Infiltration Part3.2 – Cadaver

Esther had silently uttered those two words so many times that they were starting to sound like an incantation. After the talk she had had with Mira before Sam and Macy walked in, Enflamiere Mírre were the only words on her mind – and so would remain to be the case until she made it to this spot she had been assigned to clean up.

Now that Mira was about to start doing work with the girls around camp, she and Esther would need to get used to having much less time to communicate with each other. The fact that they had no way of communicating from far apart had resulted both of them to vow not to abandon each other, no matter the circumstance.

“That sounds like a universal principal we would want to follow regardless of what happens,” Esther had argued.

“You’re probably right,” Mira agreed. “But if we were to run into an emergency situation and our need for survival started to override our need to carry out the mission, one of us could easily forget about the other and decide to abandon the mission altogether. And with no direct link, there is no way for us to keep the other from retreating unless we make this vow.”

After getting trapped in the passageway’s inner workings, Esther had to admit that there were times where she would have much rather gone back to Rhobane and start over – but she realized that now more than ever, the two of them needed each other if they were to return to the Domain in one piece.

“Okay,” Esther said with a nod. “But should we maybe try to set up a schedule of some kind to meet up and go through everything we’ve found – if nothing else, to keep track of ourselves.”

For some reason, Mira seemed hesitant to comment on the matter, pausing for an unusually long amount of time. “We could, but I’m a little concerned about what some of the girls may think of us.”

“What do you mean?”

Mira stiffened where she sat. “Don’t you remember what that older girl said the other day?” she remarked. “You don’t suppose the other girls actually believed what she was saying was true, do you?”

“You mean when Amity insinuated we were both a couple?” Esther asked.

“Yes,” Mira confirmed. “Do the other girls really think that?”

Esther paused for a moment to see if she could recall any such instances, but nothing came to mind. “Even if they do think that, they don’t seem to dislike me at all for it. They shouldn’t have any problems with you, either, considering how well things have gone so far.”

“We still need to make a decision on this,” Mira protested. “So here is what I propose: if someone directly asks one of us if we’re a couple and they won’t leave us alone about it, just say that we are.”

Her partner’s demands left Esther with more questions than answers. “Is there a reason why?” she wondered.

“There will be no use arguing against it if the girls already think we’re a couple. If we just let them believe that the rumor is true, then we won’t have to try arguing against them.”

Still Esther didn’t quite understand. “What would happen if we tried arguing against something that we both know is objectively false?”

“In this case, because we’re newcomers and because they still don’t know me all that well, it would just make us look worse in the community’s eyes.”

It didn’t make a lot of sense to Esther, but she could at least understand Mira’s concerns. “Okay,” she replied. “If we really need to, we can tell them we’re a couple – only as long as it’s something that needs to be brought up.”

“Good,” Mira commented, feeling more comfortable now that Esther had quelled the worst of her fears, at least for the time being. “But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we need to do something about the machines and the generator you found down there once I’m able to go with you.”

If Mira were a stress-burdened human soldier sent on a mission to infiltrate a terrorist organization, she definitely would have had a lot to complain about when it came to their infiltration as it currently stood. So far Esther had done all of the excavation – and even though she had only been in the tunnels twice, she still had a much firmer grasp on what rested underground than Mira. Now that she thought about it, even the camp’s scouts had a better idea what this threat was than Mira did. Again: if Mira were a stress-burdened human, as conscious as she already was of her situation and as seriously as she took her work, the anxiety of failure – even so early into their mission – was sure to drive her over the edge.

“And what if the machines down there become too much of a problem for us to handle? Even before you’re fully healed?”

Mira did not hesitate. “Then we retreat.”

Retreating from these bugs didn’t sound realistic at all, given what she had already witnessed of them so far. With the ability to roll up and mobilize as they did, there was little one could do to escape them on foot. “No matter what?” she asked.

“No matter what.” Again Mira sat up, firm. “And it’s like I said earlier: until the machines become a definite threat, we stay here.”

As far as Esther was concerned: as long as those machines had a master at work to round up the slaves, the machines were a definite threat. Whoever was in charge remained to be seen, but Esther had little reason to believe that the person in charge of the bugs was one of these luocans – at least not any of the ones she had encountered so far, which was most of them in camp. These sujourne, meanwhile, looked like potential perpetrators, but still she could not be too sure.

Esther remembered the phrase again: Enflamiere Mírre. She remembered to repeat it in her head. The more she said it, the more it sounded like a prayer.

Feeling as if the words had started playing an endless loop, taking up virtual memory within her head, Esther remembered what Sam had told her about her job. She had been tasked to work with one of the sujourne to clean things up.

There were several other things Bertha would have rather done than watch a bunch of prepubescent boys scout the area for information. Part of her had hoped that the Director’s demands to have her keep watch of scouts included keeping watch of Faust, but she and Faust knew that was not the case at all, with or without Rouken there to remind them.

By now Rouken and Tarren had gone off to their own duties, leaving Faust and Bertha to cope for the time being. They took the long way around to the tower instead of going through the noise that all the nomads out here had made. Some were busy digging through the findings they had made in the passageways, some had started cooking the next meal for the rest of the camp already, but it seemed most of the nomads here – scouts or otherwise – were here to prepare this place to be the foundation of something greater.

Faust and Bertha traveled near a broken, rusty train track, which carried them around all the other workers, rather than cutting through them. It wasn’t long before Faust realized Bertha had likely chosen this method of getting to their destination as a deliberate way of keeping him as far away from post-traumatic stress as possible. Despite what he assumed were attempts on her part, Faust couldn’t refrain from commenting on the landscape ahead of them.

“There used to be a bunch of cats over there,” he said, eyeing a nondescript area among the debris. “An old lady would come out and feed them, and then go back inside for the rest of the day.”

Bertha, just by his side, cracked an empathetic smile. “You don’t say.”

He huffed at the lack of genuine interest.

“Do you think there are any cats around here still?” she offered.

“If there really were any left, they all would have been scared off by now.” Subconsciously, the boy pulled the knife out from the holster at his boot and proceeded to dangle it by the paracord thread before catching the grip in his bandaged palm and tangling the cord in his thumb, blade facing downward. “All the noise we brought here and whatever the highwaymen are doing scared them off.”

Bertha said nothing in response, likely worried she had already said way too much if she had already triggered another one of his tirades.

“No one here knows about Rina Aris, do they?”

Narrowing her eyes at the apprehensive teen, Bertha almost struggled to keep up with Faust, who had suddenly started speeding ahead. “Faust – I don’t even know who that is,” she claimed, then paused. “Wait, is that the person—?”

“Yes,” Faust interrupted. “The psycho.”

Now that he had brought her up – what was more: mentioned her by name – she knew she needed to ask further questions. Faust was more than willing to taint the present with the horrid memories of the past. “And all this time I thought you’d repressed the name from memory,” Bertha said with a chuckle.

Faust sneered. “Can’t repress the name, or the face, or the voice, or what she said before stabbing my grandparents in cold blood.”

At the risk of stirring the pot even more than she already had, Bertha spoke up again. “And what did she say?”

“You’ll laugh at it,” Faust said with a scoff, followed by a deep, unshaky breath. “Before going back into the room with the two of them, she made me stay where I was, said ‘don’t mind me,’ while she had a knife in her hand.”

“So you listened to her?”

His lips pursed. “Yes. I shouldn’t have, but yes.”

“And I didn’t know you were living with your grandparents, instead of your parents,” Bertha commented, receiving a silent stare from Faust. “I won’t ask why.”

“Of course,” he grunted, trying not to roll his eyes. “And, you know, I was a giant pushover back then.” Though he would have argued that he still was a pushover. “So I just did what she said and then…I think you know how it goes.” With those last few words, the knife in his hand trembled a bit.

In a rush, Bertha placed a hand around his wrist, slowing him from doing anything reckless with the knife, surprising him as he had nearly forgotten what it was like for someone to physically try stopping him from doing something he would regret.

“That woman is in the past,” Bertha argued. “And in spite of what you’re obviously wanting from her, she is not here. Nobody knows who she is and we are all better off leaving that fragment of the past where it belongs.”

“No records or anything?” Faust sneered. “I find it hard to believe that people would have forgotten about that killer. Like they’d just forget their history.”

Rather than Faust, it was Bertha who snapped. “Look around you! Do these people care about what came before them to lead them where they are now? No – of course not. Everyone here is living for the present so that we don’t enter a shitty future. We don’t have the convenience of prioritizing the past like you once did, and you shouldn’t be dwelling on something you can’t change anyway.

“But even then,” she said, sighing. “My point is that the odds people know about this Rina chick are pretty low, wouldn’t you think? Unless Rina destroyed a giant monument or building, there’s no reason for anyone alive today to remember someone who probably got the death penalty once they were found.”

By now Faust’s destination had come within eyeshot. The brick tower he was assigned was starting to appear less like a stump in the ground and more like an unfinished building. Near its base there was a large bell that had likely fallen from the tower – yet despite the fact that it had fallen outside the tower’s base area, the bell stood upright as if it had fallen straight down. He could only guess the top of the tower had broken off from the rest, and then the bell broke off from that, but he had no way of knowing for sure.

“Faust, listen,” Bertha continued, just barely keeping the boy’s attention. “If the person you’re talking about here was someone on the level of Al Capone, I think even I would know about her.”

It had taken the brooding teen a moment to realize his sororal friend had placed a hand on his shoulder – to realize she had also taken the knife out of his hand.

His eyes dilated, unable to comprehend how she had just swiped the knife away from him so effortlessly. He could barely see the whites of her teeth behind her curling, smiling lip as she held the knife arm’s-length away from him.

“You really do black out quite a lot, don’t you?” Bertha commented.

Faust grabbed the knife right back, the soft edges of his fingers caressing the flat end of the blade. “Do not do that again!”

Her mouth flattened in a straight line and she raised both eyebrows. “Don’t black out, then.

“Still – you get what I mean?” she continued. “The bitch wasn’t any sort of crime lord by any means, so there’s no reason for anyone to remember. If they really have records on her, it beats the hell out of me where you’d find them! Maybe you’ll get lucky and find the docs in the passage, or maybe you’ll get so lucky that they fall out of someone’s ass, but the odds of anyone actually knowing about Rina are slim to none for you. And that’s the truth.

“Anyway,” Bertha said, stopping. “We’re here. Don’t spend too much time on one spot or you’ll never get it done, alright?”

As she let him be, Faust could only contort his face into a frayed knot. He took another look at his hand just to see that no, Bertha had not taken the knife away from him again. Inhaling sharply, he placed it back into its holster, then exhaled with the same intensity. “Piss off,” he mumbled, his words nowhere near loud enough to hear from where she now was, walking further and further away. It wasn’t often that Bertha had managed to get on his bad side.

Whether or not this town had any records of Rina Aris, that didn’t change the fact that somebody here had to have known about her. Perhaps an elderly person or someone in charge of the nomads around here would have had an idea what had happened to the woman or if she was even still alive at all. Perhaps she continued her psychopathic tirade to this day, going so far underground that she never even had a chance to become the next Capone. The possibilities, to him, really were limitless as to what this woman could have accomplished when he was out of commission.

It was only after spending nearly ten minutes to his thoughts, aimlessly picking up debris and gathering it up into a pile, when Faust realized he had nothing to put it in. At the same time he realized he had been set to work a considerable distance from the closest people to him – what looked to be three or four blocks, at least from what he could tell based on the cracked streets and his memories of the place. With all the hills, Faust needed to rush up to the top of the nearest incline to get a good view at the rest of the activity in the area.

Most other people were in a group of some kind and each group was equipped with a pickaxe, sledgehammer, wagon – anything to help with the task. He was practically naked compared to them.

Scouring the land in front of him, it took a moment for the teen to refind Bertha among all the noise. It was only just after spotting her once again when he noticed an unfamiliar figure was heading his way. The woman had a pickaxe and a sledgehammer in one hand; she used the other to wave overhead at the teen.

“I heard you’re the man I’m supposed to work with!” she said with a somewhat tired smile. “My name is Esther – and you’re Faust?”

Faust blinked and rubbed his eye as if he had just broken out of sleep. “Yeah,” he replied.

Esther set the tools on top of the small pile of bricks that Faust had amassed. “I’ve been told to work with you today – so here I am!” As if taking pity on him, she took a close look down at the pile, no doubt amused by how puny it appeared next to the mostly-collapsed tower before them. Granted, the base of the tower contained hardly enough of an area to hold four people, two-by-two, shoulder-to-shoulder, but the heights it reached – even in its damaged state – was somewhat intimidating. It was just short enough for her to scale and feel comfortable enough falling from, but she dared not attempt such a feat in front of so many potential bystanders.

“I’ll let you choose first,” she offered, gesturing to the tools at her feet. At the same time, she tilted her head up to further examine the structure in front of her. “Are they expecting us to destroy and clean this thing without blowing it up first?”

“Blowing it up?” Faust asked, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t think these people have any dynamite on them.” He paused. “You’re new here, too?”

Esther let out a fake chuckle. “You got me!”

He grinned, slightly less vexed than he was before she had arrived. “I was starting to wonder if I’d be given a partner or not,” he admitted. “It looks like everyone else has one, but the girl who brought me here said nothing about that.”

“Did they not tell you that you were supposed to get a partner?” Esther wondered. “Because I would’ve assumed you would have already been made aware of that.”

“Either they did tell me that and I forgot because I’m a dumbass, or they didn’t tell me because I’m a dumbass.”

Esther hesitated to speak again. “Right. Still – the tool offer is still open.”

Having nearly forgotten, he shook his head and blinked a few times before choosing the pickaxe, slinging it over his shoulder as Esther went to pick up the hammer.

“Good,” Esther said, satisfied. Then, nonchalant, she recalled the comment he had just made. “‘They’ didn’t tell you? Who is ‘they?’” She paused for a second – still a second too long for Faust to make a proper reply. “Oh, wait – aren’t you with the sujourne?”

The boy could not see through her falsified naivete. “Yes,” he mumbled. “That’s why I stick out so much.”

“You don’t stick out that much,” Esther argued, sensing some rising angst behind the boy’s tongue. “I only knew you were sujourne from word of mouth. Plus, anyway, you asked me earlier if I was new here, ‘too,’ implying you’re also new.”

He bit his lip. “Right.” Wanting to get his work done and over with, the sujourne boy made his way to the tower – where he proceeded to start swinging at the tower’s base, smashing the structure away chunk by chunk. Quickly he realized he didn’t even need to throw his back into the swings, as several pieces of brick practically disintegrated upon impact.

Again Esther looked up ahead, tilting her nose in the air. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to destroy the base of this structure?” she wondered.

“It will be like chopping down a tree,” he protested. “Just wait for it to go timber, and it will.”

Esther cast a concerned glance. She was really starting to see why Sam wanted somebody to look after this boy. “I guess I’ll help you with that,” she said, slinging the hammer over her shoulder as she walked to the other corner of the tower from the same side as where Faust now was. “I am just giving you fair warning.”

“It’s fine,” he insisted.

Shaking her head, Esther took the hammer from her shoulder and swung the head down to shin-height, where she proceeded to smash a massive hole in the corner. Compared to Faust, who still barely needed to try to break this structure apart, her more-than-necessary effort left her feeling that if she were to utilize her strength to its fullest potential, this building would have fallen over in ten swings, maybe eleven at most. This in mind, she made a mental note to not swing so hard.

“Have you been with those other sujourne for very long?” she began.

He cast her a sidelong glance. “A few months.”

“I see,” she replied. “And what exactly are you doing when you travel out there? And aren’t you worried about the Domain finding and jailing you?”

“The Chief says our group is one of the several sujourne groups who travels to abandoned places specifically so that other nomads around the area don’t get caught by the Domain.” He sighed. “I don’t really get it, but apparently the Domain has a huge problem with people living outside the borders of its cities. But they rarely send any military forces out to invade and take care of anything they deem a threat.”

In response, Esther could only nod. It relieved her to hear such ignorance first-hand.

“And honestly?” Faust continued. “Whether the Domain catches me or not, I don’t really care.” He scoffed. “I guess that’s why the Chief had me come along: I wasn’t afraid of getting caught, stuffed in a bag, dragged and processed, and forced to work for some robot factory for the rest of my life.” After speaking, he let out a long sigh. “Sorry. I’ll shut up.”

“No, it’s fine!” Esther insisted. “I was the one who asked, anyway.” This in mind, she followed up: “So you’re aware of the generator and the robotic bugs underground?”

“God – I think so?” he replied. “I’ve had a lot of information dumped on me in the last few hours by that Director, but I’m pretty sure he mentioned generators and bugs. Probably something having to do with the highwaymen we’ve been looking for lately.”

“Highwaymen?”

Faust halted in the middle of his swinging. He cast the chatty woman a glance, lips pursed as he realized he had almost definitely said too much by now. The heat rose to the top of his head, making him sweat slightly before he eventually snapped. “Just shut up and help me take this damn thing down!”

His slight explosion didn’t catch Esther too off-guard, though she was disappointed that she couldn’t squeeze just the slightest bit more information out of him. Still, the amount she had received was plenty for now – but perhaps there would be somebody else who knew more about the operations around here. Surely the Director would have known, considering he had apparently told Faust a lot of top-secret information already.

“Okay, then,” Esther said, her tone dry. It was then when she realized she may as well have blown up her corner of the building with a stick of dynamite, as that seemed to have been the effect of her smashing the building over the last few minutes.

“I’m going to go to the other side,” she said, picking up her hammer. “Just be aware: I don’t know how much more this tower can take.”

Faust responded with little more than a simple “Okay” before Esther escaped his line of sight. Only once she made it to the other side did she realize how damaged this side really was. It seemed like there was once a unique top to this structure that had since been blown off – and, taking a look behind her, Esther could guess that the now-separated part of the tower had everything to do with the bell that stood behind her.

Suddenly she remembered: she and Mira had walked by this building before. There was no mistaking that this bell was the same one she had seen days ago – and for all the noise that surrounded them in this abandoned city, the presence of the broken, chimeless bell captivated her more than anything else.

Perhaps now was a good time to see if there as anything inside the structure – but without a door or steps, she would be forced to scale it. “I’m going to try climbing up this tower,” she called from the other side.

In response, she heard nothing – and with little hesitation, Esther dropped her hammer and took a large leap up to grab onto a ridge among the structure’s many aging bricks. It didn’t take long for her to get her footing – at which point she attempted to reach for an opening in what used to be the tower’s roof. Before she could get far, though, she was interrupted when she heard Faust stepping around the corner.

“Don’t do that!” he demanded.

She looked down at him from her vantage point, needing to peer under her forearm to see his face. “I already told you I was going to climb this thing!” she argued. “Why didn’t you say someth—”

Just when Esther attempted scaling even higher, a loud cracking sound emanated from the tower’s base – and almost immediately thereafter, the structure started to tip over, bringing Esther with it. In a panic, Faust stepped back, nearly tripping on his feet, and Esther jumped off the wall, falling backward and downward until she hit the bell. Almost right after she crashed in a move that likely would have ruptured most people’s spines, the tower hit the ground with an ear-shattering crash.

After the tower fell, the noise and air around Esther and Faust seemed to sizzle into silence.

“Are you okay?” Faust asked.

Unable to see him, Esther attempted to pick herself off the bell, only to realize that she had tipped it over, as well. She rolled over in an attempt to gain footing once more, but was interrupted when Faust gasped.

“Was that under the bell?” he shouted.

