With the evening closing in, it was time to pick up some rations. A few of Macy’s kids – including her apprentices – lined up to take bits of what the men had gathered through the course of the day. All they had for now was stale bread and rabbit soup; if one was lucky, they might actually find a chunk of rabbit swimming around all the little vegetables.
Being such a new settlement, their camp still had a long way to go before any crops they had planted would become viable – especially when winter was set to come within a few months. The scavenging they did now was the best they could do; Macy could only bite her tongue for the children who whined about wanting more food – especially those among them who were going through growth spurts. The girls liked to claim that the boys probably snuck food out for themselves while hunting. Nobody ever challenged such claims – but at the same time, almost no one took such claims seriously; the boys sure didn’t, at least.
Along with some other girls, Amity, a small crate in her hands, was tasked with bringing eight cans of the soup and some bread slices back to the other girls. Of all people, she was also assigned to give one of the cans to the new visitors. This insistence that she be the one to carry out such a task led her to believe that Macy was either testing her patience or had come to despise her in her late adolescence.
Stuck in line, Amity took a moment to look around. Bailey wasn’t here. That boy was usually standing around and handing out rations along with some of the others, but today she couldn’t see him anywhere. For a moment she thought – she hoped – it was just the lighting that was making it difficult to see where he was, but once close enough to the front of the line, it became clear that he was not there. Amity huffed the bangs out of her face. He must have been on guard duty or something of the like.
With an annoyed twinge, Amity took the rations she needed and headed back to her home district, not waiting for anyone else to catch up. All those who hadn’t come along to pick up rations were left unsupervised for the past ten minutes – so in a way, her being the first to return was not exactly something she took pride in; it just meant she was the first to have grabby hands going for the cans and bread when she came over. On top of that was the fact that she needed to still reserve one of the cans for the two women.
Once there, she made sure to deliberate on who received which can. As per usual, it took a minute to get everyone to stay still – but once they all did, the process of passing the rations around became that much easier. Things improved drastically once the others from the rations area arrived.
Taking a deep breath, Amity took the last can and bread slice over to the visitors’ tent. Half-expecting to see them gone, she was almost disappointed to find that they had not run away.
“Hi,” she began. “It’s dinner time, so the girls and I got you both some soup and bread to share.”
Mira gave a quizzical tilt of her head. “I guess that would explain why all the noise stopped.”
“Oh, God – ” Amity began, suddenly in a panic. “None of the girls came in here, did they?”
A little bewildered by her sudden change in tone, the visitors assured Amity that nothing of the sort had happened. “Okay – good,” she said with a sigh. “Anyway – I’ve got it right here. You’re going to have to share it and I’ve only got one spoon.” Right after saying that, she remembered Esther’s cold and hoped it had gone away or Mira was immune enough to not catch it from using the same silverware.
Amity almost wanted to tell the women to enjoy, but instead proceeded to leave the room without a word.
It was almost immediately after stepping beyond the bound of the tent when Amity froze, nearly bumping into a man she had expected to meet with soon, but not right this moment.
“Mister Deputy!” she said with a stutter. “Or, sorry – Sam! Sorry; I was just taking care of the newcomers – ”
Catching her as she was about to trail off, the man gave her a warm smile. “Don’t worry; I was actually just about to talk to them!”
Stepping away from the light of the setting sun, Amity got a better look at her deputy: a man who had stepped into his position within the last year, with this move into Kortrik being his biggest undertaking yet. Comparing his workload of the last two weeks to her own, Amity half-assumed his blonde hair would have either receded or grayed out by now.
She was stalling. “Sorry, I’ll just get out of the way.” Not wanting to draw his attention away from the task at hand, she proceeded to return her now-empty box over to the girls’ tent – and was caught by the elbow.
“Now wait a minute,” he said, pulling her back. “Before you go: I heard tomorrow is the big day – is that right?”
A little shocked to be pulled back like that, Amity slowly turned on her heel. “Well, yes – yes it is, if you’re talking about my birthday.”
“Right, right,” Sam confirmed. “So how’re you with the adult plans? Macy told me you were looking for someone to get together with.”
The fact that Macy had told anyone about that made her go a little more red than she cared to admit. “Well,” she began. “I already have a good idea who I want, but he’s…clueless.”
“I guess it should be him to ask first,” Sam acknowledged. “But if he’s clueless, what do you do?” He gave a rhetorical pause and she shrugged, eyes directed at her feet. “Well, who is it? Maybe I can make him less clueless.”
His offer made Amity’s ears grow hot. She almost started to wish she had never said anything to the deputy at all – but now that she was here, there wasn’t much she could do. Just to be safe, she took a look around them, over her shoulders and behind Sam, making sure none of the girls were listening in, when she leaned in. “It’s Bailey.”
