Infiltration Part3.8 – Yes or No

If she saw that cat again, necks would be snapped. Amity’s mental state was such a mess that she didn’t think to put on her mask before stepping into the archives, focusing instead on keeping herself composed as she made her way in, only for her to completely fall apart the moment she shut the door behind her. At the same time she slammed the door, making dust fall around her, she let out a loud moan that nearly evolved into a full-on scream until Bailey rushed over to catch her in a tight embrace – at which point she then proceeded to let out muffled screams into his jacket.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he told her, running a hand through her hair as she shook where she stood. “Don’t even worry about it.”

She muttered something incoherent into his jacket. He nodded, most likely only pretending to understand.

For a moment they stood there in each other’s arms, almost entirely silent, Amity making the tiniest of whimpering sounds every time she shook.

After what felt like half an hour, Amity finally spoke something coherent. “I don’t get it…”

Bailey pulled back slightly as if to ask for her to clarify what she stated, and so she continued.

“I just blew up again.”

“Again?” He said it as if he was still not used to her having these tantrums.

She pulled back. “Yes, again!” She sniffed and wiped her eyes – and just when it seemed she was about to loosen herself out of his grasp and walk back out the door, she let out a long sigh, bumping her head against his shoulder as more tears threatened to drip out of her.

Her head spun and pounded in a rhythmic fashion, a metronome to the chaotic composition playing out in front of her, striking her with fortissimo in her most silent of moments, ramming her head into a crashing end so she could wander into her next crash before the cycle repeated again. The fiercer the pounding grew, the more cumbersome it became to speak full sentences, to think full thoughts. In enough time, the beating grew to such a level that performing the most basic of motor abilities did not come without some kind of struggle.

Amity took another shaky breath as Bailey, still masked, looked down to see he cheeks still decorated with tears. “Do you really feel that bad about it?” he finally asked, making her jump where she stood.

“Women aren’t supposed to throw tantrums,” she mumbled, pressing her cheek against his chest. “But if I don’t stop whining about why I’m not a good woman, then I’ll never be that person I want myself to be.”

“If you want to call it a tantrum, then go ahead,” Bailey offered, prompting no response from Amity. “I’m really sorry today’s sucked so bad.”

Shortly after he spoke, all the sobbing and sniffling stopped. “I’m sorry you have to give emotional support to someone who’s supposed to be older than you.”

“You’re not that much older,” Bailey reminded her. “And I’d probably be a huge hypocrite if I didn’t want to give emotional support, anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is: who goes into a relationship with anyone and doesn’t expect to support them? Cause that’s not me.”

Not looking him in the eye, Amity nodded. “You don’t think it’s unrealistic for someone like you to take care of me?”

The way she spat in saying that one word almost made Bailey recoil, but he held firm, standing tall before her. “Not even a little.”

Again she rested her head on his body without thinking about it, unsure what to say. “And you want to take care of me?”

“Yes.”

Still she remained silent, her eyes wandering to look anywhere except Bailey’s gaze. It wasn’t until she felt the skin of his hand touching her chin when she looked up, only for her eyes to immediately close as he reached in to kiss her.

It lasted only a moment and they split apart again. “Feel any better?” he offered, slipping his mask back over his face.

“Maybe,” she replied. “I’m still pissed about losing all my work. All those stories are just gone now.”

Bailey looked around them, laying witness to all the grime and paper still littering the place. “Well, hey,” he began. “At least you can rewrite all the stuff your uncle told you to write in here. None of the original documents got thrown away or anything, right?”

Again Amity nodded. “That’s right – they weren’t.” For once she finally smiled – not from elation, but from relief that at least there was something that this situation with Toni’s drive did not completely destroy.

By now she couldn’t even focus anger on Toni – unless she wanted her fury to boil up until it turned into full-on resentment toward the girl. But Amity knew that wasn’t fair at all. Still she didn’t understand what Toni thought she was doing when handling that MDA, or why she thought it was okay to touch it. Something like that almost seemed more like something Cynthia would do.

“I guess I should get back to copying things,” Amity said. “Again.” And just when it looked like she was about to step back, she pulled the mask off her boyfriend’s face and came in for another kiss, and then another.

The already-stuffy room seemed to grow hotter as the two of them enjoyed their first peaceful moment together in what felt like months. For a moment, none of the drama surrounding their meetup today didn’t matter; the fact that Amity had walked in screaming didn’t matter; the bumps they had had when speaking with the Director didn’t matter. And that was all it was: a moment.

“Hello.”

In one quick motion, the two of them pulled away, Amity letting out a surprised shriek that vanished just as quickly as it had come.

Standing before them was an upright, bipedal, humanoid machine unlike anything the two of them had seen in motion. It held a wiry hand on the door, its twig-like legs somehow holding its metal body up with little problem. Its face was blank, safe for two round circles for eyes and a straight line for a mouth.

“I have been told to alert you to our presence,” the robot continued. “Some of us are walking and talking as we once did, thanks to the efforts of a group of boys within these tunnels.”

Before the robot could continue, one of the boys – whom Amity did not immediately recognize – stepped in. “Sorry about that,” he said, nudging the robot to return to the door through which it had come. “We just got some of these things running again and we lost this one.”

“Wait – seriously?” Bailey asked. “How many did you get done?”

“Just three, working on the fourth,” the scout replied. “They found some torches or something; you might wanna look at it, Bailey.” With that, the scout closed the door behind him, following the robot to wherever it was headed.

For the moment following, Amity and Bailey kept themselves quiet – the uncomfortable kind of quiet.

“Should we go?” Amity asked, looking at Bailey from the corner of her eye.

He didn’t initially respond. She was about to ask why when she screwed her face up, and then she and Bailey both sneezed. After a week of working in here, this room hadn’t become any easier to breathe in.

“Yeah,” he said, sniffling. “Let’s get out of here.”

Esther decided to take a moment to watch the fire near the middle of camp before she headed back. A few kids were gathered around it – but at this time of day, there was little reason for most to sit near a fire unless they were very susceptible to the slightly-chilly weather.

It came as a pleasant surprise when the kids at the fire recognized Esther and gave her a little wave, to which she waved back, they engaged in smalltalk, and Esther went on her way. It was nice to see that they were still completely unsuspecting. She began to wonder if any of them knew about her new level of authority in this place, and if that level of authority would have affected the way they thought of her.

Perhaps that didn’t matter. As long as the higher-ups in this place liked her, it ultimately didn’t matter what the girls thought. So would also be the case with Mira.

It had been awhile since Esther last took this route back home – but once she was within the vicinity of the tent she had come to call home, she was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see nobody else was nearby. With that, she turned toward her tent and walked inside.

“I’m back,” she said, opening the flap. “A lot just happened, so—”

If Mira were simply not here, that would have been fine. If she were simply not in her bed, that would have been better. Instead of either of those scenarios, Esther found her partner lying on the floor, eyes wide open and devoid of any activity as a scalpel laid on the floor, just out of her reach.

Immediately Esther wanted to send a signal to e4-f85. As she bent down to Mira’s side, she began to wonder if her partner has somehow managed to develop a cruel sense of humor from the people here – but eventually she realized the reason for Mira’s strange behavior was due to a drive sticking out of her neck.

“Oh, no,” Esther whispered, wondering if Mira could hear despite being completely inactive. “Okay,” she continued. “I’m going to pull this out, okay?”

Mira did not respond.

Esther grabbed a hold of the drive, noticing how the skin of Mira’s neck around the drive had healed completely by now, though this didn’t change the fact that Mira’s hands were covered in synthetic blood. Pulling against the newly-formed skin, Esther yanked the device out of Mira’s body, examining it to see that it looked identical to the very same drives Esther found in the passageways with Toni. She knew immediately that this was going to be something she needed to hold on to.

Stealing a look back at Mira, Esther put the drive in her pocket. She stood on her knees as she examined to see any signs of life – and received a sign when Mira blinked. In another second, some dim light radiated from her irises, only to fade away just as quickly, at which point she proceeded to start setting herself upright, looking here and there before landing her eyes on Esther – as if she couldn’t immediately tell where Esther was.

“Can you hear me?” Esther said.

Rather than respond, Mira stared in silence, blinking occasionally as Esther attempted to get an answer out of her. Perhaps out of desperation, Esther tried waving a hand at Mira.

Mira’s eyes widened, as if bewildered – as if she had never seen a human hand before. Speaking no words, she pulled out her own hand, looked down at it, paused, then grabbed a hold of Esther’s, intertwining her fingers as she did so.

Both women were silent for completely different reasons – and Mira’s reason made no sense to Esther. “What are you trying to do?” she asked.

Mira responded with the last answer Esther would have expected: “Yes!”

“Yes?” Esther said. “I didn’t ask you that kind of binary question.”

Like an excited child, Mira started moving her hand about as she gripped it tighter – almost to the point it would have hurt a normal person, almost like the recently-fallen gynoid didn’t know her own strength.

Esther attempted to slip her fingers out from Mira’s, and every time she thought she was successful, Mira would just grab onto her hand again just as tight as before. “Something is definitely wrong here,” she said. “Please tell me this is some kind of a joke.”

Mira tilted her head. “No?”

“No?” Esther echoed. “Well, at least you understand that.”

Mira shook her head. “No.”

“Can you say anything other than yes or no?”

For a moment, Mira thought on it. “No.”

“Interesting.” Knowing that the least she could do was clean up the mess Mira had left behind, Esther went into the nearby medical supplies and proceeded to place the scalpel back with the others and fetch a cloth that she then gave to Mira. Rather than use the cloth for its intended purpose, Mira looked up at Esther with a confused stare. “Yes?”

“Clean your hands,” Esther said.

Looking down at her hands, Mira blinked, then gasped. “No!” she shouted, scooting away as if she could escape from her own hands. She ended up scooting far enough back that she hit her head on the medical supply tray, nearly causing some of the sharp utensils to fall out of place.

It was enough to send Esther into a panic of her own. “What are you doing?” she shouted back. “What happened?”

By now the cloth was on the floor, on the other side of the tent as Mira had kicked it away in an attempt to escape from her dripping, bloodied hands.

“No!” Mira shouted again, practically hyperventilating as if she needed as much air as she was taking in.

At first Esther wanted to ask why Mira was acting the way she was or how she even could possibly think that the amount of fluid she had lost was as bad as she was making out, but she was more distracted by the fact that, for the first time ever, she had witnessed true fear from her partner.

Crouched down to Mira’s eye-level, Esther grabbed a hold of both Mira’s wrists, resisting as she attempted writhing about where she sat. “You understand that isn’t real blood, right?”

Mira squeezed her eyes shut, looking like she didn’t want any part of this situation – didn’t even want to be in the same space as Esther. She sniffed and opened her eyes to see Esther looking intently into her eyes with a stare so deep – yet so empty – that it almost burned to look back.

