She didn’t know if the spot she was instructed to dig at was the best spot for a well – especially with all the activity happening underground. Still she continued to dig in spite of her ignorance toward the higher-ups’ intentions.
While she dug mud out of the ground, Faust gathered it up and proceeded to mold it into bricks for the well. Both of them were silent for much of the time they had spent outside, Esther knowing it wasn’t a good idea to complain about the task she was given while Faust was around. Faust was not of the same mindset.
“Do you know how many brick molds the other guys have out there?” he asked, half talking to himself as he flicked the grime off his hands. “I bet they haven’t got a shortage of molds at all!”
Esther wiped some of the dirt off her face. By now she was almost completely submerged into the hole, but she had yet to hit anything wetter than slushy mud. As it currently stood, she barely needed the provided ladder to climb out. “Do you want to switch places?” she suggested.
“No,” Faust grumbled.
They continued to toil in silence. Esther was careful not to chuck a shovelful of dirt behind her whenever she sensed his shadow looming overhead, Faust was careful not to lose his composure and drop an unfinished brick on Esther’s head – at least she assumed that was an urge he had to resist. Sam had done a good job instilling a sense of caution in her around this boy.
Sensing an overhead shadow once more, Esther waited for him to pass over the hole once again, only to remain still longer than usual when the shadow didn’t go away. “Do you need something?” she asked, turning her head upward to see not Faust, but a small cat. “Faust?” she said, wondering where the boy had gone.
“What is it?” he asked with a huff, his voice carrying in a direction opposite of where Esther was gazing.
“You aren’t allergic to cats, are you?”
“How about we let the cat stay here, then?”
“What in the hell are – oh, goddammit!”
Just when Esther was about to ask, she heard a grunt from Faust as he stepped toward the small animal. “Hey, don’t hurt it,” she cautioned.
“I make no promises!” With that, he stomped toward the kitten, making it pivot backward, but not retreat. He took another step – and again the cat refused to retreat, but instead frisked its way over to the other side of the unfinished well.
Esther flung another mount of dirt, careful to hit neither Faust nor the cat. “You’re going to make it fall down the hole if you’re not careful!” she said. But still Faust refused to listen, jumping over the hole to make the cat leave, only for it to follow the circumference of the hole once more.
“Honestly,” Esther sighed, tilting her gaze upward as she set her shovel down. She put both hands on her hips for good measure, making herself look just angry enough to come across as slightly annoyed, but not enough to appear furious. “Are you going to spend the rest of the day chasing that thing around?”
Faust snarled, his gaze switching back and forth between Esther and the cat, which proceeded to lick its paw. Perhaps realizing had no high ground in this argument, he huffed and returned back to his work. He kept his eyes on the cat before kneeling down to the unfinished bricks.
Hoping to keep things calm for the time being, Esther got on the tips of her toes and clicked her tongue. “Come here, kitty!” she spoke, her voice low as she reached a hand above her head.
The cat reeled back for a second, then smelled Esther’s hand. It then proceeded to lick her fake flesh as if tasting it. Esther almost took her hand back, unused to the texture of the tongue. In seconds, the licking turned into biting – hard biting. From there, the cat rolled on its back and, its teeth gripping Esther’s finger, proceeded to grab the rest of her hand with its claws.
This method of play quickly became less-than for Esther. “Okay, stop,” she said, as if the cat would understand. Using her free hand, she attempted to pry it away, but that only caused it to sink its claws deeper into her skin. “You’re going to—!”
Before she could finish, the cat let go, coughing uncontrollably as it got back on its feet. Esther, meanwhile, noticed the tiny animal had left a deep cut, causing a discomforting amount of blood to gush out. Esther was quick to squeeze her finger with her other hand before Faust could see – in which time it started clotting.
Expecting a snarky comment from the boy, Esther was surprised to find Amity had walked in to comment on the situation. “What the hell? Is it sick?”
“Probably,” Faust mumbled, barely paying attention.
As Esther pulled herself out of the hole, Amity continued walking past the dirty duo. “I recognize this little shit,” she said, her voice monotone. “Glad to see it’s pissed off even more people than I thought.” She continued walking, then wrinkled her nose when she saw how filthy Esther was. “Do I want to know?”
“It’s going to be a well,” Esther insisted. “Some people around here think we can get water from this well, instead of just going to the nearby lake.”
“It’ll be cleaner from a well,” Faust pointed out. “Assuming you don’t dig too deep and fall into the passageway.”
Esther rolled her eyes. “So, you know this cat, then?”
