Infiltration Part2.5 – Jump On It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I swear it is.”

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

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

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

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

“She kissed me!” Bailey blurted.

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

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

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

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

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

That was more or less true. Both kids nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infiltration Part2.4 – In the Flesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way at all,” Esther clarified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infiltration Part2.3 – Further Backwoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The light is not on?” Rouken asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where I had suspected,” Rouken answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He really didn’t have a rebuttal to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The faraway voice called out again. “Help us!


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

Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part2.1 – Colonists of the Hive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?” she asked, gagging.

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

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

One of Macy’s girls was down there.

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

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

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

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

Going through the drain was simply out of the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enflamiere Mírre.


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

Fallen Daemon

“I can’t remember where I went…”

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she did not die.

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

Awaken me. Ignite me. Hear the Mother.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are many,” they said again.

“Yet we are Flesh!” said another.

“Many is one,” said yet another.

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


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

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part1.9 – The Art of Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto the next story.

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

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

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

“Isn’t that Miss Macy’s?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bailey is out there!”

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia stuck her tongue out at the other student worker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Theo actually let you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Stories?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With barely a word, she did as he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi again!” said Cynthia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kinds of projects?” wondered Toni.

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

“Oh – like a book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” Cynthia shouted.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“What’s the plan after we excavate?”

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

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

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

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

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

She and Sam exchanged a glance.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is going on in here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.7 – Monarchs

“What are you doing in here?!” Mira shouted.

Suddenly awoken from her spot beside the bed, Esther raised herself, only to bump her head on the bed’s ledge. The blow made her ears ring as she still struggled to assess what was going on.

Through it all, Shafer barely reacted as Esther rubbed the spot she had just hit. “I’m keeping watch,” he answered from where he sat, a hand at his side and legs crossed. “We still ain’t sure if you ladies are trustworthy yet, so I’ve gotta keep an eye out.”

Esther retracted her hand from her scalp, relieved to not see any liquid. In a less panicked state, she turned her head up to Shafer. “Wait – you were watching us sleep?”

Shafer nodded.

There would have been a lot more shouting, screaming, scratching, and biting at that point if the women in front of Shafer were not artificial. Instead the Autorian visitors sat in silence, sensing an immeasurable distance between themselves and their own invasive guardian despite him being practically within arms’ reach.

“Well,” Esther began, her voice monotone, yet firm. “We’re awake now and we’re not going back to sleep.”

“I can see that,” Shafer said, nodding again.

“Leave.” Mira spoke. Esther whipped her gaze around to see the still-disabled woman’s untwitching countenance hyperfocused on Shafer, her green stare completely still, refusing to ask again or even blink as every part of her screamed for the man to follow her command.

Shafer followed along. Mira continued to stare.

A smirk ran along his face as he gave in, picking himself off his seat. “If you insist, Missy – I’ll just be outside.” The man spoke not another word as he let them be, taking his chair with him and placing it just beyond the tent’s flap – which he proceeded to zip closed.

Only once Shafer left the room did Mira finally blink again. Following this retraction of her partner’s state of supposed fury, Esther asked, “Are you okay?”

Mira turned her head to Esther, avoiding eye contact and blinking rapidly almost as if she were fighting back tears. “I guess I’m okay,” she replied. “But what was that? He’s just allowed to come in whenever he wants?”

“Is that a surprise to you? It seems like that would be the case, since the people here are keeping us close under their watchful eye, anyway.” Esther paused. “And if you didn’t have to worry about your leg and this place had some kind of military district, I’d be surprised if we weren’t harbored in the military district instead of the medical tent.”

It was a good point, she knew. Her lips pursed, Mira beckoned Esther over; Esther obliged without a word.

“I already do not like that man,” Mira whispered. “After the threats he made on my part while he dragged me into camp, I’m hesitant to believe he would want anything more than to kill us while we sleep.”

In some ways, the idea that he would kill the two of them before they had a chance to meet with the Director seemed so silly an idea that Esther almost had to feign sarcasm. “Right – you said yesterday he threatened you, but – ”

“I alluded to it,” Mira corrected.

“Right,” Esther said again. “Let’s just wait for now, okay?” Her ear almost seemed to twitch at some noise from outside. “At least we know this: if he shoots a gun at us right now, the girls are going to hear and I don’t think he wants that kind of attention from children.”

Mira said nothing.

“MORNING!!”

Amity awoke with a start, the wind knocked out of her at the same time hear ears started ringing. In her panic, she lifted herself out of her lying position, looking here and there to find only Cynthia nearby – who stood by with a smile on her face.

Feeling as if the girl had just tied her stomach in literal knots, she resisted the urge to punch that smiling face. “What was that about?” she snapped, rubbing her belly when she noticed the large slab that Cynthia had anchored on top of her. On further inspection, this slab appeared to be some kind of book.

“Happy birthday, Amity!” said Cynthia. “Miss Macy said she wants to see you once you’re dressed – and she also wanted you to have this.”

Amity opened it up to find all the pages were completely blank. “It’s a…journal?” Suddenly she factored in the weight. “It’s really thick – damn!”

“I wouldn’t know anything about it; Macy just said you should have it. What would you need a journal for, anyway?”

Her thoughts still buried in sleep, it took Amity a moment to remember why she would need such a heavy collection of paper: something few people had in such quantities. Once she did remember, she still hesitated to reply. “I have my reasons.”