Not surprised, Sam nodded. “He’s a bit busy with his own work under Theo these days, but yeah – I think you two could have some good chemistry!” He tapped his foot in contemplation. “I’ll tell you what: if I see him at any point today, I’ll nudge him your way.”
The mild burning on Amity’s ears grew to a searing degree. She started to stammer. “Okay—!” she said, trying to smile. “Thanks, Sam!” Thinking about these new adult priorities, she suddenly remembered that tent she still needed to finish. “Right – okay, I’m gonna get back to work. Nice talking to you!”
From inside the tent just by Sam, the gynoids were perhaps more clueless than the boy Amity and Sam were just talking about, completely oblivious to their discussion. Rather than poke their noses where they weren’t welcome, they took their one spoon and went back and forth, handing the silverware over to the other when one of them took a mouthful of the soup for themselves.
Both gynoids sat on the floor – Mira tiring of the bed provided for her, but still bringing the blankets to cover her lower appendages – and slowly processed what they were taking in.
Whatever the luocans used for medicine probably had a better taste than this concoction they were meant to call their dinner, but they didn’t complain. It wasn’t like they had anything to compare it to. “I know some people enjoy this,” Esther began. “But are you enjoying this?”
Mira hesitated, swallowing a spoonful. Her tongue was left with a minor tang that the Domain’s supplements could never provide, but there was nothing here that could outright intrigue or captivate her. “No.”
“I think they’ll want the spoon and can back by the time we are done.”
“I’m not surprised,” Mira replied. “Do they clean the cans, too, or should we do that?”
“I don’t know.”
Esther took another mouthful of their dinner before Sam walked in completely unannounced, the open flap practically inviting him inside. Esther and Mira turned their gazes toward the deputy with an air of unfamiliarity, noticing how he stood shorter than Macy and had a necklace chain around his neck, but the pendant on the end was hidden behind his shirt. All this coincided with a young, yet firm countenance that demanded the newcomers’ attention.
When he spoke, his voice did not boom, but almost seemed to croak as if he were trying to make up for a lack of bass in his diaphragm. “Are you the two new people I’ve heard about?”
Swallowing, Esther nodded as Mira confirmed that they indeed were who he thought they were.
“Good!” he replied, eyeing Esther. “So you must be Esther – and you’re Mira.”
Seeing the bandages along Mira’s leg, Sam almost couldn’t help grimacing, but he continued. “My name is Sam and I’m the deputy around here under Director Persson.” Turning to face Mira, he cast a guilty look. “I should probably apologize to you, Mira – since I’m one of the guys who set up the trap you got caught in. You’re not hurting too bad though, are you?”
Feeling like she had answered this question ten times today already, she shook her head.
“Great. And I guess now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: some basic questions. I guess first, just to start, I’ve heard a few people refer to the two of you as partners; what exactly do you both mean by that?” As he spoke, he turned his head toward Esther as if she were the only one who could answer the question.
A little confused on his motivation for asking, Esther answered accordingly. “We are partners in the sense that we were sent outside the border of one of the Domain’s cities, set to be partners out in the wilderness now that we were abandoned among the Disconnect. Then we both got in a chase with those two men on the buggy and here we are now.”
Sam immediately lit up when the Domain was mentioned. “Oh!” he stated, “Well, to follow up on that: both of you are Autorian?”
Mira could only purse her lips in agonizing silence as her partner acknowledged and confirmed this information.
“I see.” The deputy paused, clearly contemplating his next words before they passed his lips. “Well, I want you both to know that having two people like you come into camp is not unprecedented, as a lot of people around here either used to be Autorian or have family who was or still is Autorian. Among those people, some of them were kicked out of the Domain, but it’s more likely that left of their own volition.”
Even with that said, the man felt the need to sigh, preparing to set a heavy burden on the two women. “But now that we know for sure that you’re both Autorian, we’re likely going to keep you here in the medicine and education district for a bit longer under Macy’s watchful eye. We’re also gonna have some guys watch over you for the time being. This is just to make sure we can trust you.”
At this point, Sam normally would have expected some form of protest, but the women did no such thing. Were it not for the talk they had with Amity after the girl had patched up Mira’s leg, they might have inquired further as to what Sam really meant by keeping them in this district.
“I hope that all makes sense and I hope you all understand,” said Sam, to which he received a unified nod from the ladies. “Great. I’m gonna have to come back to bring you each to the Director when he has time.”
For a moment the man paused as if there was something he had forgotten. “I also remember hearing something about a passageway that one of you found? Something just east of camp?”
