Mira must have been down here. Yet she wasn’t.
That robot that had died in her arms – he had to have been down here. Yet he wasn’t.
So Mírre was here – yet for some reason Esther couldn’t reach her. Suddenly Esther wished she had questioned the native robot before his untimely demise – to perhaps see what this Mother was that he had connections with. Who or whatever bore him certainly could not have been the same person or thing that bore her, yet he had insisted that such was the case.
Esther tried again to reach the Mother, but to no avail. The same Mother who had instructed her and her partner to cast themselves into the dangers beyond her walls was now denying her access to a supposed oasis beyond what she and Mira had considered home. More than anything the luocans had offered, foreign and heretical as they were, the Mother and her haven within this un-Autorian Domain gave Esther the greatest culture shock she could have anticipated.
Clearly this was not the Mother who presided here; if it were, she would have shown herself. The rudimentary robot and, she suspected, all the insectoid AI in these caverns followed the will of a false Mother, speaking in their false tongues so nobody could hear them.
Just as quickly as she had realized this, the noises in Esther’s head subsided, draining out of her until she returned to the quiet reality she had trapped herself in.
Esther looked again through the dusty door. The silence was all the noise she needed to hear.
Hoping to break the lock, the etternel pressed both hands against the door’s face. It wasn’t long before the locking mechanism snapped, making her plow through with little warning, her chest hitting the floor of the duct as she fell forward.
She could, fortunately, confirm that this place wasn’t infested with the bugs – nor was it infested with any intruding luocans. There were no blinking bright-blue lights, no chemical smell, no primitive speech synthesis. For the first time since her kidnapping, Esther felt some air of familiarity here.
Picking herself off her feet, he looked up and ahead, immediately noticing several running computers – all towers, none compatible with modern AI. She wondered if this was where the Mother’s call had come from.
The wooden floor creaked a little as she walked, making her wonder again if she was going to fall right through – or worse: be heard by someone who knew she wasn’t supposed to be here. When that didn’t happen, Esther rushed up to one of the computers – at which point the buzzing in her head returned, almost like a defense mechanism.
She flinched, looking every which way. Nightvision on, she scanned the area – yet still the bugs were nowhere to be found. She looked under a desk near where all the computers were, and still she saw nothing of the sort. Instead she noticed every one of the computers rumbled like the machines of old and were linked together, forming a supercomputer of sorts. Perhaps if these machines were capable of running a central AI, establishing their own pseudo-Mother, it was through easily-exploitable methods that the Domain had long since abandoned in its corporate days.
The buzzing continued as she turned to face a large monitor – which she proceeded to turn on. From there she noticed a lock screen which indicated to her that this daisy-chained machine was running some form of UNIX. Worst of all was the lock screen’s message: “Insert crypto key.”
If this were password-unlockable, then maybe Esther might have had a chance. Just to be sure, she attempted to look through the options available to her on the terminal lock screen – then immediately retracted once she touched the keyboard. The buzzing was even louder now than it was a moment before – as if her brain had been infested with bees and several static analog channels all going off at once.
The sound calmed once she pulled away. Then, as if the buzzing weren’t bad enough, she heard a loud squeaking noise from behind.
The noise made her whirl around immediately to the door. It was closed.
She blinked, then tilted her gaze down when she heard footsteps from the floor below her. Following this was a series of synthesized words:
“You are to remain in this room until the master arrives,” said the machine from earlier. Esther almost preferred the buzzing in her head to the cacophony the insectoid machine so proudly spouted from its software-automatic-mouth. Still she continued to listen. “He will explain everything once he is back.”
A distinctly human voice responded through a trembling voice, as if the speaker had been weeping. “When is he coming back?” asked Toni, completely oblivious to the etternel on the floor above her.
“He will come back in due time,” the machine replied. “He always does.” Without another word, the machines that had brought Toni here left the area, locking the door behind them. Their prisoner uttered no words.
Though the machines had left, Esther kept herself still for another minute, not sure if one of them had managed to sneak behind her back, slip under her nose, get the drop on her from above. When none of the scenarios in her head played out, she headed for the door which she had expected to open a moment ago, unlocked it, and made her way to a winding metal stairway – and trapped inside the orange-lit room was Toni, who looked up at Esther wish surprise.
“Miss Esther?” she asked, her voice low. “What are you –?”
Esther hushed her. “Get over here!” she hissed, beckoning the girl over.
Without hesitation, Toni did as commanded, only speaking once they were within whisper distance of each other. “What’s going on? What are those robots? Who’s the master?”