Because it was her birthday – specifically the day of her transition into adulthood – people would make a big deal whether Amity wanted them to or not. Suddenly she remembered that tent she still needed to finish sewing together, cursing at herself when she realized she could have done that the day before. If it wasn’t finished by the end of today, she was probably never going to forgive herself.

The materials that made up Amity’s project were placed in a stack in Macy’s tent. As luck would have it, she, Toni, and Cynthia needed to meet up with their mentor today – as with Amity’s graduation from the medical area, there followed a large sleuth of tasks that would be left unhandled unless the other two assistants agreed to pitch more of their time in.

Once they were properly dressed, the three of them left all the other girls to their devices and made it over to Macy – who proceeded to run them through their tasks for the week. After that, Macy opened the much-needed discussion of Amity’s approaching leave.

Perhaps disrespectfully, the first question raised was who would be replacing Amity, if anyone. Amity did not wish to offer any ideas for potential new pupils.

She was barely listening by the time she heard Cynthia blurt out one of the names she wanted to hear least. “What about Miss Esther for now?”

A bolt of electricity flashed through Amity’s blood. “We’re not doing that!” she argued, her unblinking eyes locked on the youngest girl’s. Toni and Macy seemed to disappear from the conversation entirely as the tent went almost completely silent, save for the electronic hum of the MDA station. “You’re not going to force me to be her mentor.”

Just as quickly as she had vanished, Macy returned. “Oh, don’t make any assumptions about that,” she said, waving her hand. “I will be the one who teaches that woman, if things were to come to that.” She paused. “Did you truly think you would replace my position by the end of the day?”

“Well, no,” Amity replied, then cast another annoyed glance at Cynthia – who sat back without further argument.

Again the tent went silent, Macy keeping an eye on the now-adult Amity. The girl had certainly blossomed in the time she had spent as one of Macy’s assistants, sticking through wherever their camp’s Director decided to carry them all next. And now, just as they had reached their supposed final destination, Amity needed to make her own move into adulthood. It was not a position that most specialists often found themselves in.

An empathetic hesitance to her countenance, Macy stepped up to the young woman. “You aren’t feeling too troubled about all this, are you, dear?” asked Macy. “I know this must be a dizzying day for you, Miss Amity – lots on your mind?”

Caught slightly by surprise, Amity tilted her nose in the air to meet the older woman’s gaze. “Not really,” she lied, eyes locked with Macy’s. “Just a few things I want to talk about once we’re alone.” She resisted the urge to eyeball the other two in the tent as her mentor seemed to draw closer. She could sense the other two peering at her, knowing there was much more locked behind those tight lips; Amity resisted the urge to look back as Macy took a step back herself.

Macy, Cynthia, and Toni continued discussing task reassignment, with Amity only piping in when directly called upon. More than anything, Amity hoped her departure would be the kick in the pants Toni – now to be the oldest – needed to finally start taking initiative and acting more assertive with all the other kids. It had certainly helped Amity’s growth when Zoe – the oldest before her – made her departure almost three years ago.

Thinking about Zoe made Amity sigh; that woman hadn’t been seen by anyone since the split just a year after her adult life began. Perhaps if this settlement in Kortrick truly was to become the next big place that some were hoping for it to become, then she and Zoe might meet again – but so far their wandering tribe had had no such luck with any other location, giving Amity little hope that it would happen this time, despite whatever Sam or her uncle told her.

As promised, Amity stayed behind once the other two girls had left, now standing to Macy’s eye-level. It had been a few days since she and Macy were the only ones in the same room, completely sealed off from the rest of the world for just a bit. Even her Uncle Shafer was hardly around to provide such luxuries.

Rather than have Amity speak immediately, Macy started with a question of her own. “I’m surprised; did you leave that journal in your bed?”

“Yeah,” Amity replied. “Cynthia just gave it to me without really explaining what it was for. Was there something you were wanting to tell me?”

Macy chuckled as if she expected the woman to know – and, in all honesty, she did know, but needed validation. “It’s about all the things you’ve written on the MDA I’ve been lending you,” Macy clarified, lowering her voice on the last few words. “You still haven’t let anyone else know about that, have you?”

The fledgling woman shook her head. “No, nobody’s caught me using it.”

With a smile, Macy turned around to the docking station and pulled one of the devices out: a slab covered in tired gray-blue plastic. The nubs on the buttons had worn out over time due to excessive use on Amity’s part.

“Well, this week will need to be the last time you use it,” said Macy as she handed the MDA over. “That is why I gave you the booklet; it was the biggest one I could find and it has more clean paper than I have seen in anyone’s possession – not since Director Persson’s predecessor.”

While part of her wondered where Macy would have found such a voluminous collection of what was considered a somewhat rare material beyond the Domain’s borders, she sought not to question it.

“I also have a pen here you can use to copy all the things you wrote down on the device – just in case you lose or break your own. But once the week is over and you have fully moved out, I will need the MDA back.”

Only a week? In that time, Amity would be lucky if she hadn’t developed carpal tunnel from all the text she had to copy over. Would she even be able to keep the text legible?

On top of that, she still needed to finish the tent. That would most certainly need to come first – especially when she was so close to finishing it as it was. Once finished, she would probably place it somewhere at the northeastern side of camp, albeit this was a little close to the ruins for her liking. Thinking about ruins made her wonder why she needed to make the tent when the possibility of living in stable architecture was well within their reach.

