Knowing the Director and considering all the people gathered up here, Esther might have thought Persson was celebrating his own made-up holiday, were she not already invited beforehand. She almost expected to see Macy, Mira, some of the girls, maybe even Amity; instead, few of the people in the area were people whose names she cared to recall. Among them, a select few were stationed to stand around the entrance.
Almost standing at attention, Sam turned his head when he noticed Esther coming toward him.
“Esther?” he began. “Do you know what kind of meeting this is?”
“I think I do,” she replied, albeit wary, peering over his shoulder to get a glimpse at what was going on inside. To her surprise, he didn’t seem to try blocking her view. “I was invited by the Director.”
“Invited?” He almost seemed to wince when he spoke. “This is only for a select few people.”
She paused and looked over his shoulder again, only for him to step forward, moving her slightly back.
“Look, I’d like to let you in, but I find it hard to believe the Director—”
“Oh, Sam—!” the Director called, beckoning. “She’s allowed in; let her in!”
Again Sam shot a look at Esther, then turned his head to the Director to make sure he wasn’t hearing those words out of someone else’s mouth. Yet there the Director was, looking back at him and Esther as normal.
“In a minute,” Sam shouted back.
In a hushed voice, Esther spoke up. “Is something wrong?” she asked – at the same time she and Sam stepped away from the entrance so that the Director could not see them. “Didn’t the Director tell you?”
“He must not have,” Sam replied. “Because I have no idea what you’re talking about. What did he say?”
“He said I’m now allowed in the passageways whenever I want, and that I have to show up to this meeting.”
Sam’s reaction when she was talking was all the evidence she needed that the Director had lied to her when he said all the other officials on the camp knew she was allowed. If his second-in-command didn’t even know, odds were slim that anyone else in this district of camp knew about her new privileges.
For a minute, Sam seemed to struggle to think of a response at all – then gave in with a grunt. “The fact that he didn’t tell me about it is inexcusable.”
“I’m sorry,” Esther said. “I really thought you knew.”
“He really seems to be treating communication like a joke,” Sam commented. “But fine – if he says it’s okay that you’re allowed in, then—” He sighed, as if about to say something he really wished he didn’t have to. “—then I guess there is nothing I can do about it.”
Sam was just about to step back where he was when Esther spoke again. “Are you worried?” she asked. He shot a look back at her when she continued. “Because I’m worried.”
Though he seemed to have a good idea what her fears were, Sam pushed her to say them out loud. “Worried about what, Esther?”
Eyeing the Director as he minded his business in the tent, Esther leaned in toward Sam. “What he wants me to do after the meeting is over.” She continued to glance his way, noticing how he seemed to be the most jovial person in the tent – almost like he knew something or was being treated to something nobody else could ever know.
Without even looking back, Sam noticed it, too, and let out a shaky sigh. “Well, listen – you’ve proven to be a formidable woman since you’ve come here.”
“So, what? If he does what we think he’s going to do, are you expecting me to –” She hesitated on the next phrase, as it was not something she thought she would ever say. “—kick his ass if he tries something?”
“Don’t kick his ass.” Though as he said that, Sam couldn’t help smiling a little. “Just be firm with him, and get out of there before things go too far south. You can at least be rest-assured he’s never tried having his way with someone without their consent, but I don’t want someone to be the first.”
Clearly Sam was distressed that he had to even tell Esther this information, that this information was something that needed to be highlighted in the first place – but the fact that that was all he could do to resolve the issue made her ask: “Why don’t you have someone else as Director if the one you have is now treats all women so poorly that you feel the need to warn them beforehand?”
Sam did not respond.
“You can’t answer me? Say something, Sam!” Esther demanded, coming so close she nearly stepped on his toes. From an outside perspective, it almost looked as if she were coming in for a kiss.
Maybe it was the tension in her eyes or maybe it was the nuclear energy radiating from her core, but Sam clearly wasn’t comfortable with her standing so close. He probably would have stepped backward if stepping backward didn’t mean potentially ruining a part of the tent’s frame – but now with Esther up in his face, the most he could do was nudge her to back away.
“Are you trying to intimidate me?” he inquired. “Or are you coming onto me?”
“I don’t know. Which option do you think would work best against the Director?”
“I told you already: don’t try anything with the Director,” Sam said with a sigh. “Just leave. Once he’s done speaking, leave before he can talk to you. Either way, you didn’t get any ideas from me.”