“I don’t know,” Esther answered for each one. “They kidnapped me, too. I don’t know what these bugs are or who’s controlling them, but they must not be very good at holding prisoners if we’ve already managed to find each other.”
Wiping the small traces of tears still left in her eyes, Toni sniffed and nodded. “That’s true. But…” She faltered, then inhaled sharply. “Never mind; I’m sorry. Just…God. Let’s go.”
As she lead Toni back into the terminal room from where she had come, Esther sighed. “I don’t know a way out, either – but there has to be something. I just got in this room before I heard you being dragged down there.”
“They didn’t drag me in there!” Toni retorted. “One of them literally ate me, rolled around a bunch, then spit me out so I could puke, and THEN they dragged me into that room like I was in time-out!”
“Be quiet!” Esther commanded, keeping her voice barely above a whisper. “We can’t let them catch us, so just stay quiet.”
Just like that, Toni calmed down. “I’m sorry…I’ll stay quiet.”
“Okay.” Both of them looked toward the monitor. “I want to see if we can get into this computer somehow. It’s missing some kind of key and it doesn’t seem to accept a password.”
Toni hesitated to reply. “Why do you care about that?”
“Because someone is clearly controlling these robots and I want to get to the bottom of it,” Esther said. “I was brought down to the tunnels to help investigate – and I’m going to do it even if I was never supposed to be down here in the first place. And if nothing else, this computer should at least have a map of this place so we can leave.”
But thinking on what she had just said for a moment, Esther realized she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the amount of data she wanted. The moment she laid her hands on the keyboard, the computer was going to overwhelm her with that same chaotic melody.
Still Toni did not see any need to argue against Esther’s claims. “I guess that makes sense.” But even with that in mind, she didn’t see the point of finding information beyond a simple escape route. Her concerns were unfounded on Esther, who pivoted toward the computer’s desk in an attempt to hack it, hoping she might find some kind of key somewhere here.
“Can you help me?” she asked. “I need some kind of key that will go into the computer so we can get past this lock screen.”
Toni agreed to help out, though she knew she wouldn’t be anywhere as useful as Esther was hoping. “Can we turn a light on first?” she asked.
“Not when those machines might think we’re their master,” Esther insisted. “Just pick up any drives you can find – whether they’re in desk drawers, on the floor, or wherever you’re looking. Just take them and give the ones to me with a flat, rectangular head.”
Without further question, Toni started rummaging through the area, as did Esther, trying to find anything that might have given them a way into the computer. Toni handed Esther the flat-headed USB devices whenever she happened upon them, but the rest she kept in her pockets. The girl came to realize how some of these devices could be used as weapons in the wrong hands, as her own hands had been punctured several times from grabbing a drive the wrong way or mistaking a pin for a drive.
“I think I found it!” Esther exclaimed, still keeping her voice down as she stuck the drive into the monitor’s USB port. Rather than immediately hang or tell her that the device was invalid, this time the lock screen showed some sort of loading icon. It took seconds for it to disappear and reveal the rest of the system. “Okay.” She looked back at Toni. “Let me look up some diagnostics for this place; we should find a way out in just a minute.”
Again she put her hands on the keyboard. Again she cringed as the buzzing grew to agonizing levels, yet completely passing under Toni’s radar as if attempting to dogwhistle Esther away from the desk.
As the woman scanned through the documents, Toni kept an eye on the door through which they had come, stilled her breath to listen to the slightest stirring, pointless as it was when the terminal behind her continued to stir.
Right in the home drive was a document with all the schematics of the place laid out in front of her. Esther went through every page, the images burning in her memory as they appeared. “Got it!” And right as Esther spoke, the buzzing seemed to slightly subside for a moment. From the relative silence came two barely-decipherable words: “Suspicious activity…” Esther practically leapt from her chair, ready to leave.
Reacting to the woman’s surprisingly energetic state, Toni flipped around to see Esther coming her way. Toni had barely a moment to ask what had happened as Esther grabbed her wrist and rushed them both out of the room. From there they walked through another door to a room they had not yet seen – and from then on they began their escape.
Much as she had when following behind Amity and Bailey earlier that night, Toni nearly tripped as she was dragged out, the drives in her pockets jostling, reminding her that she had not disposed of them. “What are we running for?” she asked.
It occurred to Esther she never explained herself. “I saw a message,” she said. That was true, though Esther’s implication was that the message had come from the terminal when it simply had not. “Sorry – I was probably getting worked up over nothing. We just need to get through a few rooms until we get to a ladder, then we’ll end up in the same kind of sewer area that I took to get to where the scouts are now.”