Despite all the thoughts swimming in her head, Amity nodded her understanding to Macy. “I’ll get it all done,” she said. “But if I get wrist cramps, it’s your fault.”

Macy couldn’t help chuckling at that last remark. “Very well, then. If you’re going to be busy, I’ll go take care of the other girls.” As she retreated to the opening flap of her tent, she uttered a few last words: “Good luck, Miss Amity.”

A light breeze blew in as her former mentor stepped out.

In the time it took for her to remember what she was doing, Amity had nearly dropped the MDA in her hand. She swore at herself and proceeded to turn it on, flipping the switch as the non-lit screen came to life. Once about a minute had passed, she traversed through the system menu and read the notifier beneath all the text files:

File Storage: 129kb / 2048kb.

All of that was text. Basic text, no properties or metadata. No special formatting outside of the manually-inserted characters. Her head started to hurt when she realized how many words that amount of data actually took up. Her wrist started to hurt just as much.

So long as Shafer kept his promise to stay out of the passage for the time being, Sam could breathe easy for the day.

“They weren’t too happy, but what’re you gonna do?” Shafer said upon his arrival. “I’m just happy they didn’t smack me.”

Sam, meanwhile, had half a mind to ask the scouts’ leader about the message he had found – but seeing the man here now, all Sam could muster was a barely-related question: “Did Macy get you the MDA back?”

“That she did,” said Shafer, nodding. “Thanks again for sending the message out.”

His brain itched with the desire to ask, but still nothing else came out, providing an awkward silence between the two men. With few words beyond that, Sam left the scout leader to watch over his boys.

Perhaps the Director would know something about those highwaymen – or anything contained within Shafer’s message. Sam only hoped the Director wouldn’t tell Shafer that he was snooping through the MDA.

The last time he and Persson had met up, the Director expressed a need to see both of the newcomers at the same time on that very day, only to be more than slightly disappointed when nobody was willing to bring Mira over in her condition. It would have been a simple procedure, according to the Director, but apparently it was not simple enough to warrant anyone’s support.

A plate of half-finished breadcrumbs and jelly decorated Director Persson’s desk as Sam walked in, himself standing tall and clad in a tightly-knit outfit compared to the loose shawls around the Director’s limbs and torso. Sam almost questioned if Persson was even ready for their meeting before the commander in question beckoned him in. The desk smelled as if Persson had spent the night on top of it – which Sam told himself was impossible; the Director wouldn’t succumb to using strewn-about papers as a mattress!

Before Sam, the slouching man urged both of them to sit down, his nimbly body barely taller than Sam’s. Scratching a beard that made his chin appear almost three times larger than it actually was, the Director sat at an unusually-tall seat behind his desk, viewing his right-hand man from an egoistic vantage point above the mess as Sam took his seat at the chair in front.

“So, then!” the Director began, noticeably jittery where he sat. “Sam, my boy – have you seen the two new women at all this morning?”

“Not yet, no,” the deputy confessed. “Last time I saw them was last night – and that was just so I could get to know them. Shafer was looking after them for Macy this morning, but now they’re awake and he’s back with the scouts out east.”

At that, the Director drummed his fingers on his chair’s one arm. He didn’t seem to be listening to anything beyond the first handful of words. “And is there some fear that maybe you will catch Miss Esther’s cold?” he asked. “I don’t think Rand has caught anything from her, so what fear does a deputy have?”

Despite the many multiple reasons Sam could argue that his status in camp did not have an effect on his immunity to disease, he let that point roll off his shoulder much like the Director had just done with his explanation. “Well, I can’t imagine they’re too happy right now,” he tried explaining. “Most women would probably kill a man if they caught him watching them sleep. Shafer told me he managed to do his job without a scratch, but they can’t be in any mood to talk after that.”

“I hear they’re in that mood right now!” the Director argued. He gave Sam that condescending smile: the same one he cast down whenever he referred to Sam as a boy, despite the mere seven years between the two of them. It was that same look which suggested the Director was transmitting an unheard message to the person in his line of sight – and if that message was not properly deciphered within the next hour, the position of deputy was about to become that much less desirable.

Sam took a moment to respond with a silent message of his own, gaze unblinking and lips forming a straight line as if he were a wildcat stalking a rabbit. For a moment he almost felt as if he might actually pounce, but returned to reality when he blinked again.

The Director was no stranger to compromises – and, feeling the need to push his luck, Sam made an offer. “How about I just bring Esther?” he finally said. “Mira is in much too poor a condition after that accident she had with my trap, but Esther hardly seemed sick at all yesterday and I’ve already told them you wanted to see them soon.”

“No Mira?” the Director prodded. “I’d think someone with a lucky name like Mira would keep away from traps – but I suppose if the woman is hurting, then far be it from me to put her through more pain by walking her over!” With that, he lowered his seat a little, slightly reducing the strain on Sam’s neck. “Go bring Esther, then; I don’t believe I’ll be busy by the time you return.”

“Wait – there’s one other thing,” Sam ejaculated, then paused as if realizing he had just spoken out of turn.

Caught a little off-guard, the Director paused, sitting back in his chair. “And what would that one other thing be?”

Still Sam hesitated. “It’s about a message I found on Shafer’s MDA.”