“You could say that,” Amity said. “Yeah, I know this roach.”
“Did it do something to you?”
“You could say that,” she repeated, taking her turn to roll her eyes. “Do you care?”
“It is allergies?” Esther wondered.
“No!” Amity groaned. “Good God.”
Esther almost wanted to recoil after being barked at like that.
Brandishing her emotions on her sleeve, practically unapologetic for every outburst or shed tear in the face of the slightest of triggers, Amity continued: “I’m just going to say it: you and your girlfriend need to back off and let me deal with my own drama! You’re both just oversheltered shut-ins who’ll never understand anything regular people have to go through. You wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t comprehend an inkling of what I’m dealing with now! Less than anyone else, you and your girlfriend haven’t had to grow up in a traveling shithole for the past fourteen years with only a distant uncle at your side!”
Faust sat by in silence, continuing his work as if nothing was being said. Esther stood by with the same level of silence, keeping her gaze eye-level even with Amity’s despite the height difference between them. With Amity being considered an adult, she had more control over herself than the average girl – and from what she had seen, the other girls back with Macy were much easier to read – but seeing her fall apart now with such a light breeze, any sense of control had vanished within seconds. Unfiltered, unfettered, Amity and Macy’s girls were the easiest people to read in the entire camp.
Amity boldly tilted her gaze upward as Esther attempted to calculate the best response she could, knowing full-well that almost anything she could say to Amity at this point was likely to backfire.
“You know, we are all concerned about you,” Esther began. “I know I haven’t been here long enough to have the fullest picture of what your leaders are planning or what life is like for you people, but nobody – myself, Macy, or Mira – wants this to negatively affect your development as a girl.”
Amity’s eyes widened at that last word. “Do NOT call me a girl!” she snapped. “And for the last time: fuck off or I’m going to send one of the girls over to watch every single finger-fuck you and your whore share in the tent together!”
Her outburst was enough to make even Faust cringe.
“At least I have something to show for what I’ve done as a woman,” Amity claimed, coming millimeters from stepping on Esther’s toes. “What have you got?”
From Esther’s backside, Faust scoffed.
Amity peered around Esther in a motion so sudden that she could have broken her neck if she wasn’t careful. She looked as if she were about to speak, but could do no more than glare at him. Whether because Faust’s gaze was starting to intimidate her or because she was afraid of saying something else she would regret, Amity walked her way past Faust, continuing down the path she had set. Meanwhile the black cat walked up to Esther, its ear twitching as if confused.
As expected, Esther ended up eventually needing the ladder. After throwing enough dirt out of the hole, she realized it would likely be much easier for her to start carrying dirt out by the bucketful, rather than throwing it straight out, where it had the chance of raining back down on her. Because Faust still had more bricks to craft, the job of fetching a bucket was left to Esther.
It came as a surprise when, after taking only a few steps out of the hole, Esther noticed the Director headed her way. Even more unusual: he had come on his own, without Sam, Shafer, or even a scout by his side.
“Director Persson?” she prompted, looking around his shoulder to make sure he actually was alone.
“Pleasure to see you again, Esther!” he greeted, stopping just in front of her as he held both hands behind his back. “I see you and the boy have been keeping busy.”
“Well, actually I was just wanting to come speak to you or someone else about a request I have.” With that, she wiped some off the dirt off her forehead with a sleeve, which only smeared more of the offensive substance on her skin. “Do you have a bucket we could borrow?”
Almost as if he hadn’t listened to her question, he gave her a cheeky smile. It was only after he said, “We should definitely have one,” when Esther was assured that he was at least somewhat paying attention to what she had to say. “I was meaning to give you something else, though.”
The coy tone of his voice made Esther want to brace herself for something obscene. “Is that so?” she said, voice monotone in spite of her expectations.
“Yes,” he said, stepping backward and away from Faust as he motioned Esther toward him.
Knowing this was not going to go well if she outright ignored the Director, Esther took the smallest of steps toward where he was going, but stopped there. “Can you please just tell me what you want to tell me? Here?”
Again he smiled, albeit with an air of protest. “You don’t mind if your friend hears it?” he asked, his eyes shifting to Faust for a heartbeat.
“We’re not necessarily friends,” Esther said, her voice low.
That was enough to elicit a chuckle from Persson. “In any event: I was wanting to let you know that I have discussed with other officials around camp, and we agree that we could benefit from having someone like you work close with the rest of us.”
“Work close?” she echoed. “What do you mean? What would I do?”
