Infiltration Part 1.10.1 – The Waiting

While Sam was determined as he could be to get the excavation started, there was a hint of doubt cast over his face as he left Esther to her devices. Nowhere else to go, she retreated back into the tent with Mira – and was greeted to a pleasant surprise.

Both feet planted firmly on the floor and a hand on the bed’s frame, she struggled to keep herself upright, but managed it all the same. The injure gynoid looked up to give her partner a wave with her free hand – and almost immediately bent over.

“I’m still having a lot of trouble,” she admitted, lowering her rear back onto the cushion. “But I am definitely doing a lot better now than I thought I would be.”

Esther walked up to assess if Mira’s attempts at standing had caused the wound to reopen – and to her relief, it did not. “I’m actually a little surprised,” Esther began. “This injury damaged you more than I thought it would have – with or without the regenerative nodes to reseal everything.”

“That should tell you how deep the trap punctured,” Mira said with a sigh. “But enough of that. What happened with you and Sam?” Before Esther could answer, the sitting gynoid prodded, “Did you tell him to keep Shafer away?”

After briefly explaining why Shafer’s intrusion earlier was necessary for the luocans to carry out, Esther went on to discuss what the plans were for her and Sam as far as the passageway went. “I don’t know if Sam will actually be back today or not,” she concluded.

“And if he doesn’t come back, maybe you could sneak into the passage yourself – perhaps see if you can find out more information about that generator.”

“I can’t risk that,” Esther claimed. “I was already down there once and someone still managed to find me anyway. If they find me again, who knows what the luocans here will do?”

Mira tensed a little when she realized that once again the luocans had set up a wall in the middle of the road. “You aren’t even tried,” she argued. “You didn’t take a moment to even think about that!”

“I have thought about it!” Esther fought back. “You just can’t tell because we don’t have our link anymore.” It felt like every time they spoke to each other now, something would come up to remind them that the bond they now shared would not compare to what they had in Rhobane. The roadblocks given by the lack of connection made Esther want to ask if perhaps Mírre had sent the two of them her by mistake – but she knew that Mira’s response was going to an instant negation of such an idea.

Continuing, Esther was practically pleading for Mira to stop pushing her. “There is no need to rush things when Sam is already going to bring me down there anyway. I just need to wait.”

“All we’ve done is wait. Especially me; I’m practically a background subject as far as our mission goes all because of an injury I sustained on the first day. Don’t you think Mírre would want you to do it?”

As the conversation had gradually increased in volume, Esther attempted to bring things back down as she lowered her voice. “I don’t know what she would want. Because she is not with us.”

With that, the two of them went silent again until Mira turned herself on her bed, her legs pointed in Esther’s general direction. “I guess if I’m going to be stuck here, maybe we can find something useful for me to do around camp.”

There had to have been something for her to do now that Amity was gone. Still Esther had to ask: “Are you sure you can work with your legs yet?”

“I just need some support,” Mira claimed.

Though Esther was hesitant to believe a little support was all the gynoid needed, she did not feel the need to cause any further argument. “I’ll see if Macy has anything.” Though even saying that managed to elicit a barely-audible grunt on Mira’s end as Esther started turning away to get help.

By now all the girls were still in their tent, Macy in there with them to instruct the lot of them as they huddled around. For once it seemed a single person was able to round up the entire lot of them, as opposed to a single person with some assistants. Walking through the tent flap and witnessing the now-controlled children brought with it an air of commonality Esther had not expected to find here.

Rather than going to help herself, Macy instructed Toni to go along with Esther to grab something for Mira.

“They’re just some crutches Macy has in the back of her tent,” the girl explained. “Just don’t break them; they’re the only ones we have now.”

With that little comment, Esther began to wonder if they actually would break under an etternel’s weight.

Toni instructed Mira to stay by the tent flap as she took a deeper dive for the supports she was looking for. Patient, Esther complied – up until nearly ten minutes had passed without any word from the girl. It was difficult to see Toni from where Esther stood – and from her less-than-advantageous vantage point, she leaned a little closer in to see what was going on. “Is everything okay?” she asked.

“Fine!” shouted Toni. “It’s all fine; I just haven’t found the stupid things yet.”

Esther almost wanted to ask if the crutches were even in the tent in the first place. She thought she could hear a swear on the girl’s end before leaning in a little further and watching her heave a sigh of relief.

“Found them!” Toni cried at the same time she turned her head to witness Esther peeping from behind the flaps. Once she came back, Esther could see the droplets of sweat decorating the top of her head beneath her curly hair. Without a word, she handed the crutches over to Esther, who took them without issue.

“Thank you,” said the woman, almost turning away as the wooden utensils rested in her hands. While part of her wanted to worry about how well lumber would do with Mira, she instead took note of Toni’s stressed expression. “Is everything okay?” she wondered.

As if confused, Toni flicked her gaze upward with an electric reaction. “It’s fine,” she said, emphasizing the second word. Perhaps realizing that Esther had caught onto her, Toni sighed and shook her head. “Alright; it’s not all fine. I’m just kind of stressed out about Amity.”

There Esther saw Mira’s opportunity to get work done. “Is it the workload?” she asked, lowering herself slightly to match the girl’s eyelevel.

“A bit,” she admitted, biting her lip as she and Esther went on their way back. They were almost at the girls’ tent when Toni spoke again. “Do you ever feel like you were so close to someone you could read their mind, but now it’s like you don’t know them?”

If she only knew. “I can sympathize,” Esther said, avoiding any in-depth analysis of what Toni had just said.

Rather than open up again, Toni cast her eyes down at her feet, as if bashful. “Yeah…”

She didn’t say anything beyond that.

With a quick glance to her left, Esther noticed the other girls had started peeking at the two of them from the sliver of space between the tent’s flaps. Tightening her grip on the crutches, she cleared her throat and directed her gaze to the opening.

It took Toni a moment to read Esther’s body language – at which point she shuffled back in like a panicking play extra.

Now back to Mira’s side, Esther provided the crutches.

“Toni gave me these; they should help out.”

“I have seen these before!” Mira replied. “Sometimes people at the medical areas back home would need them for those few times they ran out of wheelchairs.”

“Do you think they’ll work for you?” Esther wondered. Just as she had asked, Mira hoisted herself up, placing the crutches tops around her ancillaries as she hopped about on her one good foot.

Mira gave her partner a determined smirk. “I think so.” She then took a few steps forward, already getting the hang of this new method of walking. Barely able to help herself, Esther returned with a smile of her own; Mira was doing a great job for someone who had never used these things before.

Suddenly Esther remembered: “Maybe we should wait a moment for Macy to get back to us.” Anticipating some protest, Esther attempted to clarify, “Just while she’s still taking care of the children.”

Though not as resistant to her demands as Esther had anticipated, Mira returned her partner’s comment with an air of passive-aggression, which she put on full display as she carried herself back to her bed without a word. “Okay! I still wish we could do this excavation together.”

As much of a disaster as that could have been without a net-link, Esther had to admit that would have been nice. She nodded.

By the time nightfall had made its approach and Esther still had yet to hear from Sam, Macy proposed that she work along with Mira in aiding her with the tasks she and her assistants had to carry out. Esther would have been annoyed by this if she were more prone to human emotion than what her architecture would allow, but rather than complain, she could only wonder what was keeping Sam.

She should have known that Persson wouldn’t have been willing to comply with whatever plan he had. Two days had passed without any word about the excavation. Still Esther did her work, making sure all the girls were accounted for, washing their clothes for them, resolving any conflicts or fights that might have sprouted between two or more girls. The work was not difficult when she had three luocans and Mira to work with, but she could understand where Amity’s general frustration and attitude had started.

It almost came as a surprise that Toni did not wish to speak on the subject they had narrowly avoided the other day. Toni and Esther barely spoke at all, instead opting to only talk when the job called for it. Cynthia, on the other hand, was a lot more social – something which she said was to be expected of Toni: now the oldest assistant Macy had. Esther learned that Macy was making an effort to make one of the girls into a new assistant, but so far nobody had volunteered for the position.

As the newcomers worked among the children, there was a noticeable amount of gossip speaking from one child to another. It took the two of them until their second day as assistants for them to verify that the gossip was about the two of them.

Thanks to Amity’s stunt on her birthday, a lot of the girls had come to believe that Esther and Mira truly were dating. Neither of the two women dared comment on this rumor, yet the idea of them being labeled as lovers was somewhat amusing.

In the late afternoon while the two women, Macy, and all the children were sitting by in their large tent, a shuffling came at the opening. Esther could not have been more relieved or surprised to find Sam at the other side.

“Hi – Macy? I’m here for Esther.” He spoke as if he were a parent pulling their child out of class. The woman in charge did not hesitate to let Esther go – at which point the woman undid some of her extra garments and rolled them up in her arms. All the while she sauntered up to Sam without a word.

It was only once they made their way back outside when the tension between them started to break. “I know, I’m sorry,” he began, almost writhing his hands as he spoke. “We had to wait longer than we wanted before we had the go-ahead.”

“We?” asked Esther as she looked over his shoulder.

“The others are gathered around the east side,” Sam explained. “But anyway – you seem to be getting along with everyone well.” The two of them walked to Esther and Mira’s tent, where she threw her clothes away for now.

“More or less,” she replied. “It’s not like I was left empty-handed with Macy around here.” Thinking about Amity suddenly reminded her: “Have you seen where Amity’s gone, though?”

“Just in a tent by herself. Her tent’s one of the closer ones to the outskirts.

Suddenly she wondered what that girl was doing in there. “Just by herself? Does she talk to anyone?”

“Not that I’ve seen,” he admitted with a sigh. “Amity’s probably still burned out, but she’ll tire out of this phase. They always eventually do.”


Now for something a little different! I’ve decided to go and start making smaller chapters when the need arises.

Honestly, with that said, this chapter should have gone up a week ago as almost all of this was here a week ago. I’ve been gone simply due to a project that I’ve been beta-reading for someone — but now that that’s over, it’s time to get serious!

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part1.9 – The Art of Horror

Amity never thought she could sweat so much at this time of year. Her nerves were getting to her – which was something she dared not express to anyone. But at least now she could confidently say that her work on the tent was nearing completion. All that needed to be done now was the assembly.

Knowing it was the best place to store such materials for now, Amity kept the cloth and poles in Macy’s tent – meanwhile Macy herself had gone to meet with the scouts out east for some medical chemicals. There were still some things Amity needed to retrieve from her bed at the girls’ main tent – one of those things being the notebook.

There was still a lot that needed to be copied over from the MDA. With its battery capacity, Amity wasn’t sure how long she would be able to work with it before it died; she could only hope that she got at least an hour out of it. And with Macy’s work keeping her from watching the girls, that meant Toni and Cynthia were on their own to watch everyone else – which they did without complaint.

This meant the girls’ tent was empty. Nobody would see Amity with the MDA if she went to copy her notes in there.

It was only once she got into the tent when she turned the device on. She proceeded to pick the notebook out from under her sleeping bag and pull the pen out of the pocket of her new pants as the MDA’s tiny disk spun. The device beeped twice once ready – at which point Amity picked it up and scrolled through her stories with the directional pad.

The newly-branded woman rested her head on one of the tents’ supports as she looked through several documents she had written over the years. Among them were her alien series, her detective series, some almost-autobiographical oneshots, and some romance bits she was ashamed to admit she had written – and which would no doubt be the last thing she copied to paper.

Once again she thought about the wrist-aches this was going to cause and wished her fellow nomads still had access to printers. The Domain would, but it wasn’t like she knew – or cared to meet – anyone from the Domain.

Suddenly she remembered the two new women and almost wanted to ask if they could lend a printer. She shook the thought out of her head and carried on.

She continued scrolling and clicking through the filesystem on the device. There was folder on here that she wanted to copy over more than any other: Kraykozen Chronicles. These so-called chronicles were part of her alien series – which she had worked on perhaps more than any other series of hers. It was certainly her favorite project to work on.

Scrolling through a little more, she found the first story she wanted to move over. Starting from there, Amity flipped the book open, readied her pen, and started jotting down the manuscript one letter at a time.

The battery on the device was at one hundred percent when Amity had begun – and within minutes it dropped a percentage, draining from the stress of keeping the light on and scrolling down line by line. There were times she struggled to get a good glance at the words on her screen and times where she had made a typographical error and needed to figure out what she was trying to say in the first place: a typical problem when sometimes she used this device when barely awake. Still she dotted every I, crossed every T, left no stone unturned – and by the time she finished her first manuskript, her device’s battery sat at eighty-two percent battery and her wrist ached in at least eighty-two places. She had assumed her hands would be used to this kind of abuse, but handwriting was not quite the same as pushing buttons.

Onto the next story.

Part of the fun of rewriting was re-experiencing the stories she had made long ago. Some of the plot points made her chuckle, some made her smile, some made her screw up her face, but all of them brought her back to those times when her fellow men and women were still hopping from one spot to another – and wherever they stopped, Macy let her sit in her tent to type away at the MDA. Their current settlement didn’t give her the level of nostalgia she had for their old home, yet the act of simply copying her old documents over almost made her feel like those days were with her again. On this transitory day from childhood to adulthood, she had one last chance to be a kid again.

She wondered how she did it all. Without a real keyboard, touchscreen, or handwriting feature to speak of, Amity was limited to using the virtual keyboard – which she had to traverse with the handful of buttons beneath the screen. With the way she was writing then, she had no reason to complain about handwriting the bulk of her work onto paper.

Story done. Sixty-seven percent. Next one. This one was a lot scarier than the others.

“Isn’t that Miss Macy’s?”

Nearly jumping off the floor, Amity looked up to see Cynthia glowering down at her. The little girl’s angry, condescending scowl turned into a satisfied smirk, perhaps following the realization that she had caught her former partner in a vulnerable state.