“Still snooping through people’s devices?” Persson couldn’t help sneering. “Go on.”

The man gave a deep breath before explaining everything from Rouken to the highwaymen. “He told me Rouken might be coming back soon, so that’s why I went through the MDA. But now that I’ve read this stuff about highwaymen and how Shafer was apparently planning on going through the passageway before I told him not to do that yet, I feel like there’s something I’m not being told.”

Another smile crossed the Director’s face – this one much less condescending than the last, yet still enough to slightly bother Sam. “That’s because there is,” the Director confessed, lowering himself again. “Sorry if it disappoints you, but yes – Rouken likely will be coming back soon. By that point, you will hear everything you need to about those highwaymen from his mouth. He will know more than I.”

Sam may as well have not asked the question at all. With nothing left to say, he nodded. After further discussion on the general state of the camp, Sam left the Director to his work – whatever work that was. The deputy rubbed his forehead as he stepped out.

Looking around him, this camp of theirs felt like a miracle. The fact that they had found the ruins of a once-prosperous town and were now on their way to rebuilding it was nothing short of a work of God. Yet with these successes, the Director sought little more than to continually expand upon every single opportunity thrown at him – not for the betterment of the camp, but for the change to achieve further recognition or further pleasure. Perhaps it was his childhood upbringing in the Domain which had planted this greedy seed in his belly – a seed that had sprouted into a parasitic beanstalk that now drove his actions. It would explain the erratic thought patterns.

Compared to the Director, who was Sam Jacquard? The camp’s second-best: a worn-out, yet still shining figure who overachieved for the good of his people – in the hope that they would all one day live a life without the Domain’s fingers digging into every wild orifice it could find. The Domain served to spread its genes through what remained of the United States until everything was just as homogenized and inbred as artificially possible – and hearing the way Persson talked about the newcomers and thinking about how little he had helped since everyone had moved to Kortrick, Sam couldn’t help drawing parallels.

As he walked, Sam shook his head. He couldn’t go to Esther with these thoughts in mind.


Discord is open for all!

Infiltration Part1.5 – Fresh Blood

The best shelter these people could afford their newest visitors was a small tent that they had already set up for medical use. Mira was given a bed, blanket, and a long shirt to cover her up just enough for when the luocans worked on her leg while all Esther had was a small sleeping bag and some new clothes for herself. As the gynoids situated themselves, a man named Shafer – who had operated the vehicle with Rand – was tasked with guarding the front of the tent as they waited for further medical services from the woman in charge.

Shafer stood idly by, wary of the slightest sound coming from inside, though much of it was clouded from all the noise outside. With so many noisy children nearby, it could not have been easy for the man to stay focused. It must have been doubly difficult to keep his sanity when he had no assistance from any of the things that Autorians tended to take for granted.

No proper architecture, infrastructure, or enforcement existed to keep the land in order, yet somehow Shafer and all luocans like him had managed to come together and move as a family united under one roof – if a woven, flapping cobble of cloth, hide, and synthetics of a bygone era was applicable as a roof. In this otherwise flat spot set among the hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, forests and swamps the luocans called their home, several broken houses – long-abandoned by their previous owners as the city crumbled into rubble from years of neglect – remained as the only visible parts of civilization.

And then there was the passage.

The gynoids had no doubt the passage would become a topic of interest among luocans. The fact that Rand had managed to find Esther down there supposedly without any prior knowledge about the place led them to believe that either Rand was being coy and that the luocans actually did know all there was to know about the passage or that Esther was the only person to step into that place in years. Given the dust, she was willing to bet on the latter.

Her voice low so as not to let the man outside hear, Mira spoke to Esther from her bed as Esther rested her elbows on the frame. “It sounds like the man who brought you here was less hostile than the one who brought me in.”

Rand wasn’t the least bit hostile, but his demeanor had done nothing to let Esther’s guard down. Still, hearing Mira bring up such a topic of discussion left her curious. “Did you argue with him about something?” she asked.

“No, nothing like that. I barely talked at all on the way back.” Mira hesitated to continue. “Your man didn’t threaten to kill you?”

“No,” Esther replied with her own air of hesitance. “But maybe we should consider ourselves lucky. They know we’re outsiders and they probably know that – ” She dropped her voice even lower than it already was. “ – that we are Autorian. So the fact that they didn’t kill us after seeing the way we tried running away is a good thing, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.” Yet, in an almost deflective move, Mira argued, “The men here don’t seem to like women at all, unless I was just unlucky. The man who brought you here is probably much less xenophobic than a lot of the others around here.”

Esther had already known about how human beings could act when faced with someone who represented an opposing ideology or party. In their Disconnect, bigotry among the luocans was free to run rampant without the state to step in and handle such social unrest. But even with this in mind, Esther wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure it’s a matter of sexism and not just our background?”

“The men don’t seem to like the women,” Mira replied. “Why else would they segregate the children?”

While her partner seemed to be pushing the definition of xenophobia, Esther did not see any need to push back. “Let’s hope for our sake that it is just a few men here who truly think women are inferior,” she said, not wishing to discuss any further.

Xenophobic or not, the luocans had already let the gynoid visitors fulfill the first half of their mission. The other half: rise with the luocans, exploiting their systems until their base of operations fell apart, hopefully sending a ripple effect to other luocans as they sought to rise from the Disconnect.