Realizing did not comprehend a word she had just said, Esther repeated herself: “You know that isn’t real blood. Right?”

The distressed gynoid hesitated to say what little she was able to, looking at her hands to see they were balled up into fists. She opened them up to see her palms were still bloodied – all the while Esther kept as tight a grip on Mira’s wrists as she could. Summoning the will to look back at Esther, Mira pointed at herself and said a new word: “Killer?”

If the weight of the situation hadn’t already dawned on Esther, it had now. Mira had forgotten much more than just her vocabulary. The fact that she had to ask if she was a killer was enough to prove to Esther that her partner had completely forgotten everything.

“No,” Esther said simply.

Mira sighed, then smiled and gave a quick nod, looking over at the cloth she had dropped. Esther proceeded to pick up and hand over the cloth, at which point Mira wiped her hands clean of the mess she had unknowingly caused.

“Do you know why you can only say yes and no?” Esther asked. “Or killer? Why were you able to say killer when the only things you’ve said so far are yes or no?”

To that, Mira had no answer – not even a shrug.

“But do you know why we’re here?” Esther asked.

Mira narrowed her eyes. “No?”

Esther was blunt. “This is not good. We can’t continue our mission if you don’t remember anything, so let me explain.” From there, Esther proceeded to look into her OS for the document they were both briefed with before they had left the Domain – and more-or-less read the document verbatim, as well as explain all the context surrounding it, what had happened since their arrival to this camp, why Mira’s leg was a bad as it was, and even the more recent things that Esther was just about to tell her before she found her partner practically dead on the floor.

“Do you understand all this?” Esther finally asked after her drawn-out explanation.

Mira seemed to struggle to respond, as if unsure what to say, as if not knowing what the truth of the situation really was. “No?” she said.

“Okay,” Esther began. “But do you at least understand most of it?”

Again Mira paused, bringing a finger to her lip, then giving in with a nod. “Yes.”

“Good,” Esther continued. “Now I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with these girls, but it’s best to be friendly w—”

We got Oliver!

Three girls barged into the tent, the sound of their giggles mixing with that of terrified yeowling from the kitten in their hands. While they came in laughing, they were surprised to see Esther and Mira on the ground, and not by the bed or even just standing up.

What are you two doing?” “Is this what the nasty is?” “Should we tell Miss Macy?”

“No, it’s not that,” Esther explained. “Mira just fell down and I needed to explain a few things to her.”

Look, we got the cat!” one of the girls exclaimed, holding it above her head as it squirmed for escape.

“You two should put that cat away,” Esther instructed.

“Yes!” Mira added.

No one asked you!” the girls said in unison, prompting Mira to lean back where she was.

Holding a hand over her mouth, Mira struggled to say anything in response. She turned her head to Esther and asked again: “Killer?”

What?!” the girls shouted. By now the cat in the middle of this was biting, scratching, doing anything it could to escape, and failing to so do.

Mira pointed at the cat. “No!” She pointed at the tent flap. “No, no, no!”

Two of the girls stuck their tongues out at Mira. Again Mira covered her mouth, flaring her nostrils and clenching her jaw as she caught herself in a loop of clear contemplation.

In a quick motion, Esther picked herself on her feet, standing nearly twice as tall as the three of them. “You three need to leave now!” she projected. “Never go into other people’s homes – especially if all you’re going to do is bother them.” When the three of them seemed to freeze, Esther stated: “Get out. I mean it.”

And for the first time as far as Mira was concerned, the girls showed a genuine spark of fear – and with that, they turned tail and left to carry the cat elsewhere.

As soon as she was sure she couldn’t hear them anymore, Esther gave a hand to pull Mira back on her own feet, which Mira accepted without a word.

“Anyway,” she said. “It seems your biggest problem right now is just an inability to communicate. But don’t worry; I’ll see if I can find some way to fix it. Just trust me.”

Mira nodded, smiling. Seeing Mira smiling was sure to throw some of the luocans off, considering how little she did it. It certainly didn’t look natural to Esther.

While Esther definitely wanted to help Mira communicate like normal again, there came the problem of amnesia and her cognition in general. If Mira were to come face-to-face with a luocan after her vocabulary was restored, the odds of her saying something detrimental to their mission was almost too high for Esther to risk. After she had finally made a major step in their infiltration, Mira’s step backwards was large enough to almost eradicate any progress they had made.

Despite knowing the dangers that would have arisen if they were to rebuild Mira’s library, Esther said nothing on the matter. “Do you trust me?” she said instead.

Another nod. “Yes.”


Been making some changes irl, but hey — that doesn’t mean production has to slow!

Infiltration Part3.7 – Ksondelet

Knowing the Director and considering all the people gathered up here, Esther might have thought Persson was celebrating his own made-up holiday, were she not already invited beforehand. She almost expected to see Macy, Mira, some of the girls, maybe even Amity; instead, few of the people in the area were people whose names she cared to recall. Among them, a select few were stationed to stand around the entrance.

Almost standing at attention, Sam turned his head when he noticed Esther coming toward him.

“Esther?” he began. “Do you know what kind of meeting this is?”

“I think I do,” she replied, albeit wary, peering over his shoulder to get a glimpse at what was going on inside. To her surprise, he didn’t seem to try blocking her view. “I was invited by the Director.”

“Invited?” He almost seemed to wince when he spoke. “This is only for a select few people.”

She paused and looked over his shoulder again, only for him to step forward, moving her slightly back.

“Look, I’d like to let you in, but I find it hard to believe the Director—”

“Oh, Sam—!” the Director called, beckoning. “She’s allowed in; let her in!”

Again Sam shot a look at Esther, then turned his head to the Director to make sure he wasn’t hearing those words out of someone else’s mouth. Yet there the Director was, looking back at him and Esther as normal.

“In a minute,” Sam shouted back.

In a hushed voice, Esther spoke up. “Is something wrong?” she asked – at the same time she and Sam stepped away from the entrance so that the Director could not see them. “Didn’t the Director tell you?”

“He must not have,” Sam replied. “Because I have no idea what you’re talking about. What did he say?”

“He said I’m now allowed in the passageways whenever I want, and that I have to show up to this meeting.”

Sam’s reaction when she was talking was all the evidence she needed that the Director had lied to her when he said all the other officials on the camp knew she was allowed. If his second-in-command didn’t even know, odds were slim that anyone else in this district of camp knew about her new privileges.

For a minute, Sam seemed to struggle to think of a response at all – then gave in with a grunt. “The fact that he didn’t tell me about it is inexcusable.”

“I’m sorry,” Esther said. “I really thought you knew.”

“He really seems to be treating communication like a joke,” Sam commented. “But fine – if he says it’s okay that you’re allowed in, then—” He sighed, as if about to say something he really wished he didn’t have to. “—then I guess there is nothing I can do about it.”

Sam was just about to step back where he was when Esther spoke again. “Are you worried?” she asked. He shot a look back at her when she continued. “Because I’m worried.”

Though he seemed to have a good idea what her fears were, Sam pushed her to say them out loud. “Worried about what, Esther?”

Eyeing the Director as he minded his business in the tent, Esther leaned in toward Sam. “What he wants me to do after the meeting is over.” She continued to glance his way, noticing how he seemed to be the most jovial person in the tent – almost like he knew something or was being treated to something nobody else could ever know.

Without even looking back, Sam noticed it, too, and let out a shaky sigh. “Well, listen – you’ve proven to be a formidable woman since you’ve come here.”

“So, what? If he does what we think he’s going to do, are you expecting me to –” She hesitated on the next phrase, as it was not something she thought she would ever say. “—kick his ass if he tries something?”

“Don’t kick his ass.” Though as he said that, Sam couldn’t help smiling a little. “Just be firm with him, and get out of there before things go too far south. You can at least be rest-assured he’s never tried having his way with someone without their consent, but I don’t want someone to be the first.”

Clearly Sam was distressed that he had to even tell Esther this information, that this information was something that needed to be highlighted in the first place – but the fact that that was all he could do to resolve the issue made her ask: “Why don’t you have someone else as Director if the one you have is now treats all women so poorly that you feel the need to warn them beforehand?”

Sam did not respond.

“You can’t answer me? Say something, Sam!” Esther demanded, coming so close she nearly stepped on his toes. From an outside perspective, it almost looked as if she were coming in for a kiss.

Maybe it was the tension in her eyes or maybe it was the nuclear energy radiating from her core, but Sam clearly wasn’t comfortable with her standing so close. He probably would have stepped backward if stepping backward didn’t mean potentially ruining a part of the tent’s frame – but now with Esther up in his face, the most he could do was nudge her to back away.

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” he inquired. “Or are you coming onto me?”

“I don’t know. Which option do you think would work best against the Director?”

“I told you already: don’t try anything with the Director,” Sam said with a sigh. “Just leave. Once he’s done speaking, leave before he can talk to you. Either way, you didn’t get any ideas from me.”

Esther narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t get it from you?” she began. “But you just told me –”

“It’s an expression, Esther,” he interrupted – and now that he had caught her off-guard, Sam nudged her even further away: far away enough that he could no longer feel her breath on the skin of his face. “Please just go in. I’m sorry to have held you.” His words held the slightest edge of venom in them.

Now inside, Esther noticed there were few chairs available for her to sit at. Once she took her seat, it wasn’t long before Persson – as well as Shafer, Rouken, and a few others – proceeded with their meeting.

Director Persson spoke first, standing tall with both hands behind his back, bisecting himself in and almost-rhythmic fashion. “Now that we’re all here, I’d like to call your attention to a few key things that we have been studying in the passageway and out in the fields of Kortrik,” he said, his voice carrying well over everyone’s heads. “The most important of these things we have discovered include the bug machines, and the body that the boy and Miss Esther found outside.”

It took Esther a moment to realize who the boy was supposed to be – and once she did, she took a look around to notice that, surprisingly, he wasn’t there. Maybe that was for the best.

“To begin with the bug machines,” the Director continued. “Shafer?”

It was only after directing her attention to Shafer when Esther noticed he was standing in front of something, though she couldn’t quite make out what. Initially she had suspected it was part of a screen that would then have images projected on it, but such thoughts were challenged when she started debating whether or not luocans even had access to such technology. The fact that there were still no overhead projections seemed to answer her curiosities.

“Since the kidnapping last week, there have been no further conflicts with the bugs down in the passages,” Shafer explained. “For those of you who haven’t seen these bugs: here is what they look like.”

With little hesitation, Shafer reached a hand behind him, revealing a figure cloaked in a sheet, which he proceeded to lift off from its body. There in the place of the sheet was one of the very same bugs Esther had encountered before splashing down into the depths of the passages. She heard a few gasps from the people around her and she almost stood up when she saw the machine, then paused when she realized it was stationary.