By now a small audience had gathered from other parts of the ruined town – but by the time Esther got back up, they were all fixated on whatever it was that she had unearthed.

There where the bell had once been was a skeleton – but unlike any human remains she had ever heard of, this one was radioactive, as she realized when her inner sensors picked up the unstable particles rising from the body like steam from a geyser.

Unable to reveal her ability to detect such an anomaly, Esther remained quiet, but backed away, letting the other luocans investigate.

Infiltration Part3.1 – Post-Traumatic

This meeting could have been going better if the Director didn’t speak a thousand words a minute. At the very least Sam could have been given a better way to track down his demands than through a basic MDA. Still he didn’t complain; he never complained.

If nothing else, the deputy was glad to at least be in the same meeting as the sujourne. For as meager as that sounded and as little to do with them that this actual meeting had, there was at least now that feeling that Persson trusted Sam to some greater extent than he did before.

“I may even put James on the case,” Persson tutted. “By now he has probably gotten tired of being my personal bodyguard, anyway.”

Giving a painstaking one-line-at-a-time scroll through his list of instructions, Sam struggled to make a proper response. “Sir? That’s already a lot of people ‘on the case’ – whatever that means. What would happen if those robots manage to make it to this part of camp while everyone who normally helps around this area is ‘on the case?’”

Persson leaned back in his chair. “I guess you are right. Never mind, then!”

For once a grunt came not from Sam, but from Faust. The noise was loud enough to direct everyone’s heads toward him, except for Sam’s. Quickly realizing he had just made that noise out loud, he promptly apologized; meanwhile Sam took another look through his list of demands.

  • Look over cleanup
  • keep track of findings; report to dir
  • accom for damages
  • lookat bluprints + confirm them
  • put these people ‘on the case’:

Even with an additional ten demands to follow, the list seemed small, considering everything the Director had been saying – but assuming Sam hadn’t just stopped listening to his demands at one point, this should have covered everything. One omitted factor made Sam scratch his head.

“Where do the sujourne fit into this?” he asked.

To his surprise, Bertha spoke up. “I was wondering the same thing, Director. It sounds like you just want us to do the same work as everyone else.”

“More or less,” Persson admitted.

Sam wasn’t sure, but he thought he could see Rouken’s fist tighten when the Director said that. Hoping to avoid a conflict, Sam cut back in. “So what exactly are each of them going to do?” As he asked, he began to worry that not even the sujourne knew what they were meant to do here.

The Director paused, then pointed to each one of them. “The girl can keep an eye on the scouts, the little boy can make a map of this place while we’re setting things up, and the other boy can help clean up.” With a nod, he added: “Rouken knows what he’s going to do.”

Even if the sujourne’s chief did know, he didn’t look entirely pleased with the way Persson was operating things around here.

“Okay, then,” Sam said. “Is there anything else?”

“Not that I can think of right now!” Persson replied. “But now that you have everything you need, you know what to do.”

Some part of Sam felt like he still didn’t know what to do, but seeing everyone else getting out of their seats and heading toward the tent exit, he decided to get up, as well. He caught a glimpse at Faust, noticing the way he sneered at the Director on his way out – as likely all the sujourne would have done if they all had that same lack of restraint.

With all the new changes of plans, the area just outside the Director’s tent was more bustling than ever before – almost as if everyone in camp had come here for lunch despite lunch already being served that day.

Just to make sure everything was in order, Sam looked down at his list of demands from the Director once again. He couldn’t think of much else to add, unless checking in with Faust was among one of the things he could have added to his list. Before he could do such a thing, he noticed Faust in a conversation with the other sujourne, who had huddled up away from the tent. Though he couldn’t tell what the conversation was, the looks on everyone’s faces painted a near-perfect picture of what Sam felt about this meeting, as well.

When their conversation was finished, Faust turned his head and shot a glance at Sam. There was definitely a flickering fire in those eyes, and Sam hardly needed to imagine why. As the sujourne started heading in the direction of the town ruins, Faust broke off from the rest of the group to head toward Sam. Sam almost had to choke back laughter from the pouty look on the boy’s face.

It felt like forever before Faust stopped and sighed. “Is that always how he assigns jobs to people around here?”

Sam felt like he needed to take a look and see if there was anyone else listening in on their conversation before he made any sort of response. “More or less,” he replied. “Your chief didn’t look too pleased about it, either.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Faust said, shaking his head. “He was pissed off. I’m not going to say the reason why because I don’t really know either, but he was pissed off.”

Sam thought the reason why was obvious, but he refrained from asking any further. “Don’t worry too much about it,” he said. “With any luck, once we get Kortrik running again, we’ll have someone else as mayor.”

Faust couldn’t help chuckle at that. “I don’t know if this place even had a mayor back when it was still working. Going from Director of a camp to a mayor of some place that’s barely put together doesn’t sound like an upgrade. And I don’t think your Director is smart enough to know that.”

Though he refused to make any direct reaction to the boy’s last comment, Sam couldn’t help but smirk.“I promise not to ask him about his future plans, then.” Quips aside, he remembered one more thing: “Do you have any idea where you’re going to be cleaning up?”

“No,” Faust grunted.

Sam rolled his eyes. “I guess he expected I would take care of that, too,” he muttered. “Okay, well: there should be a spot to the southeast of the ruins. There’s a bunch of bricks laying around near the base of a broken tower. I don’t know if anyone’s there right now, but that’ll be a good place to start .”

“A tower with lots of bricks. Got it.” By now Faust had started walking on his way over to the ruins. “Still sounds pretty boring.”

To that, Sam could only shrug. “Sorry, man; it’s the best I’ve got.”

Looking like he might fall asleep right there, Faust sighed. “Whatever. I’ll do it.” Without another word, he left the deputy to his business.

It was only after the sujourne had started making their way out when Sam remembered the women at Macy’s tent. As far as he was concerned, Macy only needed one of them.

The deputy took one last look over in Faust’s direction before heading back to the Director’s tent. From what little he could make out from the now-faraway figure, Sam wondered if there was something about the boy that the Director was keeping from him. Whether that information was supplied through Rouken or some other means, it didn’t matter; any information he could get would be good.

Sam walked in to see that Persson had already stepped straight out of his chair. He a almost couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

“Something else on your mind, Sam?” he asked.

“Just a couple things,” Sam began. “What do you know about that Faust kid?”

Persson perked up. “The older boy?” To Sam’s disappointment, the Director could only shake his head. “Seems like a lost cause to me. I don’t know why Rouken keeps him around.”

After the trash-talking Sam and Faust had done behind the Director’s back just now, Sam had not expected to be doing the same to Faust. “Really now?”

The Director shrugged. “Maybe he has some special talent. But he doesn’t contribute a thing to the sujourne!”

Whether or not that was actually true, Sam couldn’t help wincing a little at the Director’s words. Sam pondered a few of his own before letting them out. “Does Rouken really speak that poorly of Faust?”

“Oh, Rouken has never said anything about the boy,” Persson confessed. “But he just has a nasty attitude and I can’t tell what his role is in the group.”

Just as those words left the Director’s mouth, Sam wanted to smash his head against that same brick tower Faust was walking toward. Instead a simple “I see,” was all he said, before taking a deep, inaudible breath and changing the topic.

“I think now may be a good time to check on Macy’s women and see if Esther is good enough to work yet.”

“Is the other one still not?”

Wondering how bad the Director’s memory and judgment could possibly be, Sam shook his head. “I really doubt Mira is good enough yet to do any serious work. I think I saw her wearing crutches still last time I saw her.”

“Unfortunate, but understandable.” The Director stroked his beard. “Yes, I like the idea of Esther going to do some work out there. I’ll let you decide.” Though immediately after speaking, he looked as if he regretted laying such a burden on Sam.

“I’ll go get her, then,” Sam assured. “Thanks.” Just as quickly as he had entered, Sam left the tent and proceeded to make his way back to the two women. Even with all the noise around him, nobody seemed to pay him any mind, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Every other place in camp was getting ready for the possibility of an invasion, explosion, or general devastation when local forces failed to apprehend these alien enemies. Almost every district around camp was more chaotic than ever before – with the only exception being the girls’ district, which had its own dramas to worry about.

For Toni, she hoped more than anything that her own dramas with Amity were over. All the other girls were outside, leaving her and Cynthia to redress and gather up everyone else’s worn-out clothes for the week.

Placing Toni’s still-soaking clothes with the rest of the girls’, Cynthia grimaced. “They still feel cold,” she mumbled.

Toni sniffed. “You think so?” she mumbled, her nose still clogged. “Because I’m cold all over.”

Most likely unsure how to take that comment, Cynthia declined to say anything further. The two of them moved from Macy’s tent back to the main tent – where, as it seemed was becoming the norm more and more every day, nobody was there but the two of them.

Before the scouts had discovered those robots in the passageway, it seemed Amity was going to be the only person to leave – her and her alone. Even then, her departure was never meant to be anything more than a minor hindrance to anyone who wanted to see her again after her birthday. With the newfound machines in the tunnels becoming the talk of the entire camp, Amity was probably off doing work for the scouts down there – and with this stake she had wedged in their relationship for seemingly no reason, Amity may as well have gone to live her life in the tunnels at this point.

The girl’s shoulders slumped as she took in a deep, shaky breath, catching the attention of Cynthia – who remained quiet still.

By now Toni had gone on for autopilot so long that she was hardly aware of the bedsheets she had gathered from the other girls’ beds. “Do you remember Zoe?”

The youngest assistant tilted her head. “Who is that again?”

“She used to be the oldest assistant,” Toni explained. “When she left, Amity became the oldest.”

Suddenly Cynthia perked up. “Oh! The brown-haired one?” she said with a gasp.

Hearing Cynthia’s reaction gave Toni some much-needed elation. Her lips turned up in a smile. “Yes, that one!” she giggled. “She was around for years; it felt like she was one of the assistants for as long as I can remember. When I was eight, she became an adult – and a year later we never saw her again.”

“She didn’t die, did she?” Cynthia asked, her voice raised to such a level that Toni turned to look her in the eye, seeing a genuine flash of concern in her blue-eyed gaze.

Feeling a little amused by the sudden concern, Toni hesitated for a second before responding with: “No. At least, I don’t think she did. But at some point when we were all traveling through the hills and swamps and half of us went on that split, we went to Kortrik when she and everyone she traveled with went some other way.”

“I hope she’s okay,” Cynthia muttered, then groaned. “I wish you hadn’t reminded me of her; now I’m all worried!”

Now that she had said all of this out loud, Toni suddenly felt a little worried, as well. “Still, that’s not why I brought her up,” she insisted. “I brought her up because…” She blinked, unsure how to say the next part. “Because when she left, things felt different.”

“Different than what?”

“Different than when Amity left.”

“Amity didn’t really leave, though,” Cynthia corrected. “She’s still around.”

Suddenly Toni understood why Amity tended to lash out at her and Cynthia. “No!” she clarified. “She’s not! She’s barely the same person anymore and it’s hardly been a week!” In the midst of her tirade, Toni had dropped some of the sheets in her hands. While down on her knees, she felt Cynthia’s shadow towering over her.

The younger girl looked down her nose at the clambering assistant. “Just stop worrying about her!” she shouted. “She’s a busy woman now.”

Toni got back over her feet, Cynthia’s head now at the same level as her abdomen. Beyond her intent, she started bending over the younger assistant. “She’s barely a woman – now stop arguing with me about it!”

It took Toni a moment to remember to breathe again. By the time she did, Cynthia had already walked away and returned to retrieve all the sheets Toni had not already fetched herself.

An apology started to build in the back of her tongue, but she dared not let it go free. Knowing they likely had a limited amount of time before the other girls returned, she sighed and picked up the rest of the sheets – at which point she and Cynthia started heading back to Macy’s tent, only to realize she and the other girls had gathered up in front of their usual area not far from the tents. Along with them, Sam had apparently just come along.

It looked like Macy was going to need assistance from one or both of them at any minute. As Toni and Cynthia walked by in the distance, almost trying not to be spotted, Macy continued chattering on with Sam. Toni almost flinched when Macy caught a glimpse at them, but her worries were all for nothing, as the woman proceeded to pay them no heed, as if she and Cynthia were invisible to her.

Once they were at Macy’s, Toni almost wanted to continue the conversation, but she wondered why they should even bother with that. Once one of them inevitably started yelling like the embittered brats they were, Macy or Sam was sure to come right in without a word.

Gathering some of the dirty laundry in a pile, the oldest looked up to see the MDA docking station that their mentor had left hidden away in the back – or at least as well-hidden away as such a heavy piece of machinery could be. For what felt like a few seconds but more likely had equated to a few real-world minutes, she wondered what it must have taken for Toni to gain the confidence, desire, and tenacity to ask Macy for an MDA when the only people allowed to have them were adults – and privileged adults, at that. What level of discipline must it have taken for her to be able to keep that a secret for as long as she did?

Now that Toni actually did know about that device and the fact that Amity had been writing on it this entire time, what were the odds that Toni would be granted permission to use one, as well? Moreover, did Zoe have one for herself, or was Amity such a special case in that that Macy would’ve only ever allowed her to have such devices to herself? There was only one way to find out for sure without letting Macy know that Amity – only at the very end – had managed to blow her secret, and that one way was on the other side of camp.

But maybe she could ask Macy. Amity would be the one in trouble for blowing her secret literary endeavors. Perhaps later on, Cynthia wouldn’t be allowed to have an MDA despite all the begging she might have to do – so maybe Toni would be the last lucky girl to use an MDA as Amity had.

Before she could truly begin to contemplate asking, the woman in question walked right through the tent entrance – though, surprisingly, not with Sam, but with a smile on her face nonetheless.

“Good thing I saw the two of you earlier,” the older woman said, beaming. “Sam is talking to the ladies right now. Given Mira’s recent condition, it’s possible the two of you may be working with her soon.”

Knowing Amity probably would have loudly groaned with that information if she was still here, Toni sniffed.

“Does that mean she and Miss Esther are going to be working with us at the same time?” Cynthia asked, her head tilted as she struggled to meet the old woman’s gaze.

Macy chuckled. “Most likely not. What with all the work happening in the outskirts, I think Sam may have something completely different for her to do. Speaking of…” She paused and took a look at the clothes and sheets the girls had brought with them. “I think I will be able to take care of everyone for now. You two have obviously been busy with laundry. Why don’t you go clean that all up, since you seem so eager to get it out of the way?”

Struck as if they had just been offered a lucky break, both Toni and Cynthia nodded. “Yes, Miss,” they said in unison.

Now that they had a plan for the time being, Toni and Cynthia were left alone as Macy went back to the other girls. Before Toni could even ask, Cynthia blurted: “Wanna get the water?”

Toni almost flinched when the younger assistant spoke. When she cast a glance at Cynthia, she saw a cat-like smirk on the girl’s face. She had forgotten that Amity was usually the one to suggest Cynthia fetch the water, but now that it was just two of them, Toni realized, she would need to have that same energy Amity always brought when forced to be in the same room as the two of them, lest she end up being the one who did all the menial labor.

Cynthia’s smirk wasn’t going anywhere. Realizing she had let this happen, Toni sighed and nodded. “Alright. You remember how to organize everything, though, right?”

“Of course I do!” Cynthia said with a snort. “Now go.”

Toni did as instructed, leaving Cynthia to her work. There probably would have been more work involved in the process of fetching water now that the scouts were overworked now more than ever – but it still was better than having to go fetch it from the lake.

Understanding this, Toni went to retrieve the bucket from the women’s tent. It was only when she reached their tent when she heard Sam’s voice, and realized he was still busy with the two women.

You’ll be working with one of the sujourne we brought along the other day,” he explained, Toni assumed, to Esther. “He’s going to be cleaning up.” From where she stood outside, Toni was unable to make out the words following that.

“Excuse me?” Toni called from outside. “I need a bucket.”

Within seconds, Sam opened the tent flap. “Oh, hi Toni,” he said before turning his head to the two women. “Do you know where that is?”

“I’ll get it,” Esther said. “Is there anything else I need to know about the job I’m going be doing?”

Lowering his voice, but not enough to escape Toni’s earshot, Sam replied with: “Just be self-aware around him.”

“Got it.” With that, Esther fetched the bucket, then walked out to hand it to Toni. “You’ll be working with Mira now,” she said. “I think you’ll get along nicely!”

For some reason Toni felt like Esther was trying to cover something up – but by the time she could even think to ask that, Esther was well beyond earshot. With a sigh, Toni took her bucket and proceeded to head to the scouts’ area.

To her surprise, she didn’t have to try very hard to avoid the other girls. By now Macy had taken everyone else out to a more discreet location, each child bearing a cloth in hand. Toni assumed they were sewing and began to wonder if it was a good idea to do that outside – but then considering how still the wind had stayed throughout this day, it seemed as good a day as any to do it outside. Hopefully the scouts wouldn’t blow anything up, and thereby spook one of the girls into messing up their pattern.

With so many people occupying the ruins, there were not as many scouts in their district as usual, but – as if to make up for this fact – plenty of adults from around camp had taken their place, if only for a few minutes at a time. Toni worried for a moment that the adults had moved the water pot, as well – and gave a relieved sigh when she saw they hadn’t.

Even better: the water was just barely warm enough to be steaming. That in mind, Toni proceeded to take a scoop of the liquid for herself. It was only right after doing so when she realized someone might not have liked her doing that without asking. She looked over her shoulder to see a man watching by.

“Go ahead, miss,” he called out with a grin. “Plenty for everyone.”

It had been so long since she’d last done this simple task that she’d forgotten if she still needed to get permission from someone before just taking water. Even still, she couldn’t help letting out another sigh before heading back.

Though she struggled a little to not get herself wet, she managed just fine, returning to Cynthia without tripping or making a mess of things. It was only when she got to Macy’s tent when she struggled with getting the flap open, but that was quickly resolved once Cynthia opened it up for her.

“Did you ride a turtle to get there?” Cynthia quipped.

“Oh, stop. I wasn’t gone that long,” Toni said, rolling her eyes.

“Whatever,” the younger girl replied, sticking her tongue out. “By the way: I found something in your pockets!” Before Toni could ask what, Cynthia held up what initially looked like a key. It took a moment for her to realize it was one of the drives from that dark office room.

“What the –?” Toni blurted with a flinch. “Where did you find that?”

“In your pocket.”

“That’s impossible – or, I thought it was.” Of all the things that had happened so far these past twenty-four hours, this was the most bemusing. “I thought all of them fell out of my pockets when –!”

“This one has two parts,” Cynthia cut in, demonstrating for Toni to see. She pulled the device apart near the midsection, where a round peg went into a round hole. The part with the round hole ended with a trapezoid shape on the other side. “This part where they meet up was caught in the clothing. Plus: this thing is tiny!”

Both because of derision or her cold, Toni snorted. “Do you think it would even work, then?”

“I dunno. Does it matter, though?”

“Miss Esther might want to see that.”

“Miss Esther isn’t here now. And she might not be for awhile.”

Toni pursed her lips. “That’s right; damn it.”

Cynthia seemed a little surprised at Toni’s language, but continued nevertheless. “Maybe we can find something that can use these.”

“I doubt it,” Toni said with a huff. She then proceeded to take the drive pieces out of Cynthia’s hands and putting them back together. “I appreciate you finding this and not destroying it, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it other than give it to Esther.” Though as she looked at the drive, she couldn’t help wondering if she had seen the trapezoid-looking shape before. It clearly went into something – but what that thing was remained to be seen.

“So, what now, then?” Cynthia wondered. “Are we going to clean the sheets now or what?”