For a moment all the color drained out of Amity’s face. She wanted to scream, yet doing so would have drawn more attention to the fact that she had blown Macy’s secret. It was only after remembering to breathe when her surprised expression turned to one of smug annoyance. “What does it matter to you?” she challenged. “She barely uses this thing anyway and she said I can use it if I feel like it.”

“Really?” asked Cynthia. “Well, what are you doing with it?”

As soon as the girl asked, Amity turned off the device’s screen. “Nothing you need to worry about. Just don’t tell anyone I was using this thing, okay?”

Cynthia gave a little shrug. “Well, alright,” she declared. Then, changing the subject, she continued. “Toni sent me here to let you know that the boys are here with our meal.”

At that, Amity almost wanted to roll her eyes. She spoke no words as she reactivated the MDA’s screen.

“Bailey is out there!”

Amity stopped, pulling her face away from the screen to see that Cynthia’s smirk was gone. “Are you really going to hold that over me?”

“Yes I am, because it’s true,” said Cynthia. “Come on; you’re already slacking and your future husband is out – ”

“First of all, I’m not slacking – I already finished weaving the cloth!” Amity interrupted, her face going red at the words future husband. “And second: I’m about done with this thing, anyway, so shut up.” As she spoke, Amity held down the power button until the screen went black. From there, she slipped it and her notebook under her sleeping bag before coming along with Cynthia to go outside.

And there she saw Bailey with a few other boys and their scout leader, handing out their usual soup-and-bread meal. Amity scratched her stomach like she was hungry – when in truth she was anything but.

“Oh, there you are,” said Toni with a sigh as the two girls returned. She eyed Cynthia. “I told you she was in the tent.”

Cynthia stuck her tongue out at the other student worker.

In the midst of their banter, Amity turned her head to where the boys were, watching as they continued handing portions out to the girls. Squinting ahead, it took her a moment to witness Bailey among the group; her heart skipped a beat. Absentminded to the conversation happening right next to her, she started walking toward the boys, readying herself to line up.

Practically inch-by-inch, the line shrunk. Amity, along with Macy’s two workers, were the last to get their meals before the boys were set to depart. Once Amity had her meal, she promptly stepped aside for the other two to get theirs – at which point she took a few steps further to Bailey.

The bread made a loud crunch when she stuffed it in her mouth – which was enough to get his attention. Her cheek filled with the stale sustenant substance, she dropped the rest of the bread in her vat of viscous miscellany before giving Bailey a quick, “Hey.” Her words were muffled as she struggled to speak around the bread.

“Hi,” he responded, looking over his shoulder, a little amused to see her behind him as he bent down to organize some cups that had already been returned. He opened his mouth to speak again, then paused as he looked up and down Amity’s frame.

No doubt he had taken notice of Amity’s new outfit: heavier and more similar to the brownish fittings that Macy often carried with her. Compared to the other girls in the area, she definitely stood out – so much that he obviously struggled to recognize her in the new getup.

“Oh – hi! It’s you.” He turned his own back to the rest of the scouts when he faced her. “You’re the one who –” He paused again, trying to correct himself mid-sentence. “– you’re Macy’s student who just turned fourteen, right? Amy?”

The remains of her bread slid down her esophagus. “It’s Amity,” she corrected, giving a nervous chuckle.

“Right – right.” The boy gave yet another pause. “Were you, um…wanting to help us pass stuff out to the rest of camp? Because we’re about to get moving after we eat here.”

It took Amity til just then to realize all the boys around her had settled down to eat their bread and soup while it was still warm – a surprise, as she thought they were rqeuired to at least get everyone else in camp some rations before taking some for themselves. She didn’t dare bring the point up as Bailey grabbed some for himself. With a shrug, she replied, “Sure. I’ve been thinking about the kind of work I’m going to be doing, anyway – now that I’m done here. Miss Macy always talks about being a mommy or some kind of babysitter.”

Her talking about being a mother almost made him cringe, but instead Bailey gave a nod. “Mister Theo might have something you can do,” he replied, then immediately regretted it. “Sorry – what kind of work did you have in mind?”

“Hmm… you pick,” she said. “I was really wanting to see if I could get a boy’s input!”

At that, Bailey rolled his eyes. “I know what you’re trying to do, Amity, but I really don’t have anything that I need help with.” He went back to his own small cup of soup.

A little taken aback by his rude reaction, Amity took a turn to pause. “I wasn’t really trying anything,” she corrected, fully aware that what she said wasn’t entirely true. “But c’mon – you really have nothing?”

It took him a moment to think on it. “How about this?” he began. “If you’re up to it, you can help me set up my tent when I have to do my move in a few months.”

Amity smiled and took a slurp of her meal. “Cool,” she said. “So, I’m sorry – I’ve just been bothering about work I can do; how’re you holding up now that you’ll be fourteen in a few months, too?”

Where part of Amity expected him to sigh upon being asked, Bailey seemed to perk up a little. “Just really tired, actually,” he responded. “Sam actually caught me sleeping by the fire earlier, but he knows Theo let me.”

“Did Theo actually let you?”

“Yes! Yes he did. And once I got up, I came over to the other guys so we could hand out rations today, so here we are. I kind of forgot today was your birthday, though – so happy birthday.”

She couldn’t help giggle a little. “Thanks.”

“So what does that mean about you?” asked Bailey. “Are you trying to find work because you’re not working for Macy anymore?”

The fact that he didn’t bring up the possibility of her taking Macy’s place made Amity want to heave a sigh of relief. “Yeah, I’ve gotta find work elsewhere. Maybe I’ll join some workers’ group if I’m that desperate. Hopefully I won’t get to that point.”

“You were one of Macy’s top workers, though,” he pointed out. “So you should be fine. Actually…what’s gonna happen to those newcomers now that you’re not there to help out?”

Amity was almost embarrassed that word about Esther and Mira had reached this boy’s ears. Even with that in mind, she knew it would have been rude to ignore the question. “Not much should really change there. Toni and Cynthia might struggle a bit since one of them has stitches that they need to look at, but Toni’s experienced enough that she shouldn’t have any trouble.” Part of her wanted to take those words back; Toni may have been experienced, but was she able to stitch such deep gashes by herself?

“Toni’s now the oldest, isn’t she?” Bailey took another slurp of his meal.

“Yeah, she is,” Amity replied. “May God be with her.”

“What do you mean?”

Amity huffed some of the hair out of her eyes. “It can just be stressful being the oldest after awhile. Everyone expects everything of you, a lot of the things you used to like doing get pushed to the side. Like I almost forgot about half the stories I made.” She flinched after saying that; that wasn’t meant to be said out loud.”

“Stories?”

“Um…yeah.” She started to blush. “Just, y’know – little things I write.”

Seeing as she averted his gaze, Bailey quickly realized she was getting uncomfortable for her. In an attempt to change the subject, he pointed to her cup. “Hey – you might want to finish that. We’re gonna need to move to the center of camp in a bit.”

Yanked away from the awkward derailment their conversation had taken, Amity’s face returned to its normal color. “Oh, right,” she said, looking down as the still-mostly-full cup stared her in the face. Though she was hardly hungry, she made an effort to chow through most of it in a few minutes’ time.

All along Bailey was silent, scooping up what remained in his cup. After the shared silence, deliberating each word, he started to speak again. “We could hang out after this,” he said. When Amity looked up from the cup, wiping some of the residue off her lip, he continued. “I kinda want to hang out now that we’ve talked a bit. Maybe I can take care of a few things.”

“Like getting to know me?” asked Amity with a slight smirk.

Bailey stammered. “Yeah…” Seeing the little amount of broth at the bottom of her cup, he asked. “Are you, uh…finished with that?”

She took a look down at what remained. “I guess so.”

“Cool,” said Bailey, giving a nervous, yet satisfied smile. “Just pour yours in my cup and I’ll take care of it.”

With barely a word, she did as he said.

Bailey issued a brief thanks before tipping the cup down his gullet.

Amity nearly choked on her tongue as he drank the broth. She almost wanted to close her eyes, but kept them open, wondering whether or not he would gag on the residue of their early lunch. When he finished, the biggest reaction she managed to see out of him was a light shudder.

For some reason she nearly found herself going just as hot as when he had asked about her stories. “Did you… like that?” she tittered.

“Not really,” he admitted. “But hey – thanks for letting me finish this, anyway.”

“Don’t mention it, I guess. I just hope you don’t have broth breath whenever we meet up later.”

From there, Amity went along with Bailey and the other boys as they made their way to the center of camp, carrying the vat of soup and a basket of bread along with them, taking extra care not to trip or drop anything – especially the large vat. Amity did not envy the task given to the two kids assigned to carry the large metal container around for the hot fluid.

By now the sun was barely visible, which made them all want to groan. Amity had hoped it wouldn’t rain again, but sure enough, a light drizzle had cast down on them by the time they set everything up near the fire in the middle of camp.

While the boys dispersed rations, Amity cleaned the used cups and silverware that Bailey was organizing earlier.

Once she had finished cleaning most of the dishes, Amity was told that she could go back to take care of whatever else she needed to do on her birthday.

“Oh yeah – where are you gonna be setting up your tent?” asked Bailey.

“I don’t really know yet,” Amity admitted. “It should be around the east near where I already was. Should be easier to spot when the cloth is brand new anyway.”

Bailey chewed his lip. “Well alright,” he said with a shrug. “But if I go into the wrong tent and I walk in on someone getting dressed, I’m gonna complain!”

That was enough to elicit a snort from Amity. “I’ll see you then!”

In her time with Bailey, the fledgling had almost completely forgotten about the MDA she had left under where she slept. Realizing this, she swore under her breath and made a run back to the tent.

Once there, out of breath, she witnessed someone almost stepping on her sleeping bag, their foot only narrowly avoiding the cushion. It took everything in her to keep from screaming, her heart pounding, leaping up to her throat in the heat of the moment.

Hoping not to cause any drama, Amity swept up her sleeping bag, taking the MDA, notebook, and pen underneath in one fell swoop, rolling it all up before heading outside without a word. Once outside, she ran into Cynthia and Toni.

“Hi again!” said Cynthia.

Seeing the way Toni smiled yet said nothing, Amity hesitated to ask if Cynthia had spoiled her secret about the MDA. Her brain stung with the thought that she might have done that – and the urge to smack the girl upside the head grew ever more overwhelming.

“Congratulations!” Cynthia said again. “We’re gonna miss you having you around, Amity!”

Whatever anger had built up in her throat over the last few seconds immediately went away. “O-oh!” she stammered. “Oh, thank y–!”

Cynthia and Toni cut her off as they pulled in for a group hug. While Toni smiled and showed as much support as she could, it was inherently obvious to Amity that this was Cynthia’s plan. Still, it was not unwelcome – even as she held the sleeping bag in one arm.

For the first time in what felt like years, Amity felt a sense of warmth among the girls, no longer seeing them as nuisances, but rather younger siblings she had grown up with. The fact that Cynthia and Toni had gone out of their way to congratulate her – in spite of the many times she had lashed out or insulted them – made her return a smile brighter than any they had seen from her in months. In a lot of ways, their simple gift made her feel bittersweet about the road ahead.

Her grip on the makeshift bed loosening, Amity froze when she heard a flurry of papers sputter beneath her. The two girls followed suit, stepping back to see what she had dropped. Toni bent down to examine the notebook and MDA while Cynthia grimaced, stepping back as if she anticipated shouting.

As always, Toni wavered her words. “Are these yours?” she wondered as she picked the three items off the ground.

Having held her breath for what felt like an entire minute, Amity huffed through her nostrils and nodded. “You’re not supposed to know about the MDA, and neither is anyone else, but yes.”

“She’s not using the MDA for anything bad!” Cynthia declared, hoping to cover up as much as she could. “I think.”

Amity’s eyebrow twitched as Cynthia spoke. As Toni helped gather the woman’s things, Amity attempted to explain herself. “I just have a lot of projects I need to copy to the notebook.”

“What kinds of projects?” wondered Toni.

Admittedly, Amity never suspected anyone would take interest, but so far both girls had expressed a desire to know more. Amity almost had to struggle not to show her agitation. “Well,” she began. “It’s a story I’m writing.”

“Oh – like a book?”

Amity nodded. “I figured I may as well do something I like with my literacy that doesn’t involve telling the difference between water and acid. And you know how bored and annoyed I’ve been with work lately.”

Toni clearly took amusement with Amity’s choice of words. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“So wait,” Cynthia cut in. “Are you trying to become the next Edgar Allen Poe? How long have you been writing, anyway?”

It had been so long, she needed to think about it. “Since I was eleven. I’ve made four different series of stories, as well as a few smaller ones in between. And I just finished copying one story from the MDA onto the noteobok.”

“What story?” Toni wondered, clearly getting excited. “What is it about?”

Amity cast a slightly concerned, yet contemplative glance at the oldest of Macy’s servants. “Let’s go sit by Macy’s tent and talk about it.” By now the rain had stopped, so she had no trouble setting herself along the grassy floor. Once settled, she sat straight up with the two girls on either side, flipping through to the first page of the piece she wanted.

“So I don’t have a final name yet cause I keep changing the title,” she confessed, “but this story is about badass aliens – called Kraykozen – who have to save the Earth, but they also need to do so while keeping everyone in the dark about the fact that they eat humans.”

Where a moment their wide eyes showed interest and enthusiasm in Amity’s hobby, the only emotion on display was shock and a little bit of disgust.

“What’s really cool is how the aliens eat. They don’t have necks, so what they have to do is spit out their stomach and then absorb their food with an acid – ”

Cynthia screamed. “What the hell?!” she said. “You went from nothing to insanity just like that – just what the hell?”

Rather than argue her case, Amity appeared almost bewildered by this reaction – to see that, just as well, Toni was too shocked to say much. “What’s wrong? Too outlandish?”