Feeling the need to move the subject back to the intended topic, Mira wondered more about Esther’s plundering. “What was that robot you said you found?” she asked, catching Esther almost unaware. “Is he still there?”

“He is,” Esther answered. “But he died while trying to transfer data over.”

“Oh.” She almost looked surprised. “And there weren’t any others?”

“All the others were dead – and the one I found had to be activated first. He wouldn’t turn on until after I plugged him into the generator. It must not have been a strong connection, either – or if it was, his circuits must have been destroyed at some point if he died when he did.”

“Maybe another one of them can get you data on that sednium generator. But what kind of data would you expect to find about a machine like that, anyway?”

“Well, you always used to tell me that we should take whatever data we can,” Esther pointed out. “So I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to gather some data about the power generators while we’re here.

“But there was something else I found before the robot started transferring data to me.” Esther closed in. “He knew about the Mother.”

That was enough to startle Mira. “About Mírre? Or some other Mother of days past?”

It occurred to Esther that she had never asked. “I don’t know.” There very well might have been a Mother not like the one she had known, but one that Autorians in the days of Autorise S.A. and the early Domain would have considered the Mother. “If it really was a different Mother, do you think she would have been more primitive than the one we know now?”

“I have no doubt she would have been,” Mira scoffed. “What he called the Mother might have been of even lower intelligence than one of us.”

“I don’t think his Mother was that old. The documents I found there were dated roughly sixty years ago.” As she spoke, her nose started to run; the fluid that had invaded her airways had yet to fully find its way out. Esther sniffled. “By the way: how is your leg?”

Their conversation was immediately cut off by some mumbling from just outside. Shafer was speaking with someone; it took a moment for the gynoids to realize it was Macy: the woman in charge of child education and general medicine in the camp.

“Those partners in there seem to be doing alright,” he droned, his voice so monotone it almost made the nearby robots blush. “Haven’t tried breaking out yet.”

“That is good,” came an older, female voice. “I still need to get the blonde one more properly treated in case the wound reopens.”

Mira replied to Macy’s concern with a snort.

After enough back-and-forth, Macy and Shafer unzipped the opening of the tent and brushed through. The differences in their attire gave for quite the striking dichotomy – Macy clad in a tan shirt, brown overalls, and thick gloves more becoming of a gardener than a doctor or teacher, whereas Shafer’s drenched cargo pants and protective vest almost made him look like a poor version of what the visiting women once were. If they didn’t know any better, the Autorians would have assumed Shafer was Macy’s overprotective son.

“Ladies,” Macy began as the aloof Shafer almost took a step back. “Are you both doing alright so far?”

Both of them would have been well within their right to complain, but they instead nodded their heads and let the instructor continue. “Good; the girls are busy and Shafer will be looking after them for a bit. One of my apprentices will be here to help me get the two of you in better shape.” Pausing, Macy leaned to her left, attempting a better glance at Mira’s leg. “It hasn’t started bleeding again, has it, dear?”

Sitting up in the bed, Mira reached a hand under the sheet and touched her wounds to find an unfortunate streak of red coolant tracing along her fingers. She cast a nervous glance up at Macy. The substance had the look and texture, but not the smell of blood; having Macy put some stitches in the wounds was risky enough, but further examination would have brought the partners closer to being caught.

“Oh – that will definitely need some proper bandaging. But you should be fine until Amity arrives,” Macy assured, then cocked a look at Esther – who, embarrassed, hid her face behind a hand, giving the lightest of sniffles. Knowing of her plight, Macy pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to the woman. “Here you are, dear,” she said as Esther gratefully brought the cloth to her face. “And might I ask, Esther: is it just a cold you’re dealing with or is it something else?”

“It’s just a cold,” she assured, her words muffled behind the cloth. “Just the typical coughing, sneezing, and dizziness.” She spoke with such clarity that it almost would have been hard to believe she were dizzy or stuffy if she had not stated it outright.

Macy, meanwhile, put a palm to Esther’s forehead. “We don’t have anything to check your temperature for sure,” she admitted, taking her hand back. “But the fact you’re able to speak full sentences without stopping to breathe tells me you don’t have a flu. And you don’t have a fever, either”

Esther nodded and wiped her nose with the cloth.

Emerging from the background, Shafer cleared his throat, alerting Macy, who had almost forgotten he was there. “The Director wanted you both to know that he needs to meet the two of you as soon as possible. I told him he will have to wait – especially with you.” He gestured to Mira. “But he now knows everything about how we found you both and what you were doing outside. I’m sure he will have plenty more questions for you both when the deputy takes you to him.”

Neither of them had any doubts on that last fact.

Feeling he had nothing else to speak about on this matter, Shafer rubbed his chin and asked, “Anything the director needs to know about you two before I get Amity?”

Perhaps there were things he would like to know, but nothing he truly needed to know. “I don’t think so,” replied Esther. Mira, subsequently, shook her head.

“Alright then.” With that, Shafer started on his way out, but paused mid-step. “One other thing: the Director believes some strange things about the Domain, so try not to argue with him, okay?” He left before anyone could respond.

As sure as she was that her assistant was on her way, Macy sauntered over to a small wooden bin full of clean, white aprons. “Amity should be here in just a few minutes. She’s that apprentice I told you about.” She slipped on a pair of gloves. “She’ll be turning fourteen tomorrow, so we’ll have to get used to doing things around here without her soon!”