Esther narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t get it from you?” she began. “But you just told me –”
“It’s an expression, Esther,” he interrupted – and now that he had caught her off-guard, Sam nudged her even further away: far away enough that he could no longer feel her breath on the skin of his face. “Please just go in. I’m sorry to have held you.” His words held the slightest edge of venom in them.
Now inside, Esther noticed there were few chairs available for her to sit at. Once she took her seat, it wasn’t long before Persson – as well as Shafer, Rouken, and a few others – proceeded with their meeting.
Director Persson spoke first, standing tall with both hands behind his back, bisecting himself in and almost-rhythmic fashion. “Now that we’re all here, I’d like to call your attention to a few key things that we have been studying in the passageway and out in the fields of Kortrik,” he said, his voice carrying well over everyone’s heads. “The most important of these things we have discovered include the bug machines, and the body that the boy and Miss Esther found outside.”
It took Esther a moment to realize who the boy was supposed to be – and once she did, she took a look around to notice that, surprisingly, he wasn’t there. Maybe that was for the best.
“To begin with the bug machines,” the Director continued. “Shafer?”
It was only after directing her attention to Shafer when Esther noticed he was standing in front of something, though she couldn’t quite make out what. Initially she had suspected it was part of a screen that would then have images projected on it, but such thoughts were challenged when she started debating whether or not luocans even had access to such technology. The fact that there were still no overhead projections seemed to answer her curiosities.
“Since the kidnapping last week, there have been no further conflicts with the bugs down in the passages,” Shafer explained. “For those of you who haven’t seen these bugs: here is what they look like.”
With little hesitation, Shafer reached a hand behind him, revealing a figure cloaked in a sheet, which he proceeded to lift off from its body. There in the place of the sheet was one of the very same bugs Esther had encountered before splashing down into the depths of the passages. She heard a few gasps from the people around her and she almost stood up when she saw the machine, then paused when she realized it was stationary.
“This is one of the machines we found within the passageways on the same day Toni was captured,” he began. “Based on what we have observed and what we have heard from eyewitness accounts, there is reason to believe that maybe a hundred or more of these machines are working on something deep within the passageways – but what they are working on, we still don’t know.
“We have yet to face one these in combat, and even my scouts who saw one of these things alive couldn’t get a shot at it.” With that, he took another step toward the machine, its round body folded into a shell, the top of its body high enough to reach Shafer’s sternum. “It has several lights on its body, but no clear use for any of them; our guess is that it’s used as a method of communication, like with bioluminescent lights.”
Esther had to silently disagree on that matter. Aside from the yellow bug, none of them seemed to communicate outwardly at all – and even if they were, there was no reason for them to use lights. The Mother’s aura, however inexplicable, was present, but she couldn’t reach it – and if all those machines had managed to hear in the depths of the tunnels was the same static noise that blared in her head, they surely would have lost all ability to function as a unit.
Lost in her thoughts, she had almost missed when Shafer started tearing the machine apart. Clearly somebody had been doing work on it.
“There is an empty compartment here,” he stated, pointing to a metal plate at the bug’s front side. “We still don’t know what was here, but our guess is that it was used to house something organic.” Before anybody could ask why or how this was the case, he reached a little deeper and revealed a series of cables. The tips of them were neither USB nor misajour, but almost needle-like – more similar to auxiliary ports than anything else. “Until we find a live one, we won’t have any way of knowing what was in here.”
Shafer continued with his explanations, proceeding to unfold some of the machine’s mandibles – some of which were used for grabbing things in a way a crab would, and two of which were tipped off with torches. Some people in the audience seemed to find it amusing how Shafer had no explanation as to why these machines would need torching devices, but commented on how the torches did not look like they were put there naturally.
“It’s as if they were an afterthought,” he said. “Most of the other pieces needed to be worn down a bit before we got them to unhinge or come off, but not these.” And sure enough, he managed to pull one of the torches off with ease, pointing to a clip at the bottom so everyone could get a look – at least as good a look as they could all get from where they sat. All it took was the pressing of two buttons for the torch to come off.
“It’s clear to me that the weapons on these things’ mandibles were made to be modular.”
“Looks as if they were purchased from some capitalists!” Persson mentioned, his voice so high-spirited that it practically halted the entire meeting for a moment. Some in the audience were surprised by his remark; Shafer more-or-less seemed indifferent.