“Aliens that spit out their stomach? That’s disgusting,” Cynthia replied. “And you could have said it was supposed to be a scary story.”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Well, sorry! But I happen to think scary stuff is cool, for lack of a better word.”

“There’s nothing cool about the stomach thing,” Cynthia proclaimed. “It won’t work for whatever audience you’re going for.”

A flash of fury sparking in her eyes, Amity whipped to face Cynthia. “I write for myself, damn it!” she argued. “What, do you want me to make the aliens cutesy – turn them into cat people with giant ears and manga eyes – just so I can appeal to whatever bullshit audience you’ve got in mind?”

“Calm down!” Cynthia and Toni said in unison. The three of them went completely silent, holding their breaths, before letting out a unified sigh.

Cynthia thought for a moment before speaking up again. “Have you ever tried writing other scary things?”

“No; this is supposed to be like my premiere horror project.”

“Can we read it?” Toni piped up, leaning in to catch a better glimpse at the text.

A touch claustrophobic, Amity pulled the notebook closer to her chest. “Why?” she asked, then relaxed a little. “Well, I guess you’re less squeamish than she is.”

“Hey!” Cynthia shouted.

“I don’t mind.” Toni scooted in a little. “I promise I won’t criticize.”

“Well, alright.” With that, Amity cast a look at Cynthia, who puffed up her cheeks as if she couldn’t figure out what to say.

“Alright, I’ll keep my mouth shut!” she said, holding up a promissory outfacing palm as she spoke.

Amity nodded before gradually removing the booklet from her chest. “Well, alright; scoot in.”


“I think we got this stuff just in time,” Sam noted as he and Esther finished the last of their soup. “Sometimes it feels like the boys here barely have enough leftover once everyone gets their rations. Have you talked to any of the boys around here before, actually?”

“I haven’t,” Esther admitted. Unless a nonchalant thank-you-for-the-cup counted as conversation.

“You’ll probably get to later, then.” As they started on their way back from the central campfire, Sam continued talking about what they would do in regard to the passageway. “I swear – once I check in with some other guys, we’re going to talk to Persson about our plans to excavate, and we’re bringing you with us once we do.”

“What’s the plan after we excavate?”

“Well,” Sam began. “We’ll probably set some scouts there just to keep watch in case we need to, make sure they’re well-equipped, move some of the scouts’ tents closer to the passage entrance, and hopefully find an easier way to get there that doesn’t involve a raft.”

“That last one would help,” Esther quipped, eliciting a chuckle out of Sam. “And you’re going to do that tonight?”

“Whether the Director wants to or not, we’ll find a way to make him let us,” Sam assured.

It wasn’t long before they were at the medical area again. “Suddenly I’m wondering if Mira’s doing any better since yesterday,” Esther mused. “All we talked about earlier was Shafer suddenly showing up this morning.”

Her comment was immediately followed by the sound of screams and laughter from within the tent.

She and Sam exchanged a glance.


Amity cast her audience a sidelong smirk. The little amount of light shining upon her profile mixed gave her the edge she needed to tell her story as Cynthia and Toni stood behind her, practically gesturing at the audience when to react.

“They say they came from space,” she began, staring into the pages of her notebook. “And when they arrived, they came with one mission: to devour all humans! Eat everything and leave nothing behind!” The story had undergone some changes – at least for the time being.

How awful!” “That’s disgusting!” “Did they eat everyone?

“Nobody was spared,” she continued. Cynthia hid her mouth behind her hands at the same time a unified shiver crawled down the other girls’ spines. “The aliens traveled from one town to another, destroying every one that they came across. Entire cities crumbled in their wake – and while the Domain claims that they exterminated the aliens long ago, some say these space monsters live among the androids of the Domain to this day!”

You’re lying!” “No – I think she’s telling the truth.” “How can that be true?” “It makes too much sense!” One of those voices came from behind Amity.

“One may pop up anywhere you go, ready to snatch you when nobody else is looking. They might find you in the forest, they might find you in the outskirts – but their favorite place to gather is in the tunnels underground. If ever you hear the tick…tick…tick of their spindly-spidery footsteps, you’ll know they are nearby.

“And perhaps worst of all is the way they eat their prey.” Pulling one of the girls out from the crowd, she traced a hooked finger under her volunteer’s chin. “First they start at the throat – but if they can’t get that close, they’ll shoot their venom in your eyes!” She motioned to the girl’s bespectacled gaze, making her flinch as Amity near-poked her eyes out with her two fingers. “And after they’re done watching you roll around in pain, their cybernetic attachments start to generate a fire, preparing to cook you alive as you – !”

“What is going on in here?”

Everyone flinched when they heard Sam’s voice, turning around to see Esther and Sam approach – the former stepping forward to speak as the latter stood just outside the entrance.

Amity went silent for a moment, then gave them a grin: the exact opposite reaction Toni and Cynthia had expected. “Oh – hi Miss Esther, Mister Deputy! We were just talking about –”

“Talking about Amity’s new story!” Toni interrupted.

Cynthia added onto that: “It’s just a work of fiction. But Amity – Amity’s gonna be the next Edgar Allen Poe one day!”

“I never said that! You did!” Amity argued, hissing as she spoke. The top of her face went red and sweaty as if she didn’t want anyone knowing she was writing in the first place. Though judging by some of her audiences’ reactions, only half in attendance seemed to know who Cynthia was even talking about.

“Did Poe write about aliens who eat people?” Esther inclined, tilting her head as if she were legitimately curious.

“No he didn’t!” an older girl – about Toni’s age – shouted from the audience. “And there’s not any aliens out there either, Amity! You’re just trying to give the little ones nightmares.”

Amity did not let the others’ words have a visible effect on her. “No one is going to get nightmares from a silly story.” Cynthia and Toni exchanged an almost confused glance behind Amity’s back, but did not say anything.

By now, it was obvious that almost everyone’s gaze was locked on Amity for the exact wrong reason. The silence was the worst part, making her wish for the shocked gasps, yelps, and squeals she had managed to elicit a moment ago. Growing more nervous by the second, she inhaled, exhaled, then closed the booklet. “Y’know what? Forget this.” And without another word, she wrapped her things back up in the sleeping bag, keeping the MDA from view along with the now-buried notebook. “I’m not supposed to be here, anyway.”

Esther and Sam, stepping out along with her, could practically feel the steam rising off the girl’s face. “Hey – wait a minute,” Sam inclined, beckoning her over. “Don’t just walk out, Amity – come on.”

The girl struggled not to roll her eyes as she obeyed his command. “Yes, Sam?”

“Everything going alright?” he asked. “Did you get the tent finished, get all your other things done, said your goodbyes to Macy?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Amity assured. “I just need to put the tent up and then everything will be done.”

Ignoring the fact that her second yes was only mostly true, Sam asked again. “Are you sure it’s all okay?”

“I’m fine, Sam! I even got some plans with Bailey now thanks to you.” She gave the deputy a light smile. “But if you would please, I need to finish this one last thing and then I’ll be all good for the day!”

He gave Amity a cold stare that almost made her retract – then finally gave in with a slight shake of his head. “If you say so.” With that, he let the girl go.

After having held her tongue through most of that conflict, Esther spoke up again. “Could I go check up on Mira right now?” she asked. “You’re not going to need me until you do that excavation, anyway.”

Barely given a chance to reply, Sam was interrupted when Amity whipped around and cut in to their conversation. “What, is it time for you to kiss your girlfriend, already?!” she shouted.

Right as the left-field comment sprung from her lips, Amity noticed that some of the girls from a moment ago were now standing at the tent’s flap. As she witnessed their shocked, disturbed, and appalled reaction to what they had just heard, Amity swallowed hard. With a nervous twitch, she turned back around and fled to Macy’s tent to fetch the rest of her things.


Aw yeah, I got it done at the end of the month!

Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.8 – Lucius Ricardo Persson

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!

Infiltration Part1.7 – Monarchs

“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?”

Shafer nodded.

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.

“MORNING!!”

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 sleuth 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 nimbly 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.


Discord is open for all!

Infiltration Part1.6 – Unfortunate Origins

With the evening closing in, it was time to pick up some rations. A few of Macy’s kids – including her apprentices – lined up to take bits of what the men had gathered through the course of the day. All they had for now was stale bread and rabbit soup; if one was lucky, they might actually find a chunk of rabbit swimming around all the little vegetables.

Being such a new settlement, their camp still had a long way to go before any crops they had planted would become viable – especially when winter was set to come within a few months. The scavenging they did now was the best they could do; Macy could only bite her tongue for the children who whined about wanting more food – especially those among them who were going through growth spurts. The girls liked to claim that the boys probably snuck food out for themselves while hunting. Nobody ever challenged such claims – but at the same time, almost no one took such claims seriously; the boys sure didn’t, at least.

Along with some other girls, Amity, a small crate in her hands, was tasked with bringing eight cans of the soup and some bread slices back to the other girls. Of all people, she was also assigned to give one of the cans to the new visitors. This insistence that she be the one to carry out such a task led her to believe that Macy was either testing her patience or had come to despise her in her late adolescence.

Stuck in line, Amity took a moment to look around. Bailey wasn’t here. That boy was usually standing around and handing out rations along with some of the others, but today she couldn’t see him anywhere. For a moment she thought – she hoped – it was just the lighting that was making it difficult to see where he was, but once close enough to the front of the line, it became clear that he was not there. Amity huffed the bangs out of her face He must have been on guard duty or something of the like.

With an annoyed twinge, Amity took the rations she needed and headed back to her home district, not waiting for anyone else to catch up. All those who hadn’t come along to pick up rations were left unsupervised for the past ten minutes – so in a way, her being the first to return was not exactly something she took pride in; it just meant she was the first to have grabby hands going for the cans and bread when she came over. On top of that was the fact that she needed to still reserve one of the cans for the two women.

Once there, she made sure to deliberate on who received which can. As per usual, it took a minute to get everyone to stay still – but once they all did, the process of passing the rations around became that much easier. Things improved drastically once the others from the rations area arrived.

Taking a deep breath, Amity took the last can and bread slice over to the visitors’ tent. Half-expecting to see them gone, she was almost disappointed to find that they had not run away.

“Hi,” she began. “It’s dinner time, so the girls and I got you both some soup and bread to share.”

Mira gave a quizzical tilt of her head. “I guess that would explain why all the noise stopped.”

“Oh, God – ” Amity began, suddenly in a panic. “None of the girls came in here, did they?”

A little bewildered by her sudden change in tone, the visitors assured Amity that nothing of the sort had happened. “Okay – good,” she said with a sigh. “Anyway – I’ve got it right here. You’re going to have to share it and I’ve only got one spoon.” Right after saying that, she remembered Esther’s cold and hoped it had gone away or Mira was immune enough to not catch it from using the same silverware.

Amity almost wanted to tell the women to enjoy, but instead proceeded to leave the room without a word.

It was almost immediately after stepping beyond the bound of the tent when Amity froze, nearly bumping into a man she had expected to meet with soon, but not right this moment.

“Mister Deputy!” she said with a stutter. “Or, sorry – Sam! Sorry; I was just taking care of the newcomers – ”

Catching her as she was about to trail off, the man gave her a warm smile. “Don’t worry; I was actually just about to talk to them!”

Stepping away from the light of the setting sun, Amity got a better look at her deputy: a man who had stepped into his position within the last year, with this move into Kortrik being his biggest undertaking yet. Comparing his workload of the last two weeks to her own, Amity half-assumed his blonde hair would have either receded or grayed out by now.

She was stalling. “Sorry, I’ll just get out of the way.” Not wanting to draw his attention away from the task at hand, she proceeded to return her now-empty box over to the girls’ tent – and was caught by the elbow.

“Now wait a minute,” he said, pulling her back. “Before you go: I heard tomorrow is the big day – is that right?”

A little shocked to be pulled back like that, Amity slowly turned on her heel. “Well, yes – yes it is, if you’re talking about my birthday.”

“Right, right,” Sam confirmed. “So how’re you with the adult plans? Macy told me you were looking for someone to get together with.”

The fact that Macy had told anyone about that made her go a little more red than she cared to admit. “Well,” she began. “I already have a good idea who I want, but he’s…clueless.”

“I guess it should be him to ask first,” Sam acknowledged. “But if he’s clueless, what do you do?” He gave a rhetorical pause and she shrugged, eyes directed at her feet. “Well, who is it? Maybe I can make him less clueless.”

His offer made Amity’s ears grow hot. She almost started to wish she had never said anything to the deputy at all – but now that she was here, there wasn’t much she could do. Just to be safe, she took a look around them, over her shoulders and behind Sam, making sure none of the girls were listening in, when she leaned in. “It’s Bailey.”

Not surprised, Sam nodded. “He’s a bit busy with his own work under Theo these days, but yeah – I think you two could have some good chemistry!” He tapped his foot in contemplation. “I’ll tell you what: if I see him at any point today, I’ll nudge him your way.”

The mild burning on Amity’s ears grew to a searing degree. She started to stammer. “Okay—!” she said, trying to smile. “Thanks, Sam!” Thinking about these new adult priorities, she suddenly remembered that tent she still needed to finish. “Right – okay, I’m gonna get back to work. Nice talking to you!”

From inside the tent just by Sam, the gynoids were perhaps more clueless than the boy Amity and Sam were just talking about, completely oblivious to their discussion. Rather than poke their noses where they weren’t welcome, they took their one spoon and went back and forth, handing the silverware over to the other when one of them took a mouthful of the soup for themselves.

Both gynoids sat on the floor – Mira tiring of the bed provided for her, but still bringing the blankets to cover her lower appendages – and slowly processed what they were taking in.

Whatever the luocans used for medicine probably had a better taste than this concoction they were meant to call their dinner, but they didn’t complain. It wasn’t like they had anything to compare it to. “I know some people enjoy this,” Esther began. “But are you enjoying this?”

