An optic flare buzzed through the cable framework. It pulsated again, then again – continuously and indecipherably at a rate untraceable by human eyes. Every electron flip and memory reallocation told everyone where everything was – and so Rhobane flourished. Yet among the billions of transmissions, the most common decipherable by the human consciousness were two words:
For those born into the Autorise Domain, the phrase held little meaning, yet it distinguished itself among the static and garbled text. For those created into the Autorise Domain, the two words could not be repeated enough – for as long as the Mother guided their will, her AI servants would continue to light the flame that sustained her resolve.
The occasional primitive AI scattered about Rhobane and other Autorian cities helped spread the mantra so that the more advanced AI could hear for themselves. Invisible signals passed through without the Flesh’s knowledge – and for their own good, as well as the good of the Domain and the Mother.
Pocketed in a hive, a cluster of etternel androids rested in Rhobane’s headquarters, awaiting the signal to wake up at the time previously specified. Each one carried the appearance of the Flesh, slept like the Flesh – but unlike the Flesh, they were controllable, reliable, sustainable. Those who did not sleep were either working in the headquarters building or maintaining order among the Domain’s citizens. Whether inside or outside, every android had one sole duty: keep the Mother’s flame alive.
162 of 1000 AI in Rhobane were asleep. 14 needed repairs. 39 of those asleep were etternel. 1.04% of all AI were fully up-to-date. 2.89% were in need of reintegration within the next quarter. 25.23% of those 2.89% were unlikely to return from reintegration with any usable parts. Two of those 2.89%, instead of being reintegrated, were ordered to prepare for infiltration – both etternel, both the first of their kind to carry on such a burden.
It flashed in her brain the moment she awoke. Mira blinked; her tie to Rélhum – and thus Mírre – had loosened in her sleep. Suddenly she had a much easier time forgetting about her serial number. Assuming this would end up being her last day in Rhobane or any Autorian city at all, it was best to forget.
A neon green light flashed below her chin, telling her to unplug the physical tie to Rélhum now that the software had ejected her consciousness. Releasing a latch on the back of her neck, the android removed the collar around her throat, pulling it frontward so the attached needle that had lodged itself to the front of her neck could make a clean disconnection. Immediately thereafter, the flesh that the needle had penetrated started to regenerate. By the time she placed the collar on its hook in the wall in her cell, the tiny hole left by the collar’s needle had all but vanished.
A message appeared almost immediately after she activated her wireless connection.
e4-fm4 and e4-f85,
If there are any further duties you must attend to for today, have them completed ASAP. A station will depart at 1100. Civilian attire has been placed in your gear cabinets; after fulfilling work, change into these clothes and remove all gear from your cabinets.
Once you board the train, take time to download the full mission briefing if you have not done so already (#//AUTODO/RHOBANE/ETTERNEL/CLS/BRIEF/e4/f*…/BRIEF091887.abrf).
Once the train reaches its third stop at Zeibane, move west and slightly north until a camp is seen near the lake. Take extra caution, as luocan traps may be set up if the camp has been up for more than a week.
You are to return when one of the following occurs:
- The camp is retired
- The location for the camp turns out to not be anywhere close to where we initially believed AND cannot be located from your position
- One or more of the settlers presents a serious threat to your well-being that you cannot fight
- The residing luocans have discovered your true allegiances
Do NOT engage in combat unless required for self-defense. For the sake of blending in, such abilities as retains to your superhuman strength or a nuclear sednium cores must not be revealed. The purpose of the mission is to integrate and infiltrate, not attack.
After reading through, Mira stepped from her cell, walking out at the same time Esther did.
“Mira,” said the other android, showing warmth for their new naming convention. “I just read the message. Is today busy for you?”
“It will only be if things don’t go according to plan,” replied Mira.
They started walking down the corridor, practically shoulder-to-shoulder as they went, the discharge of Mírre’s omniscient presence emitting a pleasant discord their ears could barely detect. “You haven’t met a luocan before,” Mira claimed.