“The rest of us can fill you in,” the Director explained. “All you need to know for now is that we will have many tasks for you to take care of down in the passageway. We have discovered much about the generator and several of the machines underground thanks to your findings, but I believe we shall find even more with some help from yourself!”
His offer would have been enough to flatter the most humble of human outsiders. The opportunity to work with the highest authority in the area after only spending a weeks here seemed a high honor – and she wasn’t even with the sujourne. But as good as it sounded, she couldn’t ignore that this seemed all too convenient.
Biting her lip as she brought a fingertip to it, Esther blinked a few times before speaking again. “What exactly have I helped you find?” she inquired.
“Very many things, my dear – all of which will be discussed in the meeting later on!” the Director insisted. The way he said “my dear,” gave Esther just a slight bit more cause for concern. “I’ll be talking this over with all my other constituents after dinner today. We’ll all be in the main tent. I fully anticipate you being there!”
Several questions swam through Esther’s head, yet the Director seemed either completely incapable or completely unwilling to answer any of them. While she definitely had reason to be enthused by the opportunity to go even deeper into the operations at camp, she remembered what Sam had told her about the Director. If he went in too deep and left her with no escape, the results would have been immeasurably disappointing for him and the equivalent of a deathnail for her.
“Of course, you will be allowed to go down into the passageways in the meantime,” he said.
Halfway expecting someone to come and kidnap her while she was down there, Esther tilted her head, wondering how many human women would have started retching by now. “I see,” she responded. “But wait – you’re letting me go anywhere down there?”
“So long as it’s a place that the scouts have already gone,” he replied. “But of course, if you were to accidentally fall again and find more for us to explore, we’d be glad to see what happens, assuming you’re able to make it out again!”
“You still haven’t explored the whole thing yet?”
“Not even close, I’m afraid,” he chortled. “But I’m sure if you explain to the scouts what is going on, they will let you through all the same.”
“I see,” she said again. “Sorry. I’m just surprised by—” she paused, “all this opportunity.”
“You have given us a lot of opportunity, yourself!” Persson argued. “But, in any event, I must get going back.” The Director said not another word as he turned right back around the way he came, leaving Esther, dirtied up and mangled as she was, to watch by in silence.
“Hey – wait!” she called. “I still need to get a bucket!”
As if he couldn’t hear her, the Director kept walking.
“Let me keep it!” “What did we decide to name the little baby?” “Who cares? Get the thing in its mouth!”
The girls had been at this for nearly five minutes by now, and they showed no signs of stopping. Had there been anyone on the outside to listen, they would have noticed them coming very close to screaming. Instead the three of them clustered around in their corner of the tent, giving the black cat no way to escape as it held the drive in its mouth.
“It totally took that from me!” “It wasn’t yours in the first place.” “You know Miss Macy would want that back.”
Some more muttering – just loud enough for the passerby Mira to hear from outside. In the short time she had spent working on her flimsy leg, this was the third or fourth time she had had to stop and take a listen to a conversation in the tent – before proceeding to break things up before they got any worse.
“I need it!” “What are you going to do with it?” “Stick it into Amity’s MDA again?”
Mira could hear a sharp breath.
“I want it for a reason!” one of them shouted.
With that and the realization that these were the same girls who usually caused trouble in these kinds of isolated incidents, Mira took a step inside, careful not to tear the door right off. “What are you three arguing about now?”
All three of them froze. Surprised by Mira’s presence, they looked to have completely forgotten what they were fighting about. Mira wondered what they were expecting, wondering if they really thought nobody would notice their in-fighting and come inside to check it out.
When none of them responded, the cat in the corner let out a loud meow that made the girls flinch.
“Let that cat go,” Mira instructed. “And you,” she said, holding a hand out and directing her gaze to the girl with the drive. “Let me have that.”
At first the girls said nothing. Under Mira’s shadow, they scooted closer to each other, letting cat jump out of the way; it almost came as a surprise when it didn’t steal the drive out of the girl’s hand as it left. It took another moment before another one of the girls took the drive out of the other’s hand and hid it behind her back.
“You’re not getting it!” With that, she stood up, prompting the others to do the same. Though they were nowhere near Mira’s height, they made an effort to appear as if they were.
“It’s not yours!” “It’s three versus one!” “Try and catch it!”
There was a logical reason to believe she wouldn’t be able to get this drive by herself, but Mira wasn’t about to let that deter her. Shaking her head, she feigned a sigh. “You’re not going to win over me so easily.”
One of the girls blew a raspberry.
Mira crossed her arms. “Don’t be difficult.” One step at a time, she started to close the distance between herself and the adversarial trio. “You three do know what difficult means, right?”