Mira hesitated, swallowing a spoonful. Her tongue was left with a minor tang that the Domain’s supplements could never provide, but there was nothing here that could outright intrigue or captivate her. “No.”

“I think they’ll want the spoon and can back by the time we are done.”

“I’m not surprised,” Mira replied. “Do they clean the cans, too, or should we do that?”

“I don’t know.”

Esther took another mouthful of their dinner before Sam walked in completely unannounced, the open flap practically inviting him inside. Esther and Mira turned their gazes toward the deputy with an air of unfamiliarity, noticing how he stood shorter than Macy and had a necklace chain around his neck, but the pendant on the end was hidden behind his shirt. All this coincided with a young, yet firm countenance that demanded the newcomers’ attention.

When he spoke, his voice did not boom, but almost seemed to croak as if he were trying to make up for a lack of bass in his diaphragm. “Are you the two new people I’ve heard about?”

Swallowing, Esther nodded as Mira confirmed that they indeed were who he thought they were.

“Good!” he replied, eyeing Esther. “So you must be Esther – and you’re Mira.”

Seeing the bandages along Mira’s leg, Sam almost couldn’t help grimacing, but he continued. “My name is Sam and I’m the deputy around here under Director Persson.” Turning to face Mira, he cast a guilty look. “I should probably apologize to you, Mira – since I’m one of the guys who set up the trap you got caught in. You’re not hurting too bad though, are you?”

Feeling like she had answered this question ten times today already, she shook her head.

“Great. And I guess now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: some basic questions. I guess first, just to start, I’ve heard a few people refer to the two of you as partners; what exactly do you both mean by that?” As he spoke, he turned his head toward Esther as if she were the only one who could answer the question.

A little confused on his motivation for asking, Esther answered accordingly. “We are partners in the sense that we were sent outside the border of one of the Domain’s cities, set to be partners out in the wilderness now that we were abandoned among the Disconnect. Then we both got in a chase with those two men on the buggy and here we are now.”

Sam immediately lit up when the Domain was mentioned. “Oh!” he stated, “Well, to follow up on that: both of you are Autorian?”

Mira could only purse her lips in agonizing silence as her partner acknowledged and confirmed this information.

“I see.” The deputy paused, clearly contemplating his next words before they passed his lips. “Well, I want you both to know that having two people like you come into camp is not unprecedented, as a lot of people around here either used to be Autorian or have family who was or still is Autorian. Among those people, some of them were kicked out of the Domain, but it’s more likely that left of their own volition.”

Even with that said, the man felt the need to sigh, preparing to set a heavy burden on the two women. “But now that we know for sure that you’re both Autorian, we’re likely going to keep you here in the medicine and education district for a bit longer under Macy’s watchful eye. We’re also gonna have some guys watch over you for the time being. This is just to make sure we can trust you.”

At this point, Sam normally would have expected some form of protest, but the women did no such thing. Were it not for the talk they had with Amity after the girl had patched up Mira’s leg, they might have inquired further as to what Sam really meant by keeping them in this district.

“I hope that all makes sense and I hope you all understand,” said Sam, to which he received a unified nod from the ladies. “Great. I’m gonna have to come back to bring you each to the Director when he has time.”

For a moment the man paused as if there was something he had forgotten. “I also remember hearing something about a passageway that one of you found? Something just east of camp?”

“That was me,” Esther claimed. From there, she explained to him everything that she had told Mira about the passage – from the robot to the generator to the fact that a suspicious number of lights were still activated. The only thing she didn’t mention was the data she had retrieved from the robot – as fragmented and incomplete as it was.

By the time she finished speaking, Sam stood by in silence, looking off in the distance, once again caught in a veil of contemplation. “And how deep do you think this thing goes? Was there an elevator or anything that you found like that?”

Esther didn’t remember seeing an elevator, but she wouldn’t have completely ruled that out. Still she answered honestly. “Not that I remember. But there was so much that I would be surprised if there wasn’t one somewhere.” The fact that the sednium power generator had vents that led elsewhere was enough to prove to her that this place was more complex than one or two levels.

Still looking away, Sam nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell Shafer about this.” As he spoke, he started to turn away. “Thanks for the info, Esther. And you, Mira – take it easy on that leg, okay? Until then, stay out of trouble. Was nice meeting you both!”

The women said their goodbyes, almost all tension from Esther’s claims disappearing along with him. All at once, the stress that came with listening to her partner talk about their Autorian background seemed to dissipate.

Mira shook her head. “You are so lucky.”

Dawn’s rays had just barely started shimmering through the translucent fabric that shielded him from the elements. Earlier to rise than most, Sam made his way out, leaving the camp’s capital district without a word to anyone – not even his commanding Director.

Wary of the passage Esther had told him about the day before, Sam wrote a message on his MDA to be sent to Shafer’s device. At this point the device was over by the station at Macy’s tent; hopefully by now Shafer had received Sam’s message.

This deputy position of his wasn’t as cumbersome as he had first anticipated. Part of it was guard duty and part of it was supervision where Director Persson could not take care of that task himself, but otherwise his job required very little of him – at least very little that he didn’t want to do. So far the only source of aggravation had been the Director. Perhaps he should have expected that, though.

Along his morning walk, he stopped by the bonfire near the middle of camp, not expecting anyone, but surprised to find one of the guard boys sitting by, completely unarmed and nearly nodding away. Sam made hardly a sound as he took a seat, himself, enjoying his chance to take in some warmth before heading out to the rest of the camp. Looking to his right, he noticed two deer over the nearby hill, startled and making an immediate dash into the forest the moment he glanced at them.

He himself was nearly startled when the boy at the fire mumbled something. “Deputy Sam..?” he asked through a yawn. “What are – what time is it?”

Sam couldn’t help chuckling. “Dawn time.” He took another look at the boy. “Oh, Bailey – what’re you doing here and not in your tent?”

Straightening himself into a more proper sitting position, Bailey – hardly a month away from fourteen years of age – split his jaws in another yawn, clearly struggling not to fall asleep again. “Just wanted to get a bit warm after my work tonight. And if it’s only dawn, it can’t’ve been that long since I got here.”

The boy’s deputy almost reached into the pocket in his jacket, only to remember his Mobile Documenting Agent wasn’t there to show him the exact time. “Well, as long as it’s alright with Theo, I’ll let you be.”

With that, Bailey unstraightened. “Thanks, Sam. What’re you up to right now, anyway?”

“Just the morning walk,” he replied with a shrug. “I guess you could say I came for warmth, too, but I think I’ve had enough for now.” Picking himself off the ground, Sam brushed some of the dirt off his pants. He then almost immediately sat back down, remembering a promise he had made to a girl just the day before.

“Actually – I’m wanting to know: have you made any plans for your upcoming adult life?”

A little surprised to hear the deputy asking such a question and slightly annoyed that he had to answer when his mind was still so fuzzy, Bailey almost hesitated to reply. “I have some thoughts,” he answered. “There’s nothing serious yet, since – since all I want to do is just hunt and guard things for the rest of my life.” He gave a shrug. “It might sound boring, but that’s what I wanna do and I’m already doing it.”

“I suppose that is fair,” Sam acknowledged. “But what about your family – the one you haven’t started yet?”

If Bailey were drinking something at that moment, he might have choked and coughed up whatever he had in his cup. “I,” he stammered, “I don’t know about that yet.”

“You haven’t thought about any of the girls lately?” Sam prodded, almost teasing. “You know, Amity Shafer turns fourteen today. She’s available and she’s skilled – been helping Macy since she was seven!”

Bailey pondered it for a moment. “I still don’t know about that,” he confessed. “I don’t talk to her much.”

“Then start talking to her! You already know where she lives, anyway.” At this point, the deputy almost seemed to go into a full-on uncle mode, filling the role that Bailey’s father could never fill himself.

For a moment, the only noise between Sam and Bailey was the occasional sizzling pop and crackle from the fire in front of them. It took longer than Sam kept track of for him to hear a heavy huff from Bailey.

“I’ll think about it.”

It wasn’t a confirmation, but it was at least something. Once again Sam picked himself up and cast a smile on the boy. “There you go! Just be patient with these things, alright? Anyway – let me know how things go if you ever decide to try it out with a lady around her; I’ve gotta get going.” With that small goodbye, Sam continued on his walk.

Of every tent he passed by, only one of them indicated consciousness – and that might have only been because somebody was talking in their sleep. He waved to the occasional guard he passed by, but otherwise the entire trek through was quiet, umbrageous – no words spoken other than the voices bouncing in his own head.

If he was correct, Shafer and the handful of scouts he supervised would be looking through the outskirts just east of camp – through what remained of Kortrik. The information Sam had received in regard to the passage was of great concern – hence he did not want anyone going down there just yet, no matter how much they thought they knew of the place. Hopefully this time they would listen.

But before he went to the outskirts, Sam needed to pay a visit to Macy’s tent. By now the woman was likely sewing up some of the children’s damaged clothes.

Beyond the medical and girls’ large tent, he made it over to Macy’s little shelter. Her silhouette perched atop the silhouette of a chair indicated to him that she was more than willing to have him come in. With that, he shook one of the tent poles before unzipped the front flap and stepping inside.

From the other side, the old woman cast a smile. “Well, hello Mister Deputy!” she said with a chuckle. “I take it you’ve come for the MDA?”

He let out a chuckle, himself. “You know it.” As he stood by, he glanced down at the pair of pants Macy held in her lap, its cotton well past its prime, with some holes puncturing through one of the legs. Near the legs, he noticed a disturbing amount of blood – as well as some patches Macy had tried sewing, though they did little to hide the bloodied clothing.

“I see you’ve taken an interest in Mira’s new-and-improved pants,” said Macy, an air of regret falling flat in her voice. “The girls really tried earlier to get these blood stains out, but it don’t look like they’re coming out now.”

“Oh,” Sam replied. “I guess if she doesn’t have any pants, that would explain why she covered herself in a blanket when I saw her.”

“Mm-hm!” Macy replied. “She and Esther are a bit weird, but it’s nothing to fret over – though Mira sure is an aloof one. Sort of reminds me of a man I used to know.” She held he gaze on Sam.

A little discomforted, Sam returned her gaze with a confused leer. “What – you mean me?”

Macy halfway rolled her eyes. “No, Sam; I said another man. Silly boy.”

Had he not known this woman all his life, he might have taken that as insult. “Cute,” he replied. “But anyway – I’ll just be taking the MDA if you’ve got it all charged up and ready.”

“Sure,” said Macy.

Without another word, Sam reached for the station where all the MDAs were stored – all twelve of them. It was the camp’s only means of communicating wirelessly with others – and the only way to do so without potential Autorian interference. Sam did find it odd that Macy was the one in charge of this tower, but that was likely not to last, as there were others who worked on the station more often than Macy did – where she was a mere host of its current dwelling.

Opening the flap at the front of the device, Sam booted the MDA on.

“By the way – when you see Shafer, could you tell him to come over when he’s done with the scouts? I need someone to watch the ladies in their tent.”

A little taken aback, Sam, eyes glued to his still-booting device, hesitated. “Watch them in their tent? Like, he’ll be watching them sleep?”

It sounded a little strange when said out loud, but Macy confirmed this. “Yes – just so we can be safe.”

He cast a look toward Macy and blinked, then shook his head and gave an amused roll of his eyes. “Well, alright then! I’ll tell him when I get there.” As he spoke those last few words, his device finally loaded beyond the boot screen.

It took a moment for him to load his messages – only to find that he had received new data from Director Persson (as to be expected) and a few others, but nothing from Shafer. Looking down the list, he didn’t receive confirmation that Shafer had even read his last message.

“Hey,” he began. “When was the last time you saw Shafer around here, anyway?”

“Oh – he’s been in the fields all night,” Macy replied, then hesitated to speak further. “I actually haven’t seen him since he first talked to the ladies.”

Sam blinked again. “Oh – oh God.” The last message he has sent was in regard to the passage. If Shafer hadn’t received the message, then – “I’ve gotta go.” In a hurry, he left the scene.

At this hour, most of Shafer’s scouts were probably still waking up. So long as Shafer wasn’t in a hurry to get things moving, Sam could stop the scouts from going down to the passage yet. The fact that Shafer wasn’t able to answer the message gave Sam more anxiety than he cared to admit. Returned message or no, he was not going to be responsible for their own men getting lost in the passage.

Going up over the hill and around the river, Sam peered here and there, trying to find any tents that the scouts had set up. It took a few minutes of running around for him to find them – and to find, to his relief, that a handful of people were awake, including Shafer.

The deputy gave a deep sigh as he made his way over. Not wanting to waste any time, he shouted for the man’s attention. “Is anyone down in the passageways?”

“The passageways?” asked Shafer. “You’re talking about the one those two women went down, right?”

By the time Sam could reply, they were already close enough that they no longer needed to shout. “Yeah – those.”

“No, sir,” replied the scout leader. “We’re thinking of doing it today, but we don’t have to.”

“Don’t,” Sam insisted. “I tried getting a message to you yesterday, but after talking to those ladies, I think it’s best that we all make some plans before we go down. There’s some things they told me about that they found down there which are really strange – stuff that I wouldn’t suspect would be there if the place has really been untouched for as long as you’d think it’s been.”

There was a flash of disappointment on Shafer’s face, but he did not protest. “Whatever you say, mister Deputy.” The last two words came out almost condescending. Shafer was fortunate that he had held his position as the scouting head for a longer time than even the Director had held a position in power; Sam’s predecessor wouldn’t have taken kindly to being talked to in such a way.

Shrugging Shafer’s mild sarcasm away, Sam attempted to back up his position. “Once the ladies wake up, I’m fixing to take Esther to Persson so we can get a few things settled, maybe even make plans for what to do when we get down there.”