Shafer shrugged. “It’s possible,” he replied, “but we won’t know for sure. I was expecting to have a list of electronic documents ready to examine by this point, but there were some technical difficulties and we still don’t have anything yet.”
After staying silent for what felt like at least fifteen minutes, Rouken finally spoke up. “And where do you believe they could have gotten these machines from? Or these modular parts?” He paused as Persson did not immediately respond. “Are you insinuating they have some kind of connection to New Crawford?”
Just when it looked like Persson was about to speak up, Shafer chimed in again. “We’d know that if we had the documents,” he grunted, clearly annoyed about the issue. “I can promise you now we’ll have them ready by next week.”
“Oh, right –!” Persson chuckled. “That was your niece’s responsibility, yes?”
Shafer rolled his eyes. “Let’s move on.
“Like I said: the machines use modular parts for the torches and it’s possible there are spare units deeper inside than we’ve currently looked. We’ve tried looking into this machine to see if there were any clues as to where those might be, but we have found nothing. And even now we’re uncertain how we can tap into the machine’s operating system.”
Esther began to wonder what operating system this machine used in the first place. She had serious doubts about it using anything similar to CybICS: the same system that powered her own intelligence. She didn’t want to take a chance and find out, even though she likely had the ability to – meanwhile the luocans would have done anything to get the data out, but had no ability to do so.
Again the Director interrupted the conversation. “Oh, one other thing about the machines before I forget!” he exclaimed. “I have come up with a name for them, based on their bug-like appearance. I call them: Ksondelet!”
Most of the tent was silent for the moment following the Director’s announcement.
“Interesting name, I guess,” Shafer commented. “But if we’re going to be calling them that: that’s most of what we know about the Ksondelet, for the time being. Next time we meet, as I said, we’re going to have plenty more to discuss.”
Once again the room went silent as Shafer stepped aside, putting the parts of the Ksondelet robot back where they all were before his part of the presentation. At the same time, Rouken picked up something he had been hiding behind the Director’s desk, hoisting it with ease and bringing it down on the desk with a thud, making Persson jolt when he did.
“Here is the body we found a few days ago when excavating the ruins outside,” he began. “I had Tarren, the youngest of my team, look deep into this – and while he wasn’t able to fully make out its system or where it had come from, we have reason to believe this body is Autorian in origin.”
Esther remained completely lip-tight on the issue, pursing her lips just to prevent any unwarranted words from escaping. As if by instinct, she covered her neck with her hand when Rouken pointed toward the misajour port on the headless body.
“This is the same port that all Autorian systems use for universal communication,” he continued. “The fact that it has this mark proves, without a doubt, that this came from the Domain – and that the Domain was here at one point. The big thing on our minds now is that there must be more Autorian systems here, yet this is the only thing we have found here so far.”
The undercover Autorian almost wanted to consider herself lucky – yet at the same time, the fact that there was only one true trace of Autorian technology was more than a little confusing. She remembered the letter she had found from sixty years ago and how it had talked about converters, but even that was referring more to power converters and neo-actinides than it was to anything having to do with the misajour format.
“We can at least safely report that Faust did not suffer any lasting damage from whatever remained of this body’s radioactivity,” Rouken continued, then took a look toward Esther. “And from what I can tell, nobody has suffered radiation sickness of any kind.”
For much of the rest of the meeting, some of the speakers Esther didn’t know gave general reports of what was happening in the passageways – all things she cared very little about. It wasn’t until Shafer stood in front once more when something else was said that caught her attention – and perhaps not for the right reason.
“Director?” he began. “Don’t you remember the reactor we were looking at?”
Persson responded with an almost half-awake look about him. “Reactor?” he repeated. “You refer to the noisy generator, yes?”
A disturbed look glazed over Shafer’s eyes. “Yes,” he replied.
“Oh, well, go ahead,” he said, beckoning Shafer to move on, though he kept his gaze away from the scout leader’s.
With that, Shafer began. “We have found a lot of old robots lying around the same floor where the reactor is,” he began. “And some of those robots have been worked on by the scouts. We even managed to get some of them to walk around the facility, which is probably what they were originally doing in the first place.”