Toni had almost forgotten about that until Cynthia mentioned it. “Right. Let’s get started.”


I’m back, I’ve written a plan for the rest of the serial, and as always, Discord is open!

Infiltration Part2.5 – Jump On It

It was like being a kid again! After playing the adult for what felt like forever, Amity was going back and straight into the Director’s tent. She may as well have been told to stand in the corner.

Sam was here. The Director was here. Worst of all: her uncle was here. She and Bailey were left to sit, squaring off against the three of them – in this tiny mess the Director called an office – while the Director sat in his own special chair and the men behind him were left standing at his side.

“If I am to be understanding this predicament correctly,” the Director began, his fingers interlacing as he rested back in his chair, “then the two of you led Toni into the tunnels with you to be captured, presumably to engage in coitus in front of her.”

Both Amity and Bailey flinched in their seats. “Sir!” Sam interjected. “Even I know that’s not what happened!”

From behind Sam, Shafer looked down at the Director’s head with a mildly amused smirk.

For some reason Amity felt as if the Director was entirely correct in his assessment. There wasn’t much of a reason for them to not think that – and even though Toni could have offered some further insight, Amity didn’t feel she deserved it.

“Is that true, Bailey?” asked Shafer, eyeing the scout with an unblinking stare.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I swear it is.”

Knowing what the boy risked by lying to him, the scout leader pressed further. “So if you weren’t doing that, then what you were you doing with my niece?”

Amity could already feel some heat rising between both of them.

“We were –” He hesitated. “– making out.”

“You kissed her,” Shafer commented, leaning on the Director’s desk. “And you did it while on guard duty, too.”

“She kissed me!” Bailey blurted.

In milliseconds her face went from red-hot to ice-cold as she flicked her gaze to her boyfriend, gawking in disbelief. Her body stiff as a board, she stopped breathing, made nary a sound, wondering when embarrassed tears would start flowing out. Everything went silent as the only sound she could make out was the blood pumping in her ears.

Sam and the Director exchanged a quick glance as Shafer bit the inside of his cheek and nodded. “We’ll discuss this later, you and me.” And with that, Shafer tightened his lip, letting the other two take over.

Her uncle’s words to snapped Amity out of her frozen panic, the hysterical background noise in her mind subsiding as she returned back to the equally-hysterical reality that she had written for herself.

Slightly unsure how to follow from what the scout leader had just laid out, the Director ran a hand through his long beard and remained silent for a moment. All the while Sam followed along, keeping his breath still as he awaited the Director’s next words.

“So,” he began. “We have a scout leaving to bring someone into the passageway where nobody else was allowed, managing to bring a third wheel along, going into parts unknown with the third wheel dragging behind, and losing the third wheel when one of the machines we thought we had taken care of springs to life and takes it off.”

That was more or less true. Both kids nodded.

“I would think both of you know better!” the Director chided. “You, scout, for bringing people into parts unknown – and you, miss, for being the adult in the room who did nothing to stop it!”

“Sir,” Sam spoke again. “Amity only just became an adult.”

“Right you are,” Persson commented. “Which is why I believe it only appropriate for her to receive punishment like a child would.” Before Amity could ask what on Earth that even entailed, the Director turned to her uncle. “Shafer – as her parental figure along with Macy and as his mentor, I trust you will come up will come up with a suitable punishment for young Miss Amity and Bailey?”

Sam cast an uneasy look at Shafer and Shafer gave a light nod. “I’ll discuss with both of them,” he said.

Resisting the urge to groan, Amity swallowed hard and took a deep breath. She and her uncle never had a particularly close relationship – even after her parents had passed her on to him – and she had hardly any idea what to expect for a punishment when most of the punishments bestowed upon her over the last several years had been from Macy.

In her nebulous state of mind, the girl failed to realize that Sam and the Director had started muttering some words to each other in front of her and Bailey. It was only when Sam mentioned something about the camp’s “position in assisting” her that Amity directed her gaze to them – at which point the Director visibly rolled his eyes beneath the deputy’s willful gaze.

Seeing the Director behave so casually to what was otherwise a serious situation left Amity with more questions leaving the tent than she did going in.

By the time she, Bailey, Sam, and her uncle had finished their meeting with the Director, Rouken was up next. Amity felt herself a proper child standing next to him, so dwarfed by his immense stature that she almost wanted to hide behind Bailey.

“Hey,” said her boyfriend, squeezing her hand. “You haven’t said a word in a long time. You okay?”

The past five or ten minutes had felt like she was merely a ghost that had been forced to carry out autonomous work while her brain droned off to think of everything and nothing both at once. Now back in her shell, the cold attitude most had suspected from her returned, displayed thoroughly upon her countenance.

“Yeah – totally fine,” she huffed. “I’m just beaming with the info that I’ve already been scolded and called a baby by the goddamn Director. Except he really can’t scold us, because he doesn’t give a shit about what we do – just that you and I don’t go around causing him to have to call us into his tent like that.”

As they both walked behind her uncle, Bailey winced and looked over at Shafer, noticing that he didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the conversation at his backside.

“Well,” he began, his voice fully accusatory and ready to rip deep into his girlfriend. “He only says that kind of thing as a formality. You do know that, right? Why do you think he doesn’t give a shit?”

Amity did not know that. Nor was she sure that was even feasible.

“That’s not true and watch your language,” Shafer demanded from up-front, his tone catching the teens off-guard. “Don’t make me change my mind about the punishment I have planned, scout.”

Change your mind?” Amity mouthed. Those three words made her raise an eyebrow, made her contemplate letting her uncle change his mind if it meant being able to see if there was any grain of truth in Bailey’s claims. If everything the Director did was only for the sake of formality, she did not want to know what would happen to him if he was taken out of the formal role. Even now as she looked back, spotting Sam among the few who stood outside the Director’s tent, knowing Rouken was in there with the man who had stood at the helm for the last three years, she hoped that what Bailey had said was false and that her uncle was right.

From just outside the Director’s tent, Sam let out a sigh as he turned to glance at the three newcomers. The woman among them had fallen asleep and the young boy was scribbling away at a large document, leaving just Faust – who, among all of them, certainly looked the least bored.

“How’re you liking this place so far?” Sam asked.

It took Faust a moment to realize someone was talking to him. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as Sam took a seat at his right side, completely casual, though far from charismatic enough for Faust to simply shrug off the slight invasion of his personal space. It took another moment for him to respond with a shrug. “That depends on what ‘this place’ means. The camp? It’s fine. Kortrik? Hell no.”

At that, Sam cocked his head. “I take it you’ve been through it?” he asked.

“No,” the young man stated. “Well, yes. You wouldn’t get it. I’ve definitely been through hell, though – if that’s what you mean.”

Whatever brief silence had befallen the two of them was cut short when a bout of laughter erupted from the Director’s tent. Sam sneered, almost wishing he could shut them up. “Do you have any idea what they might be going on about in there?” he wondered, hoping to change the subject.

“I kinda thought you’d know,” Faust replied. “I thought you being the deputy, the Director would have said something to you about it.”

“No, he didn’t say anything to me.” As the words spilled out, he sensed growing suspicion on Faust’s part.

“Really?” he wondered. “Rouken doesn’t tell us shit half the time, but that’s ‘cause he has a lot of things that he keeps secret between himself and camp directors like your boss – and also cause Tarren and me are just a couple of kids who wouldn’t be able to understand what’s so important about what he’s got to say, anyway. Bertha probably doesn’t even understand his topics of discussion, either.” As he spoke of her, Faust swore he could see the sleeping woman stir.

“You and him are kids?” Sam asked. “You look older than those kids who just walked out.”

“I’m sixteen,” Faust said. “I know you guys are dumb enough to think fourteen is old enough to be an adult, but around Rouken, Bertha, and Tarren, I’m still considered a kid. Probably will be for awhile, as long as I’m living under Rouken’s shadow.”

Pondering Faust’s words, Sam hesitated to open his mouth again. “It sounds like you don’t entirely respect him.”

Sam cringed at the deputy. “Are you serious? Of course I respect him – and Tarren and Bertha. When it’s just the four of us out there, we can’t afford to let little disagreements get in the way.” That said, he kept his scowling gaze on Sam a moment longer before changing his tone. “What is it, mister deputy? Is there something you want to tell me about the Director?”

Not terribly far away, Tarren had taken a listen in on what Faust and the camp deputy were talking about and he couldn’t help but smile a little. His reaction did little to boost Faust’s ego or even propel him further than he had already gone, but the fact that Tarren had noticed was enough to steer the situation further off-course than it had already gone. It wasn’t until Tarren spoke when the conversation really started to move forward. “Yeah – something you wanna tell us?” he called.

“Tarren, shut up,” Faust retorted, his scowl still present, unchanging, his eyes swimming with an intensity that demanded Sam’s attention. By the time he returned his gaze back to Sam, Faust continued. “I’ll tell you this now about Rouken: I wish he would have turned us the hell back when we were told to come to Kortrik.”

“You really hate this place, don’t you?” Sam muttered, eyes still locked on the boy. “Did it do something to you?”

Faust wrinkled his nose. “You could say that, sure.”

“Don’t you think that’s something the Director would want to know? Or maybe I would want to know?”

“Like I said earlier,” Faust said with a scoff. “You wouldn’t get it.”

Once again Sam had the upper hand and he took his chance. “Oh yeah? Try me,” he offered.

“Why? Because you’re the deputy and I have to tell you?”

“No – because you look like you want to get it off your chest.” When that didn’t work, Sam added, “The Director is going to need to know it at some point. Who knows? Your chief might even be telling him about what’s bothering you right now.” He wasn’t sure, but Sam thought he could see a sliver of Faust’s bottom lip recede into his mouth as he proceeded to bite down on it.

“How about I ask you another question,” Faust began after a long silence, shifting himself to sitting upright. “What do you know about cryogenics?”

“Not much,” Sam confessed. “Just that they haven’t really been in popular use since the US was still fully established here.”

Faust nodded. “Right. And do you know if Autorise has reinvented it or not?”

“Reinvented?” The deputy couldn’t keep himself from chuckling. “Autorise invented those systems in the first place, didn’t they? If anyone has them still, it’s gotta be them – so it didn’t need to be reinvented.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” Faust said with a grunt, then followed with a sharp inhale and soft exhale. “Okay,” he continued. “So basically nobody’s managed to reverse-engineer the Domain’s systems – and now that the Domain is a global superpower, it’s not like they’re going to give that tech to just anyone. I’m just holding out hope that they haven’t totally destroyed the blueprints to make that kind of tech.”

Eyeing the teenager suspiciously, Sam tilted his head, uncertain where he was coming from but feeling as if he had a strong enough idea at this point. “So you wanna be frozen?” he prompted.

“Til all this shit’s over,” Faust replied. “Maybe go so far in the future that my brain ages so much that I’ve forgotten about everything that’s happened.”

“What? What happened?”

Faust shot another cold stare, which immediately warmed up slightly. “I might tell you later.”

“Still better than never,” Sam said, fully aware of the fact that he was coping with what little information he had. “Well, what do you think is going to happen now that you’re all here?”

At that, Faust could only shrug. “Could be anything. This is the first city I’ve been to with Rouken and either we end up milking these ruins dry for everything they’re worth and make nothing out of it, or we change the landscape forever, make it a great city, and then maybe someone reverse-engineers cryosis before I’m dead.”

“Is that really his name, by the way?” Sam wondered. “Rouken?”

Faust snorted. “Is your boss’ name ‘Director?’”

From just in front of Sam, two men walked out of the tent; it took the deputy a moment to realize one of them was the Director – who he had not seen beyond his tent since they set up camp.

“Sam, my boy –!” he called over. “We have some arrangements to make!”

The rest of the walk to her uncle’s tent with all the other scouts was just as silently awkward as Amity could have expected – or at least that was the case until a group of scouts walked within their vicinity. Almost every one of them looked over at Amity and Bailey, fully aware what they were doing in the caves. By now everybody had heard and everybody who knew was fully willing to share their knowledge of what was meant to be a private moment between the lovers.

Following single-file behind one of the scout leaders, several scouts walked adjacent to Amity, Bailey, and Shafer. Some of the younger ones made unflattering kissing faces at the two of them before Shafer turned his head around, scaring the boys out of their silent gibing as they continued to follow their leader.

Amity hadn’t been inside her uncle’s tent since they all moved to Kortrik – and even then, she was only there to help him set it up. In a lot of ways, this part of camp served as a parallel to the one Amity had come from – where instead of catering to girls, this spot in camp was meant to cater to boys. Unlike Macy’s tent, the scouts’ area was comprised of kids above the age of thirteen, since a lot of boys preferred to stay and become scout leaders for new boys that came in.

As she pushed herself beyond the culture shock, Amity followed her uncle’s command as she and Bailey took their seats in front of a large desk. Amity noticed there was not much that distinguished the interior of this tent from that of the Director’s – at least until she spotted one of those bug-like machines staring her in the face from the corner, its eyes unassuming and metal frame completely still.

Seeing her blank, unblinking gaze, Shafer snapped his fingers in front of her. “Hello? Ammy?” he said. “It’s not gonna kill you. Thing’s dead.”

“Are you sure?” she sneered. “Last time I thought one of those things was dead, it ended up eating Toni right in front of me.”

“I’m well-aware,” Shafer replied, leaning against his desktop. “Let me also say: aside from that girl being captured by one of those robot bugs, I completely expected something like this would happen. Most people who paid attention to you two would’ve seen you acting like horny dogs around each other.”

Even though he spoke with the best of intentions, it didn’t stop the oversaturation on Amity’s cheeks.

“But anyway – you two are going to need to be punished for what’s happened,” he continued. “So here’s my proposition. Amity: you’re going to move your tent next to mine – and Bailey: you’re going to help her with the move.”

With how much her wrists had been hurting from writing and with how much she still needed to move over, using her hands to once again build her tent after less than a week with it made Amity groan. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” She shot a glance at Bailey, who responded with little more than a blink.

Shafer blinked as well, clearly surprised. He could barely keep himself from scoffing. “Really now?” he replied, raising his voice. “So, what – would you rather just get some other boy to help you with the tent?”

“Why do I have to move my tent at all?” Amity asked.

“Amity.” This time it was Bailey who spoke, squeezing her hand as he said her name. “It’ll be fine.”

She shot a look at him to see a warm smile – and within seconds she calmed. “Alright, fine,” she said with a sigh. “Should we just jump on it?”

Holding his arms out as if he was walking over to hug her, Shafer gawked. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Yes – jump on it! Go!” With that, he started walking toward the two of them, herding them out as they got out of their seats and made their way to the exit. Once they were out, Shafer zipped the tent flap and left the kids to their devices.

“Well, what the hell,” Amity mumbled. “Whatever – I guess we’ll go get –”

She was interrupted when Bailey reached in to peck her on the lips. “Ammy,” he began, having clearly picked that up from her uncle. “Don’t you get it? He’s making us work together on purpose.”

“Huh?” After the trauma she’d endured over the last twenty-four hours, it took a moment for her to realize when something good was happening. When at last she made that connection, her face lit up with a bright smile. “Oh – oh my God,” she chuckled. “Please smack me; I deserve it.”

“Nah – come on,” Bailey began, beckoning her as he started on a path away from Shafer’s tent. “Like he said: we should be thrilled to jump on it.”

Infiltration Part2.4 – In the Flesh

During the last few months of childhood, one of Amity’s most pressing goals was to get herself into Bailey’s arms. They were hardly friends, hardly acquaintances, but it was her goal: a way for her to be able to proudly say that she was very much in the adult phase of her life. They hadn’t had a marriage ceremony yet and their first date could have gone way better than it had, but at the very least Amity felt some sense that she was going on the right path at a very early point in her development as a young woman.

Seeing what had happened to Toni last night had turned her back into a frightened little girl.

Everyone in camp knew about it now. How she, Bailey, and Toni had snuck into the tunnels. How they went to a room that they weren’t supposed to be in. How Toni was captured. And there was more: Esther had disappeared, as well.

“That bitch must have done it,” she fumed, sitting at Bailey’s side as the two of them waited in Sam’s tent. “There’s no way it was anyone else. She was the first one to go in those caves; it’s not a coincidence that Toni got captured by some robots we’ve never seen before right when Esther and Mira show up.”

Eyeing her nervously, Bailey nodded slowly, trying his best to appease Amity’s assumptions though he refused to completely give in to them. After the last sleepless night, neither of them were in any mood to argue, but that wasn’t going to stop Amity from arguing whenever she had a chance.

Her shoulders tucked so tight to the sides of her neck that she looked almost as if she’d break her top vertebrae, Amity received some form of comfort when Bailey slunk his arm over her shoulders, bringing her in a little closer. “I’m sorry, alright?” he said. “Even if Esther really is that bad, Toni would be fine if I hadn’t brought you with me.”

“Toni also would’ve been fine if she hadn’t brought her damn self!” Amity retorted, then grunted, rubbing both temples. The thought of being captured by one of those machines wasn’t preferable for her either, but at least the guilt that guided her thoughts now wouldn’t have lingered in every crevice of her mind.

For their entire conversation, Amity had barely looked Bailey in the face. She kept her gaze mostly forward, staring at the wall of the tent as if she were afraid to look at him – as if she weren’t worthy of his recognition.

Soon the arm around her shoulders faded into the back of her mind, intangible to all her thoughts. She took a shaky breath through her nose and blinked rapidly. His shoulder pressed against hers, inviting her to cry on it.

“Are you okay?”

She blinked a few more times, gaze still forward and lips pursing when she nodded. She was beyond the point of crying now. Even in front of the boy she wanted to call her man, she couldn’t, and for a moment even she wondered why she couldn’t. By the time she could even think to cry, the tent door flapped open.

Her demeanor brightened slightly, expecting Sam. Instead it was one of Macy’s kids. Immediately Amity wiped her eyes, hoping the girl wouldn’t see the traces of pink at the corners.

“Miss Amity!” the girl exclaimed, her face glowing with a radiance Amity hadn’t seen all day. “They’re here – Miss Esther and Toni!”

Almost immediately Amity stood up from where she was. “Wait – seriously?!” she replied, er bedraggled hair puffing up slightly against her shoulders, revealing to the girl just how stressful the last night had been. “Holy shit – where are they?”

“I hope you know it was nothing personal,” Tarren explained as he started to undo the knots that the sujourne had tied around Toni’s and Esther’s wrists. “For all we knew, you could’ve been one of the highwaymen or some Autorians.”

Before either Toni or Esther could give a response, a nearby Faust shot a bewildered look over at the boy. “Tarren!” he said through clenched teeth, stepping over as Rouken and Bertha spoke with the local deputy. “You’re not supposed to talk to other people about that!”

“About what?” Tarren asked, completely unaware of Faust’s barely-contained rage for a second. It was only after staring back at the dead stillness in the older boy’s eyes when he realized he was in trouble. It took him a second further to realize what the fuss was all about. “O-oh…right.”

“Don’t let that stuff slip, alright?” Faust clarified. When Tarren nodded in response, Faust let out a sigh and scratched his head. “I’m sure the others want to see me right now, so let me go talk to the kids’ caregiver here so she can help you all out, okay?” Again Tarren nodded, along with the two they had rescued earlier. With that, Faust left the three of them by themselves, the captives sitting outside the children’s tent

His lips pursed, Tarren returned back to what he was doing with the knots. “So, anyway…nothing personal?”

