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 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.