“That was me,” Esther claimed. From there, she explained to him everything that she had told Mira about the passage – from the robot to the generator to the fact that a suspicious number of lights were still activated. The only thing she didn’t mention was the data she had retrieved from the robot – as fragmented and incomplete as it was.
By the time she finished speaking, Sam stood by in silence, looking off in the distance, once again caught in a veil of contemplation. “And how deep do you think this thing goes? Was there an elevator or anything that you found like that?”
Esther didn’t remember seeing an elevator, but she wouldn’t have completely ruled that out. Still she answered honestly. “Not that I remember. But there was so much that I would be surprised if there wasn’t one somewhere.” The fact that the sednium power generator had vents that led elsewhere was enough to prove to her that this place was more complex than one or two levels.
Still looking away, Sam nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell Shafer about this.” As he spoke, he started to turn away. “Thanks for the info, Esther. And you, Mira – take it easy on that leg, okay? Until then, stay out of trouble. Was nice meeting you both!”
The women said their goodbyes, almost all tension from Esther’s claims disappearing along with him. All at once, the stress that came with listening to her partner talk about their Autorian background seemed to dissipate.
Mira shook her head. “You are so lucky.”
Dawn’s rays had just barely started shimmering through the translucent fabric that shielded him from the elements. Earlier to rise than most, Sam made his way out, leaving the camp’s capital district without a word to anyone – not even his commanding Director.
Wary of the passage Esther had told him about the day before, Sam wrote a message on his MDA to be sent to Shafer’s device. At this point the device was over by the station at Macy’s tent; hopefully by now Shafer had received Sam’s message.
This deputy position of his wasn’t as cumbersome as he had first anticipated. Part of it was guard duty and part of it was supervision where Director Persson could not take care of that task himself, but otherwise his job required very little of him – at least very little that he didn’t want to do. So far the only source of aggravation had been the Director. Perhaps he should have expected that, though.
Along his morning walk, he stopped by the bonfire near the middle of camp, not expecting anyone, but surprised to find one of the guard boys sitting by, completely unarmed and nearly nodding away. Sam made hardly a sound as he took a seat, himself, enjoying his chance to take in some warmth before heading out to the rest of the camp. Looking to his right, he noticed two deer over the nearby hill, startled and making an immediate dash into the forest the moment he glanced at them.
He himself was nearly startled when the boy at the fire mumbled something. “Deputy Sam..?” he asked through a yawn. “What are – what time is it?”
Sam couldn’t help chuckling. “Dawn time.” He took another look at the boy. “Oh, Bailey – what’re you doing here and not in your tent?”
Straightening himself into a more proper sitting position, Bailey – hardly a month away from fourteen years of age – split his jaws in another yawn, clearly struggling not to fall asleep again. “Just wanted to get a bit warm after my work tonight. And if it’s only dawn, it can’t’ve been that long since I got here.”
The boy’s deputy almost reached into the pocket in his jacket, only to remember his Mobile Documenting Agent wasn’t there to show him the exact time. “Well, as long as it’s alright with Theo, I’ll let you be.”
With that, Bailey unstraightened. “Thanks, Sam. What’re you up to right now, anyway?”
“Just the morning walk,” he replied with a shrug. “I guess you could say I came for warmth, too, but I think I’ve had enough for now.” Picking himself off the ground, Sam brushed some of the dirt off his pants. He then almost immediately sat back down, remembering a promise he had made to a girl just the day before.
“Actually – I’m wanting to know: have you made any plans for your upcoming adult life?”
A little surprised to hear the deputy asking such a question and slightly annoyed that he had to answer when his mind was still so fuzzy, Bailey almost hesitated to reply. “I have some thoughts,” he answered. “There’s nothing serious yet, since – since all I want to do is just hunt and guard things for the rest of my life.” He gave a shrug. “It might sound boring, but that’s what I wanna do and I’m already doing it.”
“I suppose that is fair,” Sam acknowledged. “But what about your family – the one you haven’t started yet?”
If Bailey were drinking something at that moment, he might have choked and coughed up whatever he had in his cup. “I,” he stammered, “I don’t know about that yet.”
“You haven’t thought about any of the girls lately?” Sam prodded, almost teasing. “You know, Amity Shafer turns fourteen today. She’s available and she’s skilled – been helping Macy since she was seven!”
Bailey pondered it for a moment. “I still don’t know about that,” he confessed. “I don’t talk to her much.”
“Then start talking to her! You already know where she lives, anyway.” At this point, the deputy almost seemed to go into a full-on uncle mode, filling the role that Bailey’s father could never fill himself.