“Why is that?” Mira asked.

Almost immediately she regretted asking that, as Macy’s first reaction to that question was to stare somewhat bewildered at Mira’s words.

“Well,” said Macy, glancing to the side before looking back to meet Mira’s gaze. “She’ll be her own woman! Some of the girls are working on stitching a tent, but it’s mostly been Amity who’s worked on it. In, give or take, a couple weeks, she should have it all ready to go.”

Before she could speak further, someone cleared their throat from behind her.

Macy turned around. “Oh – Amity!” She turned around again, stepping aside to let the girl in through the tent’s open flap. “Mira and Esther – here she is.”

Stepping forward, a tall, blue-eyed girl clad in tight-fitting cotton and denim and a thin skirt that almost went down to her knees greeted the two of them, a tired smiled on her face.

“Miss Esther, Miss Mira,” she greeted. “It’s great to meet both of you.” She spoke in a tone that indicated enthusiasm, yet her worn-out expression – far from vernal or wide-eyed – told the newcomers that she was anything but excited. Amity turned her head toward her mentor as she moved to retrieve some gloves and an apron for herself. “Shall we start?”

Rather than answer up-front, Macy gestured toward the bedridden Mira. “We will need you to turn on your side, dear.” She then tilted her gaze to Esther, who immediately stepped back as Amity walked over, putting a knot in her apron. At the same time Mira shifted to lean on her left shoulder, exposing the marks on her bare leg.

Despite the fact that Amity stood at nearly the same height as Macy, the age difference between them couldn’t have been clearer – especially with the wrinkles about Macy’s cheeks and the slim traces of pudge about Amity’s.

“Macy?” Esther said, sitting by. “Are you sure Amity is able to do this kind of thing safely?”

Almost flinching, Amity whipped her head around at such a comment, her straight black hair momentarily caught in a flurry as she did. Yet before she could open her mouth, Macy put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I have trained Amity since she was seven years old, dear,” she assured. “The children from your home may have been under-taught in real-world application, but I make sure all my students get the training they need – especially my apprentices.”

As Macy turned to assess the marks on Mira’s leg, Amity hesitated for a moment, looking down her nose at Esther, then returned to assess the damage.

“Oh, gosh,” Macy commented, chewing a gloved finger. “That looks bad, but I’m sure it’s nothing we won’t be able to fix up.” She went to retrieve some supplies from around where the aprons and gloves were.

“What’s wrong?” wondered Mira, trying to catch a look at the back of her leg as she continued to lay on her side.

“One of the stitches snapped just now,” Amity explained. “It’s bleeding out pretty bad.”

“In addition to the few that already broke!” Macy added as she returned, handing Amity a cloth and sanitizer. Amity proceeded to douse some of the cheaply-made disinfectant to the rag before pressing it up to the open wound. Just behind her, Macy proceeded to weave a thread through a needle.

Mira had more reason to worry than either of the two operators did. If she lost too much coolant without replacing it, she might end up cooking herself to death. With this procedure also came the concern that Macy and Amity would catch a deep glimpse into Mira’s inner workings, yet their work was only skin-deep.

Amity took a deep breath as Macy handed her the needle, eyes locked on the torn flesh. Making as much of an effort as she could to keep her hands still, she inched the needle through a fold of the skin little by little, then finally poked and started weaving through, stitching everything back together as best she could. Afterward, Macy cleaned the blood off a few spots around the now-sealed wound.

The two luocans repeated a similar procedure with a few other spots on Mira’s leg. After some time, Macy peered at their progress with a smile. “I think we’re almost done – yes; okay!” She walked over to look at Mira. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” said Mira. “If I could balance myself better, I might be able to hop around camp without difficulty.”

That was enough to elicit a chuckle out of Macy. “We will just need to get some bandages on them, then we will be done. Amity – could you get them?”

The apprentice did as instructed, going to the supply corner one more time. She barely had a moment to sift around when a screaming girl rushed through the tent flap.

Startled but refraining from flinching, Macy turned toward the source of the noise.

“Miss Macy!!” the girl shouted, caught in such a flustering panic that she ran by Esther without realizing she was there. The stationary woman was quick to notice that even when standing straight, the girl barely stood an inch taller than her.

The hot tears rolling down the girl’s red cheeks were enough to soften Macy’s demeanor from the initial slight annoyance that came with her shriek a moment before. “Hazel? What’s going on, dear?” she asked.

“It’s…we can’t find Shelley! No one knows where she is!” the child claimed, wiping her eyes and sniffling. “Cynthia and Toni don’t know, neither!”

For a moment the room went completely silent, with the only exception being Hazel’s heavy breathing and sobbing. The girl looked as if she had to fight the urge to hug Macy for comfort.

“Amity,” the mentor began. “Can you take things from here?”

It didn’t seem like she had much of a choice, yet for a moment Amity looked as if she wanted to bargain. But, of course, even she knew that Hazel was not going to accept any other deal. “Go ahead,” she said, sighing. “It’s just bandages now, anyway, right?”

Without further hesitation, Macy and Hazel left the two visitors with the apprentice. A decent distance separated Amity from the others, yet it almost felt like not enough distance.

“Okay,” Amity began, taking slow steps toward Mira. “Just to be safe, I want both of you just stay where I can see you, alright?”