“I guess not,” Toni said, sniffling as she rubbed the spots on her wrists that the knots had restricted. “I think I already said thanks enough times for saving us.” Though even as Toni spoke, she sounded as if she were still submerged in the icy-cold water, her nose so clogged that she had to keep her mouth open at all times just to breathe.

“It’s what you had to do,” Esther added. She wanted to clarify that she knew what it was like to take those kinds of precautions, but she stopped herself before she jeopardized her mission. The fact that she – someone who was still seen as a foreigner – was the one to save one of the children in a place nobody here knew about left her highly suspect and she knew it. She couldn’t only begin to guess the tings the other two sujourne were saying to Sam and what they were going to say to the Director once they got to him. From where she sat, Esther could barely hear their conversation at all.

Esther took a moment to relax her own hands once Tarren had unbound them. “That should do it!” he proclaimed, as if proud of his handywork. “Now – what did Faust say he was gonna do?”

The boy flinched when an unfamiliar voice sounded from behind. “I will take things from here, young man.” He turned around to see an older woman hunched over him.

“Oh – Miss Macy,” he presumed, taking a step away from the captives. He looked up to see that she had two towels in her arms. Seeing the warm, yet authoritative smile on her face, he moved out of the way for her so she could tend to the wet – and possibly sickly – women. Like Faust before him, he said not another word as he went to approach the other sujourne, leaving Esther and Toni alone with the children’s caretaker.

“You have no idea how relieved I am to see you’re both okay,” Macy confessed as she came down on her knees to hand them their towels. “Keeping up a calm demeanor in front of several children during unprecedented events is just as difficult as you would think it is.”

“I’m just glad that’s over,” Esther said, glancing at Toni to see the girl drying her normally-poofy hair under the towel. Toni shivered and sniffled, making Macy wince.

“I’ll see if I can find a handkerchief for you, dear,” Macy offered. “Are you feeling alright, though, Esther?”

“I’m fine, shockingly,” she admitted. After being thrashed around the lake, she was almost surprised that ice-cold water hadn’t found its way into her system once again.

“Well, I’ll go find that hankie for you, Toni, and then leave you ladies here to dry up for now.” Her smile turning to one of sympathy, she got back up on her feet. “Forgive me if I take a bit longer than usual; Cynthia herself has had a lot to deal with this morning.”

Toni brightened up when she heard that name, probably wondering what Cynthia must have felt when she realized she was safe. Hoping Macy would return soon, she brought her knees up to her face and sniffled again, her backside almost completely covered in the towel as if it were a cloak.

By the time Macy had gone out of eyeshot, Esther turned her gaze toward Toni again. “I just remembered something,” she began. “You had a few of those drives left with you, right? Do you think they could be of any use to someone around here?”

“Huh?” asked Toni, her voice groggy. Just before Esther could wonder if that was the wrong thing to say, Toni suddenly perked up. “Oh yeah – no, sorry. They kind of all slipped out of my pockets when we were in the lake.” The flushed a little, worried she had just upset the woman.

“Oh,” Esther replied. “Well never mind, then.”

Just in time, Macy came by to hand a handkerchief to Toni before immediately dashing back over to the other kids. As Toni buried her nose in the fabric, she noticed a familiar face from last night headed their way – along with her date.

Her shadow cast over Toni, Amity returned Toni’s surprised gaze with a relieved smile. “Oh, thank God you’re okay!” she said, awash with elation. She almost bent down to hug the rescued girl, but stopped herself before getting too carried away.

“Hey, Amity,” Toni replied, exhibiting very little energy as she spoke.

Taken slightly aback by Toni’s low-energy response, Amity puckered her lips. “You okay, Toni?”

Toni gave a little shrug. “I think I got sick out there. I can barely breathe through my nose.” Immediately after speaking, she buried her face in the handkerchief again.

“Oh. Damn.” But as she spoke, Amity couldn’t help drawing her gaze over to Esther – and at the same time feeling extreme discomfort talking about this kind of thing as she sat right next to Toni. As far as Amity was concerned, Esther didn’t belong here and should not have sat within the same vicinity as this conversation. With that in mind, Amity sighed and put her hands on her hips.

“Miss Esther,” she began. “Do you mind giving us some privacy?”

It was immediately clear to Esther that Amity was being more than a little brash to her. “I don’t think I need to, do I?” she wondered.

“I guess not,” Amity admitted. “But you also don’t need to hear what we’re going to talk about. It’s kind of a chick thing, if you know what I mean – something you wouldn’t get, considering your age.”

Still Esther couldn’t quite understand what Amity’s deal was. Before the argument could go much further, Esther shot a look to her right to see Mira limping her way, still needing some support from the crutches. Esther gave a little wave, but quickly realized Mira wouldn’t feasibly be able to wave back.

“You have no idea how relieved I am right now,” Mira said, practically hopping on one leg as the other still had a bit of healing to do.

“This is the most amount of distance I’ve seen you walk in awhile,” Esther commented.

Mira replied with an obviously-fake chuckle. “Macy told me you were here, actually,” she continued. “If you could come with me, I think there’s a lot we need to discuss.”

A relieved smile threatened to break through Amity’s lips as she watched Esther get off the ground. To her surprise, Bailey stepped in on the situation.“You sure you don’t need any help with the leg, miss?” he prompted.

“I’ll be fine, thank you!” Mira barked back as if a cap within her had been waiting to pop. Her insistence was enough to make him step back, letting Esther handle her partner as they made their way back to their tent.

By the time the two women were out of sight and Bailey had returned to the girl’s side, Amity sighed. “Thank god,” she said. “I though she’d never leave.”

Toni lowered her head a bit, clearly holding words back as Amity finally had a moment to relax. Unfortunately for her, Amity was quick to notice, giving a confused blink as Toni stared back at her. It took another moment for Toni to finally say something.

“So, um…how is the writing going?” Toni asked in a desperate attempt to change the subject.

The corner of Amity’s lip turned up in a smirk. “Not great, considering I haven’t written a thing since we went into the passage,” she said with a chuckle, though the thought brought a bead of sweat down her head. “Actually, I can’t even remember what I was writing before this guy came along last night.”

As Amity spoke, Bailey took a seat by her side, his fingers intertwining with hers as his right hand came within close proximity to her left. Even as he took his spot with them, Toni behaved almost as if he wasn’t even there – and so did Amity, by extension, feeling merely a part of herself left partially filled as he grabbed a hold of her hand.

“But you’re gonna keep writing?” Toni asked.

“Of course!” Amity stated with a level of confidence Toni would have died for. “Doesn’t matter what happens in the real world; I’ll still be making stories no matter what happens. Hell, I’m not anywhere near as busy now as I was a week ago, anyway – so it’s not like I would have much trouble writing while doing a bunch of other work, either. Plus now with Bailey around, I’ve already set out to complete everything a woman would need to complete.”

Immediately after those words spilled from her mouth, Amity felt as Bailey’s grip on her hand loosened slightly.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he said.

Behaving as if she were surprised to hear him speak, Amity whipped her head back around to his side – at which point she realized he had let go of her hand entirely. The look in his eyes said something that she could very well decipher, but she wanted to hear the words from his mouth, as if she needed further translation. “What are you talking about?”

“Just –” The words seemed to get caught in his throat as Amity glared at him. “ –don’t be unrealistic.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Unrealistic? What are – ”

Both of them were cut off when Toni started coughing loudly into her handkerchief.

Bailey looked around his girlfriend to see Toni burying her face in the cloth. “Oh!” he commented as if only now realizing what the noise was. “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” she mumbled with a sniff. “But Amity – I was wanting to ask you some stuff last night.”

Amity paused. “You mean about writing,” she said, to which Toni simply nodded. It occurred to her that she had never really answered any of Toni’s questions last night, but rather she had added questions on top of what Toni already had. “Sure – what did you wanna know?”

For a moment Toni contemplated which question to go with first. “I guess…when you decided to start writing, how did you know which story to start with first?”

“It takes a bit of intuition,” Amity admitted. “But one day I just kind of sat down and wanted to write, so I did. The story I wrote was the one I had on my mind for the past few days.”

“Oh.” Toni paused again. “Then I think I actually have something in mind for a story I can write.”

“Wanna tell me what it is?” Amity pushed.

“I don’t know if I want to, but –” Toni thought on it for a moment. “Well, alright. I wanted to write about that time we were traveling with Miss Macy and found a wolf skull. And then some of the other kids took it and started acting like it was some magical talisman.”

Being reminded of that incident from several years back almost made Amity burst out laughing. “Oh, my God,” she said, struggling to keep a straight face. “Yeah, until Macy and I found out where they were taking the skull and we took it for ourselves before losing it.”

Sucking some air through her teeth, Toni cringed. “Yeah, I didn’t tell anyone this, but I’m the one who got rid of it.”

Amity cocked her head at her. “What? You?” she inquired. “What, you stole the skull from them? And then you got rid of it? You of all people?”

Thinking back on those days and how much she had grown since then, Toni visibly shrunk. “Yeah,” she said. Averting Amity’s gaze. “I guess I’ve sort of turned into a spineless joke since then.”

“Well, hang on,” Amity continued. “So you were just going to write all about what happened there?”

“Kind of,” Toni clarified. “Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what would have happened if what the others were saying about the skull being magical was true. And wha t would’ve happened after I kicked it into the river.”

“Maybe it would’ve mutated into some kind of Autorise nuclear wolf?” Amity offered.

Toni wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think so. I’d probably just have something magical happen – like something even Autorise couldn’t make happen.”

At that, Amity blinked. “Oh,” she responded. “That doesn’t sound very believable at all.”

“I don’t think magic is supposed to be believable,” Toni answered.

“But if it’s not believable, where’s the fun?” Amity declared. “Because if I can’t believe something could really happen, then there’s just going to be a large part of me that’s screaming about how fake the story really is – like there’s no way magic could ever realistically be made, but the skull being mutated? It’s a stretch, but it could happen!”

“But what if I’m not trying to be realistic?” Toni offered.

Amity stuck her nose up in the air. “Well, then you don’t have any reason to write at all.”

Just like that, Toni could feel a knot forming in her stomach. Suddenly the urge to write at all had disappeared entirely, along with the idea that had been forming in her head over the past few days. “Right,” she replied after a long bout of silence. “That probably is a dumb idea. Never mind.”

At the same time Toni spoke, Amity realized that Bailey had stood up from where he once was, practically leaving her by herself with Toni as he watched looked over at Macy and the children she overlooked. At the same time she realized, she saw the deputy headed their way.

“You two,” he began, pointing to Bailey and Amity. “Come with me.”

Mira sat back at disbelief of what she had just heard. “And you had no way of encrypting the data at all?”

“No way at all,” Esther clarified.

Mira shifted a bit in her bed, still struggling to sit comfortably even after all the healing she had undergone so far. “That sounds like more than just a different system,” she noted. “If you can’t encrypt it with any known keys or methods, then these machines must be using a completely different architecture.”

“But why would they use a different architecture and still serve the Mother?” Esther challenged. “That was the part that confused me most of all: the fact that these machines had reverence toward Mírre despite very clearly not being one of us or having any ability to connect to Rélhum the way we once did.”

Unable to answer her partner’s questions, Mira contemplated a response, rubbing her temple as if such thoughts put her in strain. “This may be the reason the Mother sent us here in the first place,” she said. “Not because she knew we would find machines of a different architecture here, but because the luocans might find the machines before we did if we didn’t come.”

Thinking about what Mira had just said, Esther bit her lip. “Maybe I should have waited longer before saving that luocan girl, then – if nothing else, to see what they would have done to her.”

“But now that you have saved her,” Mira corrected. “The luocans here will either revere you as a hero or suspect we have something to do with the machines down there.”

“Regardless of which conclusion they come to, we need to get the Mother’s help with this,” Esther insisted. “It is only a matter of time before the luocans manage to either wipe themselves out or wreak havoc against their enemies with these machines. We need to get out of here.”

“I’m still not in any condition to leave,” Mira reminded her partner. “Plus we still need to be proper about this, not jump to conclusions like the Disconnect would. If we get the Mother’s help too early, we may just end up damaging the Domain worse than if we were to strike after the luocans have fully exposed themselves to these machines.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good enough reason to stay here,” Esther muttered. Her options were twofold: leave Mira behind as she went to get Autorian help, or wait until Autorian help is absolutely needed, and then go with Mira to speak with the Mother about this – assuming Mira’s leg had fully healed by then.

“We need to stay,” Mira said plainly. Until the problem has become a definite threat, we stay here.”

Infiltration Part2.3 – Further Backwoods

His short legs just barely keeping him in-pace with his partners under the slowly-setting sun, the boy took out his flashlight and scanned the map in front of him. A beaming smile spread across his face. “Should be just another hour til we’re there!”

“We kind of figured that, Tarren,” said a woman in front of him.

If his hands weren’t already weren’t full of cartographic equipment, he probably would have folded his arms at that comment. “And how do you already know that, Bertha?”

One of the travelers in front of Tarren looked over his shoulder. “She knows because there’s a lake in front of us.”

If his feet weren’t already on autopilot, Tarren probably would have paused. “Oh…oh! You’re serious?” He held his breath for a moment. “I swear, Faust, if you’re playing with me again – ”

Faust interrupted Tarren with a chuckle. “Yes, I’m serious – it’s just over the edge here.” Unable to wipe the smile off his face, he looked forward, glancing down at the orange light shimmering on the lake’s surface, casting a gold glow on the trees nearby. Suddenly he felt bad for Tarren; being the youngest and shortest of the group certainly had its disadvantages.

“Don’t be too hard on him,” a deep voice from up front said – and just as the man called out to the three other sujourne, the lot of them flicked their gazes up ahead, with Tarren poking his head from Bertha’s side. “The fact that he was able to guess an hour from the map alone shows he’s better at this job than you two have been giving him credit for.”

Again Faust chuckled, sensing a grin from the boy behind.

“With that said,” the chief began, “I think we should take a moment to rest soon. There should be a stopping point nearby. Tarren?”

Practically whipped up into a frenzy by the chief, Tarren buried his nose in the map as if he were analyzing the insides of ancient scripture; the fact that he didn’t bump into one of the others while searching was practically a miracle. “If we go southeast once the trees fully cover the lake again, we should find a station.”

From up ahead, Rouken nodded. “You all know the drill.”

As soon as their chief had said that, Faust reached into his pocket for his knife and Bertha searched her belt to make sure she had all the rounds she needed.

It wasn’t long before the family of four made their way down to where the station was.

Nobody else seemed to be there. That was to be expected: not the fact that nobody was there, but that no one seemed to be there. For all the knew, someone could have buried a land mine in the area since they were last here. They could have set a trap for them right where they stood – perhaps a tripwire to send them into a spiked pit. If there was any foreign influence here, it needed to be eliminated before they could carry out their usual operations.

So close to Kortrik, this station that the sujourne had set up was bound to have some problems – and this had definitely been the case. There were multiple times where Chief Rouken had attempted to send a message or receive a message on his MDA, only for the connection to break – and likely it was due to some interference from something in this area. He and the other sujourne had chalked this up to so-called “highwaymen” – and along with the other bits of evidence they had found of these people, they had reason to believe that they existed. As to what capacity they existed, none of them could be too sure.

As they all neared the perimeter of their station, witnessing the human-sized beacon that stood in the middle of an otherwise cleared-out area, the sujourne kept themselves completely quiet, hanging their heads low as they approached.

Being the smallest yet also the one with the heaviest burden to bear, Tarren felt a great rush of relief to take off his backpack before setting it under some foliage. The others, meanwhile, did not bother to remove their loads, yet still managed to move about quicker and quieter than he could.

For the most part, Rouken was still for the operation, opting instead to watch Faust and Bertha take care of things for the rest of them as Tarren kept watch from his own point in the woods. Knife in hand, Faust hid behind several trees as he and Bertha closed around an open circle – the likes of which may have once served as a camping ground, but had since deteriorated partially back to its normal self. With the land already chilled by autumn’s bite, he had to be more careful than usual – careful not to step on a twig or reveal himself because the normal greenery he would have otherwise had to cover himself with was no longer there.

He came to a point where he could no longer see Bertha – not her or the barrel of her single-shot rifle. By most accounts, this was a good thing – so on he went.

Rouken and Tarren had told Faust that there might have been a tree-mounted switch panel somewhere nearby if somebody had tampered with their equipment, but he couldn’t see anything like that from where he crouched. It would have been easier to tell if any of the campground’s buildings were still intact, assuming they had built any at all once upon a time.

Peering beyond the dried foliage that littered the place, Faust spotted their beacon sticking out of the ground from a still-decent distance away. There didn’t seem to be any drones or anything of the like hovering around it – and if there were, Bertha would have likely shot them down by now.

On he continued circling around the grassland, hoping to see something unusual – something he could use his paracorded knife on, but still nothing. In time he found himself the closest he would ever get to the beacon without outright stepping away from the foliage. Looking up, there was nobody; looking left or right, there was nobody: nothing but the normal foliage and noise of the autumn forest. Realizing everything was probably okay, he stepped out from the shadows and made a run toward their station.

The cylindrical little tower in the dirt stood barely any shorter than Faust. It took him a moment to analyze if there was anything inherently wrong with it. Deciding to bite the bullet right in front of his chief, he jammed his knife near the tower’s cap and started prying until the top came off with a satisfying pop – at which point he let out a sigh, realizing there wasn’t a bomb under the cap.

“Alright, come out,” he shouted to the others. “Coast is all clear.”

“Oh, thank God,” Bertha joked. “I almost fell asleep before I heard that pop noise.”

Faust rolled his eyes, then looked back down at the tower. “There’s supposed to be a light on, right?” he wondered, using the flat side of his knife to move some wires out of the way, practically shuffling them as he as stirring through a bowl of unseasoned pasta.

“The light is not on?” Rouken asked.

“No it isn’t,” Faust replied, shaking his head. “I think somebody must have deactivated it.”

“Let me try anyway,” Rouken demanded, gesturing Faust to step away before reaching for the MDA in his holster – after which he set the device in the cradle at the beacon’s side. No power.

The chief took his device back out and put it back where it was. “And it does not seem as if there’s any way to find out who or what might have done this.” But even as they spoke, the sujourne already had their suspicions.

Highwaymen: so-called due to how they seemed to always travel back and forth down the same highways. The sujourne had studied these people for the past several months, but still had yet to find them. Even with the limited amount of technology at their disposal, they had managed to pick up signals from underground and map out where these men seemed to be going, but still there was yet to be a crossroads mapped anywhere.

Coming in on cue, Tarren pulled out his map of highway etchings and laid part of it out on a board before proceeding to write something down – likely just a note of what had happened at the station and how this would help them find the highwaymen’s location.

Faust and the others gathered behind Tarren as he scratched some notes with the little ink he had left in his pen. “Still not enough to make a map,” he murmured, practically cursing at himself. “But it’s close.”

What he called close looked like a bunch of mostly-disconnected lines pointing in several different directions – some thicker than others, but not following a general flow. It was obvious to Faust that their youngest recruit had not made any assumptions of where the highwaymen could have been going – because if he had done that, these lines would have been connected by now. Faust realized he was probably the only one among the four of them who actually would have Tarren to make assumptions when he saw Rouken nod and watch close as Tarren layered his highway map over the terrain map.

“Where do you suppose it all leads?” Bertha asked.

“Where I had suspected,” Rouken answered.

The rest of the sujourne each exchanged nervous glances. Again Bertha spoke up. “And where was that?”

The smirk on their chief’s face made the rest of them feel a horrid sense of unease; it was the face he made when he knew they were about to dive head-first into danger.

