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