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.”
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.