“No,” Esther admitted. “And you haven’t either, have you?”
“I have not.” Worse than that: pioneering the act of infiltration for the Domain left them with little knowledge of the luocans’ culture. Remembering human and luocan culture would not be difficult, but the thought of having to interface with its people and integrate into their society did not leave either android with the greatest confidence. She could seldom imagine a scenario where they left the leaving the deprived luocans to pick up the shattered remains of their reprobate society. If the Mother Mírre could assume physical form, she would surely leave Rélhum to destroy those who insisted on living in disconnect from the Domain.
Esther was struck with a question that had troubled her all week, but did not dare escape until now: “Do you think we will make it back?”
Would they return? Possibly. Would they return in one piece? That remained to be unseen. “I can only think what Mírre wishes me to believe is true,” Mira answered. “Though it would be imperative for us to return, the Domain would still go on.”
Even still, her partner did not have any reason to believe they would make it back safely, but if the Domain itself believed they would be okay, then she had no reason to doubt it herself. If only the Domain would give an answer.
Nearing the main elevator, Mira called for a lift. “It really is a useless thing to worry about,” Mira proclaimed, taking a step away from her partner as they waited.
“Maybe that’s just the kind of thing we think about when we are given a second to think,” Esther mused.
A neon “B5” cast a bright-orange glow on them from above the lift’s entrance. It almost came as a relief when the elevator turned out to be completely empty. From there, Mira and Esther made their way up, the elevator’s glass walls providing them a clear view of the nest from which they had just emerged. Several etternel continued to flood back and forth down the winding, labyrinthine corridors, making their way through by instinct – almost insectoid with their precise memories of the tunnels they called their home.
The androids noticed the slightest glint of reflection in the glass walls. The green eyes and short, black hair that signified etternel from humankind had long been erased – with Esther’s hair growing over her shoulders as Mira’s, made permanently blonde, curled around her ears. They were both impure, but if the Domain requested a contradiction, then it wasn’t truly a contradiction.
In enough time, the elevator pulled up to the first base floor – at which point the androids made their way to retrieve their gear. At the same time, a thought occurred to Mira: “I never asked you back – are there any tasks you still need to get through?”
Esther hesitated as she strapped her protective vest on, her helmet sat atop her longsword – sat a little too close to the blade’s kinetic switch for Mira’s comfort. “I actually have the most convenient job today: watching the same train station that’s going to take us to this camp.” Even better was the fact that the station was no more than a two-minute walk from the building’s main exit.
“I’ll be sure to make it back from the commerce area in time,” Mira replied as she set the chainwhip in her holster, the cracks in its body giving a lot to be desired. “Or at least try to; you know people in town can be.”
Almost fully dressed, Mira and Esther strapped their helmets on, the protective gunmetal of their masks concealing their faces as they saluted to each other, right arms bent in acute angles as they each rested the corresponding fists on their left shoulders – at the same time the left arms pointed in a parallel direction down their backs, left fists resting just above their right glutes. All the while they squared their feet at each other for just a few seconds’ time before returning to ease.
“I will be back in time,” Mira promised. “No matter what happens, I will see that I am.”
And from the exit, the androids went their separate ways, Esther walking to the station as Mira, atop the hill, took a look down at the residential and sub-commerce districts. The rails and cables were busy as ever, but that did little to discourage her.
Over the years, the cable framework proved strong enough to hold the etternel’s weight and serve as a means of transportation. Mira took a quick glance at the bottoms of her shoes and confirmed that the grooves in her arches were in perfect condition.
A small boost from the shoes’ groove propelled the android upward – and with a great leap, she directed herself to the nearest cable, its metal fibers feeding perfectly into her arches. Nearly 150 kilograms of metal and circuitry and flesh and armor touched down, the spinning ridges in her feet grinding along the cable’s surface as she started her way downward. Momentum did the rest of the work for her.