“This is one of the machines we found within the passageways on the same day Toni was captured,” he began. “Based on what we have observed and what we have heard from eyewitness accounts, there is reason to believe that maybe a hundred or more of these machines are working on something deep within the passageways – but what they are working on, we still don’t know.

“We have yet to face one these in combat, and even my scouts who saw one of these things alive couldn’t get a shot at it.” With that, he took another step toward the machine, its round body folded into a shell, the top of its body high enough to reach Shafer’s sternum. “It has several lights on its body, but no clear use for any of them; our guess is that it’s used as a method of communication, like with bioluminescent lights.”

Esther had to silently disagree on that matter. Aside from the yellow bug, none of them seemed to communicate outwardly at all – and even if they were, there was no reason for them to use lights. The Mother’s aura, however inexplicable, was present, but she couldn’t reach it – and if all those machines had managed to hear in the depths of the tunnels was the same static noise that blared in her head, they surely would have lost all ability to function as a unit.

Lost in her thoughts, she had almost missed when Shafer started tearing the machine apart. Clearly somebody had been doing work on it.

“There is an empty compartment here,” he stated, pointing to a metal plate at the bug’s front side. “We still don’t know what was here, but our guess is that it was used to house something organic.” Before anybody could ask why or how this was the case, he reached a little deeper and revealed a series of cables. The tips of them were neither USB nor misajour, but almost needle-like – more similar to auxiliary ports than anything else. “Until we find a live one, we won’t have any way of knowing what was in here.”

Shafer continued with his explanations, proceeding to unfold some of the machine’s mandibles – some of which were used for grabbing things in a way a crab would, and two of which were tipped off with torches. Some people in the audience seemed to find it amusing how Shafer had no explanation as to why these machines would need torching devices, but commented on how the torches did not look like they were put there naturally.

“It’s as if they were an afterthought,” he said. “Most of the other pieces needed to be worn down a bit before we got them to unhinge or come off, but not these.” And sure enough, he managed to pull one of the torches off with ease, pointing to a clip at the bottom so everyone could get a look – at least as good a look as they could all get from where they sat. All it took was the pressing of two buttons for the torch to come off.

“It’s clear to me that the weapons on these things’ mandibles were made to be modular.”

“Looks as if they were purchased from some capitalists!” Persson mentioned, his voice so high-spirited that it practically halted the entire meeting for a moment. Some in the audience were surprised by his remark; Shafer more-or-less seemed indifferent.

Shafer shrugged. “It’s possible,” he replied, “but we won’t know for sure. I was expecting to have a list of electronic documents ready to examine by this point, but there were some technical difficulties and we still don’t have anything yet.”

After staying silent for what felt like at least fifteen minutes, Rouken finally spoke up. “And where do you believe they could have gotten these machines from? Or these modular parts?” He paused as Persson did not immediately respond. “Are you insinuating they have some kind of connection to New Crawford?”

Just when it looked like Persson was about to speak up, Shafer chimed in again. “We’d know that if we had the documents,” he grunted, clearly annoyed about the issue. “I can promise you now we’ll have them ready by next week.”

“Oh, right –!” Persson chuckled. “That was your niece’s responsibility, yes?”

Shafer rolled his eyes. “Let’s move on.

“Like I said: the machines use modular parts for the torches and it’s possible there are spare units deeper inside than we’ve currently looked. We’ve tried looking into this machine to see if there were any clues as to where those might be, but we have found nothing. And even now we’re uncertain how we can tap into the machine’s operating system.”

Esther began to wonder what operating system this machine used in the first place. She had serious doubts about it using anything similar to CybICS: the same system that powered her own intelligence. She didn’t want to take a chance and find out, even though she likely had the ability to – meanwhile the luocans would have done anything to get the data out, but had no ability to do so.

Again the Director interrupted the conversation. “Oh, one other thing about the machines before I forget!” he exclaimed. “I have come up with a name for them, based on their bug-like appearance. I call them: Ksondelet!”

Most of the tent was silent for the moment following the Director’s announcement.

“Interesting name, I guess,” Shafer commented. “But if we’re going to be calling them that: that’s most of what we know about the Ksondelet, for the time being. Next time we meet, as I said, we’re going to have plenty more to discuss.”

Once again the room went silent as Shafer stepped aside, putting the parts of the Ksondelet robot back where they all were before his part of the presentation. At the same time, Rouken picked up something he had been hiding behind the Director’s desk, hoisting it with ease and bringing it down on the desk with a thud, making Persson jolt when he did.

“Here is the body we found a few days ago when excavating the ruins outside,” he began. “I had Tarren, the youngest of my team, look deep into this – and while he wasn’t able to fully make out its system or where it had come from, we have reason to believe this body is Autorian in origin.”

Esther remained completely lip-tight on the issue, pursing her lips just to prevent any unwarranted words from escaping. As if by instinct, she covered her neck with her hand when Rouken pointed toward the misajour port on the headless body.

“This is the same port that all Autorian systems use for universal communication,” he continued. “The fact that it has this mark proves, without a doubt, that this came from the Domain – and that the Domain was here at one point. The big thing on our minds now is that there must be more Autorian systems here, yet this is the only thing we have found here so far.”

The undercover Autorian almost wanted to consider herself lucky – yet at the same time, the fact that there was only one true trace of Autorian technology was more than a little confusing. She remembered the letter she had found from sixty years ago and how it had talked about converters, but even that was referring more to power converters and neo-actinides than it was to anything having to do with the misajour format.

“We can at least safely report that Faust did not suffer any lasting damage from whatever remained of this body’s radioactivity,” Rouken continued, then took a look toward Esther. “And from what I can tell, nobody has suffered radiation sickness of any kind.”

For much of the rest of the meeting, some of the speakers Esther didn’t know gave general reports of what was happening in the passageways – all things she cared very little about. It wasn’t until Shafer stood in front once more when something else was said that caught her attention – and perhaps not for the right reason.

“Director?” he began. “Don’t you remember the reactor we were looking at?”

Persson responded with an almost half-awake look about him. “Reactor?” he repeated. “You refer to the noisy generator, yes?”

A disturbed look glazed over Shafer’s eyes. “Yes,” he replied.

“Oh, well, go ahead,” he said, beckoning Shafer to move on, though he kept his gaze away from the scout leader’s.

With that, Shafer began. “We have found a lot of old robots lying around the same floor where the reactor is,” he began. “And some of those robots have been worked on by the scouts. We even managed to get some of them to walk around the facility, which is probably what they were originally doing in the first place.”

All while Shafer explained, Esther realized that the Director seemed to be eyeing her – and for what reason, she couldn’t tell, nor did she want to know. He wasn’t smiling at her or enjoying her looks for his own personal reasons (as far as she could tell), but it still bothered her. Yet she didn’t know what to be more bothered by: his potential lust toward her, or the fact that he treated the reactor and its potential detonation – a fear she and many in camp had – with such a hand-wavy attitude as to be completely inconsiderate of the topic at all.

The most Esther got out of this talk regarding the reactor was that Shafer was waiting on more notes to come out their excavation. That, in addition to the work being done on the androids, would lead to all the answers – at least as far as he was concerned.

As the meeting began to come to a close, Esther was left to ponder what these android reconstruction efforts could have led to. She wanted to ask how many androids had been repaired – but by the time the meeting was over, Shafer had already left the scene, leaving the Ksondelet behind for everyone else to observe.

If these luocans truly were capable of repairing these robots to the point of being functional, then perhaps she could get the rest of the data that the last robot had failed to deliver. It was data she could use, and data the luocans would likely never be able to comprehend as well as she and the Domain could once they had their hands on it.

Remembering the notes that were being written from the documents in the tunnels, Esther also realized the luocans were practically writing her an easily-translatable stone slab – with which the Domain could learn all it needed about this area, come back full-force, and take it for itself with ease, now that she and Mira knew as much about it as the dwellers did.

But now that it was over, Esther was quick to leave; not quick enough to follow Shafer, but quick enough to avoid Persson. Even so, he didn’t seem to have any vested interest in her for the time being. It wasn’t long before she made it back to Sam.

She whipped up to him so fast that Sam looked at her with a start.

“Well, I did everything you wanted,” she said, moving the hair out of her eyes. “It doesn’t look like he really wants to talk right now. I think you were overreacting.”

He quirked his brow at her. “He really didn’t try to make any sort of move on you? Because he was acting a bit strange throughout the meeting, in case you didn’t notice.”

“Was he?” she inquired, hesitating for a moment to speak again. “I can admit he was looking at me a few times, but—”

“More than a few times,” Sam interrupted.

The level of discomfort Esther knew she should have felt around Persson started to grow the more she spoke with the deputy now. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, he was still in a position of power – even in relation to her own newfound authority.

“Sam,” she began, looking down in a play of shame as she put her hands on her hips. “Are you doing one of those things men do?” When he didn’t reply, she clarified: “Acting out of jealousy?”

Her insinuation was enough to make him snicker. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t lie to me, Sam.” Again she drew closer to him.

And before she could take another step, Sam did the same, stepping more firmly than her, pushing her back. “Don’t do that again,” he said. “It already looks like there’s something between us when there isn’t.”

“So are you just really really really really concerned about me?”

No answer.

“Why do you have to be concerned about me?” she asked, at which point it suddenly hit her. “Did the Director tell you to be concerned?”

“What? Of course not!” Likely beyond his control, Sam raised his voice. “I’d like to think I have more agency than that!” Sweat started to roll down the side of his head when he looked to his right, into the still-busy crowd where the Director was, then turned back to Esther. “It doesn’t matter if it was you, Mira, or even Macy: I still want to make sure he doesn’t do anything to any of you.”

Esther’s lip curled – perhaps a bit too much, given the mere mild annoyance she was trying to portray. “Really,” she said, a statement rather than a question. “Well, I appreciate your concern – but Mira and I are more than capable of taking care of ourselves.” Suddenly she remembered: “I still don’t appreciate that business with Shafer shortly after Mira and I arrived – especially when Mira doesn’t think very highly of that man as it is.”

Sam started to sweat a little more. “Would it have been better if I was there instead of Shafer?”

Esther shook her head.

“If it was Macy?”

She shook her head again – and before Sam could throw in another name, Esther spoke three last words – “Let us be.” – and left to return to Mira.

But as intimidated as the deputy seemed by her stance, Esther knew he wasn’t going to back down – or if he did, it wasn’t going to be for very long.

She hoped she had come off just angry enough to intimidate, but not so angry as to be unreasonable. Firm enough to make sense, but not so firm as to step on the toes of anyone she didn’t want to. It seemed that now if Persson wanted to speak with her directly, she would have a proper method to do so.


I said this would be done in two weeks and not fifteen days, but ehhhhh – close nuff?