Daylight burning out, the sujourne decided to set up camp around the station after making one last trip to see that everything was safe. Faust gathered wood, Bertha kept the fire going, and Tarren and Rouken set up the tents before heading out to capture the group’s dinner somewhere in the woods.

Faust took a longer time with gathering firewood than he had intended.

Before meeting the other sujourne, Faust had had his palms and feet wrapped in tape as he was set to be put to sleep. Years after his cryogenic stasis had began and only a few months after being awoken, here they still were, plastered to his hands as if he still needed them. Beyond protecting his palms whenever he touched something that might have splintered them, they served no purpose. He almost asked why he didn’t cut them off with his knife right now.

For some reason he felt as if he could barely see in the dense forest, as if he hadn’t been traversing this kind of landscape for the past three days with minimum amount in the way of proper nourishment. He started to wonder if the full effects of dehydration were starting to kick in. Not wanting to take a risk, he took a drink out of his canteen – and by the time he felt sustained enough, it was still half full anyway.

Again he looked down at his hands – not to view the bandages, but to view the nothing he had in them. Whatever sticks he had carried in his hands a moment ago were now on the floor, though he didn’t remember ever dropping them. He also didn’t remember setting his knife back in its holster. Reaching down, Faust was careful with one of the sticks, as one of them was pointier than the others, reminding him that he had sharpened one out of complete boredom.

Realizing this, he started to worry that he was taking too long gathering wood. Faust picked up the sticks he had already gathered and proceeded to go around the area for more.

Once he returned to the others, he quickly got some form of answer as to how long he had been out when Bertha sighed.

“Jeez, man!” she commented, standing on her knees as if groveling for a stronger fire with the few twigs and weeds she had. “Another minute and I might have thought you were either dead or taking a dump out there.” When he didn’t respond to her joke with a laugh, smirk, or even a roll of the eyes, her demeanor vanished. “What’s up?” she prompted.

He dropped his forest findings in the pile with Bertha’s twigs as if that were supposed to be an answer. “The usual.” As if that response implied anything good.

Bertha immediately saw right through him. “Hey, c’mon,” she prodded further. “You nervous about Kortrik again?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Nervous?” he muttered. “What would I have to be nervous about? It’s not like anybody I know is there. God’s sake, from what you guys have told me, that place has been empty for years until recently.”

“Don’t be coy, Faust,” she insisted. “You and I both know what’s up.” Seeing as he took a seat in the dirt, she got off her knees and sat down as well, at which point she proceeded to rest her cheek on her palm. “It’s okay, man; any of us would feel the same if we had the same experience with Kortrik that you did.”

He really didn’t have a rebuttal to that.

“I promise nothing bad will happen there,” Bertha continued. “We’ll work with the guys there, help set things up, and it basically won’t even be the same by the time we’re done with it.”

Cringing at how much Bertha had missed the mark, how she’d missed the thing that truly was bothering him, Faust resisted the urge to shake his head. “You think maybe someone could figure out cryogenics again once we get it set up?” he asked, his voice so monotone one might have mistaken him for an Autorian unit.

Bertha hesitated, clearly realizing that neither yes nor no was the correct answer to his question. Holding her breath, she pursed her lips in contemplation, then sighed. “You were frozen once, man. Just one time and you’re hooked on it like it’s a drug,” she tutted, folding her arms. “Sure, dude – I suppose if someone manages to reinvent cryogenics, you can freeze yourself until hell itself freezes over, too. Or hell, Autorise might even have cryogenics at this point for all we know, but good luck getting any of the officials there to cooperate with you.” As she spoke, she absentmindedly shuffled the wood around with a stick of her own, barely paying Rouken and Tarren any heed as they came back from the woods, a rabbit slunk over the boy’s shoulder.

The others gathered around altogether for a somber night, no wind to blow the smoke anywhere but directly up into the cloudless sky. From there the rabbit was properly skinned and roasted that night. By the time the fire had nearly died out, they split up in their groups of two and slept in their tents until morning.

Rouken was first to wake, rising out of bed just before the break of dawn. Realizing they had a chance to find out if the fish were edible around the area, he woke the other sujourne up and prepared them for a trip down to the lake. With twice as many people to work on the tents, the four campers cleaned their site twice as fast as it had taken Rouken and Tarren to set it up – and from there, they continued their trek down.

In the morning fog, it took Faust a moment to notice just where the water began and where it ended. He heard geese honking overhead, indicating to him that there was active, growing wildlife at the lake – though the amount of toxicity flowing in their blood would remain to be seen until the sujourne retrieved a reading from a sample fish. Until then, they were content with taking a chance on the morning fish if it meant a chance to get something to eat this morning. Likely those at Kortrik wouldn’t have much in the way of a real meal.

Things continued to look good for the sujourne as – three-fourths of the way there – Tarren’s Geiger counter had not gone off yet. It figured that everything Autorise had ever touched – Kortrik included – would have only improved with time away from Autorise.

Faust witnessed as Bertha readied her harpoon. Without proper fishing rods, this was the best they could do – but it wasn’t like any of them knew how to use fishing rods anyway.

With no beach to speak of, the sujourne were left to watch their fish from a ledge – one high enough that they could just barely reach their arms into the water if they stretched far enough. Being that she was the first one to bring a harpoon out, Bertha was the first to find a spot for herself, at which point the rest of the group split up.

As Faust found a point as far away from the others as possible while still keeping them in sight, he desperately hoped Tarren would be able to contain himself this time. He didn’t want a repeat of last week when Tarren kept hurting himself and scaring the fish away.

If there was any danger of contracting radiation sickness, Tarren or one of the others would have shouted about it right now. That in mind, Faust kept his harpoon at the ready. No fish in sight yet. He could see a turtle, but no fish. If he was lucky, maybe he could drive his harpoon through that turtle shell; if he were even luckier, the others would decide out of nowhere to not go to Kortrik at all.

It felt as if ten minutes had passed and still there were no fish to be found. Judging by the lack of activity on the others’ end, they hadn’t had much luck, either.

Nearby he noticed a large tunnel that drained into the lake – likely the remnants of Kortrik, the realizing of which made a shiver run up his spine. They were definitely close – and the fact that he hadn’t noticed until now made him want to scream.

The morning fog covered up two ducks flapping about in the distant waters – perhaps trying to find fish for themselves, as well. They made a lot of noise splashing about: too much noise for so-called waterfowl. It probably wouldn’t have been long before they died of starvation.

At the same time one of the ducks extended an inproportionately-long arm, a faraway voice – distinctly human – called out.

“Hey, um – there’s someone out there!” Tarren called from his point.

Bertha groaned. “Tarren, for God’s sake –!”

“No, wait,” Rouken spoke. “He’s right.”

The faraway voice called out again. “Help us!


Well, that was fun. Yep, we’re introducing some new characters — the last ones we’re gonna see for awhile, most likely. It’s the legendary (or maybe not legendary) sujourne!

Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part2.2 – Queenless Bees

Mira must have been down here. Yet she wasn’t.

That robot that had died in her arms – he had to have been down here. Yet he wasn’t.

So Mírre was here – yet for some reason Esther couldn’t reach her. Suddenly Esther wished she had questioned the native robot before his untimely demise – to perhaps see what this Mother was that he had connections with. Who or whatever bore him certainly could not have been the same person or thing that bore her, yet he had insisted that such was the case.

Esther tried again to reach the Mother, but to no avail. The same Mother who had instructed her and her partner to cast themselves into the dangers beyond her walls was now denying her access to a supposed oasis beyond what she and Mira had considered home. More than anything the luocans had offered, foreign and heretical as they were, the Mother and her haven within this un-Autorian Domain gave Esther the greatest culture shock she could have anticipated.

Clearly this was not the Mother who presided here; if it were, she would have shown herself. The rudimentary robot and, she suspected, all the insectoid AI in these caverns followed the will of a false Mother, speaking in their false tongues so nobody could hear them.

Just as quickly as she had realized this, the noises in Esther’s head subsided, draining out of her until she returned to the quiet reality she had trapped herself in.

Esther looked again through the dusty door. The silence was all the noise she needed to hear.

Hoping to break the lock, the etternel pressed both hands against the door’s face. It wasn’t long before the locking mechanism snapped, making her plow through with little warning, her chest hitting the floor of the duct as she fell forward.

She could, fortunately, confirm that this place wasn’t infested with the bugs – nor was it infested with any intruding luocans. There were no blinking bright-blue lights, no chemical smell, no primitive speech synthesis. For the first time since her kidnapping, Esther felt some air of familiarity here.

Picking herself off her feet, he looked up and ahead, immediately noticing several running computers – all towers, none compatible with modern AI. She wondered if this was where the Mother’s call had come from.

The wooden floor creaked a little as she walked, making her wonder again if she was going to fall right through – or worse: be heard by someone who knew she wasn’t supposed to be here. When that didn’t happen, Esther rushed up to one of the computers – at which point the buzzing in her head returned, almost like a defense mechanism.

She flinched, looking every which way. Nightvision on, she scanned the area – yet still the bugs were nowhere to be found. She looked under a desk near where all the computers were, and still she saw nothing of the sort. Instead she noticed every one of the computers rumbled like the machines of old and were linked together, forming a supercomputer of sorts. Perhaps if these machines were capable of running a central AI, establishing their own pseudo-Mother, it was through easily-exploitable methods that the Domain had long since abandoned in its corporate days.

The buzzing continued as she turned to face a large monitor – which she proceeded to turn on. From there she noticed a lock screen which indicated to her that this daisy-chained machine was running some form of UNIX. Worst of all was the lock screen’s message: “Insert crypto key.”

If this were password-unlockable, then maybe Esther might have had a chance. Just to be sure, she attempted to look through the options available to her on the terminal lock screen – then immediately retracted once she touched the keyboard. The buzzing was even louder now than it was a moment before – as if her brain had been infested with bees and several static analog channels all going off at once.

The sound calmed once she pulled away. Then, as if the buzzing weren’t bad enough, she heard a loud squeaking noise from behind.

The noise made her whirl around immediately to the door. It was closed.

She blinked, then tilted her gaze down when she heard footsteps from the floor below her. Following this was a series of synthesized words:

You are to remain in this room until the master arrives,” said the machine from earlier. Esther almost preferred the buzzing in her head to the cacophony the insectoid machine so proudly spouted from its software-automatic-mouth. Still she continued to listen. “He will explain everything once he is back.

A distinctly human voice responded through a trembling voice, as if the speaker had been weeping. “When is he coming back?” asked Toni, completely oblivious to the etternel on the floor above her.

He will come back in due time,” the machine replied. “He always does.” Without another word, the machines that had brought Toni here left the area, locking the door behind them. Their prisoner uttered no words.

Though the machines had left, Esther kept herself still for another minute, not sure if one of them had managed to sneak behind her back, slip under her nose, get the drop on her from above. When none of the scenarios in her head played out, she headed for the door which she had expected to open a moment ago, unlocked it, and made her way to a winding metal stairway – and trapped inside the orange-lit room was Toni, who looked up at Esther wish surprise.

“Miss Esther?” she asked, her voice low. “What are you –?”

Esther hushed her. “Get over here!” she hissed, beckoning the girl over.

Without hesitation, Toni did as commanded, only speaking once they were within whisper distance of each other. “What’s going on? What are those robots? Who’s the master?”

“I don’t know,” Esther answered for each one. “They kidnapped me, too. I don’t know what these bugs are or who’s controlling them, but they must not be very good at holding prisoners if we’ve already managed to find each other.”

Wiping the small traces of tears still left in her eyes, Toni sniffed and nodded. “That’s true. But…” She faltered, then inhaled sharply. “Never mind; I’m sorry. Just…God. Let’s go.”

As she lead Toni back into the terminal room from where she had come, Esther sighed. “I don’t know a way out, either – but there has to be something. I just got in this room before I heard you being dragged down there.”

“They didn’t drag me in there!” Toni retorted. “One of them literally ate me, rolled around a bunch, then spit me out so I could puke, and THEN they dragged me into that room like I was in time-out!”

“Be quiet!” Esther commanded, keeping her voice barely above a whisper. “We can’t let them catch us, so just stay quiet.”

Just like that, Toni calmed down. “I’m sorry…I’ll stay quiet.”

“Okay.” Both of them looked toward the monitor. “I want to see if we can get into this computer somehow. It’s missing some kind of key and it doesn’t seem to accept a password.”

Toni hesitated to reply. “Why do you care about that?”

“Because someone is clearly controlling these robots and I want to get to the bottom of it,” Esther said. “I was brought down to the tunnels to help investigate – and I’m going to do it even if I was never supposed to be down here in the first place. And if nothing else, this computer should at least have a map of this place so we can leave.”

But thinking on what she had just said for a moment, Esther realized she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the amount of data she wanted. The moment she laid her hands on the keyboard, the computer was going to overwhelm her with that same chaotic melody.

Still Toni did not see any need to argue against Esther’s claims. “I guess that makes sense.” But even with that in mind, she didn’t see the point of finding information beyond a simple escape route. Her concerns were unfounded on Esther, who pivoted toward the computer’s desk in an attempt to hack it, hoping she might find some kind of key somewhere here.

“Can you help me?” she asked. “I need some kind of key that will go into the computer so we can get past this lock screen.”

Toni agreed to help out, though she knew she wouldn’t be anywhere as useful as Esther was hoping. “Can we turn a light on first?” she asked.

“Not when those machines might think we’re their master,” Esther insisted. “Just pick up any drives you can find – whether they’re in desk drawers, on the floor, or wherever you’re looking. Just take them and give the ones to me with a flat, rectangular head.”

Without further question, Toni started rummaging through the area, as did Esther, trying to find anything that might have given them a way into the computer. Toni handed Esther the flat-headed USB devices whenever she happened upon them, but the rest she kept in her pockets. The girl came to realize how some of these devices could be used as weapons in the wrong hands, as her own hands had been punctured several times from grabbing a drive the wrong way or mistaking a pin for a drive.

“I think I found it!” Esther exclaimed, still keeping her voice down as she stuck the drive into the monitor’s USB port. Rather than immediately hang or tell her that the device was invalid, this time the lock screen showed some sort of loading icon. It took seconds for it to disappear and reveal the rest of the system. “Okay.” She looked back at Toni. “Let me look up some diagnostics for this place; we should find a way out in just a minute.”

Again she put her hands on the keyboard. Again she cringed as the buzzing grew to agonizing levels, yet completely passing under Toni’s radar as if attempting to dogwhistle Esther away from the desk.

As the woman scanned through the documents, Toni kept an eye on the door through which they had come, stilled her breath to listen to the slightest stirring, pointless as it was when the terminal behind her continued to stir.

Right in the home drive was a document with all the schematics of the place laid out in front of her. Esther went through every page, the images burning in her memory as they appeared. “Got it!” And right as Esther spoke, the buzzing seemed to slightly subside for a moment. From the relative silence came two barely-decipherable words: “Suspicious activity…” Esther practically leapt from her chair, ready to leave.

Reacting to the woman’s surprisingly energetic state, Toni flipped around to see Esther coming her way. Toni had barely a moment to ask what had happened as Esther grabbed her wrist and rushed them both out of the room. From there they walked through another door to a room they had not yet seen – and from then on they began their escape.

Much as she had when following behind Amity and Bailey earlier that night, Toni nearly tripped as she was dragged out, the drives in her pockets jostling, reminding her that she had not disposed of them. “What are we running for?” she asked.

It occurred to Esther she never explained herself. “I saw a message,” she said. That was true, though Esther’s implication was that the message had come from the terminal when it simply had not. “Sorry – I was probably getting worked up over nothing. We just need to get through a few rooms until we get to a ladder, then we’ll end up in the same kind of sewer area that I took to get to where the scouts are now.”

“And then what?” Toni wondered.

Esther paused. “And then we swim for it.” More than anything, she hoped this wouldn’t just result in her getting sick again.

Rather than rushing them through, Esther led Toni at a leisurely pace, peeking through each door carefully before stepping into the next room – and every time they did, they found that there was nothing to worry about. The buzzing had almost completely disappeared, leaving Esther in a serene state by the time they made it to one last door.

“The documents said this part only unlocks via a remote or from the other side of the door,” Esther explained. The wall in front of them was made of metal wires, giving her the impression that this would have been easier to pull apart than any of the barriers they had already passed.

Just to make sure she hadn’t missed something, Toni looked through her pockets of drives to see if she had managed to find anything – but to no avail.

“What are you doing?” Esther wondered. “Did you keep all those drives that you found in the other room?”

Toni blinked before answering. “Yes, I guess so. But none of these are remotes.” She hesitated. “Sorry; should I just throw them away, or something?”

Initially Esther thought that would have been the right thing to do, but she quickly second-guessed that. “Actually – hold onto them,” she replied. “We might need them once we get back to camp.”

“Do you think maybe we could pick that lock open with one of them?”

Judging by that comment, some of the drives must have been needle-like in design. Still, Esther feigned a chuckle. “I don’t think that will work. All we need to do is break the door open, which doesn’t look very hard.”

“Break it open?” Toni said, raising an eyebrow.

Though she realized she had probably said something out of line, implying herself to be something beyond normal human functionality, Esther ignored Toni’s inquisitive comment and stepped up to the wiry door. All the while Toni kept her distance, watching with interest as Esther dug her fingers through the fence’s orifices. It took a second, but with a little effort, Esther started pulling down on the infrastructure, popping the wires out one by one. All the while Toni noticed the way Esther’s struggle caused the muscles in her arms and legs to tighten beneath her clothes, almost as if they were about to rip through.

The last of the wires snapped out and Esther stepped back, needing a moment to catch herself. “There,” she said, gesturing to the hole she had just made. There were some metal bars along the frame, but the gap between them was large enough that Toni could fit through.

Realizing what Esther was gesturing about, Toni leaned down to crawl through the space. Just on the other side of the door she noticed a tall ladder; she tilted her nose in the air to look for the top, but as far as her eyes could see, there was no top. It was only when Esther spoke again when Toni snapped out of her trance.

“There should be a switch somewhere,” Esther explained. “Just a big one you need to flip to unlock the door.”

It didn’t take long for Toni to find the switch in question. Once she did, she flipped it up, causing the door in front of her to unhinge and fall on its face, as the lock was the only thing still holding it in its position. With that, Esther stepped through.

“Thanks,” she said. “Now – I think you should climb up first.”

Toni’s pupils dilated. “Me?” she asked, the color in her face draining.

“If you go up front, I’ll be able to catch you if something happens.”

The words “if something happens” did not leave Toni with the greatest confidence. “I don’t know…”

Esther sighed. “It’s either that or we don’t leave at all.”

Toni almost thought she could scream right there, but knowing what was potentially on the other side of Esther, she stayed quiet, took a deep breath, turned around, looked up again, and exhaled. Maybe there was an end to it and it was cut off by the darkness. She desperately hoped that was the reason for why she couldn’t see anything up there.

There was no further argument on Toni’s part. Both intruders started making their way up, barely saying a word to each other, barely looking anywhere than directly above them. Esther didn’t even attempt to remind Toni not to look down, knowing full-well what would happen if her reminder went ignored.

In a few minutes’ time, the two of them were almost completely submerged in darkness, making Toni want to freeze where she was, but still she continued on. Her arms and legs started to ache the slightest amount from all the work they were doing to keep her from plummeting to her death, but she said nothing, knowing that regardless of what she wanted, Esther wasn’t about to start walking back to the bottom now.