All while Shafer explained, Esther realized that the Director seemed to be eyeing her – and for what reason, she couldn’t tell, nor did she want to know. He wasn’t smiling at her or enjoying her looks for his own personal reasons (as far as she could tell), but it still bothered her. Yet she didn’t know what to be more bothered by: his potential lust toward her, or the fact that he treated the reactor and its potential detonation – a fear she and many in camp had – with such a hand-wavy attitude as to be completely inconsiderate of the topic at all.
The most Esther got out of this talk regarding the reactor was that Shafer was waiting on more notes to come out their excavation. That, in addition to the work being done on the androids, would lead to all the answers – at least as far as he was concerned.
As the meeting began to come to a close, Esther was left to ponder what these android reconstruction efforts could have led to. She wanted to ask how many androids had been repaired – but by the time the meeting was over, Shafer had already left the scene, leaving the Ksondelet behind for everyone else to observe.
If these luocans truly were capable of repairing these robots to the point of being functional, then perhaps she could get the rest of the data that the last robot had failed to deliver. It was data she could use, and data the luocans would likely never be able to comprehend as well as she and the Domain could once they had their hands on it.
Remembering the notes that were being written from the documents in the tunnels, Esther also realized the luocans were practically writing her an easily-translatable stone slab – with which the Domain could learn all it needed about this area, come back full-force, and take it for itself with ease, now that she and Mira knew as much about it as the dwellers did.
But now that it was over, Esther was quick to leave; not quick enough to follow Shafer, but quick enough to avoid Persson. Even so, he didn’t seem to have any vested interest in her for the time being. It wasn’t long before she made it back to Sam.
She whipped up to him so fast that Sam looked at her with a start.
“Well, I did everything you wanted,” she said, moving the hair out of her eyes. “It doesn’t look like he really wants to talk right now. I think you were overreacting.”
He quirked his brow at her. “He really didn’t try to make any sort of move on you? Because he was acting a bit strange throughout the meeting, in case you didn’t notice.”
“Was he?” she inquired, hesitating for a moment to speak again. “I can admit he was looking at me a few times, but—”
“More than a few times,” Sam interrupted.
The level of discomfort Esther knew she should have felt around Persson started to grow the more she spoke with the deputy now. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, he was still in a position of power – even in relation to her own newfound authority.
“Sam,” she began, looking down in a play of shame as she put her hands on her hips. “Are you doing one of those things men do?” When he didn’t reply, she clarified: “Acting out of jealousy?”
Her insinuation was enough to make him snicker. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t lie to me, Sam.” Again she drew closer to him.
And before she could take another step, Sam did the same, stepping more firmly than her, pushing her back. “Don’t do that again,” he said. “It already looks like there’s something between us when there isn’t.”
“So are you just really really really really concerned about me?”
“Why do you have to be concerned about me?” she asked, at which point it suddenly hit her. “Did the Director tell you to be concerned?”
“What? Of course not!” Likely beyond his control, Sam raised his voice. “I’d like to think I have more agency than that!” Sweat started to roll down the side of his head when he looked to his right, into the still-busy crowd where the Director was, then turned back to Esther. “It doesn’t matter if it was you, Mira, or even Macy: I still want to make sure he doesn’t do anything to any of you.”
Esther’s lip curled – perhaps a bit too much, given the mere mild annoyance she was trying to portray. “Really,” she said, a statement rather than a question. “Well, I appreciate your concern – but Mira and I are more than capable of taking care of ourselves.” Suddenly she remembered: “I still don’t appreciate that business with Shafer shortly after Mira and I arrived – especially when Mira doesn’t think very highly of that man as it is.”
Sam started to sweat a little more. “Would it have been better if I was there instead of Shafer?”
Esther shook her head.
“If it was Macy?”
She shook her head again – and before Sam could throw in another name, Esther spoke three last words – “Let us be.” – and left to return to Mira.
But as intimidated as the deputy seemed by her stance, Esther knew he wasn’t going to back down – or if he did, it wasn’t going to be for very long.
She hoped she had come off just angry enough to intimidate, but not so angry as to be unreasonable. Firm enough to make sense, but not so firm as to step on the toes of anyone she didn’t want to. It seemed that now if Persson wanted to speak with her directly, she would have a proper method to do so.
I said this would be done in two weeks and not fifteen days, but ehhhhh – close nuff?
These past couple weeks, I did some work new promo material for the Domain, which you can see right here:
The ink to print this off is being shipped here and I’ll be sure to start sending these around town ASAP. Til then: the Discord is free to join and always will be!