Esther, still sitting, gave a single nod, eyes locked on Amity as Amity switched her gaze between the two of them. The luocan girl clearly saw the two of them as some kind of threat. If she only knew.

Still Esther kept where she was as Amity rolled out some bandages to wrap around Mira’s wounds. Neither Esther nor Mira could tell if Amity was trying to hurry along with the process or if she typically bandaged people in such a hurried manner – but in either case, she made quick work of the wounds and wiped the rest of the blood clean off with an air of charismatic precision that the women thought was only possible from a machine.

When it was all done, Amity finished with a sigh. “There you go!” she exclaimed, putting the rag in the pocket of her apron. “You can roll on your back again.”

Mira nodded and started lowering herself once more. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem, Miss.” Amity sighed again, then put away the rest of the bandages and took off her apron and gloves. Things went silent between the three of them as Amity gazed upon the tent entrance – only for nobody to walk through. “Wonder where that other girl went.”

Neither of the other two in the tent responded.

Amity bit the inside of her cheek. Trying not to sigh again, she ran a hand through her hair. “So what all did my uncle tell you guys while he was here?”

Mira blinked. “Your uncle?”

“Right – he usually goes by Shafer,” the girl explained. “I guess soon enough he’ll be the only person left with that as his last name, but yeah.”

“Just things about the deputy and how the Director wants to see us soon,” Esther answered.

“Nothing about what kind of work you two will be doing here?” asked Amity.

The newcomers exchanged a confused glance with each other before looking back at Amity. Esther asked the inevitable question: “What do we have to do?”

“Basic things!” she began. “But the first thing is that you’ll be able to work with Toni, Cynthia, and me in helping Macy around here. Believe me: sometimes everything just goes completely out of control when my uncle or Deputy Sam or some other temporary assistant isn’t around to help the old lady.”

“Would this mean we would be babysitting?” Esther prodded.

Amity gave an unsolicited snort. “No!” she claimed, her face going a little pink as if she were either lying or embarrassed to be associated with such a task. “No – no I personally wouldn’t call it babysitting. Macy does all the teaching, but the other apprentices and I help her keep things under control while we get some specialized training.”

“What is she teaching?” asked Mira, her voice strikingly monotone.

“Things like the alphabet, basic math, how to properly socialize – !” Her voice lowered almost to a whisper. “ – obviously.”

“One sort of unrelated question,” Esther butted in. “But are girls the only ones who get schooling here?”

“Well, yes, Miss. The boys are taught by their dads to do stuff away from home – like how to catch and cook dinner.”

In the midst of her explanation, Macy’s voice sounded from outside, calling for Amity’s name. Her shoulder twitched. “Oh, shoot – gotta head back now!” Straightening herself up, she put on the brightest smile the women had seen from her so far – which was not saying much. “Anyway – it was great meeting the two of you and I hope to work with you both soon!”

That out of the way, Amity grabbed her slightly-bloodied attire and left the women alone, heaving a sigh the moment her face turned away from them.

By the time both women were sure the child was out of earshot, Mira was first to speak. “I thought she was going to smack you.”

Esther blinked. “Amity was?” she asked.

“When you asked Macy if she was capable of fixing me. I didn’t think she would react like that.” Sitting by as Esther made her way back to the bedframe to plant her shoulders on, she added, “I don’t think she likes us.”

“I don’t think her uncle did, either,” Esther said, nodding. “And we still have to see the Director of this camp soon.”

“Hopefully he will have a temperament more similar to Macy.” Mira sighed. “But whenever you meet him and whenever I meet him, it has to go better than it did with Amity just now.”

The girl clearly didn’t want to be in the same room as the gynoids – didn’t think she was even safe without her instructor to back her up. No matter how careful either of them were with the director, at the end of the day, their interaction with him would be another risk to jump through – but such risks were all they could carry through with for the sake of the mission.

Lost in their individual thoughts, the two of them amassed a shared silence – lasting almost a minute – as Mira seemed to almost fall asleep where she lied. Despite their disconnect, they each knew the other was thinking of failure: an option they could not take, lest they lose their chance to retrieve the data they needed and risk death in the wilderness.

It made Esther realize: “As long as they don’t figure out why we’re here, the Director shouldn’t see any need to throw us out so soon. Would they really want to throw us out so soon – especially while your leg is damaged and your pants are still being patched up?”

Mira almost didn’t respond. “You underestimate how awful human beings can be to one another. So often their behavior is so reprehensible that even pockets among them do not see each other as any higher in the animal kingdom than their primate counterparts. I thought you would know that.”

“I do know that – but just after the people here patched up your leg and agreed to patch up your pants, would they really want to throw us out so soon? They have already done a lot for us that they didn’t need to.”

It was as if Esther’s logic operated in a different architecture. Shaking her head, pinging a null network, Mira gave up. “I can only assume your firmware is working properly,” she said, “but – with or without a software infection – you just might be the strangest etternel I know if you really think that mercy at the hands of a few denotes civility among the many.”

Some may have taken those words as insult; others would have taken them as compliment; Esther took them as neither. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Amity certainly never expected to be pulled away in the way she was – but at least it was for something pleasant.

Toni and Cynthia had found Shelley in the nearby woods safe and sound, giggling at the thought of someone finding her, yet disappointed to actually receive punishment when brought to Macy. As their instructor and Shafer watched over the other girls outside, the three apprentices went to the children’s main tent to keep Shelley at her sleeping bag while the three of them cleaned and patched up Mira’s old pants as well as a bunch of other clothes.