For a moment, the only noise between Sam and Bailey was the occasional sizzling pop and crackle from the fire in front of them. It took longer than Sam kept track of for him to hear a heavy huff from Bailey.
“I’ll think about it.”
It wasn’t a confirmation, but it was at least something. Once again Sam picked himself up and cast a smile on the boy. “There you go! Just be patient with these things, alright? Anyway – let me know how things go if you ever decide to try it out with a lady around her; I’ve gotta get going.” With that small goodbye, Sam continued on his walk.
Of every tent he passed by, only one of them indicated consciousness – and that might have only been because somebody was talking in their sleep. He waved to the occasional guard he passed by, but otherwise the entire trek through was quiet, umbrageous – no words spoken other than the voices bouncing in his own head.
If he was correct, Shafer and the handful of scouts he supervised would be looking through the outskirts just east of camp – through what remained of Kortrik. The information Sam had received in regard to the passage was of great concern – hence he did not want anyone going down there just yet, no matter how much they thought they knew of the place. Hopefully this time they would listen.
But before he went to the outskirts, Sam needed to pay a visit to Macy’s tent. By now the woman was likely sewing up some of the children’s damaged clothes.
Beyond the medical and girls’ large tent, he made it over to Macy’s little shelter. Her silhouette perched atop the silhouette of a chair indicated to him that she was more than willing to have him come in. With that, he shook one of the tent poles before unzipped the front flap and stepping inside.
From the other side, the old woman cast a smile. “Well, hello Mister Deputy!” she said with a chuckle. “I take it you’ve come for the MDA?”
He let out a chuckle, himself. “You know it.” As he stood by, he glanced down at the pair of pants Macy held in her lap, its cotton well past its prime, with some holes puncturing through one of the legs. Near the legs, he noticed a disturbing amount of blood – as well as some patches Macy had tried sewing, though they did little to hide the bloodied clothing.
“I see you’ve taken an interest in Mira’s new-and-improved pants,” said Macy, an air of regret falling flat in her voice. “The girls really tried earlier to get these blood stains out, but it don’t look like they’re coming out now.”
“Oh,” Sam replied. “I guess if she doesn’t have any pants, that would explain why she covered herself in a blanket when I saw her.”
“Mm-hm!” Macy replied. “She and Esther are a bit weird, but it’s nothing to fret over – though Mira sure is an aloof one. Sort of reminds me of a man I used to know.” She held he gaze on Sam.
A little discomforted, Sam returned her gaze with a confused leer. “What – you mean me?”
Macy halfway rolled her eyes. “No, Sam; I said another man. Silly boy.”
Had he not known this woman all his life, he might have taken that as insult. “Cute,” he replied. “But anyway – I’ll just be taking the MDA if you’ve got it all charged up and ready.”
“Sure,” said Macy.
Without another word, Sam reached for the station where all the MDAs were stored – all twelve of them. It was the camp’s only means of communicating wirelessly with others – and the only way to do so without potential Autorian interference. Sam did find it odd that Macy was the one in charge of this tower, but that was likely not to last, as there were others who worked on the station more often than Macy did – where she was a mere host of its current dwelling.
Opening the flap at the front of the device, Sam booted the MDA on.
“By the way – when you see Shafer, could you tell him to come over when he’s done with the scouts? I need someone to watch the ladies in their tent.”
A little taken aback, Sam, eyes glued to his still-booting device, hesitated. “Watch them in their tent? Like, he’ll be watching them sleep?”
It sounded a little strange when said out loud, but Macy confirmed this. “Yes – just so we can be safe.”
He cast a look toward Macy and blinked, then shook his head and gave an amused roll of his eyes. “Well, alright then! I’ll tell him when I get there.” As he spoke those last few words, his device finally loaded beyond the boot screen.
It took a moment for him to load his messages – only to find that he had received new data from Director Persson (as to be expected) and a few others, but nothing from Shafer. Looking down the list, he didn’t receive confirmation that Shafer had even read his last message.
“Hey,” he began. “When was the last time you saw Shafer around here, anyway?”
“Oh – he’s been in the fields all night,” Macy replied, then hesitated to speak further. “I actually haven’t seen him since he first talked to the ladies.”
Sam blinked again. “Oh – oh God.” The last message he has sent was in regard to the passage. If Shafer hadn’t received the message, then – “I’ve gotta go.” In a hurry, he left the scene.
At this hour, most of Shafer’s scouts were probably still waking up. So long as Shafer wasn’t in a hurry to get things moving, Sam could stop the scouts from going down to the passage yet. The fact that Shafer wasn’t able to answer the message gave Sam more anxiety than he cared to admit. Returned message or no, he was not going to be responsible for their own men getting lost in the passage.