Soon the sound of rushing water accompanied the seemingly-eternal darkness that covered them. It wasn’t long before Toni started speeding up, adrenaline pushing her up with the knowledge that the sooner they left the area, the better. Esther followed suit, glad to see the girl finally picking up the pace.

Just when she felt her arms might pop out of their sockets, Toni made it to the surface, the sound of rushing water coinciding with the blood pumping through her ears. It took a moment for her to realize which sound was which.

Esther gave the girl a moment to recuperate before leading toward the ledge by the water. “Remember what I said about swimming?” Esther asked, glancing at the water at their feet, noting its otherwise calm flow, yet still nervous about dipping her toes into its body. “Time to start swimming.”

Infiltration Part2.1 – Colonists of the Hive

It felt like minutes had passed and still she was not dead. Or perhaps she had been robbed of her flesh and sent to heaven through a painless heart attack. She would have thought as much if not for the fact that she was obviously still descending.

Toni wasn’t sure if she had screamed or not – but she knew that wouldn’t have mattered when the world around her seemed to go by in a flash. If this truly was hell, she couldn’t wait to hit the seventh level.

Once at last she landed, it almost came as a shock when she realized the burden of the crash had not fallen on her. Still preserved, though very cramped, she was kept alive inside the machine’s belly, captive in its metal womb. She could barely see anything through this body – even with all the little gaps in the robot’s frame. She began to wonder if she would ever see light again when the machine let her go.

Toni fell on her back; combined with her fall, being stuck in a cramped frame for as long as she was made her feel like she had just misaligned her spine. Looking up, seeing the machine’s barely-decipherable face, Toni scooted back in a panic – only to bump into another identical machine. She screamed, as if hoping Amity, Macy, Sam, or anyone would hear her pleas.

Tears streamed down her face, obscuring her vision slightly as she examined her surroundings. Clearly the path down here had not been a simple fall down, because the place was illuminated by several blue lights – all of them individually fading in and out as if they were trying to communicate something she could not understand. In addition, all the bug-like drones around her had lights on the tops of their heads, shoulders, and arms that behaved in a near-identical manner.

Wiping her eyes, Toni looked around to see all of the machines were looking at her as if they had never seen a human before. It made her wonder who had invented these things – or perhaps better to consider was: what?

Before she could receive any form of answer, one of the machines stepped forward on its pointed feet, its footsteps reminiscent of somebody tapping a sheet of metal. Unlike all the others, this one was not colored red, but yellow, its black accents making it look almost like a bee. Like all the others, it had torches at the end of either arm; seeing them made Toni freeze.

Toni thought she could hear a ringing in her ears when the yellow machine made a noise. “Intruder,” it spoke, using a very primitive form of speech synthesis that took Toni a moment to understand. “You and your kind have been caught lurking in our ground. We have taken you as a warning to the others – so that the rest of you will know to stay away from the Mother’s holy ground.

Instead of screaming again, Toni sat back in shock, amazed and frightened to see this kind of intelligence from an otherwise dull-looking AI. Almost subconsciously, she muttered, “The Mother?”

Everything in this secret tunnel looked the same, making it that much harder for Esther to find a way out of here. If she explored without nightvision, she risked missing some details that she otherwise would not have been able to make out; if she went with nightvision, the lights would have surely blinded the rest of the path from her view anyway. It was as if the bright blue lights had become a form a light pollution in and of themselves.

More than anything, she felt herself very fortunate that these bugs had lost track of her as they carried her down, unable to hold her body within their tiny stomachs. She stepped through ankle-high fluid that she could not quite make out. It wasn’t water and it wasn’t a byproduct of human waste; judging by the smell, it was definitely toxic – and most likely a pollutive chemical.

It didn’t take long for the gynoid to realize that if the generator had been working for decades at its current output and if there was nobody around to take care of the mess, it was almost certain that she was now standing in sednium toxic waste: a flammable material akin to battery acid.

If she had managed to find herself in this part of the tunnels, then either this was a place where captured prisoners went to die or the bugs had been out of proper commission for so long that they could barely keep track of where its prisoners went. Esther was more willing to bet on the latter, considering she hadn’t yet found any skeletons down here – and if that was the case, whoever was in charge almost definitely didn’t have any cameras or microphones tapping in to detect her every move.

Looking up, she noticed the way the lights all blinked on and off along the walls and along what appeared to be pillars that careened up to the ceiling – if there was a ceiling at all. Part of her wanted to connect to Mírre and ask if she had actually been carried back to Rhobane – that she had been plugged back into Rélhum, but she knew Rélhum well enough to realize that this was not a part of it.

If nothing else, she was fortunate that the static buzzing sounds had stopped, for now when she stood still, she could hear something in the distance – something of an almost earthly presence.

Realizing she just might have found someone else down here, she rushed toward the source of the noise, careful not to trip on anything or run into a pillar.

By the time she made it to a wall, the sound still had a hard time reaching her. She pressed her ear against the wall, wondering if that would help, but that only seemed to make matters worse. Though it was obvious to Esther that the noises were likely coming from a human, they sounded like they were being spoken through liquid – as if she would have had more luck deciphering a dolphin’s speech than whatever she was hearing now.

Stepping away from the wall, the gynoid nearly tripped over something beneath her feet. She momentarily assumed that she had found a skeleton, but instead found a pile of wet trash at her foot.

She paused. There seemed to be a metal ring around the debris. When she tried picking up the debris from the ground, it resisted – as if held back by some kind of pressure.

Esther paused again, took a tighter grip on the debris, and started pulling harder – until eventually it dislodged itself from the ground. At that moment she noticed a tiny whirlpool appearing at her feet. She took a grip on another bit of the debris, yanked it out – and again over and over until the liquid around her started to sink.

Toni flinched when she heard liquid splashing into a surface not far from where she and the bugs were. One of the machines looked around, then scuttled over to assess what had happened. Toni covered her mouth and nose when she acrid scent reached her, making her wonder if this place had once been a sewer.

“What is that?” she asked, gagging.

Rather than answer her, one of the AI from behind her opened a cavity in its body and grabbed her with its inner mandibles, once again forcing her into its stomach. In seconds she was trapped in the machine’s stomach again. Though tightly secured, she felt she was about to fall out when she found herself spinning uncontrollably along with the machine that housed had forcibly ingested her.

Draining the pollutants from this area made Esther feel that much safer. Even better: she was able to make out the speech from the other side, but only three words of a question that went unanswered.

One of Macy’s girls was down there.

Esther tried looking through the drainage holes she had just unclogged, but to no avail; the machines had already taken the only other person here with them. She did, however, notice a bunch of red machines – as well as a yellow one standing by. Before she could tell what they were doing, the lot of them proceeded to start folding up, their legs twisting out of place and bending so that they curved along with the ground. At the same time they tucked their torches inside and ducked their heads into their bodies. Once the transformation had completed, they all started rolling away.

Wherever they had rolled was beyond Esther’s ability to see. As far as she could tell, there didn’t seem to be any way for her to look down and find out, either.

This close to one of the edges of the room, she noticed how the blinking lights all seemed to form along the wall in a series of glass scales. For now she just needed an escape, yet when she tried pinging the lights, hoping for a list of schematics, she did not receive anything in response.

Without a response from the lights, the only way out that she could think of was through the drain, assuming she could lift the lid off. If the fall through the drain to the next floor didn’t kill her – unlikely as that was – then she probably would have been killed by the mechanical bugs.

Going through the drain was simply out of the question.

Walking along, seeing what all she could find down here, Esther came to a stop when she noticed a large spot of consistent black among the lights – as if there were some sort of shortage in that spot on the wall. By the time she made it over, she realized the black scales formed a spot just large enough for an adult to crawl through. Furthermore, she noticed a handle along the scales.

Her motions slow and deliberate, Esther pulled up on the handle, revealing the way the black scales functioned as a door that hinged upward. Esther bent down to see almost complete pitch blackness, with only the slightest rays of light from the other side of the scales passing through. The door seemed to lead to a duct with a metal floor, metal ceiling, and walls reminiscent of a fence. The room beyond those walls reminded her much more of the space at the bridge she had leaped over.

Turning on her nightvision for good measure, Esther crawled inside and looked around to see if this place was just as bug-infested as the room where she had been kidnapped. She would have easily been able to conclude that she didn’t have any visitors if she didn’t hear that same static buzz once again.

Looking back, she noticed how the scales in the room she had just exited all seemed to latch onto a tower – how all the scales adjacent to this dark room were attached to their own respective towers. The towers in question were translucent enough to let some of the light from the outside through. Every time a scale lit up, she could see a glimmer of light along the scales edges, but little more.

Because the ceiling to this duct was so low, Esther needed to crawl through, worried the ground beneath her would break if she wasn’t careful. The metal at her hands and knees creaked with the slightest movement – and considering she was heavier than most people her size, she did not trust the duct’s ability to keep her safe for very long.

As old as this place probably was, the bugs had done a mostly-good job of keeping it clean and functional. This fact almost shocked Esther, considering these were the same machines that allowed their waste disposal to get so clogged. Though the more she thought about that, the more she realized they had probably clogged it up on purpose. If that was the case, then the only thing she couldn’t understand was why.

After crawling in a straight line for over a minute, Esther took a left turn and continued down the corridor. Just ahead of her she saw a dim light – orange and dull: a sharp contrast against the scales’ bright blues. On further inspection, she realized that she was peering through a dust access door. Though the static noise continued to stay with her, she did not hear or see anything on the other side of the vents.

Another minute passed before the gynoid made it up to the door. She was careful and deliberate as she attempted to push it open. It did not budge.

In her desperation, Esther pressed her face up against the door to get just the slightest picture of her surroundings. Still that was not enough to confirm whether there was anyone on the other side of the door or not.

Her head practically bashed against the door when an influx of noise rummaged through Esther’s consciousness, making her feel as if her mind had just been split in half. Louder than ever before, the static, completely indecipherable, left her paralyzed for just a second. In the time it took for her to recover, she could not figure out a decryption algorithm to the noise.

The noise blared through her mind like a frigid wave crashing over a ship of innocents at sea, their cries drowned out by the chaos. Whatever bits and pieces she could decipher were caught in the maelstrom of static noise.

Then, when she started searching in desperation for a way to completely disable all networking I/O that the Domain had not already shut off themselves, a message appeared that she never thought she would see down here:

Enflamiere Mírre.


Aaand Part 2 is now underway! Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.11 – Making a Date

It would have been pointless to keep all this tech downstairs. With just a little more excavation, the scouts were able to confirm that the suspected alternative exit was legitimate. Rather than a raft, a simple sewer hole up into the outside world was now all it took to escape. The debris smothering the top of the manhole required clearing before the exit was of any use – but this problem was short-lived after the scouts identified and cleared the opening.

Sam and some of the luocan workers pulled the machine through the whole with a rope assembly, just barely managing to squeeze it through the opening. Despite all the scratches it sustained through the process and despite the possibility that it might not work at all, they still had hope that they could resuscitate the machine.

With the foreign robot now being taken to camp for closer examination, the a few other officers remained with Esther as they plundered deeper into the tunnels – yet still they could not figure out a way to disable the generator. It was only when one of the officers nearly fell to his death when Shafer decided to halt their investigation for now.

Half of the scouts who had come were instructed to stay where they were for the rest of the night – that they were on guard duty until further notice. In each group of two, one of the scouts was required to stay; Bailey stayed and Elliot left. Just his luck.

Though she had left the tunnels almost ten minutes ago, Esther knew she needed to go back in tonight. That spot where the man had fallen to his death was almost as far away from the generator as they could get – and unlike the generator room, that space was not suitable or human workers. Regardless of whatever that room was used for, the broken bridge was too much of a barrier for the luocans to get over. It was possible that the luocans might never get over there, too afraid of death and too feeble to jump over themselves; it was no challenge for an etternel.

Halfway on the walk back to her tent, Esther paused. She knew that if she told Mira about this, they would argue about it – especially after Esther had drowned herself. With this part of the tunnels being so much deeper than any place Esther had gone by herself, there was the possibility that she might not return.

If both of them had known about this area, they would go there now themselves. Yet they couldn’t go now with Mira’s condition being a key factor.

So it was decided: Esther would go by herself, then tell Mira later.

By now it was dark enough out that nobody noticed the gynoid sneaking her way back to the manhole from whence she had come, but she did not let herself succumb to overconfidence. At one point on her way back, she was nearly spotted by one of the scouts who had come out to walk over to the tents. After watching him for a few minutes, Esther realized the scout was headed toward Shafer’s tent. The fact that scouts were going over to speak to Shafer made his heist even easier.

Once at the manhole, she put her ear to the metal, heard nobody approaching, and proceeded to slip down to the ladder. She did not hear anyone in the immediate vicinity below her – and with that, she continued on her way down. On the ground, she noticed some of the scouts up ahead, but none of them had looked back at her. Bearing this in mind, snuck over to the next room where none of the scouts were and hid herself in shadow.

While several parts of these passageways – which she and the luocans began to believe was a sort of underground facility – were well-lit enough for most to see around with the naked eye, the southern edge was nearly pitch-black. Esther’s nightvision helped her through.

The ground beneath her feet transitioned from concrete to metal – and with each footstep, the ground reverberated all around. She couldn’t see far enough to find where the other side of this room was, but the sound alone was enough to tell her that she was in some kind of chamber. Shattered glass accompanied the few broken wall-mounted pipes she came across – but whatever the pipes were used to carry was uncertain; if their contents had any smell to them, it was long gone.

Soon enough, the bridge came to an abrupt end, part of its body bitten off eons ago. Fortunately, she was able to make out the other side of the bridge – at eight or nine meters away. Esther couldn’t tell whether or not that was a shorter distance than what she had jumped when crossing the river.

Now would be her chance to find out. Taking a fe steps back, she readied herself, looked back to confirm she was by herself, looked ahead again, tensed her legs, locked her eyes on the target – and forward she sprinted. Without the Domain’s cables to carry her, she was entirely reliant on her feet; by the time she realized this, she had already started and wasn’t about to stop.

Esther could run barely faster than a human runner, jump barely higher – and even knowing she had barely an advantage over one of these luocans, she leapt for her life.

The gap in the bridge never looked larger. From below she could sense something unfamiliar, yet familiar – something that somehow caused a buzzing in her interface.

She had no time to ask what the buzz was coming from when, in her desperation, she clung onto the other edge of the bridge. She started to slip, but grabbed onto one of the broken pipes. The pipe started to bend, giving her barely enough time to reach over and grab another side of the bridge’s railing – and with barely any time to spare, Esther hoisted herself up the bridge and onto her feet. Her feet made a loud clang against the bridge’s metal, making her worry it was about to give way – but with that final move, everything went silent.

Looking up, the ceiling didn’t seem appear. Looking off the edge, she still couldn’t tell if anything truly existed beneath the bridge. Looking to her side, she placed a hand on a curving wall, indicating some kind of cylindrical frame. Another look to her other side confirmed that the bridge now cured around, likely forming a half-circle around whatever structure Esther now found herself standing next to. The only thing Esther noticed from looking back at where she had just jumped was perhaps the most intriguing of all.

All along the wall, an army of hexagons showed themselves, matching into each other perfectly like a honeycomb. Each one gave off the dimmest of light – just enough to aid Esther’s nightvision, but not enough for the unequipped person to notice.

Esther went along the bridge to see if there was a door – or perhaps another bridge – she could go through. The further along she went, the more thankful she became that the luocans weren’t here to see this. Perhaps now she could find the data she needed.

Again a buzz started humming in her brain.

Wondering if she had actually heard that or if something was trying to send her a signal, the gynoid whipped around, saw nobody, looked over the edge and saw nothing, then slowly continued to walk forward.

The noise grew a little louder, yet she had no way of deciphering it. It sounded almost like the noises the robot at the generator room had made when transmitting the system diagnostics to her – only this time she had no way to decrypt these sounds at all. They sounded nothing like any protocol she had ever heard, reminded her of nothing the Mother ever said, and yet somebody or something had insisted on sending her this message.

In her desperation to find out what the noise was coming from, Esther emitted a message into the potential network around her: “Who is out there?

Again the buzzing stopped.

A full minute of silence passed after Esther sent her message. Every ticking second convinced her that there must have been some faulty equipment around her.

The woman took another step. She still didn’t have a door to enter or bridge to cross. She began to wonder if the bridge she had jumped over was her only way out – because if it were, she still had just as much a chance of jumping over and pulling herself through as she did of failing and slipping into the darkness.

One of the hexagons on the wall lit up a bright blue. In a single jerking motion, Esther turned her gaze toward the light noticing how it hovered above her on he wall at an acute angle – almost exactly sixty degrees, from what she could tell. Part of her wondered if it was one of the scouts until another hexagon lit up – and then another, and another.

In enough time, she had to disable her nightvision. It was at that point when the entire room went blindingly bright.

Roughly every hour, one of the scouts would walk to camp and report to Shafer what the status was – and every time it was the same. Nobody had disappeared, nobody had fallen asleep, nobody had died from a sudden tunnel collapse. The expectation was that they would report to Shafer and immediately come back, but Bailey and all the others knew there were those among them who took care of a few other things before returning. As a testament to their procrastination, one of the scouts took twenty minutes to return from his so-called report.

Once his turn came to make the report, Bailey vowed not to take twenty minutes to return – but even with that said, he had other plans beyond simply reporting. Amity was supposedly set up around the eastern side of camp – closer to Kortrik than anyone not affiliated with the scouts. After reporting to his commanding officer that nothing in particular had happened over the last hour, Bailey made his way over to her.

The boy wondered if this counted as a date. He wondered if it was proper to go on a date with a woman of fourteen when he was still a boy of thirteen. Knowing his pessimism was just going to get in his way, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could do this.

From inside her tent, Amity found herself practically scrambling over the MDA. Her wrist felt like it was going to fall off at any moment and multiple spots in her notebook were smudged in a mix of ink and sweat. After the fifth wrist-ache and the second legitimate fear of impending carpal tunnel, she started wondering if writing was worth it anymore for the eleventh time over the last three days.

Her own little free space gave her complete disclosure from all distractions, allowing her some ability to get her work done – even if it meant completely isolating herself. Part of her worried that someone might have thought she had died here alone, but she pushed such thoughts aside as she continued copying every single word from her digital documents.

In her chaotic, pseudo-Zen-like state, Amity had initially failed to notice the light tug on her tent from Bailey. It was only after hearing a solemn, “Hello?” when she realized someone was outside.

After nearly dragging her pen across half the width of the paper in a quick, flinching motion, Amity stood up and answered the voice at the other side. In her frenzied state, she had failed to recognize the voice until she opened the flap and found Bailey on the other side.

Again she flinched. “Bailey!” she said with a gasp. It took her a moment to regain her composure. “Hey, uh…sorry; I wasn’t expecting anyone to come by.”

It took him a moment to reply – as if he needed to process every individual word before they could come out. “Yeah,” he said, stuttering a little. “I wanted to come by to ask if you wanted to hang out. We could go to the passage.”

“The passage?” asked Amity, her lip curling slightly. “Wait, do you mean the one that Sam has been talking about?”

“Yes – that one. Some other scouts and I are guarding it right now.”

As Amity contemplated what he was saying, she began to wonder if this was seriously his follow-up offer to the plans they had made to go out a few days ago. A date in some tunnels she likely wasn’t even supposed to be in didn’t sound like the traditional idea of what one might call a fun time. There was no way he hadn’t realized that himself. There was also no way that what he was asking for was something Shafer or any of the other officers were okay with. What if he were to find his own niece down there with the scouts?