These past couple weeks, I did some work new promo material for the Domain, which you can see right here:

https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/707762019704504430/881027676943581194/Mirre_promo_poster.png

The ink to print this off is being shipped here and I’ll be sure to start sending these around town ASAP. Til then: the Discord is free to join and always will be!

Infiltration Part3.6 – Mira’s Overflow

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?”

“No?”

“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!

Infiltration Part3.5 – A Storage Solution

“Are you being a lying bitch for a reason?!”

According to what Sam had told Mira in the tent earlier, Faust should have already returned to see Esther by this point – but that wasn’t going to be happening now. As far as Faust was concerned, there was no reason for him to be held back by Sam, either.

“It’s not my decision,” Sam confessed.

“So, what?” Faust challenged. “What are you hiding behind?”

Sam pursed his lips. “Nothing. Why would you think I’m hiding something from you?”

“You’re the Director’s second-in-command, dumbass!” Faust retorted. “Why wouldn’t he relay every single detail to you?”

“I feel like we’ve already been through this,” Sam said, grumbling. “It’s the same reason why Rouken wouldn’t tell you everything.”

“He still tells Bertha everything.”

“I bet that’s not true,” Sam challenged.

“I can ask her!”

Sam shook his head. “For all you know, she could have been told to not tell you whether or not she knew everything Rouken did.”

By now it had been over an hour since Sam and Faust made it to the sujourne’s tent. Rouken, Bertha, and Tarren were nowhere to be seen.

“Whatever. That doesn’t matter.” Faust rubbed his eyes as if trying to clean the tears out of them. “Just tell me straight: do I have radiation sickness or not?”

“Probably not – and whatever headache you’re feeling right now is probably just from a bunch of anxiety.”

The two men hunched over in their seats, both of them just within kicking distance of each other: a fact which made Sam slightly cautious, but he took the risk with this boy. His sharp tongue had dulled over the last few minutes, but it was possible the sujourne visitor would find a way to sharpen it back to its fullest potential in due time. Until then, Sam waited, sitting by, wishing he had a drink after all the talking they had done in the past hour.

Sam could practically feel the steam rising from Faust’s face just now, feeling it simmer down, giving him a chance to speak again. “I know how hard it can be to work with the Director,” Sam continued. “And I know he isn’t making things clear, but for all we know, the reason he instructed me to keep you here longer than Esther is likely because he’s more concerned about your well-being than Esther’s.

“It makes sense to me why he’d be more concerned about one of you sujourne than he’d be over a couple women who only got here a few days before you arrived – and who we barely even knew in the first place.” But something about the words Sam put together didn’t entirely add up to him. Given the Director’s strange liking toward the two women, it was just as likely he had let Esther go sooner out of a fondness for her and a chance to see her sooner, but then that didn’t make sense, either – for if Esther truly had developed radiation sickness and was susceptible to undergoing the horrid effects that came with it, there was no reason for the Director to want to be around when she underwent them.

Faust’s brow twitched with the intensity of an unknown, unanswered anxiety resting deep within him, but he could do little more than grunt in immediate response. “If you’re trying flattery, I swear to God.”

“I swear to God it’s not flattery,” Sam said. “You’d know when I’m trying to flatter someone because I suck at it.”

Faust snorted. “What, does it never work on the ladies?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Very funny.”

“So anyway,” Faust began. “I’m at least glad you’re sticking around my sorry ass, but you really don’t have to put up with me if you don’t want to.”

“Well, actually, first of all: I do need to stay here. Director’s orders.” The deputy let out a nervous chuckle. “But I know you don’t mean what you said earlier, right?”

Nodding, Faust added: “Sorry. I know you said I’d be fine, but I still think I’m gonna be dead by tomorrow.”

“Just relax.” Sam insisted. “Again: you don’t feel bad, right? Nothing out of the ordinary?”

Faust shook his head.

“Then, like I said: relax.”

“How long is the Director expecting me to sit here and do nothing, anyway?”

“I can check with him,” Sam offered. “But if I had to guess, he probably wants you here til dusk.”

Covering his face behind his hands, Faust let out a loud, muffled moan, then quickly sat back up. “Fine. If he’s going to be a dick, then fine.”

Sam hesitated to speak back. “If you’re thinking of some kind of payback—”

“No, nothing like that,” Faust interrupted. “Just forget it.”

With nothing to do but flip his knife in a single hand, Faust kept quiet. Sam pulled out his MDA to read through his messages from that morning. Beyond that, the tent was almost completely quiet, save for the scouts’ hollers and labor – at least until Bertha walked in.

“Yeah, yeah, I already heard about it,” she said immediately upon entering. “But according to the guy who told me, you never touched the material and I should just keep watch over shit until he said to go home.”

Faust cocked a brow at her. “You’re in a good mood, aren’t you?”

She sniffed, reaching into her bag for a cloth, which she proceeded to wipe her face with. “Just been worried to death about you, man.” The words quavered out of her as if she were barely managing to keep herself from crying. Blinking a few times, she looked at Sam with a smile. “Thanks for sticking around, deputy.”

“Just following orders,” Sam chuckled.

Coming down here wasn’t safe. Not just the passageway, but the room that the scouts had come to call the “dust archives.” Every time Amity came down to do her work, she did so with a basic cloth mask on – one which she had had to make herself, as Bailey didn’t seem to have anything of the sort with him, nor did any of the other scouts.

In the week she had spent down here, any chance she had to stretch her legs, walk up the ladder to the surface, get some fresh air, or do anything a normal human would do in a normal human setting was was enough to make her feel as if she had been liberated from a decrepit prison. At least by this point, much of the destructive noise had stopped, replaced instead with that of chatter and the foundation for new buildings, albeit the work the scouts had done up to this point had resulted mostly in the most primitive of skeletal structures. To her, it looked like watching engineers make something new when they had been out of practice for the past decade.

Just judging by the positioning of the sun on this clear day, it wouldn’t be long before Bailey paid her his daily visit, returned for his regular smooch. It didn’t seem as if there had been any accidents out in the field, so there was no reason for him to not be headed over right now.

After the last few days of work, Amity needed somebody to vent to. By now her MDA had filled up so much that it felt like every byte of data actually equated to two bytes. The amount of storage left on the device seemed to shrink more and more exponentially with every passing day, and she could not wrap her head around it.

Having walked enough already for the day, Amity proceeded to return to the same manhole everyone regularly took to get back do the passageway. Once down, she passed by a few of the scouts – including Bailey’s regular partner, who stood guard as usual.

“Still no robot invasion, Elliot?” she teased.

“It could still happen and you know it!” he insisted. “Come on, Amity – don’t joke about that kind of thing.”

“Hey, I didn’t say I was joking, did I?”

“Save it for Bailey,” he huffed. “And hey – I think he went into the archive again when you were gone. Without his mask, too.”

Her pupils dilated minutely. “What?” she sneered, already continuing her march toward the archive. “After this many times—!” Within seconds, she pushed herself into a run, startling some of the scouts as she went by them. Once at the door to the archive, she flung it open with a start.

Inside was Bailey, unsurprised to see her, yet masked all the same. “Excited to see me?”

Amity let out a sigh. “I guess you could say that,” she said. “Elliot told me you were going in maskless, the lying little shit.”

Her boyfriend couldn’t help chuckle. “Maybe he saw I didn’t have my mask on when I came in and assumed I never put it on at all.”

It occurred to Amity that she was still maskless. “Oh, right,” she said, reaching into her pocket. Almost instinctively, she held her breath before wrapping the straps of the mask behind her ears – after which she smiled from behind the cloth.

Almost as if to taunt her, Bailey lowered the top of his mask down so that his lips were exposed – at which point he leaned toward his partner. With a light giggle, she did the same and pressed her lips to his. Almost immediately after, they both pulled back and put their masks back on.

“I’m about done for the day,” Bailey started, already setting things on a positive note. “All Theo wants me to do now is stay down here and keep watch of things.” He paused. “And your uncle said I could stay here with you.”

“Nice of him to let you do that,” Amity chuckled.

Just as she spoke, Amity’s MDA beeped at her. She groaned.

Tilting his head, Bailey glanced at the device, undoubtedly intrigued by the flashing green light on its face. “Why is it doing that?” he asked.

“It’s been doing that for the past two days,” Amity explained as she pressed a button to make the light go away. “Something about running low on storage, because now the MDA’s storage keeps shrinking even when I’m not writing on it.”

“Why is it doing that?” Bailey repeated.

“I don’t know!” she said, throwing her arms up. “It’s probably because I haven’t deleted anything from it since I started this job, but have you ever even tried deleting files on these things one by one? I think I’ll need an entire day of work dedicated to just doing that at this rate.”

“You know there’s an option to ‘delete all,’ right?”

At his question, Amity gritted her teeth. “I did know that,” she said, voice low. “But there’s a reason I can’t do that right now.” Right when Bailey looked as though he were about to make a guess, she answered for him. “My old stories are still on this stupid thing.”

Again, his reaction was anything but surprised. “You really haven’t had any time at all to transcribe it?”

“I’ve had some time!” she retorted. “But that’s just it: some. I can’t just copy stuff when I’m eating, and I’d just keep you up all night if I try copying notes when we should be sleeping.”

“Good God,” Bailey mumbled, rolling his eyes. “Isn’t there something Macy can do to hold onto the stories you’ve got?”

“I haven’t asked.”

The two of them were silent for a long time as Bailey kept his eyes still on her. He had become surprisingly good at maintaining eye-contact with her – enough to where it didn’t matter how angry of a face she made at him; it wasn’t going to change anything.

Eventually Amity gave in with: “So, what?”

Bailey was silent.

Again she sighed. “Fine! I’ll go ask. Jesus.”

“I’ll just stick around here.”

Just as she was about to turn and leave, Amity whipped her gaze at Bailey. “Seriously? You can’t come with?” she whined.

“I’ve been told I can do whatever I want, as long as I’m down here and not upstairs.” Right after speaking, Bailey leaned against one of the towers of boxes.

Amity’s voice raised an octave. “Don’t do that!!” she shrieked. “I’m not going to let you stay here if you can’t learn to leave the boxes alone.” She shivered. “Especially after the mess we had to clean up last time.” As if she had sensed some amount of gunk lodged underneath, she ran her thumbnail under one of her fingernails.

“Okay, sorry!” Bailey interjected. “Just do what you need to and I’ll be here, alright?” With that, he handed Amity her device. “You almost forgot this, by the way.”

Grumbling slightly under her breath, she took the device from his hand and left with barely a word.

She was back on the surface in seconds. The MDA caused a bulge in her pocket that almost made her prefer simply carrying it in her death grip as she sulked all the way back to the girls’ tent. Perhaps it was for the best, though, that she was not distracted by a potential device in her hand, lest she run straight into one of the structures the scouts were setting up.