The youngest of the three, Cynthia was tasked with fetching and warming up some water at the western side of camp. It always made Amity a little concerned to see the portly apprentice walking with such a hot bucket – even if she had never encountered any difficulties with it I the past.

As Toni and Amity laid several articles of clothing on the floor, Toni couldn’t help notice a pungent scent when she brought a hand to her face after patting Mira’s pants down. “I really need to wash this hand,” she commented, her voice low.

“We’ll get a chance to once Cynthia’s back,” said Amity.

“I think it’s her blood,” Toni continued. “Her blood smells really weird…”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Blood just smells weird in general, you dork.”

Taking her hand away from her face, Toni cast a nervous glance at the older girl. “Are you sure it’s supposed to – ”

“If you’re going to make me smell your hand, forget about it.”

Too timid to continue their argument, Toni remained silent until the third apprentice returned.

“Here it is!” Cynthia squeaked as she stepped inside. “Did I miss anything?”

“No – Shelley’s been completely quiet,” Amity claimed, glancing over to see the girl in question return Amity’s stare from the corners of her red eyes.

As Cynthia put the bucket down and Toni readied the washing boards, the two of them eyed Amity in a curious manner. It only took a handful of heartbeats for her to realize they were looking at her.

She blinked. “Go ahead, you guys! You know how this works.”

Cynthia snickered. “No, silly – what were those women like?” Toni let out a little giggle as the youngest apprentice spilled the beans.

By then each of them had already dipped their hands into the bucket and grabbed some articles of clothing to work with. “Annoying,” Amity stated. “Ignorant. Confusing. I have a bunch of other adjectives I can use, if you want.”

As Toni bit her lip, Cynthia prodded further with a light grimace. “They were really that bad?”

“They’re not from here, for one thing,” Amity explained. “Not only that, but I think they’re Autorian.”

“Do you think they’re robots?” Toni wondered.

“That would be hilarious if they were, but no.” In her unfocused chattering, she managed to splash some water on her skirt. “They just come from a place where nobody cared about them for their humanity. The people in charge just saw them as a number and put them through the automatic system until they were done with school, then shoved them through whatever monotonous work the Domain likes to force on its people. It’s not like the Domain thinks its people are even p– Hey!” She shouted, casting a glance over Cynthia’s head. “Get back in your bed. Now!”

The other apprentices looked over to see Shelley, jumpy, return to her sleeping bag in a rush.

Catching Amity by surprise, Cynthia leaned over the bucket. “Are they really Autorian?”

“Stay back!” Amity had to nudge Cynthia’s shoulder to keep her from tipping the bucket over. She would have rubbed her temple if not for the fact that her hands were already doused in water. “I have a good feeling they are. Everything about them feels Autorian. But I don’t really know.”

Toni looked like she wanted to speak up on the matter, but again she remained quiet.

“What if they are?” Cynthia said, her voice raising in pitch to an almost intimidating degree.

For a moment, Amity could only sigh in response. “Then I guess we just learn to live with the Autorians and teach them how to become useful. Macy could give them a good teaching if she wanted, you know.”

“What if you become the next Macy?” Cynthia asked.

Amity paused. “I become the next Macy? So then I have to teach her?”

The short girl nodded.

The truth was that that was a possibility, given her skillset. Suddenly her current occupation of yelling at children for sneaking out or getting too close in her personal space felt like a better option. “God…I’d rather just stay here with all the kids for another year if that’s the case”

But she didn’t have a year. The stress that came with new beginnings had already started weighing down on Amity – and newcomers only added to the stress. No, there weren’t plans for a grand celebration and she certainly wasn’t going to be handed adulthood on a platter, but expectation kept her in check. There was an expectation to take Macy’s teachings to the fullest, to find a man to call her husband, to start living in her own tent among all the other adults in camp.

Yet here came two newcomers – both clearly adults, yet completely devoid of any knowledge of how the world really worked.

Amity huffed. Leaving her childhood behind was going to be harder than she thought.


I’m not dead!! (yet)

No, actually I have been spending the past month rethinking my writing process, rewriting a lot of stuff, and even finalizing the story bible for Infiltration. The actual revision of this chapter only took two days, believe it or not. With that said, you can start expecting to see more frequent updates on Infiltration!

I actually told my Discord to call the police if I don’t have Chapter 6 up by this coming Friday. So um…better jump on that.

Speaking of: Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part1.3 – Disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had to question: why not a human?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enflamiere Mírre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donadieu hā̷̻̙͒̿̃̂͛͗̏̀͛͐̀͋͑͌̚̕͠s̸̱̦͍̳͚̫̎́̿̀̀̀̇͂́͂̐͆̍̑ ̴̨̨̢̭̫̩̱͇͇̺̠̦͔̂̈́̽̎͑̆́͊͆ë̷̡̨̨̨͇͎͓̩͖͖̱̥̳͖̞́̅͛͋̓̽̅̾̏̌̆́̈͌̚̚͝

But the transmission ended before it could finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Split!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.2 – Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy moaned and shook in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” answered Jeff.

“What about luocans of any kind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am about to return my gear to the station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did somebody steal it?

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

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

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

They had a plan to set up.


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

The Discord server is open, as always.