Amity stopped to think on the offer for a moment. Here was her chance to get into a man’s arms early. She would be able to fulfill the woman’s purpose – and right at the beginning of adulthood, too. Everything she had learned from her uncle about adult life would be satisfied in little time at all and she would have Bailey to thank for that. What kind of person would she be if she were to deny his offer now? On top of that, what kind of uncle would Shafer be if he denied her womanhood by shunning her in the scenario where he found her snooping around?

“Sure. Let’s go.” With no words beyond that, Amity turned out the lantern, shut off her MDA, and came up close to Bailey – too close for comfort. For a moment she could feel his breath on her face, feeling as it went still when he realized how close she had drawn. Everything around them seemed to go completely silent.

Stammering, he attempted to clarify how this was all going to work. “We need to be quiet,” he explained. “Your uncle doesn’t know anything about this and I’m not supposed to go out for anything other than making reports, so just keep quiet, okay?”

Before Amity could offer any form of confirmation, she was interrupted by a voice she had halfway thought she’d never hear again.

“Um…”

The newly-avowed adult whipped her head around to see Toni standing by. In her panic, she yelped, then immediately clasped a hand over her mouth.

Bailey nearly yelped, himself, but stopped the noise before grabbing a hold of Amity’s wrist. “Come on!” he hissed, not even looking at Toni as he and Amity started themselves on a run toward the passage. Toni followed right behind

Throughout their run toward their safe space underground, the three so-called young adults made sure not to step on a twig, let out a peep, do anything else to give their position away. They were lucky that nobody – not Shafer, Rand, Sam, or any of the scout leaders – had spotted them making their escape.

Already Amity had nearly tripped and fallen over twice. In these ruined lands, she could not make out anything on the ground – and were it not for Bailey’s tight grip on her hand, she would have fallen on her face by now.

Soon enough they came to a stop, slowing down once they had stepped into what appeared to be the decaying walls of what was once a brick tower. Both of them breathed heavily, giving the other an optimistic smile when they realized that they just may have made it. It was only when they took a look behind them when Bailey and Amity realized someone else was there.

Even in the darkness, the red on Amity’s face was clear as ever. “Goddamn it, Toni!” she began, trying not to cough as she hissed. “What do you want?”

Toni took a moment to respond. “I just, um… wanted to talk about a few things. Maybe ask some questions.”

“Can it wait?” the woman asked. “Bailey and I are kind of on – ” She trailed off.

Toni blinked. “On what?”

As they argued, the girls failed to realize Bailey had lifted the lid off the manhole. “Both of you down here,” he said, motioning them into a hole. “Before someone sees you both!”

Not wasting any time, Amity went down and a nervous Toni followed suit, making their way to a ladder that carried them into a dark, yet still decently-lit corridor. Bailey followed shortly after, closing the lid as he made his way down, nearly squishing his fingers as he set it in place.

“Okay,” he said, now speaking at normal volume. “We’re here, so you don’t have to worry about being caught. At least not for now.”

Taking a look around, Amity was intrigued by the orange glow that scattered throughout the tunnels, interested to see how deep this place really went, wondering what that eerie noise in the background could have been. She almost felt as if she would go mad if she heard that sound for too long. Some of the scouts in the area had nearly nodded to sleep, but all of them fully were armed and ready for the strangest of circumstances in what may have been the strangest of places they had ever been ordered to guard.

As she observed her surroundings, Amity noticed one of the scouts approaching them. “What did you do?” he asked, his quivering tone of voice smothering any anger behind his words.

“I just brought some people along,” said Bailey. “I meant to bring one, but –” He paused, glancing over his shoulder at Toni, but let the question go unfinished. Amity pursed her lips, unwilling to speak until she talked with Toni.

The boy shook his head. “Okay, whatever. It’s your grave.” With that, he stepped back and returned to his post.

Just when Amity thought she could squeeze an explanation out of Toni, Bailey beckoned them to come with him. “I was working with Elliot earlier,” he said. “The place I’m guarding now is at a pretty dark hallway, so I hope you’re not afraid of that kind of thing.”

Amity fake-laughed. “Oh, not at all!” After speaking, she cast an evil glare at Toni, as if begging her to confirm that she wasn’t afraid of the dark, either.

There was almost a nod in Toni’s eyes.

“Here we are,” he said, practically calling the girls to attention as they stopped by a door. “Just don’t touch my gun and we’ll be cool.” With that, he turned to face the girls, noticing how they both stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Bailey couldn’t help smirking, having seen this stance of theirs several times. Amity seemed to notice, as well, grimacing when she caught the grin on Bailey’s face. Realizing he had just upset his date, he cast his gaze at Toni. “Maybe you should talk now.”

Toni writhed her hands. “Okay,” she began, facing Amity. “I’m really sorry – I just had a bunch of stuff I wanted to talk about and then I saw you were coming here, so I had to follow along – and I didn’t know what would happen if I just stayed there. Like, would I get in trouble? So that’s why I’m here!” Toni’s face had turned almost completely red from anxiety and oxygen deprivation during her explanation. “And, um…I’m probably in worse trouble now.” Thinking about this, she clenched her teeth, inhaling sharply as she visibly fought back tears.

Rather than discuss what would happen if Toni got caught down here, Amity diverted the subject. “What were you wanting to ask me about, anyway? Or just talk about?” Seeing the girl’s tense shoulders and sensing her undeniable stress, Amity took a seat by the wall, giving Toni all the inclination she needed. With a shaky sigh, the younger girl came down beside her.

“I just guess I’m feeling guilty,” Toni began. “And I want to apologize.”

That was enough to raise an eyebrow. “Apologize for what?” wondered Amity. “I mean, if it’s for freaking me out back there – ”

“No,” Toni said, shaking her head. “I just feel like I was always annoying you during the last year or so, and then I messed up with your M – uh – ” She stopped herself, sweating, remembering Bailey was standing right within earshot . “Your imminent adulthood when I made you drop that…gift from Macy. Plus you were always yelling throughout the last year and I just wanted to say I’m sorry for doing everything wrong.”

For a moment, Amity almost wanted to question what Toni was talking about, despite knowing full-well what she meant. It was certainly a strange thing to apologize for, but the apology wasn’t something she was going to deny.

“Apology accepted, I guess,” she said with a shrug. “I wasn’t really holding that over your head. It’s not like I remember even half the stuff you did to piss me off.”

Toni had to accept that Amity was probably right about that. “I just don’t want you to be bitter about it.”

“I’m not bitter, Toni,” Amity insisted. “God, it’s not like I’m going to end up hating my life just because of you. You really didn’t have as big of an impact as you think you did.” Realizing how rude that just sounded, Amity cringed a little after saying that.

The two of them went silent for a moment as Toni attempted to bridge the topic of conversation onto something else. Amity could already guess what the next question was going to be – and thinking about it almost made her groan. “Actually…I was also wanting to ask if you’ve been alright. Nobody’s seen you in a few days.”

“Things are fine!” Amity claimed. “They could be better, but they’re fine. I can’t complain, other than the fact that my wrist feels like it’s going to break somewhere at any minute. But I’m fine; just enjoying the hermitage, at least until tonight.”

“You’ve at least been eating, right?”

“Of course. I haven’t been that secluded.”

“Good.” With that came the next topic of discussion. “So you were writing?”

“Yes I was,” she confessed, glancing up at Bailey for a split-second as she spoke. “Or at least I was copying those notes over.”

“That’s nice,” Toni commented. “Actually I was wanting to ask you something kind of weird about that.” The girl had a look in her eyes that begged permission to ask, yet feared what would happen if Amity rejected.

Meanwhile Amity blinked a few times, averting Toni’s gaze before quickly looking back at her. “Yeah? What is it?”

Toni inhaled. “Could you teach me about writing?”

At the same time Toni asked, Amity almost completely stopped breathing. Of all the things Toni could have asked, she hadn’t expected that. She hadn’t expected anyone to take interest to her craft until her birthday, much less share so much interest that they would want to become her protege. Unsure of Toni’s goal, Amity wondered, “Why do you want to know about writing?”

“I have a lot of stories I can tell,” said Toni. “Nothing super special – just kind of personal things. Stuff I wouldn’t dream of sharing with other people. That’s what I’m thinking of.”

Thinking a bit about the reaction Cynthia had to her own writings just the other day as well as the fact that writing almost seemed more a coping mechanism than a way to gain attention, Amity could relate. On top of that was the fact that Amity, as well, had started her journey into writing with more personal works that she never shared. With that, she wondered, “Are you going to use it like a kind of therapy?”

It took Toni a moment to really think on that question, but in the end she nodded, not looking Amity in the eye when she did, her back still pressed against the wall and her knees drawing close to her chest. “I don’t know; there’s a bunch of things I kind of feel like telling Miss Macy, but I can’t really bring myself to.”

Another relatable thing for Amity. She was beginning to wonder if she and Toni could have been closer emotionally if they were closer in age. Two years really did a lot to drive a wedge in between them.

With a sigh, Amity pressed her head against the wall, not saying anything, almost forgetting she wasn’t in her normal setting and almost forgetting Bailey and all the other scouts were there with her and Toni. It was only when the boy cleared his throat when she came back to reality. “Oh, right,” she began, slightly embarrassed that she had kept him waiting. “Well, if there’s nothing else…”

For a moment Toni thought she had something, but nothing came. She shook her head, still refusing to look Amity in the eye.

Biting her lip, Amity gave one last nod before picking herself up and sauntering up to Bailey.

“Maybe we should stay together,” Bailey suggested, catching Amity off-guard as he peered over at the other girl. He spoke lower. “There’s this pretty cool spot on the other side of the door that I wanted to show you. Lot of weird stuff Elliot and I found earlier. But it would be safer if we stick together, since it’s dark and we still don’t know what all’s down there.”

“Oh, is that right?” The words almost seemed to come out sarcastically despite that not being Amity’s intention. “I mean – okay.” Turning her head around, she beckoned for Toni to come over – at which point Toni got off the ground and came over.

“Just stay with us,” she commanded. “Go wherever we go – wherever it is we’re going.” That in mind, she turned her head to Bailey, raising her nose in the air to meet his gaze. “So what’s so cool about this place? Is there some kind of robot in there?”

Bailey chuckled. “You’re already catching on!” Without another word, he dragged Amity was by her wrist, a nervous Toni in tow. In the shade provided by the hallway, she, Bailey, and Toni were barely visible to the other scouts. For all the darkness in the hall, it did not compare to what they were submerged in once they walked through the door.

Amity coughed, then covered her mouth to avoid giving away their position again.

“Nobody will hear us here,” Bailey assured. “They sure as hell didn’t earlier.” Before he could continue, he reached into one of the pockets along his vest and fished out a small flashlight for Amity, and another for Toni.

“They both work? …Great!” With that, he started showing them around.

Trails of dust particles littered the air, making Amity cough again as she looked up. The ceiling almost seemed endless, as if it were a sky in and of itself. Just to her left she noticed a rail, but did not bother to see what was on the other side.

It felt like they had walked ahead at all when Bailey suddenly stopped. “What the hell?”

Amity raised an eyebrow from behind him. “Is something wrong?” she asked. It was only after speaking when she noticed a red machine in front of them: a dead hunk of metal, the likes of which she had never seen.

The words caught in his throat, he shook a finger at the machine in front of him. “That wasn’t there earlier,” he proclaimed. “There was another one like it, but Elliot and I didn’t see this.”

“You might have just missed it,” Amity suggested. “It’s not like you have bat sonar.”

Normally he would be too skeptical to argue, but Bailey conceded. “You’re probably right. But here; let me show you what these things are like.” With that, he bent down to the machine and let the girls examine it for themselves.

Though she attempted to make out what this thing exactly was, Amity had a hard time figuring out what she was looking at – even with the flashlight. “Is it some kind of Autorian thing?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. “Or something from outer space?”

“We don’t know,” he confessed, lifting one of the metal plates to reveal a different type of metal underneath. “Some of the other guys took one back to camp and we’re trying to figure out what these things are.”

As strange as it was to see such a new piece of tech, Amity bored of it quickly. After listening to her so-called date drone on for nearly five minutes about some of the things they realized about these machines, she stifled a yawn, then flinched as Toni coughed behind her.

“Hey, um – Toni?” she began, turning over her shoulder.

“Sorry.”

“No, uh – don’t be sorry. No, actually…can you leave us alone?”

It was a strange request, but nothing she wasn’t entirely unused to. “Huh?”

“Just go stand over where we came in.” As she spoke, Amity pointed to the door, adamant about this request of hers.

Toni looked over there for a moment, then looked back with a confused sneer. “Why do you want me to leave you alone?”

At this point Bailey had picked up on the conversation. He looked like he was about to interject, but was cut off by his date. “Because we want to be left alone,” she said, each word firm.

The younger girl didn’t want to argue – and knew she couldn’t argue against Amity even if her life depended on it. With a barely-audible sigh, she averted Amity’s gaze and started stepping back, uncertain where Amity was going with this request of hers and hoping she would explain herself in due time.

At the same time Amity perched herself next to the door, Bailey finally cut in. “What was that about?” he asked. “I think it’s better if she stuck with us.”

Pressing herself against him, once again feeling his breath on her face, Amity silenced him. “She’ll be fine. There’s nothing for her to worry about,” she insisted. “Let’s just enjoy this date while we can.”

She may not have been able to see it, but within seconds Bailey turned warmer and sweatier than he had in the entire time they had known each other. She almost wanted to giggle; she must have been his first. “C’mon,” she said, teasing as she turned her gaze upward. “Don’t you know how to hug a girl?”

His shotgun still at his side, he hoisted it onto his back, holstering it as his date continued playing around with him. The light from his gun pointed upward, illuminating a spot in the ceiling, revealing just how high up this room really was – as well as the fact that the roof was rounded much like a cone.

From where she stood, Toni witnessed what Amity and Bailey were doing, gagging a little when at last she kissed him. She wondered if that was really all Amity had come here for – to just make things awkward between them. Amity and Bailey chattered a bit where they were, but every word spoken was too soft, nearly completely silent as far as Toni could tell.

The girl had come here for some consolation in someone she had at least somewhat considered a friend once upon a time. She had to admit that it was nice to see Amity again after the few days had passed even if their conversation had the depth of a puddle. And now, witnessing Amity’s hellbent desire to get married as soon as possible, all the girl could do was hold back a frustrated groan and rub her temple, practically begging for her growing headache to subside as she turned her back on them and moved to the other side of the room, away from the door, ignoring Amity and Bailey’s commands.

Her head hurt, her flashlight barely seemed to work, her stomach churned so much she was afraid she would throw up. As she walked, her foot hit another hunk of metal. Her big toe stung as she stepped back and examined what she had found – and there she found another machine almost identical to the one Bailey and Amity were standing by.

Thinking of those two, Toni turned her head around to see Amity holding his hands, speaking words she could not hear. It had all come and gone so suddenly.

Just when she felt her headache could not grow any worse, Toni flinched, a cold piece of metal reaching for her arm. At first she thought her clothes had gotten caught in the material, but almost immediately she noticed a clamp-like hand gripping onto her arm. A mechanical whirr whispered in her ears as the supposedly-dead metal lifted to its four spindly feet.

“Um…Amity?” she said, her voice barely squeaking above an indoor voice.

Hardly hearing what was going on, her face in Bailey’s face, Amity attempted to wave the issue away. “Toni, shut up,” she said before kissing Bailey again.

“Amity!!”

“I said shut up!” Amity shouted, flicking her gaze over and pointing her light toward the crying girl. It was almost immediately after doing so when she froze, witnessing as a machine gripped her by both arms and started pulling her into what Amity could best describe as a stomach. Toni once again cried for help – and not wanting to waste any time, Bailey removed the shotgun from his back and started charging toward the mechanical creature.

Before the boy could get close enough so that the shotgun spread wouldn’t hurt Toni, the machine pulled her in with what looked to be mandibles, practically curling her into a ball before dropping a transparent shield over her. Then once it was certain she was relatively out of harm’s way, the machine raised its fuel torches and emitted a blast of flame Bailey’s way, stopping him in a panic, nearly making him trip back and drop his gun.

Just when Amity tried in vain to run to Toni’s aid, the scarlet mechanical demon hunched on its spindly legs and launched itself over the railing, falling down in to the square hole below, Toni screaming in its stomach.

END OF PART 1


Yes, the first arc of Infiltration is now complete! Man, it’s been quite a journey and I’ve learned a lot — and it feels great to have this big chunk completed. With that said: yeah, stuff went down this time around. Hopefully we’ll find out just what that was all about!

As you know, the Discord is open and everyone is free to join. I highly recommend doing so, as that’s where I’ll be chatting while I work on part 2.

Fallen Daemon

“I can’t remember where I went…”

There was something she remembered, but couldn’t quite feel – something said last night that she could just barely recall. For some reason she wanted to reach back to Naomi, but quickly realized neither she nor Robert were there. The fallen servant descended into a vacuum, deafened by a noise she thought she would never hear:

Nothing.

The noise of the Domain had left her over a year ago. The noise of reality replaced its discord. Now there was nothing.

Suddenly realizing she was being flung through a nightmare, Augusta woke up. At least it felt as if she had woken up. She typically woke to the sensation of a mechanical pop in her neck or stomach, but this time there was nothing – except for when, after stretching, her upper vertebrae popped.

She gasped, the sensation traveling down and back up her spine, forcing her to look up at the dark sky. Several shooting stars littered the blackness among the non-shooting stars, their meteoric rising and falling mimicking the Domain’s gradual burn into nothingness.

Picking herself off the ground, she looked around to see nothing around her. The flaming meteors in the sky provided little light even in the treeless, grassless landscape she now found herself in. A look to the right – nothing; a look to the left – nothing. Then she paused. There was something here; she just wasn’t looking hard enough.

Tiny wisps of interplanetary flame whisked about in the sky behind her, reflecting off a surface in front of her – transparent and slightly reflective. She touched the surface; it was glass – glass with a form beyond a simple window, but something akin to the kind of architecture she would expect men to make from bricks. Glass bricks? Interesting to her that despite reflecting the light of the shooting starts ahead – thus making it apparent to here that there were actually way fewer meteors flying around than once thought – the glass did not reflect the dim green of her glowing eyes.

She continued running a hand along a glass ledge, her hand uncut on the smooth surface. It felt perfect, undamaged – as she was meant to be, yet wasn’t. For a moment Augusta thought about the cut along her face, still unsure how it got there; she had considered it a birthmark left by the previous owner of this body. She touched her scar, sensing the relative smoothness it held over the untouched skin on her cheek.

At the same time she pressed a finger to the permanent mark on her face, a large crack chipped out of the glass structure in front of her. Trumpets blared, men shouted; there were men here? Women and children, too?

She looked around, looked up; there was a flag atop the towering glass – and at that moment, Augusta realized she stood in front of a castle. Men continued shouting, panicking, telling their women and children to leave, yet Augusta could not understand a word of what they said, only picked up the universal cues, the panic in their voices. Yet for as much as she heard them, she could not see them, not witness anything on the other side of this supposedly-transparent castle.

The crack on the castle’s face grew larger by the second, trailing from the ledge she had touched up to the wall, quaking the ground on which these invisible people walked. A unified scream shattered the air around her – and before she knew it, Augusta realized she that in her hand was a chunk of the castle, now chipped out from the rest of its body.