“Back away!” “We’re not afraid of you!” “Miss Macy will fire you!”
“If any of you are going to grow up into proper women, you’ll need to stop the act.” The lack of a response told Mira that attempting to play with their sense of apeirophobia was not going to work. Still she continued to close in on them.
No response from the girls. By now they were all shoulder-to-shoulder, about to huddle up. Once Mira came within armsreach, they turned their backs to her, huddling so close that their faces squished together. They almost tried to shuffle where they were, making Mira temporarily lose track of which one had the drive.
“You!” Mira grabbed the one with the drive by the collar of her shirt. “Hand it over.”
Just when she thought she had her chance, the girl handed the drive over to one of the others, who proceeded to rush toward the exit, stopping only once Mira caught her by the collar, as well.
“Stop this game,” she insisted.
Flipping around, the girl returned a fearless gaze. More than anything, she seemed only mildly annoyed. She looked around Mira’s shoulder, stole a glance at one of the others, raised her hand, and threw the drive the other girl’s way – only to miss by a sizable distance.
The three girls attempted to scramble toward the drive. Their legs carried them as quickly as they could – only for them to fall short when Mira swooped the device off the floor. From there, they attempted to reach up and grab it from the woman’s hand, failing as Mira held the device high above her head, higher than any of them could ever hope to reach.
“Are you all done now?” Mira sneered.
“That was mine!” “Give it back!” “You call that a throw?!”
The brief unity they had held a moment ago crumbled before Mira’s eyes.
Mira sighed again. “Go on and play with the others.”
Their battle lost, their shoulders sagging, the three of them left the scene, but not without one last remark:
“Go play with your girlfriend!”
Which of them had said it was a mystery to Mira – but at this point, that was none of her concern.
Realizing she had effectively emptied the tent, Mira contemplated what to do with the drive. Almost immediately she could tell this was the same drive that Macy had taken out of the MDA earlier.
Wondering how the cat had managed to get its paws on the drive again, Mira gripped it in her fist, left the girls’ tent, and made her way back to her own, Esther’s absent as she usually was now.
She took a seat on the bed, examining the drive further. One of the ends was rounded and the other was what looked like USB. In the middle of the device was a ridge: an obvious link between two halves. Taking a risk, she pulled the device apart at the midsection, revealing a misajour connection combining them.
This was the same device that Amity was shouting about yesterday – the same one that she had plugged into her MDA. Mira had no idea where the device had been before that incident, how she got it, or what she had done with it, but the fact that it had been in Amity’s device in the first place was enough for her to seriously consider using it.
Now that those three girls had supposedly gone off to play with the others, Mira was the only person still occupying this district of camp – and so she would remain until at least the end of the day. Unless any of the girls were feeling particularly rambunctious, it was unlikely someone would barge inside now.
Mira got off her bed and walked over to the medical supplies. She was quick to find a scalpel.
She paused. A quick step outside, a quick scan, she confirmed no one was nearby – and promptly pulled herself back inside. Scalpel in one hand, drive in the other, she tilted her head up, rested her palm on her collarbone, and dug the blade of the scalpel through her pseudo-dermis.
Like a pen trailing down paper, the drove the scalpel downward, her synthetic blood pouring out like ink. Using little more than the blade tip, she felt around for the misajour port. Careful not to jab it with the blade, she wiped some of the fluid out of the way, attempting to leave only the metal connector visible. Once certain she could get a clean connection, Mira paused, looking down, making absolute sure she had the correct position.
This was nothing at all like using a collar. Nothing about what she was doing was clean or quick – and by the time she realized this, enough blood had poured from her neck, poured onto her hands, that by now if someone walked in, there was no reason for them to not believe she had just killed herself.
And yet silence comprised the entirety of the outer milieu.
Mira drove the device into her misajour port. She blinked a few times. An influx of information came pouring in all at once for the first time in far too long. In milliseconds, the data flooded in at a rate greater than any human could comprehend. After so long, something about it felt, in a word: nice. It was the closest she had come to experiencing tranquility – and all without a direct connection to Rélhum. The task of reading the drive overtook every cycle in Mira’s processor – and before she could begin to read through the value in the raw data, everything flashed to black.
Her body went limp as, drive jutting out of her red-stained neck, she fell forward, onto the medical supplies, and rolled over onto the ground.
I think it’s about time I put a hard deadline for every new chapter. So starting now, expect to see new chapters every two weeks.
And of course, as always, the Discord is open to all!