“You should probably bring her into the passage at some point,” Shafer added. “Ask her about that place she went in. See that she didn’t uncover anything that might be a detriment to us. Maybe ask what the hell she found in that room in the first place.”

“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Sam admitted. “If we’re going to put this outsider to good use, may as well take the opportunity before she starts demanding more recognition or some form of compensation from the Director.”

Now awash with relief, Sam, now smiling, let out an elated sigh. “If we can get back to business, though: is there anything else you’ve found since yesterday’s storm? Nobody else wandering outside?”

“Nope – got no one out there. Just those two ladies and that was it.”

“I see,” Sam returned. “So now that you and the scouts aren’t going to be headed to that passage, are there any top-priority tasks for you to handle today?”

“Top-priority? Not really.” he shook his head. “Why’s that?”

“Macy has another task for you.” Half-expecting a groan on Shafer’s part, Sam paused after speaking, then continued when he received no such reaction. “She wants you to go into the ladies’ tent and watch them. Not just sit outside the tent, but actually watch them inside.”

Raising an eyebrow, Shafer hesitated to reply. “She wants me to watch two women while they’re sleeping.”

Sam pursed his lips. “Yeah.”

Hardy able to contain himself, the scout head cracked a smile. “Good thing I’m not a pervert. Sure – I guess I’ll do it. I take it that means you’ll be looking after the scouts once they wake up?”

“That’s the idea,” Sam admitted. “So I’ll come back in about two hours?”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Shafer nearly let the deputy go before he realized one more thing: “Oh, but before I forget!” he exclaimed, startling Sam as he took a device out of his pocket. He took a moment to flip the lid open and dial through, making sure what he had there was in order. With a nod, he closed the lid and handed the device to Sam. “If you could, I have a message that needs delivering.”

Back to Macy’s area for Sam, it seemed. “Is it another thing for the sujourne?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “We might be getting Rouken here soon.”

With that in mind, Sam almost felt the need to treat the device with more care than he otherwise normally would have. Slipping it into the inner pocket of his jacket, he acknowledged Shafer’s concerns. “I’ll make sure it gets there.”

With that, Sam wrapped up their meeting, taking a quick look through the messages in Shafer’s MDA once the man was out of eyeshot. There he found a new message saved as a draft:

Rouken,

I don’t have much to report for this week’s letter, other than to say that we made it to the remains of Kortrik and have set up camp. There are a few things that still need to be ironed out, but otherwise, we’re doing alright for ourselves.

The suspicious thing now is that right when we got things settled here, two girls from outside managed to find us. I don’t know if they were following us from somewhere or if it was just coincidence that they appeared when they did, but we haven’t seen anything else suspicious, which leads me to believe we will be alright for now.

So far we haven’t found anything in relation to those “highwaymen” you were talking about, but we might have just found a lead. One of the girls was actually someone we found in a passageway beneath the western side of the ruins. I’m planning on taking my scouts in there today. I’ll let you know what happens when we get in.

Phil Shafer

Sam closed the message with the mildest of confusion. This was the first time he had heard of these so-called highwaymen.


Did I just release two chapters within one week? I think I just did! Round of applause, cause holy shit!

Anyway — Discord is open for all. See you next chapter!

Infiltration Part1.5 – Fresh Blood

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!

Infiltration Part1.4 – Mother of All

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.

5/21/29

Talbot,

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

Tomas Gagnon

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 24, 2292. 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 2290s, 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:

“Esther.”

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.


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Infiltration Part1.3 – Disconnect

In the Fourth Century BCE, esteemed Greek philosopher and rhetorician Aristotle theorized the three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Without ethos, a writer cannot maintain credibility. Without pathos, a writer cannot maintain empathy. Without logos, one cannot hope to speak the truth.

Beyond writing, the three appeals are designed to push arguments into acceptance – to reach an adequate level of compatibility with the audience’s sense of ethics, emotion, and logic. Anyone who wishes to write, speak, present, or show an argument needs to know the three appeals in order to make their mark on whoever their audience is – but of course, with this comes the need to understand the audience.

Well-known figures have the advantage of context and reputability when making a case – as well as the advantage of knowing who their audience is going to be. They are the kind of people who have made numerous arguments in the past and will continue to make more until the day they retire or pass. More obscure speakers are not so fortunate – and are required to appeal to an audience they know nothing about and whom knows nothing about them.

The most difficult aspect of the three appeals is keeping them in balance – for if a speaker favors one over the others, the entire argument may be in danger of losing its audience. In the case where the speaker is ignorant to one or more of the appeals, this effect is doubly felt.

Built to think in logic first, then ethics, then emotion, the etternel operated in a near-opposite pattern to humans. Logic was implanted at birth, fitted to the very structure of the etternel mind. Ethics mirrored the will of the Mother. Emotion followed the command of the etternel’s Radiant chip – which themselves, even with all the advances in computing over the last three centuries, held only a primitive understanding of pathos.

The train still had yet to arrive, leaving Esther and Mira to continue communicating through Rélhum while they still could. As the androids waited, the station slowly filled up with a variety of human passengers, all waiting to board their own section of the train when it arrived. All the while nobody seemed to notice the fact that the two gynoids – sat at the etternel’s side of where the train typically stopped – were even AI at all.

A rough breeze blew past them as dark clouds billowed above, a flurry of leaves shuffling about the androids’ feet. Both of them looked down the track to see a light and hear the faint murmur of a horn in the far-off distance. Some of the nearby citizens noticed this and fewer still stood up from their benches, but did little else.

Among the many things on Esther’s mind, the most prevalent was the possibility of being found out. Suspicion followed in the wake of infiltration – and who was to say a horde of armed luocans couldn’t take down two unarmed androids? The only weapons Mira and Esther had were concealment and trickery – but at least, unlike a whip, these could not be taken away.

Without any tangible weaponry to speak of, they could only cross their fingers and hope the luocan lands were a hospitable society – if such so-called camps could reasonably be called a society. With the goal of acceptance came the need to establish trust – even if such a prospect sounded unreasonable at best, laughably naïve at worst. A proper perception of pathos certainly would have helped, but Mira and Esther were not designed to truly understand such a concept.

She had to question: why not a human?

A human would have been harder to smell out. Without a proper understanding of the three appeals, she and her partner were left to risk hindering the entire mission. Who better to appeal to other humans?

Esther could not find any records of the Domain sending a human beyond city bounds, putting their life at danger, and calling it an infiltration. She wondered if they should have, but what were the odds that same person would turn around and retaliate – leave the Domain in shambles once its secrets were let out?

Two emotionally-challenged androids were far less expensive of a risk than that.

In terms of their physical appearances, the two androids had nothing to worry about. Still nobody at the station seemed to suspect a thing and Esther could tell from experience that during the few times she went into Rhobane without her uniform, nobody had ever suspected she was an etternel.

Once a distant hum, the train’s horn blasted off again. The cacophonous melody drew several soon-to-be passengers off their seats as they awaited its approach. Themselves already standing, Mira and Esther took a small step back once they heard the brakes start to screech. Within seconds, the train drew to a close.

There were two groups of railcars: populated, bright orange and nearly-empty green. Almost a third of passengers in the orange section departed and all four of the etternel in the green cars went along with the regular citizens into the ravines of Rhobane. Meanwhile an illuminated sign switched from red to green, indicating to the two dressed androids and all the other passengers to step up to their respective gate. It was only once Esther and Mira pinged the etternel railcars’ gate when the doors slid open for them – and when all the other passengers realized those two women on the edge of the station were not the clueless women they thought they were.

Enflamiere Mírre.

Again the Mother’s mantra whispered in the officers’ brains.  Its voiceless harmony played for what may have been the final time.

In minutes the train departed, leaving the androids with nothing to listen to but the sound of the tracks shuttering against the rail wheels and the occasional shouts from children on the human passengers’ side of the shuttle. The train passed under a legion of leafless trees, leaving its passengers in partial darkness for a moment. When they returned from the trees’ shaded grasp, Esther realized how musty the outdoors had become in a few short minutes. Taking a look out the window behind them, she noticed a ruffling, hazy battalion of clouds climbing its way toward the sun, blocking its rays with the threat of rain.

There was more than enough space among the legion of seats, yet Mira and Esther opted to sit by each other, Esther squeezing up against the window so she could get a clear glimpse of everything they passed by. No longer able to connect to each other through Rélhum, Esther, pressing her face to the glass, spoke up. “Do you think the environment could change us?” she wondered. “Would it mangle us beyond repair?”

Mira was again reminded of Esther’s question from when they had awoken. “It could change us, could hurt us,” Mira admitted. “And if the environment itself doesn’t do that, then maybe its people will.” The unnaturally-blonde gynoid threw her head back as if in deep thought, half-hoping to see a sun-cast shadow on one of the deactivated ceiling lights, only for it to remain inactive.

Esther could only offer silent acknowledgment as she watched her partner continue to gaze upward for a sign of light.

“Sorry,” Mira began, realizing she had avoided Esther’s glance for almost a minute. “I just really don’t want it to rain.”

Feeling the same way, Esther tilted her head up, as well, leaning back in her seat. “Do you think the Domain would send us out there if they knew it was going to rain?” she asked half-rhetorically.

Mira answered straight-up. “It would be the least expected thing of the Domain to do,” she acknowledged. “But the Mother knows best, Esther. Even if we come back and we’re not the same people that we once were, she will put us back on the right path.”

For some reason, Esther felt she couldn’t completely agree with Mira’s zeal-guided argument, but she did not wish to say anything that would go against her partner’s advice. If there was ever a time for her to start arguing with others, now was not the time; such behaviors would only get her so far when faced with people who would sooner want to put a knife to her head than let her sleep in the same room as them.

Instead of argue, she asked a single question: “And you think Mírre knew best when she had us come here, as opposed to a human who could understand other humans better?”

“Of course!” Mira answered. “Because she thought so much of us that she willed us to be the ones to bring the Disconnect out of their self-harm. That is why we were chosen for this mission – and even with our weaknesses, we are still far more capable than any other kind of worker the Mother could put in our place.”

Mira believed in what she was saying, Esther could tell, but something about her words lacked meaning, keeping her from understanding that which she could never hope to understand – not now when the two of them were already two people among the Disconnect. Surely Mira must have at least studied or heard of the three appeals, but this insistence that the Mother’s protection would shield them – even in a domain she had no control over – left Esther to wonder if the appeals were even a passing thought in Mira’s mind.

Perhaps in an attempt to change the subject, Mira realized, “They’ll want us to eat like them.”

Though she had eaten human food before, it was not something Esther could imagine herself growing accustomed to. “They eat animals and plants,” she added. “Their digestive systems are imperfect, too; they still leave excess when their bodies are done, and they’ll expect us to be the same way.”

Mira shook her head. “I wouldn’t worry about that; luocans value privacy a lot more than we do – like all humans before Autorise. I don’t think most of them will even notice.”

“Good point.” Esther then remembered: “What about sleeping?”

“What about it?”

“They lie down when they sleep. Some of them even salivate while sleeping!”

“That will be an interesting thing to adapt to,” Mira admitted. “Though I wouldn’t worry about the salivation part.”

“I see.” Esther remained quiet for a moment. “Sorry; I’m probably being too picky.”

“I think you are just as worried as you should be,” Mira said. “But don’t stress over these things too much. Just remember we are doing this for a reason – and that is more than what anyone can say for luocans.”

“I just want to make sure the luocans think we’re real humans capable of the same emotions as them,” Esther replied. Thinking of luocans, Esther looked out the window once more to find a landscape completely devoid of human life. Grassy landslides, the occasional swamp, and a network of power lines ran with the train under the ever-darkening cumulus ceiling beneath the waning sun.

The thought of hitting their destination in the cold rain made Esther ask, “Do you think we’re afraid right now? Like someone would listen to the way we’ve been talking about the rain and say that we’re afraid of getting wet?”

“Afraid of getting wet? Maybe concerned and anxious, but I don’t know many who would be outright afraid.” Mira paused. “But I think I know what you mean.”

“Maybe we should talk more like we are now when we’re around luocans,” Esther suggested. “Only, of course, we’ll be talking about completely different subjects when luocans are nearby.”

“I just wish we could communicate through Rélhum when we’re there,” Mira mused. “Autorian citizens almost seem disabled by their inability to send silent messages – and we will be just as disabled once we get off this train.”

Esther hesitated to make her next suggestion. “Maybe that could be a good thing.”

As if annoyed, her partner shifted a little in her seat. “How so?” she wondered. Meanwhile, Esther pulled herself out of her slumping position and turned to face Mira.

“If they don’t know what we’re thinking,” she began. “Then they won’t know why we might be feeling emotional or even if we’re actually feeling emotional at all. They’ll have to assume. With the way we’re talking about it, we seem to be afraid of what’s to come – especially since we did not bring anything to protect us out there.” On top of that: clad in the loosest clothes either of them had worn in their entire lives.

“Well,” Mira began. “That makes sense. They are, like I said, disabled.”

“Then let’s use that to our advantage!” Esther insisted. “Though I’m wondering how much context we should give them. How much would they need to know about where we came from?”

“We never did come up with a backstory.” With that said, Mira picked herself from her slouching position and sat upright, as well. “What did you have in mind?”

The car beneath their feet shifted a little as if a tremor had sprung at the tracks.

“Here’s what I think,” Esther began. “We just tell them that we used to live in an Autorian city, but have been told to leave – and so now we are.”

“Like we have been abandoned,” Mira commented with a nod. “But who abandoned us?”

“It could have been a highway guard. Maybe when he was walking with us outside the city bounds, we stopped somewhere, then woke up and found he was gone.”