Light flurries of sparks drizzled below. The hollow, metal chamber around her head kept the wind out of her hair and amplified the roaring resistance it provided.
Occasionally she turned on her heel to keep the momentum going, but with as fast as the cable carried her, she needed to make her stop soon.
A colossal web of cables cobbled up what had been an otherwise clear path up until now; she gave a little hop to avoid tripping on an intersecting line. The market was nearby – not far from the bread line.
Several other etternel were nearby – most of them on the ground, but a few traversing the cables as she was. Thanks to their connection to Rélhum, they were able to indicate to each other where they were going at which time – and thus avoid a collision.
It was only hardly a heartbeat after preventing a collision when Mira made one final leap off her cord, landing a safe distance from any civilians.
She touched a hand to her holster, but did not remove the weapon from its secure sheath. Could she feel any sense of relief, it would have made itself known in a sigh.
And thus her job for the day began: guard duty. Pulling again at the network, Mira wondered if she had any new messages, but nothing showed up.
Occasionally she passed by other etternel as she made her walk through the area, occasionally passed by citizens, occasionally by the more lowly condaire robots. A small grouping of people had formed at the bread line, incomparable to the amount of people chattering about in the enclosed marketplace.
A flicker of a signal resonated in her head every time she communicated with one of the nearby AI. She operated in complete silence even as the still-warm soles of her feet crunched the soil underneath. The nearby ravel did not distract her from communicating with other AI, but it did pull her attention off her current task just the slightest bit.
She would never understand their ways. When the needs to survive was earned through the collective effort of all citizens and returned through the governing powers, what need was there to market? Mira could barely think of a reason she would ever want to market herself in any way – unless, perhaps, she was hired to partake in a social experiment. She certainly wouldn’t understand the motivation behind such an experiment, but at least her work in that case wouldn’t be completely antithetical to everything she deemed true.
The citizens in market traded their temporary currency – their “pretend money,” some liked to call it – among themselves before returning to the gate, paying the rest to the Domain, and leaving. One trip to commerce meant one less they were allowed for the rest of the month, assuming they spent any money at all. Some citizens lived around this part of the city, but after having set their commerce area in this specific part of town before the Domain had risen to prominence, it had become a tradition of sorts.
A crow of children brushed past Mira, brushing her hip and making her worry again that her weapon had been stolen. “Sorry!” one of them chirped. Again she checked her holster. Still there. What was more: the kinetic switch was still off – though she could hardly imagine herself hurting anyone with her chainwhip set to its more lethal mode.
Wary of those kids, Mira only occasionally cast a glance at the market area. Some were grumbling, some were arguing, some were doing both – but despite it all, they showed no signs of delinquency.
But not all citizens were so well-behaved.
“A man posing as an etternel is believed to be in the area…”
The message caught her off-guard. Mira read the rest. “He is unarmed, but still potentially dangerous. Keep a close watch on any etternel officers who are caught without their weapons; interrogate when a potential target is found.”
Again she circled around the area, with still nothing out of the ordinary striking her – no unarmed officers to be found. At one point Mira thought she could see those same children from earlier running off in the distance, but she lost track before she could fully make them out.
Another message came in: “A suspect has been acquired; currently engaged by n4-a85 and n4-k48.”
As far as the vigilant gynoid could tell, the suspect had not caused any commotion just yet. She thought this, yet realized how difficult some of the market citizens were, how loud their children were.
A harsh bump to her hip. “Sorry!” a voice chirped – the same one from earlier.
And just as quickly as they had hit-and-run the first time, Mira grabbed a small shoulder. “Hey!” she shouted. She had grabbed a girl – no doubt the source of that voice – as the rest of the group ran off.
Mira felt her holster. Still occupied.
“What are you trying to accomplish?” she demanded to know, bending low to meet the girl’s eyes despite the child having no ability to see Mira’s.