“And then what?” Toni wondered.
Esther paused. “And then we swim for it.” More than anything, she hoped this wouldn’t just result in her getting sick again.
Rather than rushing them through, Esther led Toni at a leisurely pace, peeking through each door carefully before stepping into the next room – and every time they did, they found that there was nothing to worry about. The buzzing had almost completely disappeared, leaving Esther in a serene state by the time they made it to one last door.
“The documents said this part only unlocks via a remote or from the other side of the door,” Esther explained. The wall in front of them was made of metal wires, giving her the impression that this would have been easier to pull apart than any of the barriers they had already passed.
Just to make sure she hadn’t missed something, Toni looked through her pockets of drives to see if she had managed to find anything – but to no avail.
“What are you doing?” Esther wondered. “Did you keep all those drives that you found in the other room?”
Toni blinked before answering. “Yes, I guess so. But none of these are remotes.” She hesitated. “Sorry; should I just throw them away, or something?”
Initially Esther thought that would have been the right thing to do, but she quickly second-guessed that. “Actually – hold onto them,” she replied. “We might need them once we get back to camp.”
“Do you think maybe we could pick that lock open with one of them?”
Judging by that comment, some of the drives must have been needle-like in design. Still, Esther feigned a chuckle. “I don’t think that will work. All we need to do is break the door open, which doesn’t look very hard.”
“Break it open?” Toni said, raising an eyebrow.
Though she realized she had probably said something out of line, implying herself to be something beyond normal human functionality, Esther ignored Toni’s inquisitive comment and stepped up to the wiry door. All the while Toni kept her distance, watching with interest as Esther dug her fingers through the fence’s orifices. It took a second, but with a little effort, Esther started pulling down on the infrastructure, popping the wires out one by one. All the while Toni noticed the way Esther’s struggle caused the muscles in her arms and legs to tighten beneath her clothes, almost as if they were about to rip through.
The last of the wires snapped out and Esther stepped back, needing a moment to catch herself. “There,” she said, gesturing to the hole she had just made. There were some metal bars along the frame, but the gap between them was large enough that Toni could fit through.
Realizing what Esther was gesturing about, Toni leaned down to crawl through the space. Just on the other side of the door she noticed a tall ladder; she tilted her nose in the air to look for the top, but as far as her eyes could see, there was no top. It was only when Esther spoke again when Toni snapped out of her trance.
“There should be a switch somewhere,” Esther explained. “Just a big one you need to flip to unlock the door.”
It didn’t take long for Toni to find the switch in question. Once she did, she flipped it up, causing the door in front of her to unhinge and fall on its face, as the lock was the only thing still holding it in its position. With that, Esther stepped through.
“Thanks,” she said. “Now – I think you should climb up first.”
Toni’s pupils dilated. “Me?” she asked, the color in her face draining.
“If you go up front, I’ll be able to catch you if something happens.”
The words “if something happens” did not leave Toni with the greatest confidence. “I don’t know…”
Esther sighed. “It’s either that or we don’t leave at all.”
Toni almost thought she could scream right there, but knowing what was potentially on the other side of Esther, she stayed quiet, took a deep breath, turned around, looked up again, and exhaled. Maybe there was an end to it and it was cut off by the darkness. She desperately hoped that was the reason for why she couldn’t see anything up there.
There was no further argument on Toni’s part. Both intruders started making their way up, barely saying a word to each other, barely looking anywhere than directly above them. Esther didn’t even attempt to remind Toni not to look down, knowing full-well what would happen if her reminder went ignored.
In a few minutes’ time, the two of them were almost completely submerged in darkness, making Toni want to freeze where she was, but still she continued on. Her arms and legs started to ache the slightest amount from all the work they were doing to keep her from plummeting to her death, but she said nothing, knowing that regardless of what she wanted, Esther wasn’t about to start walking back to the bottom now.
Soon the sound of rushing water accompanied the seemingly-eternal darkness that covered them. It wasn’t long before Toni started speeding up, adrenaline pushing her up with the knowledge that the sooner they left the area, the better. Esther followed suit, glad to see the girl finally picking up the pace.
Just when she felt her arms might pop out of their sockets, Toni made it to the surface, the sound of rushing water coinciding with the blood pumping through her ears. It took a moment for her to realize which sound was which.
Esther gave the girl a moment to recuperate before leading toward the ledge by the water. “Remember what I said about swimming?” Esther asked, glancing at the water at their feet, noting its otherwise calm flow, yet still nervous about dipping her toes into its body. “Time to start swimming.”