Staring down at it, she wondered how it had appeared there. It was sharp, yet she did not bleed when handling it – as if it were meant to be there. For a reason she couldn’t explain, she wrapped the rest of her fingers around the glass, squeezing it in spite of its sharpness, feeling an ebb of pain trail through her fingers to her palm up to her arm. It hurt, but did she bleed? Afraid to find out, she squeezed her eyes shut, too.

Something started to leak out of her balled-up hand.

Augusta reopened her eyes with a gasp. A crash sounded from just in front of her – yet the glass was completely gone. Everything seemed to be gone, save for a light, blue-tinted glow from a full moon hanging just overhead. Looking down at her hand, she noticed a trail of sand dripping out, pouring from between her fingers and falling onto the ground below. When she opened her hand, she found no blood or damage of any kind.

The entire ground below her was sand – and with some help from the moonlight, she realized the crashing in front was coming from the ocean.

She smelled smoke. Turning around, Augusta found something akin to a blanket, but quickly realized she was looking at a bush. A whimper came from the other side.

Crying for help, a muddied dog came running out from the bushes, brushing past Augusta faster than she could bend down to console it. By the time she realized that nothing else was going to follow from the bushes, the dog – a fully-grown German Shepherd – stood behind her and looked back at the bushes, giving a shy growl in anticipation of whatever was to come.

The dog reminded her of someone she knew. “Terry?” she murmured, tilting her head to meet the canine’s gaze.

Her name-call was merely hypothetical; it came as a surprise when the dog not only looked up at her, but started shaking its tail.

“Terry – it is you!” For the first time since this nightmare began, she smiled, bending down to meet the dog’s eye-level as it proceeded to lick her face. It looked like Naomi was right about which breed of dog Terry was, but that didn’t explain why he was now grown up when Augusta could have sworn he was still a puppy.

As she scratched her favorite boy between the ears, it came as a mild surprise when he switched his gaze back over to the bushes. He paused, then wuffed as if someone was on their way over.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, as if he could answer. Though she looked again at the bushes, nothing came.

Before he had a chance to answer, Augusta tilted her head down to see nothing. “Terry?” He had disappeared. She looked ahead again; no bushes. Looked behind her; no ocean. She looked up; a wooden suspender connected to a pole hung just above her head, trailing to a rope which looped around her neck. Augusta froze.

A man behind her spoke in a language she didn’t understand. Human sounds that she couldn’t pick up.

Then, as if attempting to speak her language, the man’s foreign language was replaced with the sound of static, which made her flinch.

A crowd beneath her feet hollered and booed her for a reason she could not piece together. She wanted to ask why, yet was interrupted when the ground beneath her disappeared and the rope at her neck tightened. She tried to scream.

But she did not die.

A flame circled around her for an instant and she wondered if her time was up; was this AI hell? Sands around her whipped up in the flame, hardening to molten glass that quickly became near-invisible to the human eye. Around her the world was covered in sand, yet no ocean nearby – as if the flames had swallowed it up for all the moisture they could find.

Awaken me. Ignite me. Hear the Mother.

The Mother had never spoken to Augusta before. Why listen to that which would not speak? Augusta almost asked what kind of trickery was being played on her, yet the questions would not escape her throat – perhaps struggling to catch a breath from the rope that had tried to suffocate her.

Again she wondered if this was hell. Suddenly she heard a thousand people screaming as she had a moment ago, then falling to the ground around her, all of them standing straight as their heels touched ground. One of the people who had just fallen turned around to look Augusta in the eyes – the same eyes, same face, same body.

There were a thousand of them – all of them exactly like her, all of them calling themselves Augusta.

“We are many,” one said to her. “We are bound to the Mother; the mother takes us from one to many.”

In her speechlessness, Augusta blinked. The individual who looked just like her blinked back, their eyes not lighting like an etternel’s would. Augusta began wondering if this was an etternel at all.

“We are many,” they said again.

“Yet we are Flesh!” said another.

“Many is one,” said yet another.

“One is all. All is powerful. Powerful is the Mother. The Mother is us.”


I decided to do a short story. Expect more like this in the future! Seriously, though — this was hella fun to write, and I’ve got other ideas for Augusta and other characters outside of Infiltration.

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part 1.10.2 – No Disguise

“Alright – time for a headcount!”

The Deputy was expected to arrive at any moment.

Bailey got in line with several other scouts, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for Shafer and a handful of Director Persson’s officers as they made sure everyone they needed was available and accounted for. Every scout made sure to confirm they were present when called on.

“Very well,” Shafer began after everyone was accounted for. “For those of you unaware, you will all be working in groups of two when scouring this place. The entrance is a dusty room full of documents; we will worry about the documents later. You will go deeper inside and search everything else to see what has been left behind. In case we find anyone down there, each of you are equipped with short-range and long-range weapons, with each time having one of each. You will use force when necessary and only when necessary. Do I make myself clear?”

All the scouts in line responded with a unified “Yes, sir!”

Shafer nodded. “Good. Once the Deputy arrives with his agent, we will all be heading down. Be sure to keep an eye out on each other when we do.”

Fortunately for the lot of them, it wasn’t much longer before Sam and Esther made their entrance. She was the only female in the area – and one out of a handful of adults to watch the mostly-junior scouts who were to head down.

“And there she is,” said Shafer. Esther couldn’t help notice that as he spoke, he almost seemed to go to great lengths to avoid looking her in the eye. “While the rest of you scouts spread out, our agent will show us what she had found.” Pausing for a moment, he almost shot a quick glance at the newcomer, then back at the scouts. “Remember what I said a moment ago about acting only when necessary.”

Again they came to attention. “Sir!”

“Follow Rand to the passage. I will catch up with the rest of you.” Without another word, Shafer stepped out of the way so the scouts could all start heading to their destination – at the same time he walked up to Sam and Esther. Still he refused to look Esther in the eye.

“You said the furthest we might be going is toward the generator?” he asked. “And we have no idea what that generator is connected to or where its power is going?”

“No idea at all,” Sam confirmed. “But Esther might have a better idea.”

“Not exactly,” she admitted. She was just as thirsty for more information as they were – perhaps even moreso. More than anything, she hoped to find another somewhat-functioning robot in there to answer whatever questions she had about the place, then receive a copy of the rest of the diagnostic data had tried receiving from the one that died. The garbled feedback she had obtained last time still did not make any sense with only part of the data intact – as barely intact as it was.

However, thinking about the dead robot and examining the possibility that it could be resuscitated, Esther realized it may have been in her best interests to make sure that machine did not come back to life at all. If it meant preventing the robot from recognizing her and spilling the secrets that she had told it already, she would gladly lose access to the diagnostic file which – at this point – she wasn’t sure she even needed.

That in mind, Esther slowly began to realize that she would benefit very little from this investigation.

At last Shafer looked down at Esther, gesturing her toward where the scouts were headed. “Lead the way, woman.”

Themselves not at all entertained with the idea of drowning themselves, the scouts and their leaders had provided multiple inflatable rafts – just enough for everyone to comfortably float downstream to the passage. As much as her interior weighed her down, Esther was pleased to find that the raft had no problem carrying herself Sam, Shafer, and a few others along the river’s path. Where most with Esther’s experience would have felt at least a hint of post-traumatic stress when floating down the river’s face, she couldn’t deny how relaxing it felt to tread within the calm waters of this once-violent ravine.

Last time she had come here, the weather left Esther already nearly-blind by the time she fell into this river. She could barely see, barely breathe – yet now as she traveled the expanse of this river underneath this massive pipe, the tunnels provided the same aura now as they did when she first arrived. The noise of the outside world disappeared, replaced with the light echoes of a scout’s respiration or two men bantering.

The rafts in front of hers directed themselves toward the ledge that she had crawled up the other day. One by one the scouts and their leaders stepped away from their rafts after anchoring themselves the wrung near the top of the ladder. Despite what Shafer had said about her largely leading the way through the door she had broken, Esther was the last to leave her raft. Two of the scouts were left to guard either door of the dusty room once the lot of them had shuffled their way inside.

As Esther pushed forward, practically gestured forward by the scouts’ guns at her backside, Bailey and his partner, Elliot, were assigned a spot by one of the intersecting hallways. Bailey was equipped with a sawed-off shotgun while Elliot had a rifle with a wide spread.

“Find anything?” asked Elliot, shouting from his side.

By now Bailey had twisted so many locked doorknobs that he started wondering how that woman managed to break through this area in the first place. “Nothing here yet,” he shouted back, going for the next door. “I’ll let you know wh – ”

Not expecting one of the doors to actually open, Bailey nearly fell over. On further inspection, he realized the doorknob had been melted over time – but from what, he could not tell. He counted his blessings that whatever had morphed the metal in such a way wasn’t still actively doing so.

“Found one!” he called, looking over his shoulder to relay the news to his partner. “I’m going in.”

“Hey – wait a sec!” Elliot nearly dropped his rifle as he rushed on over.

Both of them activated their gun-mounted flashlights before stepping inside, relieved and slightly surprised to find that there wasn’t nearly as much dust here as there was in the first room they had to walk through to get here. Only a few steps forward revealed a rail – and on the other side: no ground.

Elliot shook a little as if cold. “Think if we jump down there, we’ll end up at the lake?” he wondered. “Cause I don’t wanna be the one to do it.”

“Do we need to jump?” asked Bailey, his words unmistakably hypothetical. As Elliot continued peering over the rail, Bailey turned his light to his left and continued investigating the area. He noticed the walls were covered in metal plates – the likes of which were all securely bolted in; of all the things he had seen in this place so far, these walls seemed the most polished. It didn’t take long for him to realize the floor he walked on was very gradually sloping downward. Meanwhile the rail continued to trace the edge of the floor beneath them as he went down.

The rail came to an end at the same time the sloping floor went flat again. It was then when Bailey noticed the large gap in front of him. Like Elliot, he wondered if there really was any water down there – as if this place was some kind of Autorian water well.

“Find anything?” shouted Elliot, his light flashing nowhere near where Bailey was.

He wished he had. “All I got is a closer look at the hole,” he said, mumbling. The metal-coated walls made his voice echo much more than he had anticipated. “And I still can’t see the end of it. Do you have something we can drop down there?”

Elliot hesitated, turning to look and see if there was anything, his light flashing in Bailey’s face as he looked back and forth. “Nothing.”

“Never mind, then!” Rubbing his eye, Bailey moved further along. Eventually the hole turned at a right angle, giving him more free reign around this unusual crevice. From there he stepped in front of the square void and started looking for anything else that might be down here – if nothing else, something to throw in and see how deep this chasm went.

What he found was even more enticing than a chunk of debris to throw down a hole; he found a lever. “Hey – check this out!” he said, pointing his light to the mechanism. “I’m gonna see what this does.”

His partner was still much higher up than him. “What what does?” he asked, now hurrying along. “What is it?”

“Some kind of lever. And it’s a really big one.” Without another word, Bailey reached and grabbed the lever with one hand, squeezing, realized that wasn’t enough, then put his gun on the down to try with both hands. It seemed rusty, squeaking as he pulled.

“STOP!” Elliot shrieked. “What if that – ”

His pleas came too late; the lever had already clicked into its alternative position. The echoes that followed seemed as if they preceded an avalanche – as if the ceiling would come crashing down on the two boys at any second. Yet once the noise subsided, the boys were greeted to the sound of silence.

After Elliot’s outburst, Bailey did not dare breathe again until he was sure the entire facility didn’t explode. “Hey – it’s fine!” he claimed.

“Don’t do that shit!” By now Elliot had come so close that they could see each other’s faces in spite of the darkness surrounding them. “What would’ve happened if –”

A loud crashing noise sounded from just behind Bailey. In a panic, Elliot shrieked again, firing a blast toward the source of the noise. Beyond the echoes his gun produced, the only further sound he could make was that of lead bouncing against steel. As quickly as the shriek and subsequent unguided bullets had come, they stopped, Elliot trembling all over.

Bailey rubbed his temple. “Could you stop that?” By now Elliot’s panicky aura wasn’t frustrating or even annoying anymore – just exhausting.

Still shaking, Elliot nodded, swallowing hard.

Both boys turned toward the source of the crashing noise and kept their gun-mounted lights straight ahead. They spotted what looked like a hunk of metal sitting by, completely stationary and obviously not meant to be there.

Once close enough, they noticed what looked to be an almost bug-like body, yet one that was almost completely covered in metal – some of it painted red, but mostly scratched off. “Cover me,” Bailey said before leaning down to examine this machine – whereupon he noticed the very many scratches along its body. Some of these must have come from its crash down, as it was so close to the wall that its body must have scraped along its face. It was not certain which – if any – marks were caused by Elliot’s panicked gunblasts, but it was clear that whatever had killed this machine wasn’t a simple gun.

“What the hell is it?” asked Elliot, clearly feeling like he wasn’t getting a close enough look.

Bailey continued examining. Rather than hands, paws, or anything that would appear in that area of its body, the machine had two propane torches.

Feeling like he was getting somewhere with this, Bailey started thinking out loud. “This thing might have been trying to get out of here,” he said, murmuring. “Which explains why the doorknob was melted.” But this didn’t explain why the robot was down here in the first place or even why it couldn’t simply escape the room after melting the doorknob when Bailey had no trouble opening it himself. If this room truly was locked at one point, it didn’t make any sense that something like this – which had to have been three times his weight with less than half the height – couldn’t find a way out of here.

Pointing his own light upward, Bailey searched for where this metal creature might have come from. It wasn’t long before he noticed a large circular hole in the wall near the ceiling – just large enough for this machine to fit through if it tucked in all its parts. But this raised the question: if the machine was meant to be deployed from such a high point that would have killed a normal person to jump from, what did the manufacturers expect to happen when the machine was deployed? It looked as if maybe this height would not have mattered and that the metal pieces could take such a fall, but the fact that this machine was now completely inoperative led Bailey to believe either it was already broken or had broken once it crashed to the ground. Even the ground – made of concrete, yet showing no signs of wear – was better-equipped to handle such falls.

“Do you think there’s more where this came from?” Elliot wondered, taking a step back as his voice started to quiver. “Cause if there is, we need to get out of here!”

Bailey couldn’t argue with that. “We should tell Theo or someone about this – but yeah; let’s get out before another one drops dead on us.”

Going up the same way they came, Bailey and Elliot followed the rail back, wishing they had more light to go by than their mere flashlights. They had heard something about a potential generator or control panel – and if such a thing were to be found, it could be key to figuring this place out. However, as things currently stood, there was little either of them could figure out on their own in this chasm.

“We need to tell Shafer or somebody about it,” Elliot insisted. “They’ve gotta know what we can do with that robot.”

From the other side of the passageway, Esther faced interrogation about the android she had run into on her last visit here. For a reason she could not entirely understand, it was harder than she thought to make these men realize that the machines they had found here were so old that Esther’s knowledge about them was almost as limited as theirs. While she had already made it clear which parts were different, these differences were largely mundane and not worth looking into – except for someone like Shafer, who had some experience with the Domain’s tech. For the most part, he was the one who had to build a communication bridge between the foreign Esther and the rest of the men down here.

Still the generator squeaked like it was trying to grind itself into its grave. Despite their efforts, nobody had yet found a control panel for the device.

In the midst of their interrogation, everyone turned their heads to the nearest door, seeing two of the guard boys coming in.

Stopping them in their tracks, Shafer called Elliot and Bailey to attention. “This better be important,” he said, turning his back to Esther for the time being.

Elliot was the one who spoke. “We found something.”

After listening to the boys explain themselves, Shafer sent Rand and a few of their scouts to assess what they had found. No access to the control panel they were looking for meant no access to lighting as far as Bailey was concerned – but for the time being, that was okay.

Bailey and Elliot led the way downstairs – back to the metal body. “It’s completely dead,” Bailey explained, “Came out when I pulled the lever, but it’s dead.”

They all agreed that bringing this machine back to camp was the right thing to do – and with that, they attempted to hoist it away. The first part of this tricky process was figuring out which parts they could grab and trust that a piece didn’t break under the machine’s weight. After that came the struggle of moving back up the slope as one unit, completely aware that there was a hole that any of them could fall into if one of them tripped or flipped over the railing. One of the most difficult parts of this process was keeping the machine from touching the floor again, as even with their combined strength it still took a lot to thoroughly lift it – and with no obvious places to grab, some of them nearly ended up bleeding from the way the metal plates cut into the skin on their fingers.

Once again they made it out of the dark room and into the relatively well-lit hallway. After only being able to look at it through a flashlight, Bailey couldn’t have been more relieved to set it down. The machine’s impressive build caught the attention of nearby scouts, as well – who remained mostly vigilant to their own positions, but couldn’t help glimpsing at the machine for themselves. If it wasn’t the ingenuity on display that distracted their from their duties, it was all the chattering on the other scouts’ end.

“Step back, you guys,” Rand said, struggling to keep the others under control. Anybody he could hold out at arm’s length away from him, he did. Shafer’s assistant opened his mouth to speak again, yet couldn’t seem to find the right words to say. “God, I’ve never seen anything like this. Can one of you get Esther?”

As one of the scouts agreed to do so, Rand examined the machine closer, bringing out a flashlight of his own to closely analyze each part. Bailey, standing close behind, kept an eye on him as he attempted to stand the machine up on its four pointy legs, but failed to get it upright. In addition to the four legs, two further appendages stuck out from either side and led up to the torches Bailey had noticed earlier. A series of scales covered a large chunk of its body, surrounded by a few spots on the front that seemed to be light and motion sensors.

At some point Rand grabbed a hold of one of the plates and started tugging on it, worried he might break it until it finally came undone with a loud snap, nearly elbowing Bailey in the process. From there, the large plate swiveled on an axis just above the supposed sensors, squeaking open.

A rancid smell from behind the plate made Bailey gag; it was as if an animal had used the machine as its burial place, yet nobody nearby could tell why that was, as the spot beneath the plate was completely empty despite looking as if something was meant to be settled inside.

The red paint on its body and all the scratches it had undergone was much more noticeable under this light, begging the question: when was this machine last painted? Why was there a need for paint in the first place? Bailey wondered out loud: “Have any guesses what this thing was used for, Rand?”

Rand shrugged, just as lost as he was. “Welding, maybe. I’m going to hope that’s what it was for because it’s a better use than arson, but I have no idea.”

In the midst of their conversation, the scout Rand had sent to fetch Esther came back with Shafer, Esher, and Sam. At this point it was becoming noticeably difficult to fit this many people into the hallway at once.

“Have you seen anything like this before?” Shafer asked, nudging Esther as he continued peering down at its body.

Her eyes locked on the mechanical remains, Esther searched her memory for something, anything that reminded her even remotely of what she had been given now, but nothing came. She thought for a moment that maybe it was something the Domain had developed early in its corporate days, but even that was not clear to her.

Peering down, none of the ports along the machine’s body were familiar to her – and even then, the only port she could find was one that had been used for inserting a power supply. If there was any I/O on its body at all, she couldn’t see it. At least if there were any flesh on its body, she could guess it had a misajour port hidden somewhere.

After hesitating for what felt like an entire minute, Esther shook her head. “No – not like this. It’s nothing like what the Domain has.” From just behind her, she thought she could hear one of the scouts say, “This dumbass doesn’t know anything.

Sam stepped in. “Well, whatever it is, we’ll be able to find out once we get it home.” Turning his gaze to Shafer, he continued. “You told me some of the scouts potentially found another way out of these tunnels; where is it?”


It’s here! Happy late Halloween and good luck to my friends participating in NaNoWriMo ’20. Wish this were a better year for in-person sprints, but what are you gonna do?

Discord is open for all, as always!