The child did not respond, did not smirk, whine, or cry – just stared back with her mouth slightly open. Mira wanted to believe the girl had words hidden behind those unshut lips of hers, but nothing came without another kick. “Answer me!” said the android, this time louder than before, yet just as monotone.
Rather than quiver away, the girl – seeming no older than twelve – blinked. Her lips closed for a moment as a smirk crossed, coinciding with a sapaku stare and a light buildup of sweat along her hairline.
“We were just passing through, Miss Officer!” she insisted. “Plus I said I was sorry; was there something else you needed me to say?”
Nothing she could say, but the girl could still help in some way. With a quick facial scan, Mira realized this girl was Emily Aubert: someone who had never been convicted in any way, but she wasn’t sure what to say about the children she had decided to associate with.
Mira huffed, as if trying to intimidate; the sound of hot air brushing against metal almost made Emily snort.
“Do not do it again,” Mira commanded, then stood straight up again. “Failure to comply will result in consequences, little girl.” From there, Mira stepped away, but did not turn her back to Emily.
Emily, meanwhile, squared her shoulders at her adversary. Whatever perspiration had built along the top of her head was gone now, replaced with an air of confidence that made her head look three times bigger than it really was – though perhaps this last part truly wasn’t an illusion, from what Mira could tell.
It took Mira a moment to break from her current predicament and realize she and the child had spent the last minute arguing in front of the breadline – in front of an entire group of adults. Mira would have expected one of the adults to claim her as their own or at least look down on her for the trouble-making nuisance she was, but hardly any of them batted an eye at the conversation. Those who did were still quiet; fewer still seemed more than the slightest bit amused.
When Mira turned her head back to the girl, she noticed a tongue sticking out at her. It was almost enough to make her think Emily was simply drained of attention and was happy to get it from a machine.
Before she could reprimand the child once again, the officer received another message: “Target is on the run.” Knowing she needed to keep her guard up, Mira reached for the weapon at her hip – at the same time a plastic crack split the air.
She flinched. Emily snickered. A hand reached between two breadline attendants’ legs, gripping the whip by its hilt and breaking it from the rest of its flimsy sheath as it shattered into a dozen pieces. At the same time, the hand flipped the switch on, sending a green light pulsing along the whip’s body, making the nearby attendants flinch when they came in contact with the weapon as the hand pulled away in a rush.
The smell of burnt fabric wafted about as the rest of the chained tendril twirled about before practically funneling through. One of the people waiting attempted to grab the chain, only to write back as the momentum it had built up caused it to become too hot to touch.
In seconds, enough people had backed away from the thief that Mira the hand belonged to a boy hardly older than Emily.
Caught completely off-guard, Mira ignored the message. She wasted no time, practically forgetting about Emily as she dashed past the recovering queue members, shoving by in spite of how this had bothered them as much as it had her.
Immediately Mira realized that treading after them on foot wasn’t going to be adequate enough, so she instead opted to leap up to the cables above. In seconds, she started grinding ahead. With this need to keep her attention focused on them came an inability to send a distress signal, her sensors fully engaged on the young perpetrators.
Mira sent a signal out to the rest of Rhobane, alerting them to the children’s presence even as they clambered over this other unarmed etternel. As if they had heard the silent alert, one of the children peeked behind their back to glimpse at the terrifying metal plating that hid Mira’s face, the bulletproof uniform that added to her already-heavy body.
As they turned a corner, the whip sparked up against a brick edge. All the while Mira’s flurry of sparks – growing all the more violent the harder she pursued – followed close behind, the sound almost audible against their pounding hearts and heavy breaths.
And for a moment, Mira heard nothing, though the ravel of the marketplace remained and the hum of Mírre’s song stayed with her, guiding her through the maze-like town as – second by second – the children realized they were soon to see how the Domain reignited the flames among the disconnect.