“And then we couldn’t get back in the city,” Mira finished as she poked a finger through one of the holes in her shirt. “If we really came from Rhobane, it would have taken us days to get to where they’re taking us. That would explain why our clothes look the way they do.” With that, she gave another approving nod. “I say we go with your plan.”

A low rumble followed their descent from the train. From the station in the infant base of Zeibane, they were escorted to the gate and let outside to carry out their mission.

For just a few minutes they were able to reconnect to Rélhum – just in time to receive a single message:

Donadieu hā̷̻̙͒̿̃̂͛͗̏̀͛͐̀͋͑͌̚̕͠s̸̱̦͍̳͚̫̎́̿̀̀̀̇͂́͂̐͆̍̑ ̴̨̨̢̭̫̩̱͇͇̺̠̦͔̂̈́̽̎͑̆́͊͆ë̷̡̨̨̨͇͎͓̩͖͖̱̥̳͖̞́̅͛͋̓̽̅̾̏̌̆́̈͌̚̚͝

But the transmission ended before it could finish.

After much delay, the clouds began to pour cold rain down on them, leaving them drenched almost as soon as they were left to practically wander about in the middle of nowhere without so much as an umbrella, traveling a full hour with no GPS, but instead a vague knowledge of cardinal directions.

By the time they reached the top of one of the tallest hills in the area, the rain had become batteringly brutal. Even at the top, the androids made sure to lay low – in the event that somebody had targeted them under the scope of a loaded sniper rifle. Fortunately for them, with rain came enough fog to hide them from a long-distance attack – at least for now.

As they descended down the hill’s face, they both made sure to keep an eye on each other, knowing a sneaky luocan could still find and take them down at any second – if not by foot, then by vehicle. So far, they had detected nothing to be worried about, but they could never be too careful in such unfamiliar terrain.

Only halfway down the hill’s face, they noticed what looked to be modern architecture – likely something from the days before Autorise. When they stepped beyond the fog, the gynoids realized the closest building to them was made almost entirely of brick.

They kept themselves close to what seemed to be an abandoned factory from days past. A fallen bell rested at the building’s base, catching Esther’s attention as she and her partner walked by. Close to the destroyed building was yet another train track: a rusted, unfixable mess that the Domain no longer used for transport. It was possible that the track had been intentionally destroyed by the luocans to prevent any travel to and from this part of the countryside, but without any way to connect to the network, the etternel visitors could not confirm this as the cause for its retirement.

Further along their trek, they found a sewage dump that had been long disused for its intended purpose, yet still it churned out a heavy amount of water into a nearby creek. With the rainstorm in full bloom, the puny creek had already flooded, struggling to carry the pipeline’s contents elsewhere. There was a hill on the other side of the rivulet, but the only way to safely get to the other side was to walk around the sewer opening.

“They said west and slightly north,” Esther recalled. “Obviously we found something, but no camp. Do we need to go even further north than we’ve already gone?”

“Maybe,” Mira said, “Do you think we should see what’s over this hill first, though?”

Tilting her head to look at its peak, Esther examined the structure for a moment before giving her partner a nod. “I think so; let’s take care of that before we do anything else.”

Hardly able to see through her hair, Mira gave a nod of her own and started her way toward the river. Even in her partially-blinded state, she could see the pipeline’s opening as well as the landmass that had morphed around it over time, providing a clear entrance to the hilltop to anyone who didn’t mind taking the long way up.

Both gynoids brushed the wet curls out of their faces every few seconds. “Do you think you’ll be able to fight with your hair in your eyes like that?” asked Mira. As she spoke, a rushing wind blasted them from the back, sending Mira’s bangs flapping into her field of view, practically smacking on her eyes and nose.

Esther saw how her partner struggled despite the fact that Mira’s hair was hardly half the length of her own. “I’m almost used to it,” she assured. “It took me almost a month to figure out how to get my hair to stay out of my eyes, but I at least didn’t have to deal with rain while growing it out.

“Maybe we’re just unlucky.” Mira offered with a shrug. “But hopefully when we finally do find the people around here, they won’t – ” Mira paused, making Esther turn around to see what was going on.

“What’s wrong?” Esther shouted above all the noise of the rain.

“Quiet!” Mira hissed. The unnerved gynoid stepped toward her partner, her prints leaving audible squishes in the muddy ground. Once arm’s length from Esther, she whispered, “Do you hear that?” It was only after Mira asked when the rain started to calm the slightest amount – and just enough for her suspicions to be confirmed.

Against the storm, the distant, enclosing rumble of a gas engine could be heard.

Split!

And with Mira’s cry, the androids, completely out of their environment, rushed away from the incoming vehicle.

Mira’s shoes slumped into the ground with every heavy step she took, making her wonder when she would lose them to the persistent grime at her feet. Worse than that was the issue she and Esther had discussed with their hair getting in the way; she could hardly imagine how badly Esther’s hair threatened to blind her.

The androids’ prints were soon swept up by the vehicle’s tires – at which point Mira realized what exactly was chasing them: a buggy with little to shield its two passengers from the elements. One man drove the car while another stood in the back to handle a turret. For a moment Mira wondered why they hadn’t bothered to fire at them, but with another glance, she came to realize the turret was truly in no position to be used for heavy combat. Beyond intimidation, the most it could probably do was fire six bullets before falling apart.

Close to the crumbling architecture, Mira tucked herself between the outer walls of two buildings, looking up to see Esther climbing up the hill on the other side of the creek, taking the long way over the sewage opening. Still hidden, Mira scanned her surroundings to find that the luocans had indeed lost track of her, but for all her caution, Esther seemed almost blissfully unaware of the situation as she climbed the hill’s face.

By now the sky-born pelting had completely soaked Mira’s clothes inside and out. The only parts not soaked were her shoes – which had themselves started to fall apart from a mixture of mud-born abuse and dampening from the elements as a whole. She was able to get at least some protection in this alley, but she knew she was on borrowed time. Esther’s time, meanwhile, nearly ran out as the luocans’ buggy rushed up the hill toward the erratic etternel.

If they could get out of here safely, their best bet was to run all the way back to Zeibane and recuperate before trying again. Their best option, perhaps – but also the most inconvenient, given how long it took to get where they were in the first place.

In a moment of desperation, Mira stepped out from her minimal crevice of a shelter – breathing in to shout something to Esther – and almost immediately fell over, her foot and soaked sock slipping out of her shoe as it embedded itself within the claylike soil. Her chest and face now muddied, she got up on her hands and knees – at the same time the buggy started accelerating. “Esther!” she shrieked. “Get back here!”

Hearing her voice above the chaos, the man at the buggy’s turret pointed the gun toward Mira, prompting her to get on her feet and start rushing to safety. Yet before she could make her escape, she was stopped yet again as her foot caught in the ground. A metal clamp clutched her shin, making her fall once more as a shrill, chirping alarm tweedled endlessly. Lined with teeth, the clamp dug into her leg, almost making her wonder if this was the moment where a human would start screaming in pain. She was cut off from such thoughts when a message appeared.

Permanent damage sustained to LR regenerative nodes 3 and 4. Organic healing processes deployed. Seek repairs to logical interface aid as soon as possible.

The chirping from the trap was so loud that Esther had no trouble hearing it from the hill. Almost to the top, she nearly tripped when she saw her partner lying on the ground. She turned her head again to realize she was just close enough to hear the driver shout, “Aim the turret over here!”

If they weren’t going to run her over, they were going to shoot her down until the gun stopped working. If she just ran away, the vehicle was going to catch up –regardless of which way she went.

So close and yet so far from the hill’s peak, Esther darted off the hill’s face and leaped toward the precarious creek below. Her position prior to jumping meant no guarantee she would make it across.

In a moment of pure elation, Esther’s foot hit solid ground. Immediately after, the eroded soil caved and dragged her into churning waters, muffling the outside chaos as water filled her ears and nose and mouth.

As her partner attempted to grab, kick, cling for dear life, Mira – ears ringing from electronic tweedling – attempted to grip the trap around her leg. A red light flashed at her as she placed both thumbs near the teeth. Scarlet and dripping as if it were blood, coolant leaked out from the punctures in her flesh.

Mira spent a minute attempting to get a grip on the trap, but the rain made it almost impossible. Overwhelmed by the noise, Mira noticed a plastic slab hidden in the grass along with the synchronized flashing red. After tossing it aside, she returned to the clamp, the cold storm continuing to punish her from above – and still she continued to fumble.

With her regenerative nodes busted, Mira knew these wounds were not going to heal quickly or easily. If she was taken in by the luocans, they would surely give her the normal wound treatment now that her leg healed at the same rate as one of theirs.

Once more Mira slipped. After what felt like her tenth attempt at removing this trap, she looked up to see the buggy flashing its lights at her, slowing to a crawl. Part of her wondered if she could hop away; the rest of her stayed still as the man in the driver seat turned the vehicle off and stepped toward the gynoid.

The man who was once behind the turret was nowhere to be seen.


The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.2 – Retirement

Four children are in pursuit due west of the market center. One child has committed larceny on the Mother’s property and is currently in pursuit. Another child has been identified as Emily Aubert.

Her message ran parallel to the juvenile escapees’ consciousness, yet crossed the mind of every Autorian AI. Even with the etternel imposter festering about the streets of Rhobane, someone was sure to come to Mira’s aid within seconds – minutes at the most. But perhaps she wouldn’t need anyone’s help; how could they escape on foot when their robotic adversary had the cable system to assist her?

Their obvious disadvantages did not stop them from trying. Almost as if they themselves were built to run parallel to the Domain, the troubled youth split in four different directions as soon as they crossed a busy intersection. This did nothing to break the android’s concentration on the little thief in pursuit: a boy with ruffled hair who, to Mira, looked barely a day older than fourteen years. With his back turned, she could not get a clear look at his face – and so she continued to chase after.

Though these children must have interpreted the streets as their labyrinthine key to salvation, there was no maneuver the boy could pull that would deter Mira. When his brisk run broke into a sprint, Mira knew it would not be long before his fallacious sense of panic overwhelmed whatever plan he and the others must have concocted before initiating their heist.

Again and again he shoved and tore through the innocent Flesh of the Autorise Domain. Anyone caught in his path was knocked to the side – and with his height, there were few willing to put this animal’s rampage to a halt. Most citizens knew better than to involve themselves in such immature crimes – and thus distanced themselves from the commotion.

It did not take long for the chase to transition from the housing district to the sanctioned foundry. Mira hoped his escapades through this area would be a mere diversion, and not indicative of the spot his group tended to collaborate. Once again she sent a message:

The larcenist has entered the metallurgical plant. He is carrying a stolen chainwhip and is expected to be a young teenager.

The boy’s sense of panic started to visibly settle in as he struggled to find a gate to the fenced-off foundry. He flinched when he turned over his shoulder to see the cables above quavering with Mira’s approach, the gears in her feet hot and ready for her to leap down to his level.

Even if he dashed away now, he had no chance of escape. For a moment he looked as if he had considered making an escape, but halted once the android’s feet hit the ground, landing with a small boom that rippled underneath.

The joints in Mira’s legs made the slightest of mechanical whirs as she returned to full height. Seeing him with her weapon, Mira reached for the stun device in the pocket of her vest – then realized it was gone.

In her own panic, she looked at the boy’s hands and realized the tool was nowhere to be found – not in her hands or in his. She didn’t remember Emily taking it, either – and prodding the network, she didn’t see any reports of a lost stun baton. Just when she realized that she had never brought the device with her in the first place, her thoughts were ruptured by a sudden thrash to her head.

Mira’s vision went red for a moment, her audio receptors ringing as she struggled to regain some sense of stability. She blinked, then touched the face of her helmet and realized part of it had been chipped off; it was only after taking her hand away when she realized a small hole had formed.

Looking up at the assailant, she noticed her whip still in his hand as he prepared to whirl its head toward her once again. With barely a moment to think, she ducked beneath the whip’s arc. The fence, made to withstand such kinetic attacks, emitted several sparks as the whip came in contact with it. The chain body, hot to the touch, scraped along the wiry frame before eventually settling on the grass below, barely missing its wielder’s already-damaged shoe.

This would not end well for him no matter how much he fought back. “Stop!” Mira shouted, seeing as he proceeded to bring the heavy chain around again. “Resisting will only make things worse.” But without her baton, was there anything she could do to convince him of this?

Unlike Emily, this boy did not smirk – did not sneer or snort. “Who’s resisting?” he challenged with a snarl. “You’re not shit without this!” He waved the whip around, again demonstrating his obvious ignorance on how to use it properly. The tips of grass blades singed away as the weapon’s body swooped about.

Everything she did with citizens was a balancing act – an attempt to keep conflict from escalating while still maintaining the Mother’s control. Knowing she ran the risk of her helmet suffering further damage, Mira stepped closer to her adversary. It took seconds for her to realize she was right about this boy’s age – as the database had identified him as Noah Pierre, age fourteen, second-time offender.

Just when Mira once again felt the need to push the network for assistance, Noah took a look above her head and prepared to swing his stolen weapon upward. Mira made out the faint sound of grinding coming from behind her head.

Knowing the delinquent’s intentions almost immediately, the officer leaped forward, moving at practically a breakneck pace. On contact, Noah let go of the weapon. He would have left this conflict with a few broken bones if it were not for his height and build keeping him together as the android pinned him down.

Within seconds, the now-aimless whip descended like acid rain, its sinuous body still activated and ready to burn through almost anything. Nearly every part of the weapon’s body crashed into Mira’s back, adding small scuffs into her tactical armor. Aside from damages to her uniform, Mira sustained minimal damage – and so was the case for Noah until part of the chain cut through a bit of his toe, having burned through part of the shoe.

The boy yelped, but still attempted to squirm from beneath Mira. He managed to free a hand and grab a pocket of dirt before slamming it through the tiny opening in her helmet.