Walking by one of the skeletal buildings, Amity turned her head to the other side of her, noticing a familiar spot. It was the same spot she had originally set her tent before moving in with Bailey. It had been practically untouched since then – only now there was a small black cat sitting where the tent had once been.

Amity eyed the animal suspiciously, but moved on – only to hear it meow at her, making her glance back at it. It started walking toward her, keeping up a brisk pace even as Amity continued her path toward the tents. She simply ignored the feline follower, knowing it was probably just hungry and desperate to get a sardine from anybody it could – though this made her realize that if there were fish in the pond lake, the cat had no reason to beg other people unless it was just lazy.

Many of the nomads were still hesitant to eat anything from the lake – but by this point it didn’t seem like there was any chance of them dying from radioactivity. As far as most of them were concerned, the only reason for potential radioactive hazards would be because somebody deliberately filled the river with a bunch of pollutive machines – machines like the robot body they had found. But now that Faust had shown no signs of radiation sickness, it seemed the odds of dying from such a cause was much less possible than first thought.

Amity shoved a hand in her pocket at the same time she heard the cat meow at her again. Not skipping a beat, she continued to walk forward, but glanced down at the cat with a sneer. “Go away,” she hissed, but still it stayed close by her side as if it had known her its entire life. The more it followed, the more she began to wonder if the animal was there when she had her tent set up in that area and she had simply never noticed or forgotten about it entirely.

Now at the girls’ tents, Esther was greeted to Mira, of all people, who was carrying a large, empty bucket.

“Hello there, Amity,” Mira said with a light smile. “Is everything okay?”

Mira’s presumptuous greeting made Amity’s lip curl. “Yes, it is,” she stated, grabbing the MDA out of her pocket. “I just need to talk to Macy about something important. Nothing you need to stick your nose in.” Though Amity’s words carried a distinct bite of passive-aggression, Mira didn’t bat an eye at it, which only made Amity simmer.

Tilting her head, Mira inclined further about the situation. “Is that your cat?” she asked.

Again Amity looked at the small beast that had been following her for the past few minutes. She sniffed. “It’s yours if you want it.” With that, she walked right past Mira. “Take it, for all I care!” Yet as she continued on, the cat kept following her. “Stupid puss,” she grumbled under her breath.

Realizing none of the girls were outside, Amity walked toward their tent – where she quickly made out the sound of Macy’s lecturing voice speaking above their heads. The woman sighed, listening for a moment to head in, not wanting to interrupt the teacher in the midst of her lecturing. It was only once she got an opening in the conversation when Amity stepped in, making nary a sound as she poked her body through the opening in the fabric.

Macy looked up from her crowd with a smile. “Miss Amity – nice of you to show up,” she said, causing all the other kids to turn their heads around and gasp and smile when they saw what Macy was talking about.

Every time Amity came back, it felt like a reunion, despite how little time had passed since her birthday. She wasn’t much for smiling back, but the attention from the girls, for a reason she couldn’t explain, felt nice enough for her to smile back.

“I was hoping I could get something fixed,” Amity said over the crowd, holding up her MDA as she spoke.

“I see,” Macy replied, then returned her gaze to the crowd at her feet. “Girls, why don’t you all get comfortable and discuss our topic for the day while I get with Amity?” With that, she looked over her shoulder and nodded to Cynthia and Toni – after which she headed over to Amity, motioning all the other girls to let them be.

“What can I help you with, dear?” Macy asked as they exited the tent. “The MDA hasn’t broken, has it?”

“Not necessarily, but I think something in it might break soon,” Amity said with a grimace. “Long story short: this thing’s running out of storage and—” She bit her tongue. “And I never really finished copying my stories, so I never deleted the stuff on it once I was done. So I was wanting to know if there was any way I could save the files – maybe put them somewhere safe and then come back when I get a break away from work.”

Macy nodded. “So you just want to keep them somewhere safe,” she repeated. “I might have a solution, now that you’re officially one of the camp’s MDA aficionados.”

Amity wasn’t sure whether to smile or cringe at her new title. “What’s your solution?”

“I have some storage devices that can hold your documents,” Macy affirmed. “Just let me – wait, what is that?”

Amity whipped around to face the entrance of the tent, witnessing in horror as the cat slipped inside. “Seriously?!” she shrieked.

“Where did that come from?” Macy wondered.

“I don’t know,” Amity admitted. “The stupid thing was following me and wouldn’t go away.”

“Well, we need to get it out of there.” Macy stepped in front of Amity.

“Hey, at least let me help,” Amity insisted. “That thing’s attracted to me, for some reason.”

From inside, they heard a few of the girls scream.

Macy huffed as she went inside, Amity in tow. “It’s just a cat,” she insisted. “Where did it go?”

More than any of the other girls, Cynthia seemed the most deterred by the cat’s presence. “It went in someone’s bed,” she stammered, knees wobbly.

Toni turned her head. “Cynthia, it’ll be fine,” she said, her voice carrying the slightest congestion. “It won’t hurt you.”

As if too distracted by the unseen animal, Cynthia didn’t even look Toni in the face when she spoke again. “You don’t know that!”

Macy bit a knuckle when she realized how disastrous this was likely to become if Cynthia caught a glimpse of the cat. “Cynthia?” she called over. “Why don’t you do something for Amity?”

The mentioned women cocked her head.

“Take her MDA and put the drive in it that you gave me last week,” Macy instructed, then turned to nod at Amity, who handed the device over to the quaking Cynthia. The girl took the device with shivering hands.

“Go on!” Macy motioned – at which point Cynthia hurried out as if the tent were about to erupt in a fiery explosion.

Toni helped keep most of the girls calm as the lot of them searched for the wild animal. For the sake of the tent’s sanctity, Toni treated it more like a game of hide-and-seek than anything else. “Once you find the cat, tag it on the scruff of the neck and grab.” She used one of the girls as an example, pinching the area where her scruff would have been. “Right here. Thank you, Lana.”

“Ouch.”

“Carry the cat by the scruff and you’ll be okay!” Toni declared. “But be quick about it. If you can’t catch it, just chase it out. Got it?”

“Yes, Toni!” With that, the girls disbanded, heading to their individual beds to see if the cat was hiding in there. While not every girl had gathered around to hear Toni’s plan, there were still enough of them listening to make a noticeable difference.

One of the girls whimpered at her bed. “I’m kinda scared, Toni.”

Toni turned her head to see the same girl she had scruffed just a moment ago. “You don’t have a phobia for cats like Cynthia, do you?”

Looking no more than eight years of age, the girl shivered. “No, I’m just scared of cats!”

“That’s what a phobia is, Lana,” Toni explained. “But you don’t have to be scared. Most cats are scared of people, too.”

Before Lana could make a rebuttal, one of the other girls let out a victorious howl. “I got it!”

Toni and the rest of the girls turned their heads to see Shelley holding the cat over her head, her hands gripping its squirming body by the torso, her fingers already slipping as the creature meowled for help.

“Scruff!” Toni shouted.

Too caught up in her victory, Shelley cocked her head. “Huh?”

All the other girls shouted in unison: “Scruff!

Just when Shelley realized what she was doing wrong, the cat flipped around, batted her a few times in the face, and escaped from her grasp – at which point it dashed between the girls’ feet to hide somewhere else in the tent.

The tent went silent as everyone directed their eyes toward Shelley, who screwed up her face as if she expected the cat to come back and continue batting. Lana was the first to speak. “Did that hurt?” she said, whimpering.

“Nope,” Lana said, then coughed. “There’s cat hair in my face now!”

“Girls!” Toni called to the lot of them. “Keep looking for that cat!”

“It slipped under Sandra’s bed,” Amity pointed out, observing much of the commotion from the other side of the area. As if she had commanded them, the girls looked over at Sandra – only a year Amity’s junior – as she locked her gaze on her bed. In seconds she noticed the movement from underneath her sheets. Sandra’s fingers twitched as she prepared to swoop down at the furtive feline.

Despite all the drama surrounding this animal Amity had inadvertently let in, Amity was much more caught by Toni’s overall attitude. Seeing her in a mostly cold-free state was refreshing on its own, but seeing how she had already started taking on more of a leadership role and had gained the attention of the other girls took a load off Amity’s mind that she thought would never be relieved. The same probably could not be said for Cynthia at this point, but Toni’s growth was certainly impressive.

A collective gasp broke Amity out of her thoughts, making her take a step forward as Sandra pulled a hand out from under her sheets, revealing the black cat once more, now completely still, as she had it by the scruff.

“Nicely done, Sandra,” Macy said, stepping past Amity to see the creature from up-close. “But what do you suppose a little thing like this would want with us, anyhow?”

Immediately all the girls started coming up with answers of their own.

It’s looking for mice to eat!” “It ran away from home.” “It wants a new family!

Macy let out a nervous chuckle. “I don’t know about that, dear. Not only do we not have any food to give it, but some of your friends don’t like cats.”

“She’s right,” Amity said. “Plus I think it’ll just wander wherever it wants.”

With at least half of the group in agreement, Macy, Amity, and all the others went outside to put the cat back down, at which point it flicked its tail and brushed its head against one of the girls’ legs. Most of them crouched down to get a closer look at the animal.

By now the cat was the least of Macy’s concerns. “Is Cynthia still not back?” she wondered out loud. “Toni?”

Toni came to attention, remaining almost completely still otherwise. She could see Amity in the corner of her eye, but did not acknowledge her at all. “Do you need something?” she asked, sensing Amity’s eyes as they scanned over her like a judgmental spotlight.

“Check Cynthia for me,” Macy said. “I might not have ever shown her where the drives are, now that I think about it.”

“Yes, Miss Macy.” And just when she felt like Amity’s stare was about to become too much, she started walking to Macy’s tent. She didn’t look back.

When at last she opened the front flap to the tent, Toni was greeted to a startled, red-faced Cynthia.

“What is it?” Cynthia asked, breathless.

“Did you find the thing you needed?” Toni replied.

“I’m still looking for it!” By now Cynthia was almost at the point of screaming. “Miss Macy never told me where it was.”

With that, Toni agreed to help find the drive she needed. “What did she say it looked like?” she asked while walking to the back where a lot of the MDAs were plugged in.

“Like a stick,” Cynthia said. She looked as if she were about to say something else, but she kept herself from speaking any further.

Cynthia and Toni were left to scatter through more of Macy’s belongings than they were probably allowed to go through – until at last Toni opened a drawer on a table that Amity had set her lantern on. Only then did she see two little sticks, one of which she reached and grabbed at random.

“I found it!” Toni said, looking around for the MDA, only to find it on the bed right next to the table. Barely hesitating, she plugged the drive into the bottom of the device and handed it over to Cynthia.