Going up over the hill and around the river, Sam peered here and there, trying to find any tents that the scouts had set up. It took a few minutes of running around for him to find them – and to find, to his relief, that a handful of people were awake, including Shafer.
The deputy gave a deep sigh as he made his way over. Not wanting to waste any time, he shouted for the man’s attention. “Is anyone down in the passageways?”
“The passageways?” asked Shafer. “You’re talking about the one those two women went down, right?”
By the time Sam could reply, they were already close enough that they no longer needed to shout. “Yeah – those.”
“No, sir,” replied the scout leader. “We’re thinking of doing it today, but we don’t have to.”
“Don’t,” Sam insisted. “I tried getting a message to you yesterday, but after talking to those ladies, I think it’s best that we all make some plans before we go down. There’s some things they told me about that they found down there which are really strange – stuff that I wouldn’t suspect would be there if the place has really been untouched for as long as you’d think it’s been.”
There was a flash of disappointment on Shafer’s face, but he did not protest. “Whatever you say, mister Deputy.” The last two words came out almost condescending. Shafer was fortunate that he had held his position as the scouting head for a longer time than even the Director had held a position in power; Sam’s predecessor wouldn’t have taken kindly to being talked to in such a way.
Shrugging Shafer’s mild sarcasm away, Sam attempted to back up his position. “Once the ladies wake up, I’m fixing to take Esther to Persson so we can get a few things settled, maybe even make plans for what to do when we get down there.”
“You should probably bring her into the passage at some point,” Shafer added. “Ask her about that place she went in. See that she didn’t uncover anything that might be a detriment to us. Maybe ask what the hell she found in that room in the first place.”
“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Sam admitted. “If we’re going to put this outsider to good use, may as well take the opportunity before she starts demanding more recognition or some form of compensation from the Director.”
Now awash with relief, Sam, now smiling, let out an elated sigh. “If we can get back to business, though: is there anything else you’ve found since yesterday’s storm? Nobody else wandering outside?”
“Nope – got no one out there. Just those two ladies and that was it.”
“I see,” Sam returned. “So now that you and the scouts aren’t going to be headed to that passage, are there any top-priority tasks for you to handle today?”
“Top-priority? Not really.” he shook his head. “Why’s that?”
“Macy has another task for you.” Half-expecting a groan on Shafer’s part, Sam paused after speaking, then continued when he received no such reaction. “She wants you to go into the ladies’ tent and watch them. Not just sit outside the tent, but actually watch them inside.”
Raising an eyebrow, Shafer hesitated to reply. “She wants me to watch two women while they’re sleeping.”
Sam pursed his lips. “Yeah.”
Hardy able to contain himself, the scout head cracked a smile. “Good thing I’m not a pervert. Sure – I guess I’ll do it. I take it that means you’ll be looking after the scouts once they wake up?”
“That’s the idea,” Sam admitted. “So I’ll come back in about two hours?”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Shafer nearly let the deputy go before he realized one more thing: “Oh, but before I forget!” he exclaimed, startling Sam as he took a device out of his pocket. He took a moment to flip the lid open and dial through, making sure what he had there was in order. With a nod, he closed the lid and handed the device to Sam. “If you could, I have a message that needs delivering.”
Back to Macy’s area for Sam, it seemed. “Is it another thing for the sujourne?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “We might be getting Rouken here soon.”
With that in mind, Sam almost felt the need to treat the device with more care than he otherwise normally would have. Slipping it into the inner pocket of his jacket, he acknowledged Shafer’s concerns. “I’ll make sure it gets there.”
With that, Sam wrapped up their meeting, taking a quick look through the messages in Shafer’s MDA once the man was out of eyeshot. There he found a new message saved as a draft:
I don’t have much to report for this week’s letter, other than to say that we made it to the remains of Kortrik and have set up camp. There are a few things that still need to be ironed out, but otherwise, we’re doing alright for ourselves.
The suspicious thing now is that right when we got things settled here, two girls from outside managed to find us. I don’t know if they were following us from somewhere or if it was just coincidence that they appeared when they did, but we haven’t seen anything else suspicious, which leads me to believe we will be alright for now.
So far we haven’t found anything in relation to those “highwaymen” you were talking about, but we might have just found a lead. One of the girls was actually someone we found in a passageway beneath the western side of the ruins. I’m planning on taking my scouts in there today. I’ll let you know what happens when we get in.
Sam closed the message with the mildest of confusion. This was the first time he had heard of these so-called highwaymen.
Did I just release two chapters within one week? I think I just did! Round of applause, cause holy shit!
Anyway — Discord is open for all. See you next chapter!