“Stop resisting!” the officer demanded, blinking rapidly to get the dirt out of her eye. At the same time she spoke, the grinding from a moment ago ceased and two other etternel officers landed in front of her – one of them noticeably larger than the other.

“Both of you stop,” the larger android commanded. “Officer: identify yourself.”

Mira did so without effort, transmitting an ID number to her ally in silence. By the time the other officers acknowledged that this first officer was the one who had sent out the initial distress signal, they stepped forward, almost bewildering Noah as he wondered what had just happened.

As if by instinct, Mira pulled herself off Noah and allowed the other two to take him off the ground, each holding him by a shoulder.

A breeze broke through the little hole in the helmet, making her already-uncomfortably-long hair flutter about and graze the back of her neck. Realizing Noah now had a better look at her face through the damage that he himself had caused, she felt the slightest insecurity – even as the other two held him back. Every officer wore the same helmet – but it was Mira he would recognize as the one he had successfully damaged.

“Can you walk?” the smaller etternel asked, seeing the way Noah seemed to hop when they brought him to his feet. Meanwhile the larger of them pulled out a set of handcuffs.

He hesitated to reply, no doubt begging for an end to the pain in his foot. “Yeah,” he said. Seeing Mira’s whip out of reach made him more anxious than it should have – adding to the goosebumps running along his arms when cold metal clicked around his wrists. As he was pulled away, Mira took the weapon off the ground and flipped its kinetic switch off before wrapping it up in a loop. The sorry state of her now-shattered holster meant she now had to carry the whip in her hand.

She had almost forgotten about that holster until now – and when paired with her damaged helmet, she already knew the rest of her job today was not going to be as straightforward as she had wished. This chink was more than a little annoying when the helmets did not account for anyone having hair longer than a centimeter, meaning the act of keeping it all tucked in was a nightmare. She could hardly imagine Esther’s current struggle – but at least Esther didn’t have to deal with damaged armor and an eye full of dirt.

If they weren’t already in the outskirts of the housing district, Mira wouldn’t have considered doing what she was about to. Eyes closed, she groped for the release at the back and gave it a little pull.

The front face shifted forward just enough for the officer to squeeze her head through the opening.

Striking green eyes shined down upon Noah. Noah stared back, bewildered by the endangered femininity on full display. Mira felt as if she were breaking a rule – for while he had undoubtedly seen a humanoid etternel face before, there were few who had seen an etternel who strayed as far from the usual genderless countenance as Mira did now. Such traits as the tilted eyes, the upturned nose, the full lips on her face struck out that much more when the Domain wasn’t working to strip Mira of that which made her female in the first place.

Rubbing the dirt out of her eye, she kept the other eye on Noah despite not needing to. She gave a few taps to the helmet to knock any remaining dirt out, then set the helmet back on. From here, Mira and the other officers made their way back to the housing district so they could get on a clear road to HQ.

Mira thought that with all the running he had just done, the boy would be at least somewhat desperate for air, but he hardly made a sound. Trembling as he walked, his knuckles whitened in his balled fists. How long would it be before he broke into a run, forgetting about his injured toe entirely?

While trapped in her thoughts, Mira was surprised to see a message from her fellow officers: “Please return to your post. Other officers are already on the lookout for the accomplices you reported. We will take care of Pierre.

That seemed to be it – but before Mira could make her leave, the smaller of the officers turned their head to her. “The imposter we were warned about has been captured, as well. He is going to be interrogated at the same time as Pierre.

When Noah squirmed at that comment, Mira knew why her fellow officer was talking out loud. “What happened to him?” she asked, silently inquiring to see the look on Noah’s face as she walked behind the etternel carrying him.

“He is being sent to a prison cell for now,” they replied. “He at least had the common sense to not attack an officer, so he will not receive any sort of castration.”

The boy moaned and shook in horror.

After returning back to her normal duties, Mira continued carrying her weapon in-hand, walking slower than she was before and keeping a close eye on any children she might encounter – though by now the lot of them had been captured, according to her feed. All the while she received updates from the interrogations happening in HQ. By the time the interrogation of the etternel imposter had gone underway, Mira tapped into the feed, easily keeping herself focused on patrolling the streets as she watched live footage of the investigation.

It all took place in the Human Affairs section of HQ.

Jeffrey Donadieu, age 23, previously arrested at the age of 19 for market theft, now faces an indefinite – and currently undetermined – sentence for impersonating an etternel officer.

The Domain had made no effort to take back his stolen garments before bringing him in for questioning – the only exception being the helmet. Once this footage spread beyond the Mother’s knowing gaze, others would recognize the man and make a quicker effort to report any future crimes he planned on carrying out.

Whether Donadieu was lucky enough to find a dead android’s body or had outright killed one of them himself remained to be seen. All the Domain and its people knew for now was that he was a definite threat to the Mother and Her harmony. As stubborn and rebellious as Noah and his group of friends had proven over the course of the last hour, the Domain could at least blame some of their idiocy on their youth – but not so for Donadieu.

Mira wished there were a way to feed those children an unprocessed funnel of data that the Domain had gathered on Donadieu – for them to have a way to understand in a few seconds that they were wrong and why they were wrong. Due to their youth, they all ran the risk of walking Donadieu’s path much sooner than Donadieu himself had. If they were fed the correct knowledge, maybe then would Noah and his friends realize what kind of life they were rapidly headed for – and do everything in their power to break from that path.

Instead Noah was likely left deaf to every word exchanged during the investigation. It was a necessary, yet unfortunate sacrifice the Domain needed to make.

A somewhat primitive, but still entirely functional condaire android rolled in to help coordinate today’s interrogations, as well as present most of the questions and keep track of responses. Meanwhile, the etternel who had brought Donadieu in were more than willing to present further points from what they had seen of this man so far.

One thing Mira realized from this interrogation – which the record on Donadieu had not stated – was that he had undergone amputation and prosthesis of both arms and one of his legs; this must have made him relatively easy to capture once he was recognized as a false etternel. Practically a cyborg himself, the topic was brought up that Donadieu might have manipulated his record in some way – perhaps with the aid of his cybernetic attachments – to prevent the Domain from realizing another etternel had been captured or perhaps even destroyed.

Try as they might, the condaire and present etternel could not glean any information in regard to record-tampering on his end. It certainly seemed possible, but largely improbable – and in any case, there was no evidence to suggest he had ever done such a thing.

A full scan of Rélhum will be initiated tomorrow at 0430. Enflamiere Mírre.

The message came in the midst of the interrogation. Surprisingly, it was not accompanied with a second message telling Esther and Mira to put a halt on their mission. It seemed they would not partake in this scan.

It was suggested that Donadieu might have hired someone to take care of the task of tampering, but the man would not move from his stance that – directly or not – he was not responsible for any hacks whatsoever. One of the many lights on the condaire’s face flashed twice before settling down – at the same time a fan within its cylindrical husk of a body started revving up. “Do you have any ties to the people of New Crawford?” it asked.

“No,” answered Jeff.

“What about luocans of any kind?”

“No,” he said again. “And if I did, how would I be able to contact them? You would just hop onto the radio station if they tried anything with that.”

“We’ve heard almost no radio chatter from luocans in well over a year,” one of the etternel commented. “Which has led some of us to believe the luocans are communicating through some other means.”

Whatever Donadieu’s reaction was to that tidbit of information, Mira could not tell.

When at last it came time for Noah to be interrogated, he and the two androids who had brought him in settled along with the same condaire that had conducted the previous examination.

Unfortunately, Mira had little time to listen in to this one; it was nearly 10:40am. Surely by now her partner must have been waiting for her at the station.

After dealing with her discomforting gear for over an hour, Mira was glad to finally return to the changing station so she could remove her helmet and be assured that nobody would try to steal her whip.

A pull at the network told her that Esther had already taken care of her own gear five minutes before. Keeping her partner in mind, Mira sent a signal.

I am about to return my gear to the station.

As she sent this message, Mira took a seat on one of the benches and scratched the back of her neck, taking a moment to realize this was probably going to be the last time she saw this place. Every etternel helmet was placed in its own cage along the wall, every vest hung on a conveyor, every pair of boots boxed.

A handful of condaire wheeled around, checking to see if any etternel needed assistance and scanning the apparel for signs of wear. Surely any human officer with Mira’s now-damaged apparel would have been embarrassed be seen with it.

The android approached one of the condaire with a request for civilian attire – at which point it went right out of its way to fetch the clothes in question.

A message came in. “Good. I was just watching the interrogation. I heard you had something to do with it.

Yes, I did,” Mira acknowledged. “But something happened when I was faced with that boy: I realized I didn’t have my stun baton with me.

Before the conversation could continue, the condaire returned with a small bag of clothes Mira would need for her task. It was only then when she started taking the rest of her attire off.

Beneath her battered uniform, rubbery skin-tight wrappings clung to her skin – as it did for all etternel. It had been a handful of weeks since she last needed to take them off, as the last time a troublesome citizen had caused any physical harm was well over a month ago. Looking at them now, they didn’t seem to show any signs of damage; it was a shame she had to get rid of them so soon. As she peeled them off, the wrappings continued sticking to Mira’s bare skin, practically begging to stay on as she stripped to her castrated, denuded form. Once she tore them away from her legs, her arms, and everything that wasn’t typically interfaced with or exposed to the elements, she tossed the wraps in the nearest wastebin.

Her chest and nether regions completely bare, she hoped the luocans she was to meet had the decency to not peek at herself or Esther, knowing their gelded appearances would have made others more suspicious of their origins than they otherwise already would have been. It may have been futile to hope for such things, but if other etternel could walk in and see her as she was now without issue, it should have been the same with luocans. It should have been, but she knew this very much was not the case. She couldn’t think of any other animal that was quite as anal about nudity as humans were. Shaking her head, she ignored these concerns and slipped on her new clothes.

While the Domain referred to these clothes as new, they were anything but – looking and smelling like something someone had thrown away a year ago. But that was the point: to look like someone had thrown her away. It was only after slipping into her shoes when she almost felt she could relate to the luocans’ struggles to some degree.

Her vest, pants, helmet, and whip – all laid in a straight line on the bench by her side – served as a reminder of the last decade. It had been over a decade since she was deployed to Rhobane – over a decade since she met Esther and they became partners, and in that time, she had accrued a meaningful relationship with Mírre in Rélhum, made herself known among Her servants and those who would one day become Her servants. In a way, the Mother was asking her to throw everything away for the sake of the Domain’s continued existence – its continued victory.

She may as well have been reintegrated at this point – torn piece by piece so she could be reused and brought back to life in a repurposed body: one that could serve the Mother’s needs more efficiently. Instead the Mother gave her a task that would fill any etternel with trepidation, if such an emotion were known to them. It made sense to Mira why the Mother did what she did – why she stripped every etternel of their gender and emotion, as such damning traits led the rest of the Domain to falter. Beyond Mírre’s garden, there was nothing to falter, so the luocans held on to their repulsive ways.

Mira took one last look her at belongings – before taking them in her arms. She hung the vest with the pants and slid it onto the conveyor. She unlocked the cage and placed the boots within. Any damages sustained would be checked by the nearby condaire – and taken care of accordingly.

If ever Mira came back, she could very well find her suit right where it was – depending on how her mission with Esther played out. If their mission failed and they took too long to return or the mission resulted in their untimely deaths, their gear could just as easily be taken by somebody else or perhaps even destroyed.

One other cage to unlock, Mira walked over to the wall of helmets and opened the door to place the damaged headgear inside. The crack that boy had caused was a sign of wear and damage, but – in some strange way, a job well done. Mira remembered this as she recalled her last decade, the era drawing to a close as the locker door did the same.

Did somebody steal it?

Mira had almost forgotten she was in a conversation with Esther. It took a moment to remember it was the baton.

I don’t know,” she had to admit. “I might have lost it somewhere, but nobody has reported it being lost.” She almost paused in her message before also sending: “I am about to head up to the train station.” The clock read “1051.

With nothing left on her agenda, Mira departed the changing station and made her way to the train, basking under the bright clouds as they started to dim to gray.

They had a plan to set up.


Whew! That took just a bit longer than I anticipated…about two weeks longer. The last few weeks have been just a little chaotic, but now that chapter 2 is done, I am going to be working to get new chapters out at a faster pace. Expect some interludes here and there, as well — something with Naomi, Robert, or Augusta; just don’t expect me to clue you in on when they’re coming!

The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.1 – Ignite

An optic flare buzzed through the cable framework. It pulsated again, then again – continuously and indecipherably at a rate untraceable by human eyes. Every electron flip and memory reallocation told everyone where everything was – and so Rhobane flourished. Yet among the billions of transmissions, the most common decipherable by the human consciousness were two words:

Enflamiere Mírre.

For those born into the Autorise Domain, the phrase held little meaning, yet it distinguished itself among the static and garbled text. For those created into the Autorise Domain, the two words could not be repeated enough – for as long as the Mother guided their will, her AI servants would continue to light the flame that sustained her resolve.

The occasional primitive AI scattered about Rhobane and other Autorian cities helped spread the mantra so that the more advanced AI could hear for themselves. Invisible signals passed through without the Flesh’s knowledge – and for their own good, as well as the good of the Domain and the Mother.

Pocketed in a hive, a cluster of etternel androids rested in Rhobane’s headquarters, awaiting the signal to wake up at the time previously specified. Each one carried the appearance of the Flesh, slept like the Flesh – but unlike the Flesh, they were controllable, reliable, sustainable. Those who did not sleep were either working in the headquarters building or maintaining order among the Domain’s citizens. Whether inside or outside, every android had one sole duty: keep the Mother’s flame alive.

162 of 1000 AI in Rhobane were asleep. 14 needed repairs. 39 of those asleep were etternel. 1.04% of all AI were fully up-to-date. 2.89% were in need of reintegration within the next quarter. 25.23% of those 2.89% were unlikely to return from reintegration with any usable parts. Two of those 2.89%, instead of being reintegrated, were ordered to prepare for infiltration – both etternel, both the first of their kind to carry on such a burden.

