated by the visible row of evergreens around this part of the area. “I guess it’s complicated,” he replied, barely keeping himself from sighing again. “He’s usually not very nice to newcomers unless they’re women.”
Esther could sense the unfortunate implications already.
Originally this and Part 1.7 were going to be the same chapter, but you know how it is. I think.
Anyway, the Discord is open, as always!