The younger apprentice winced when Toni shoved the MDA in her face. “What are you giving that to me for? Just give it to Amity.” Just then, her expression turned into one of surprise. “Oh…”

“What?” Toni asked, raising an eyebrow, turning the device back around to see what was going on. Substituting the MDA’s normal interface was a large, blinking question mark in a box. “What the—?”

“Toni,” Cynthia began, taking a deep breath, folding her hands as she covered her mouth. “That’s not the right drive.”

Again Toni asked what Cynthia was talking about as she proceeded to take another look at the drive she had plugged in. She noticed the way it split in two, how one part plugged into another.

“That’s the drive we found in your pockets!”

Toni started to glow just as hot as Cynthia had a few minutes ago – almost to the point of shrieking. For what felt like the only time since she last saw Amity, things were starting to fall apart. To add insult to injury: she could distinctly hear some of the girls arguing at the other tent nearby.

If she doesn’t have a name, I wanna call her Rowena!” “I like Olivia.

One of the girls snorted. “That’s a boy cat.”

So, Tom?” “Brandon?

Amity had had enough of the girls’ bickering, yet Cynthia and Toni were still nowhere to be seen. “Miss Macy?” she began. “I think they’ve taken long enough. May I—?”

Macy took a glance at her tent, then sighed and shook her head. “Go right ahead, dear.”

With a few steps, Amity was greeted to the sound of hushed murmurs before stepping in to see her previous partners huddling around the MDA like they were trying to hide it. “Is it done?” Her question was as blunt as her entrance.

Toni pursed her lips. “Not yet, no.” Cynthia looked to even less willing to speak than Toni: a first, as far as Amity was concerned.

Concerned by their silence, Amity stepped over Toni’s shoulder to see that her MDA’s screen was showing some kind of error and the light that was previously flashing green was now stuck at a constant red. Her pupils dilated, she yanked the device out of Toni’s limp hand and attempted to fix the problem.

No matter which buttons she pressed, it didn’t change anything. “What the hell did you little shits do?!” she hissed. Even holding down the power+A combo didn’t do anything.

“I—” Toni stammered. “I thought that was supposed to save your stuff!”

Every day Amity lived, her memory became worse and worse – and now without a proper way to track everything she had written since childhood, up to half or a third of what she had written was likely lost to the data pool, never to be seen again. The stories she cherished, the stories she wished to read again, even the stories she maybe would have preferred to forget – if they were not a part of her, they were a part of who she once was. Part of her was twisted and ripped out of her.

Breathless, Amity continued holding the power button and A button until the system finally shut itself off. In seconds the screen came back on, stating only the following:

SYSTEM DATA CORRUPTION

And again Toni was left silent, giving Cynthia a moment to speak up. “Miss Macy must have never gotten around to cleaning that one.”

“Why did you even give it to her?” Toni snapped. “When did you give it to her?”

“She made me!” Cynthia argued. “When you were sick and had to go do something while the rest of us were taking care of baskets, she saw the drive I was holding onto and made me give it to her! The only reason you don’t remember is because you were spending more time with a hankie covering your face then you did actually talking to anyone.”

Before Cynthia could speak further, she was interrupted by a loud thwap.

Toni reeled forward as Amity smacked the back of her head. It felt as if she had just been punched, but, turning around, her blinking eyes looked to see a red, open palm that went to pull the drive out of the MDA.

“You absolute dumbshit!” Amity screeched, waving the now-split drive in Toni’s face. “What is this?! Tell me you didn’t destroy my data on purpose!”

Taking a step back, Toni struggled to respond, prompting Cynthia to step in. “You know she didn’t –”

Just as quickly as she’d reeled back, Toni stepped forward, the back of her head burning. “Don’t be an idiot,” she said, her voice stoic and unwavering, her face firm as she took in a deep breath. “We all loved you when you were one of us, but now I see what you are!”

“What the hell are changing the subject for?” Amity sneered, taking a step so close she nearly stomped on her adversary’s toes. At the same time, the drive that was once in her hand fell to the floor. “All because of you, my work is ruined!”

Just when Amity felt she was going to pull her hand back to strike again, the tent flap opened. Her teeth bared, she looked over her shoulder to see Mira, with Macy just in tow.

“What are you girls screaming about?” Mira began.

Macy spoke before anyone could begin to answer Mira’s question. “And Miss Amity – is that any way for a grown woman to behave?”

If Amity’s blood was at a boil before, by now it was almost completely evaporated. “She made—!” Yet just when she realized how much of a scene she was making, she swallowed the rest of her words down and held her pocket device facing up in her open palm. “I don’t think we will need the storage solution anymore,” she said, each word backed with a sting of deliberate restraint.

“Oh, no.” Macy took the MDA in her hands, pressing some of the same buttons Amity had, and to no avail.

Mira looked over, her eyes glued to the display. “I might be able to help you fix that.”

“There’s no need, Miss Mira,” Macy insisted.

“Just take it,” Amity grunted, walking around Macy as she spoke. “Just forget everything. Erase it all; I don’t care. I’ll just be back later when it’s fixed.” And just when it looked like she was gone for good, Amity yelped – but for what reason, the others still in the tent weren’t sure.

Cynthia flinched when she saw a black blur dash into the room, picking up the drive in its jaws. “Cat again!!”


I told you all that things were about to start heating up, and boy is this chapter heated! Come back next time and we’ll see just how far the cat goes with that drive.

The Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part3.3 – Back on Track

She was starting to lose track of how many days it had been. Macy had told her that she could hold onto the MDA for a week, but it felt like more than a week had passed. If anything, the chaotic events of the last week made Amity feel as if she had aged an entire year, as if her literal coming-of-age birthday was not enough to convince her that she was getting too old for things to stay the same.

At least for the moment, Bailey was with her in their little tent – albeit only for the moment. Likely thinking she wouldn’t want to be interrupted, he didn’t say anything to her when he walked in – only to be surprised when Amity called out to him from where she sat, a pen in one hand, MDA in the other, notebook in her lap.

“Are you too busy for a hug?” she inquired with a lilt, a pen in her sweating hand and a smirk on her face.

Bailey paused, somewhat flustered by his girlfriend’s comment, almost completely forgetting why he had come here. All he could recall was that whatever he had come for likely had something to do with his shotgun, hence the reason why he had just opened the gun’s chamber.

“Did you shoot something too many times?” Amity offered, still speaking in a somewhat teasing tone.

He paused again. “No – no, I didn’t,” he mumbled, then nodded when he remembered. “No, actually, Theo said this thing needs to be cleaned better.”

“Really,” Amity mused.

“Yeah,” he replied. “And some of the other guys need some rounds, too.”

Amity’s demeanor diminished slightly. “So are they actually shooting things out there?” she muttered, raising an eyebrow.

“No, no we’re not – I swear,” he assured, a nervous smile on his face. He proceeded to pull some shells out of a crate and set them in the pockets of his jacket. “Some of the other guys just forgot to load up.”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Okay, then.” She winced, looking down at her wrist again as something in it seemed to contort in a most uncomfortable manner.

Seeing her grimace and grunt as she thumbed the top of her wrist, Bailey pocketed the rest of the shells and put the shotgun down on the floor. “Are you taking breaks, Ames?”

She wrinkled her nose at that nickname, but paid it little heed. “Yeah,” she replied, shrugging the question off. “Yeah, I have.”

“When?”

She hesitated. “What day of the week is it?”

Now was Bailey’s turn to roll his eyes. He bumped his lower palm against her head – just hard enough to make her flinch, but soft enough that she almost didn’t feel it. By the time he removed his hand from her forehead, he revealed traces of black residue on her skin. Almost immediately she could tell there was something wrong with her head now.

“Did you,” she began, chuckling. “Did you just smear oil on my head?”

“Sorry bout that,” he said. “Just some shotgun residue. Don’t wipe it on your sleeve!”

Fortunately for Amity, he had said that last part right when she was about to do just that. “Okay, then,” she said, wiping it with her bare hand, wincing when she pulled her hand away. It was better than staining her white sleeves, but now her palm felt as if she had stuck it in a vat of honey – and she couldn’t tell if that was going to make writing more or less painful for her hand to endure. Still, she couldn’t help responding to her boyfriend’s warning with a simple “Thanks.”

For what felt like the fortieth time that day, a short, high-pitched cacophony chimed from outside. Amity covered her ringing ears – a second too late – and grunted. “Someone’s been making that goddamn sound all day!” she said, groaning.

“Sounds like they’re swinging their pickaxe at something,” Bailey thought.

“I think I’m gonna swing a pickaxe at their head if they make that noise again,” Amity mumbled. “Seriously; I’m lucky I haven’t screwed up and torn a paper after hearing that sound so many times by now. This entire place is so noisy and I’m already having enough trouble concentrating on getting these notes copied as it is!”

Bailey almost seemed to sigh in silence as if contemplating his next words, then shook his head before speaking again, looking down at his girlfriend as he stood up tall while she buried herself in her paperwork. “You’ll have to get used to it.” He knew he would come to regret those words.

Amity clenched her jaw, but said little else on this matter. Compared to this pickaxe noise, all the conversations her uncle had had with scouts and the like in his tent next to theirs were less of an intrusion in her attempts at reaching zen when she was writing. This was despite the fact that those meetings tended to involve shouting, especially when younger scouts were involved. Still less ear-grating than swinging a pick at concrete for no apparent reason.

That man was always working, but at least that meant he was always leaving his niece to do her work. From what Bailey had told her about his parents, any time he wasn’t spending with the scouts was spent helping the family out with whatever mundane task they needed from him – as if fetching and supplying rations to everyone wasn’t enough of a task. Perhaps it would have been different if his parents had decided to have more kids than just him, in which case he would have been in a similar position to Amity where he was forced to tolerate children even in the dead of night.

While Amity mused over such things, she heard a jingling coming her way. She looked up to see Bailey’s shadow casting overhead. A hand in his pocket, he reached down to peck her on the cheek, then picked his gun and a cloth off the floor with one hand and left the room.

Just as quick as the kiss and Bailey had left, the ear-splitting shriek of a pickaxe on stone ruptured her tympanum. She was starting to contemplate shoving the pen in her ear just to keep herself from hearing the noise.

Before she could do anything insane, she took a deep breath and set the pen down, then rubbed her hand again. Now was a good time for a break; Bailey could thank her later.

It was only after considering the noise she had been enduring when she realized her uncle was not in any sort of meeting. Brushing the dust off her pants, she picked herself up and proceeded to exit the tent – right when the pickaxe struck the rock again.

“Shut the hell up!” she shouted, to no one in particular, then pursed her lips as if she were afraid of someone realizing she was the one who had said that. Screwing up her face, she proceeded to walk toward her uncle’s tent.

She was fortunate enough that by the time she walked in, her uncle did not mention anything about her outburst – though she wasn’t sure if he was just staying silent to spare her the agony or because he genuinely had not heard her. Judging by the fact that he had not tapped into his MDA with any sort of headphones, he most likely heard her.