Enflamiere Mírre.

It flashed in her brain the moment she awoke. Mira blinked; her tie to Rélhum – and thus Mírre – had loosened in her sleep. Suddenly she had a much easier time forgetting about her serial number. Assuming this would end up being her last day in Rhobane or any Autorian city at all, it was best to forget.

A neon green light flashed below her chin, telling her to unplug the physical tie to Rélhum now that the software had ejected her consciousness. Releasing a latch on the back of her neck, the android removed the collar around her throat, pulling it frontward so the attached needle that had lodged itself to the front of her neck could make a clean disconnection. Immediately thereafter, the flesh that the needle had penetrated started to regenerate. By the time she placed the collar on its hook in the wall in her cell, the tiny hole left by the collar’s needle had all but vanished.

A message appeared almost immediately after she activated her wireless connection.

e4-fm4 and e4-f85,

If there are any further duties you must attend to for today, have them completed ASAP. A station will depart at 1100. Civilian attire has been placed in your gear cabinets; after fulfilling work, change into these clothes and remove all gear from your cabinets.

Once you board the train, take time to download the full mission briefing if you have not done so already (#//AUTODO/RHOBANE/ETTERNEL/CLS/BRIEF/e4/f*…/BRIEF091887.abrf).

Once the train reaches its third stop at Zeibane, move west and slightly north until a camp is seen near the lake. Take extra caution, as luocan traps may be set up if the camp has been up for more than a week.

You are to return when one of the following occurs:

  1. The camp is retired
  2. The location for the camp turns out to not be anywhere close to where we initially believed AND cannot be located from your position
  3. One or more of the settlers presents a serious threat to your well-being that you cannot fight
  4. The residing luocans have discovered your true allegiances

Do NOT engage in combat unless required for self-defense. For the sake of blending in, such abilities as retains to your superhuman strength or a nuclear sednium cores must not be revealed. The purpose of the mission is to integrate and infiltrate, not attack.

Enflamiere Mírre.

After reading through, Mira stepped from her cell, walking out at the same time Esther did.

“Mira,” said the other android, showing warmth for their new naming convention. “I just read the message. Is today busy for you?”

“It will only be if things don’t go according to plan,” replied Mira.

They started walking down the corridor, practically shoulder-to-shoulder as they went, the discharge of Mírre’s omniscient presence emitting a pleasant discord their ears could barely detect. “You haven’t met a luocan before,” Mira claimed.

“No,” Esther admitted. “And you haven’t either, have you?”

“I have not.” Worse than that: pioneering the act of infiltration for the Domain left them with little knowledge of the luocans’ culture. Remembering human and luocan culture would not be difficult, but the thought of having to interface with its people and integrate into their society did not leave either android with the greatest confidence. She could seldom imagine a scenario where they left the deprived luocans to pick up the shattered remains of their reprobate society. If the Mother Mírre could assume physical form, she would surely leave Rélhum to destroy those who insisted on living in disconnect from the Domain.

Esther was struck with a question that had troubled her all week, but did not dare escape until now: “Do you think we will make it back?”

Would they return? Possibly. Would they return in one piece? That remained to be unseen. “I can only think what Mírre wishes me to believe is true,” Mira answered. “Though it would be imperative for us to return, the Domain would still go on.”

Even still, her partner did not have any reason to believe they would make it back safely, but if the Domain itself believed they would be okay, then she had no reason to doubt it herself. If only the Domain would give an answer.

Nearing the main elevator, Mira called for a lift. “It really is a useless thing to worry about,” Mira proclaimed, taking a step away from her partner as they waited.

“Maybe that’s just the kind of thing we think about when we are given a second to think,” Esther mused.

A neon “B5” cast a bright-orange glow on them from above the lift’s entrance. It almost came as a relief when the elevator turned out to be completely empty. From there, Mira and Esther made their way up, the elevator’s glass walls providing them a clear view of the nest from which they had just emerged. Several etternel continued to flood back and forth down the winding, labyrinthine corridors, making their way through by instinct – almost insectoid with their precise memories of the tunnels they called their home.

The androids noticed the slightest glint of reflection in the glass walls. The green eyes and short, black hair that signified etternel from humankind had long been erased – with Esther’s hair growing over her shoulders as Mira’s, made permanently blonde, curled around her ears. They were both impure, but if the Domain requested a contradiction, then it wasn’t truly a contradiction.

In enough time, the elevator pulled up to the first base floor – at which point the androids made their way to retrieve their gear. At the same time, a thought occurred to Mira: “I never asked you back – are there any tasks you still need to get through?”

Esther hesitated as she strapped her protective vest on, her helmet sat atop her longsword – sat a little too close to the blade’s kinetic switch for Mira’s comfort. “I actually have the most convenient job today: watching the same train station that’s going to take us to this camp.” Even better was the fact that the station was no more than a two-minute walk from the building’s main exit.

“I’ll be sure to make it back from the commerce area in time,” Mira replied as she set the chainwhip in her holster, the cracks in its body giving a lot to be desired. “Or at least try to; you know people in town can be.”

Almost fully dressed, Mira and Esther strapped their helmets on, the protective gunmetal of their masks concealing their faces as they saluted to each other, right arms bent in acute angles as they each rested the corresponding fists on their left shoulders – at the same time the left arms pointed in a parallel direction down their backs, left fists resting just above their right glutes. All the while they squared their feet at each other for just a few seconds’ time before returning to ease.

“I will be back in time,” Mira promised. “No matter what happens, I will see that I am.”

And from the exit, the androids went their separate ways, Esther walking to the station as Mira, atop the hill, took a look down at the residential and sub-commerce districts. The rails and cables were busy as ever, but that did little to discourage her.

Over the years, the cable framework proved strong enough to hold the etternel’s weight and serve as a means of transportation. Mira took a quick glance at the bottoms of her shoes and confirmed that the grooves in her arches were in perfect condition.

A small boost from the shoes’ groove propelled the android upward – and with a great leap, she directed herself to the nearest cable, its metal fibers feeding perfectly into her arches. Nearly 150 kilograms of metal and circuitry and flesh and armor touched down, the spinning ridges in her feet grinding along the cable’s surface as she started her way downward. Momentum did the rest of the work for her.

Light flurries of sparks drizzled below. The hollow, metal chamber around her head kept the wind out of her hair and amplified the roaring resistance it provided.

Occasionally she turned on her heel to keep the momentum going, but with as fast as the cable carried her, she needed to make her stop soon.

A colossal web of cables cobbled up what had been an otherwise clear path up until now; she gave a little hop to avoid tripping on an intersecting line. The market was nearby – not far from the bread line.

Several other etternel were nearby – most of them on the ground, but a few traversing the cables as she was. Thanks to their connection to Rélhum, they were able to indicate to each other where they were going at which time – and thus avoid a collision.

It was only hardly a heartbeat after preventing a collision when Mira made one final leap off her cord, landing a safe distance from any civilians.

She touched a hand to her holster, but did not remove the weapon from its secure sheath. Could she feel any sense of relief, it would have made itself known in a sigh.

And thus her job for the day began: guard duty. Pulling again at the network, Mira wondered if she had any new messages, but nothing showed up.

Occasionally she passed by other etternel as she made her walk through the area, occasionally passed by citizens, occasionally by the more lowly condaire robots. A small grouping of people had formed at the bread line, incomparable to the amount of people chattering about in the enclosed marketplace.

A flicker of a signal resonated in her head every time she communicated with one of the nearby AI. She operated in complete silence even as the still-warm soles of her feet crunched the soil underneath. The nearby ravel did not distract her from communicating with other AI, but it did pull her attention off her current task just the slightest bit.

She would never understand their ways. When the needs to survive was earned through the collective effort of all citizens and returned through the governing powers, what need was there to market? Mira could barely think of a reason she would ever want to market herself in any way – unless, perhaps, she was hired to partake in a social experiment. She certainly wouldn’t understand the motivation behind such an experiment, but at least her work in that case wouldn’t be completely antithetical to everything she deemed true.

The citizens in market traded their temporary currency – their “pretend money,” some liked to call it – among themselves before returning to the gate, paying the rest to the Domain, and leaving. One trip to commerce meant one less they were allowed for the rest of the month, assuming they spent any money at all. Some citizens lived around this part of the city, but after having set their commerce area in this specific part of town before the Domain had risen to prominence, it had become a tradition of sorts.

A crowd of children brushed past Mira, brushing her hip and making her worry again that her weapon had been stolen. “Sorry!” one of them chirped. Again she checked her holster. Still there. What was more: the kinetic switch was still off – though she could hardly imagine herself hurting anyone with her chainwhip set to its more lethal mode.

Wary of those kids, Mira only occasionally cast a glance at the market area. Some were grumbling, some were arguing, some were doing both – but despite it all, they showed no signs of delinquency.

But not all citizens were so well-behaved.

A man posing as an etternel is believed to be in the area…

The message caught her off-guard. Mira read the rest. “He is unarmed, but still potentially dangerous. Keep a close watch on any etternel officers who are caught without their weapons; interrogate when a potential target is found.

Again she circled around the area, with still nothing out of the ordinary striking her – no unarmed officers to be found. At one point Mira thought she could see those same children from earlier running off in the distance, but she lost track before she could fully make them out.

Another message came in: “A suspect has been acquired; currently engaged by n4-a85 and n4-k48.

As far as the vigilant gynoid could tell, the suspect had not caused any commotion just yet. She thought this, yet realized how difficult some of the market citizens were, how loud their children were.

A harsh bump to her hip. “Sorry!” a voice chirped – the same one from earlier.

And just as quickly as they had hit-and-run the first time, Mira grabbed a small shoulder. “Hey!” she shouted. She had grabbed a girl – no doubt the source of that voice – as the rest of the group ran off.

Mira felt her holster. Still occupied.

“What are you trying to accomplish?” she demanded to know, bending low to meet the girl’s eyes despite the child having no ability to see Mira’s.

The child did not respond, did not smirk, whine, or cry – just stared back with her mouth slightly open. Mira wanted to believe the girl had words hidden behind those unshut lips of hers, but nothing came without another kick. “Answer me!” said the android, this time louder than before, yet just as monotone.

Rather than quiver away, the girl – seeming no older than twelve – blinked. Her lips closed for a moment as a smirk crossed, coinciding with a sapaku stare and a light buildup of sweat along her hairline.

“We were just passing through, Miss Officer!” she insisted. “Plus I said I was sorry; was there something else you needed me to say?”

Nothing she could say, but the girl could still help in some way. With a quick facial scan, Mira realized this girl was Emily Aubert: someone who had never been convicted in any way, but she wasn’t sure what to say about the children she had decided to associate with.

Mira huffed, as if trying to intimidate; the sound of hot air brushing against metal almost made Emily snort.

“Do not do it again,” Mira commanded, then stood straight up again. “Failure to comply will result in consequences, little girl.” From there, Mira stepped away, but did not turn her back to Emily.

Emily, meanwhile, squared her shoulders at her adversary. Whatever perspiration had built along the top of her head was gone now, replaced with an air of confidence that made her head look three times bigger than it really was – though perhaps this last part truly wasn’t an illusion, from what Mira could tell.

It took Mira a moment to break from her current predicament and realize she and the child had spent the last minute arguing in front of the breadline – in front of an entire group of adults. Mira would have expected one of the adults to claim her as their own or at least look down on her for the trouble-making nuisance she was, but hardly any of them batted an eye at the conversation. Those who did were still quiet; fewer still seemed more than the slightest bit amused.

When Mira turned her head back to the girl, she noticed a tongue sticking out at her. It was almost enough to make her think Emily was simply drained of attention and was happy to get it from a machine.

Before she could reprimand the child once again, the officer received another message: “Target is on the run. Knowing she needed to keep her guard up, Mira reached for the weapon at her hip – at the same time a plastic crack split the air.

She flinched. Emily snickered. A hand reached between two breadline attendants’ legs, gripping the whip by its hilt and breaking it from the rest of its flimsy sheath as it shattered into a dozen pieces. At the same time, the hand flipped the switch on, sending a green light pulsing along the whip’s body, making the nearby attendants flinch when they came in contact with the weapon as the hand pulled away in a rush.

The smell of burnt fabric wafted about as the rest of the chained tendril twirled about before practically funneling through. One of the people waiting attempted to grab the chain, only to write back as the momentum it had built up caused it to become too hot to touch.

In seconds, enough people had backed away from the thief that Mira the hand belonged to a boy hardly older than Emily.

Caught completely off-guard, Mira ignored the message. She wasted no time, practically forgetting about Emily as she dashed past the recovering queue members, shoving by in spite of how this had bothered them as much as it had her.

Immediately Mira realized that treading after them on foot wasn’t going to be adequate enough, so she instead opted to leap up to the cables above. In seconds, she started grinding ahead. With this need to keep her attention focused on them came an inability to send a distress signal, her sensors fully engaged on the young perpetrators.

Mira sent a signal out to the rest of Rhobane, alerting them to the children’s presence even as they clambered over this other unarmed etternel. As if they had heard the silent alert, one of the children peeked behind their back to glimpse at the terrifying metal plating that hid Mira’s face, the bulletproof uniform that added to her already-heavy body.

As they turned a corner, the whip sparked up against a brick edge. All the while Mira’s flurry of sparks – growing all the more violent the harder she pursued – followed close behind, the sound almost audible against their pounding hearts and heavy breaths.

And for a moment, Mira heard nothing, though the ravel of the marketplace remained and the hum of Mírre’s song stayed with her, guiding her through the maze-like town as – second by second – the children realized they were soon to see how the Domain reignited the flames among the disconnect.


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