When she walked in, he gave her a little wave despite directing most of his attention on the papers on his desk. Seeing the state he had put himself in, she did not directly respond right away. She instead drew closer to him in silence, going down a straight path as if walking along a long red carpet to meet him, unable to speak to him until she reached the end of it. Along the way, she saw that same bug-like machine just standing there, still as ever – though last time she saw it, she hadn’t asked if anyone had drained all the potential fuel from the torches.

Out of all the things she could have started the conversation with, Amity started with: “So, has it been a slow day for you, too?”

Keeping his eyes on his desk, Shafer shrugged. “No, not really. Scouts keep making noise all the time, and so are you.”

Amity clenched her fists; he had heard. Hoping to direct her attention from that embarrassing moment, she glanced upon the desk and noticed what looked like a bunch of maps and written directions for something she had no idea about. Among all the papers was her uncle’s MDA, which seemed to be installing something as several lines of text scrolled across at a rate too fast to read.

“Is that something from the scouts?” she inquired. “From Bailey, maybe?”

“I didn’t get anything from him,” he replied. “But no, these are from the sujourne – at least most of it is. They should be coming back pretty soon, too.”

“I see,” Amity said. “It sounds like a lot of writing they’ve been doing.”

“And they’ve been doing almost all of it by hand,” he said with a light chuckle. “Poor saps must’ve gone through hell if they ever got one of these things wet – which they have, judging by how shitty some of ‘em look.”

Directing her attention to where her uncle was pointing among the scattered papers, she noticed a few of them looked as if somebody had been using them as tissues. They looked a lot like what her hyperactive imagination thought her own manuscripts looked like when she pressed her sweaty wrist to paper for too long; simply thinking about that made her cringe.

“Doing it by hand,” she repeated, running a thumb up and down her still-aching wrist. “How I wish I didn’t know how that felt right now.”

For once, it seemed, Shafer perked up a slight bit. “Oh, right – you’re still doing that, aren’t you?” he asked. “Hasn’t it been a week by now?”

“It’ll be a week by tomorrow,” she corrected.

“I still can’t believe Macy let you play with that thing for so long and didn’t tell us,” he said with a scoff. “Of all people, you’d think she’d tell me or Persson, but instead she went right over our heads and made it your little toy for a few years.”

Her uncle’s wording made Amity raise an eyebrow. “Toy?”

“I said what I said,” Shafer continued. “And if you saw what MDAs were being used for before people started hacking them, you’d know what I mean.”

As much as Amity didn’t want to roll her eyes in front of her superior, this time she couldn’t help herself. “God, you know – Cynthia said something like that, too,” she replied with a snort. “Thought I was turning into some kind of gamer – as if I want to play the stupid Snake game on this thing forever.”

“So what was she letting you use it for?” Shafer inquired – though while his words suggested he had a genuine interest in what his niece was doing, the look of pure indifferent on his face implied he already knew.

Suspicious and confused, Amity eyed him with a sidelong glance. “For writing,” she said. “Like I just said I was doing.”

“But what do you mean?” he pushed. “Is it just a bunch of journal entries or some kind of diary like girls used to have?”

“There are bits and pieces of that, yeah,” she admitted. “But a lot of it was just writing whatever came into my head. Fictional stuff – like the stories my parents told me at night before bed.” Though, she wanted to add, her stories tended to be of a much more unique identity than the tales of old.

Her uncle was silent for a long while, almost as if he was struggling to process what she had just told him. Just as the silence was about to subside, he looked up at her with a very puzzled face – and for a moment, perhaps as a method of coping, she wanted to believe he was just very confused by the program he was trying to install, and not about to step all over her.

“So you’re making fairy tales?” he started. “What kind of good is that going to do you? Even if you have kids, they’re going to grow up and get too old for fairy tales, and then all the things you’ve written will have outlived their use.”

Whether or not her uncle had intended to raise his voice, his intentions did not change the level of wobble affecting her knees. “Not really fairy tales,” she corrected, looking off to the side as she spoke. “I was just wanting to write some stories and maybe novelize them.”

“Novelize them, and who’ll read them?” Shafer challenged. “And would you expect some kind of compensation for your work, despite nobody wanting any kind of book – let alone a fictional one?”

“Hey – Macy had some good books!” Amity argued. “The kinds she’s gathered up over time: she reads those aloud to the girls.”

“Which brings me back to my point: why write for sellers who have no way of compensating you and will stop being your audience once they grow up?”

Amity wasn’t sure how to respond to this question – especially when, she knew, her original goal with her writing was a means of escapism for her and nobody but her. Up until last week, the thought of sharing her work with someone else had never crossed her mind. Thanks to Toni and Cynthia, Amity had only now started opening up to others about her literature.

Contemplating her next words, she directed her gaze to the ground between herself and her uncle – during which time she started to realize that a mere two weeks ago, all she thought she ever wanted was someone to swoop her off her feet, be her man and share the rest of his life with her. Now she had all of that, but still she couldn’t help feel as thought things were still not going according to plan – like someone had put a hold on things before they could truly begin.

Even after this last week they had shared together, Bailey still had some growing to do before he would be considered an adult. Then and only then could things finally start going according to plan. In the meantime: writing – or at least copying old things she had written – occupied her time. At the same time she both loved and hated writing, but all this time she had spent with her notebook was clearly putting her over the edge.

She wouldn’t argue. “You’re right,” she said.

“What are you looking at the ground for?”

Before her uncle had mentioned it, Amity had almost forgotten she wasn’t even looking him in the eye anymore. The woman-in-training brought an unflinching gaze up to his and repeated herself. “You’re right. If I’m going to write, it should at least be something worthwhile. And just so you know: I’m only copying my stuff over now for the sake of longevity.”

“I really wouldn’t bother with it,” Shafer argued.

Beyond her intent, Amity raised her voice. “But I’m almost done! I just have a few more stories to copy over – just a few more and the MDA goes back to Macy.”

“That’s pitiful, really.” Gesturing toward the MDA on his own desk, he continued. “You’re now at an age where you actually might be able to make good use of these little things. Hell, with any luck, we might be able to find some old computers down in the passageways that we can repurpose to do the same stuff these devices do.”

Amity raised an eyebrow. “I guess that’s true,” she acknowledged. “But I don’t know anything about the kind of stuff you and the scouts out here are doing on those MDAs. I don’t think I’d be able to figure out an old computer, either.”

“Oh, please,” Shafer said with a grin. “You obviously know how to write on an MDA, and the scouts have found a bunch of documents in the passages. We’ve been thinking of hiring one of the scouts to make records of all the documents, but considering all you’ve been doing over the last week, I think I might have found the perfect person to take care of this job.”

“Me?” Amity asked. Though Shafer seemed to be expecting a smile, she couldn’t bring herself to do such a thing.

“You’d be the perfect candidate,” he said. “So what do you say about starting work tonight?”

She blinked a few times. “Can I at least get my stuff copied tonight?”

Her uncle’s response was an almost immediate and exaggerated sigh. “If you can’t start tonight, then you’re not going to be able to start at any point. And that is non-negotiable.”

It took everything within her to keep from scoffing at her uncle’s insistence – at the illusion of free choice.

Yet based on what he was implying a moment before, taking this job meant Amity would get to keep the MDA – at least for awhile longer. Though she wasn’t entirely sure if she would be keeping her exact MDA with no modifications made to it, she dared not ask; the last thing she wanted him to know at this point was that she was going to be holding onto these documents.

And if she did accept this offer: her wrist could finally catch a break. On its own, the opportunity to avoid arthritis was almost good enough of a reason to accept the position.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it. But when exactly do I start?”

“I’ll have someone get you later when it’s time,” he said – and just as soon as he did, a loud crash sounded in the distance, making them both jump. “What in the hell was that?”

While a little relieved that the tension that had permeated the air a moment ago had subsided, Amity couldn’t help feel both frightened and annoyed by the crashing sound. “Maybe it was from the same person who kept making that godawful noise from earlier.”

Shafer paid her little mind, stepping away from his desk, past his niece through the front flap; Amity followed suit. It was then when they noticed a puff of dust that had spread from the source of the noise.

Just before Shafer could ask, one of the nearby scouts came rushing over. “Shafer, sir!” he said. “We just found a body over by where the tower crashed.”

“What?!” he replied. “One of our men died?”

“No, sir – it’s a corpse.”


Starting today, the official Discord server for the Domain is going to be getting some major changes — including the transition to a community! Come join the official server to meet the rest of the the Autorise Domain community and its creator.

Infiltration Part3.2 – Cadaver

Esther had silently uttered those two words so many times that they were starting to sound like an incantation. After the talk she had had with Mira before Sam and Macy walked in, Enflamiere Mírre were the only words on her mind – and so would remain to be the case until she made it to this spot she had been assigned to clean up.

Now that Mira was about to start doing work with the girls around camp, she and Esther would need to get used to having much less time to communicate with each other. The fact that they had no way of communicating from far apart had resulted both of them to vow not to abandon each other, no matter the circumstance.

“That sounds like a universal principal we would want to follow regardless of what happens,” Esther had argued.

“You’re probably right,” Mira agreed. “But if we were to run into an emergency situation and our need for survival started to override our need to carry out the mission, one of us could easily forget about the other and decide to abandon the mission altogether. And with no direct link, there is no way for us to keep the other from retreating unless we make this vow.”

After getting trapped in the passageway’s inner workings, Esther had to admit that there were times where she would have much rather gone back to Rhobane and start over – but she realized that now more than ever, the two of them needed each other if they were to return to the Domain in one piece.

“Okay,” Esther said with a nod. “But should we maybe try to set up a schedule of some kind to meet up and go through everything we’ve found – if nothing else, to keep track of ourselves.”

For some reason, Mira seemed hesitant to comment on the matter, pausing for an unusually long amount of time. “We could, but I’m a little concerned about what some of the girls may think of us.”

“What do you mean?”

Mira stiffened where she sat. “Don’t you remember what that older girl said the other day?” she remarked. “You don’t suppose the other girls actually believed what she was saying was true, do you?”

“You mean when Amity insinuated we were both a couple?” Esther asked.

“Yes,” Mira confirmed. “Do the other girls really think that?”

Esther paused for a moment to see if she could recall any such instances, but nothing came to mind. “Even if they do think that, they don’t seem to dislike me at all for it. They shouldn’t have any problems with you, either, considering how well things have gone so far.”

“We still need to make a decision on this,” Mira protested. “So here is what I propose: if someone directly asks one of us if we’re a couple and they won’t leave us alone about it, just say that we are.”

Her partner’s demands left Esther with more questions than answers. “Is there a reason why?” she wondered.

“There will be no use arguing against it if the girls already think we’re a couple. If we just let them believe that the rumor is true, then we won’t have to try arguing against them.”

Still Esther didn’t quite understand. “What would happen if we tried arguing against something that we both know is objectively false?”

“In this case, because we’re newcomers and because they still don’t know me all that well, it would just make us look worse in the community’s eyes.”

It didn’t make a lot of sense to Esther, but she could at least understand Mira’s concerns. “Okay,” she replied. “If we really need to, we can tell them we’re a couple – only as long as it’s something that needs to be brought up.”

“Good,” Mira commented, feeling more comfortable now that Esther had quelled the worst of her fears, at least for the time being. “But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we need to do something about the machines and the generator you found down there once I’m able to go with you.”

If Mira were a stress-burdened human soldier sent on a mission to infiltrate a terrorist organization, she definitely would have had a lot to complain about when it came to their infiltration as it currently stood. So far Esther had done all of the excavation – and even though she had only been in the tunnels twice, she still had a much firmer grasp on what rested underground than Mira. Now that she thought about it, even the camp’s scouts had a better idea what this threat was than Mira did. Again: if Mira were a stress-burdened human, as conscious as she already was of her situation and as seriously as she took her work, the anxiety of failure – even so early into their mission – was sure to drive her over the edge.

“And what if the machines down there become too much of a problem for us to handle? Even before you’re fully healed?”

Mira did not hesitate. “Then we retreat.”

Retreating from these bugs didn’t sound realistic at all, given what she had already witnessed of them so far. With the ability to roll up and mobilize as they did, there was little one could do to escape them on foot. “No matter what?” she asked.

“No matter what.” Again Mira sat up, firm. “And it’s like I said earlier: until the machines become a definite threat, we stay here.”

As far as Esther was concerned: as long as those machines had a master at work to round up the slaves, the machines were a definite threat. Whoever was in charge remained to be seen, but Esther had little reason to believe that the person in charge of the bugs was one of these luocans – at least not any of the ones she had encountered so far, which was most of them in camp. These sujourne, meanwhile, looked like potential perpetrators, but still she could not be too sure.

Esther remembered the phrase again: Enflamiere Mírre. She remembered to repeat it in her head. The more she said it, the more it sounded like a prayer.

Feeling as if the words had started playing an endless loop, taking up virtual memory within her head, Esther remembered what Sam had told her about her job. She had been tasked to work with one of the sujourne to clean things up.

There were several other things Bertha would have rather done than watch a bunch of prepubescent boys scout the area for information. Part of her had hoped that the Director’s demands to have her keep watch of scouts included keeping watch of Faust, but she and Faust knew that was not the case at all, with or without Rouken there to remind them.

By now Rouken and Tarren had gone off to their own duties, leaving Faust and Bertha to cope for the time being. They took the long way around to the tower instead of going through the noise that all the nomads out here had made. Some were busy digging through the findings they had made in the passageways, some had started cooking the next meal for the rest of the camp already, but it seemed most of the nomads here – scouts or otherwise – were here to prepare this place to be the foundation of something greater.

Faust and Bertha traveled near a broken, rusty train track, which carried them around all the other workers, rather than cutting through them. It wasn’t long before Faust realized Bertha had likely chosen this method of getting to their destination as a deliberate way of keeping him as far away from post-traumatic stress as possible. Despite what he assumed were attempts on her part, Faust couldn’t refrain from commenting on the landscape ahead of them.

“There used to be a bunch of cats over there,” he said, eyeing a nondescript area among the debris. “An old lady would come out and feed them, and then go back inside for the rest of the day.”

Bertha, just by his side, cracked an empathetic smile. “You don’t say.”

He huffed at the lack of genuine interest.

“Do you think there are any cats around here still?” she offered.

“If there really were any left, they all would have been scared off by now.” Subconsciously, the boy pulled the knife out from the holster at his boot and proceeded to dangle it by the paracord thread before catching the grip in his bandaged palm and tangling the cord in his thumb, blade facing downward. “All the noise we brought here and whatever the highwaymen are doing scared them off.”

Bertha said nothing in response, likely worried she had already said way too much if she had already triggered another one of his tirades.

“No one here knows about Rina Aris, do they?”

Narrowing her eyes at the apprehensive teen, Bertha almost struggled to keep up with Faust, who had suddenly started speeding ahead. “Faust – I don’t even know who that is,” she claimed, then paused. “Wait, is that the person—?”

“Yes,” Faust interrupted. “The psycho.”

Now that he had brought her up – what was more: mentioned her by name – she knew she needed to ask further questions. Faust was more than willing to taint the present with the horrid memories of the past. “And all this time I thought you’d repressed the name from memory,” Bertha said with a chuckle.

Faust sneered. “Can’t repress the name, or the face, or the voice, or what she said before stabbing my grandparents in cold blood.”

At the risk of stirring the pot even more than she already had, Bertha spoke up again. “And what did she say?”

“You’ll laugh at it,” Faust said with a scoff, followed by a deep, unshaky breath. “Before going back into the room with the two of them, she made me stay where I was, said ‘don’t mind me,’ while she had a knife in her hand.”

“So you listened to her?”

His lips pursed. “Yes. I shouldn’t have, but yes.”

“And I didn’t know you were living with your grandparents, instead of your parents,” Bertha commented, receiving a silent stare from Faust. “I won’t ask why.”

“Of course,” he grunted, trying not to roll his eyes. “And, you know, I was a giant pushover back then.” Though he would have argued that he still was a pushover. “So I just did what she said and then…I think you know how it goes.” With those last few words, the knife in his hand trembled a bit.

In a rush, Bertha placed a hand around his wrist, slowing him from doing anything reckless with the knife, surprising him as he had nearly forgotten what it was like for someone to physically try stopping him from doing something he would regret.

“That woman is in the past,” Bertha argued. “And in spite of what you’re obviously wanting from her, she is not here. Nobody knows who she is and we are all better off leaving that fragment of the past where it belongs.”

“No records or anything?” Faust sneered. “I find it hard to believe that people would have forgotten about that killer. Like they’d just forget their history.”

Rather than Faust, it was Bertha who snapped. “Look around you! Do these people care about what came before them to lead them where they are now? No – of course not. Everyone here is living for the present so that we don’t enter a shitty future. We don’t have the convenience of prioritizing the past like you once did, and you shouldn’t be dwelling on something you can’t change anyway.

“But even then,” she said, sighing. “My point is that the odds people know about this Rina chick are pretty low, wouldn’t you think? Unless Rina destroyed a giant monument or building, there’s no reason for anyone alive today to remember someone who probably got the death penalty once they were found.”

By now Faust’s destination had come within eyeshot. The brick tower he was assigned was starting to appear less like a stump in the ground and more like an unfinished building. Near its base there was a large bell that had likely fallen from the tower – yet despite the fact that it had fallen outside the tower’s base area, the bell stood upright as if it had fallen straight down. He could only guess the top of the tower had broken off from the rest, and then the bell broke off from that, but he had no way of knowing for sure.

“Faust, listen,” Bertha continued, just barely keeping the boy’s attention. “If the person you’re talking about here was someone on the level of Al Capone, I think even I would know about her.”

It had taken the brooding teen a moment to realize his sororal friend had placed a hand on his shoulder – to realize she had also taken the knife out of his hand.

His eyes dilated, unable to comprehend how she had just swiped the knife away from him so effortlessly. He could barely see the whites of her teeth behind her curling, smiling lip as she held the knife arm’s-length away from him.

“You really do black out quite a lot, don’t you?” Bertha commented.

Faust grabbed the knife right back, the soft edges of his fingers caressing the flat end of the blade. “Do not do that again!”

Her mouth flattened in a straight line and she raised both eyebrows. “Don’t black out, then.

“Still – you get what I mean?” she continued. “The bitch wasn’t any sort of crime lord by any means, so there’s no reason for anyone to remember. If they really have records on her, it beats the hell out of me where you’d find them! Maybe you’ll get lucky and find the docs in the passage, or maybe you’ll get so lucky that they fall out of someone’s ass, but the odds of anyone actually knowing about Rina are slim to none for you. And that’s the truth.

“Anyway,” Bertha said, stopping. “We’re here. Don’t spend too much time on one spot or you’ll never get it done, alright?”

As she let him be, Faust could only contort his face into a frayed knot. He took another look at his hand just to see that no, Bertha had not taken the knife away from him again. Inhaling sharply, he placed it back into its holster, then exhaled with the same intensity. “Piss off,” he mumbled, his words nowhere near loud enough to hear from where she now was, walking further and further away. It wasn’t often that Bertha had managed to get on his bad side.

Whether or not this town had any records of Rina Aris, that didn’t change the fact that somebody here had to have known about her. Perhaps an elderly person or someone in charge of the nomads around here would have had an idea what had happened to the woman or if she was even still alive at all. Perhaps she continued her psychopathic tirade to this day, going so far underground that she never even had a chance to become the next Capone. The possibilities, to him, really were limitless as to what this woman could have accomplished when he was out of commission.

It was only after spending nearly ten minutes to his thoughts, aimlessly picking up debris and gathering it up into a pile, when Faust realized he had nothing to put it in. At the same time he realized he had been set to work a considerable distance from the closest people to him – what looked to be three or four blocks, at least from what he could tell based on the cracked streets and his memories of the place. With all the hills, Faust needed to rush up to the top of the nearest incline to get a good view at the rest of the activity in the area.

Most other people were in a group of some kind and each group was equipped with a pickaxe, sledgehammer, wagon – anything to help with the task. He was practically naked compared to them.

Scouring the land in front of him, it took a moment for the teen to refind Bertha among all the noise. It was only just after spotting her once again when he noticed an unfamiliar figure was heading his way. The woman had a pickaxe and a sledgehammer in one hand; she used the other to wave overhead at the teen.

“I heard you’re the man I’m supposed to work with!” she said with a somewhat tired smile. “My name is Esther – and you’re Faust?”

Faust blinked and rubbed his eye as if he had just broken out of sleep. “Yeah,” he replied.

Esther set the tools on top of the small pile of bricks that Faust had amassed. “I’ve been told to work with you today – so here I am!” As if taking pity on him, she took a close look down at the pile, no doubt amused by how puny it appeared next to the mostly-collapsed tower before them. Granted, the base of the tower contained hardly enough of an area to hold four people, two-by-two, shoulder-to-shoulder, but the heights it reached – even in its damaged state – was somewhat intimidating. It was just short enough for her to scale and feel comfortable enough falling from, but she dared not attempt such a feat in front of so many potential bystanders.

“I’ll let you choose first,” she offered, gesturing to the tools at her feet. At the same time, she tilted her head up to further examine the structure in front of her. “Are they expecting us to destroy and clean this thing without blowing it up first?”

“Blowing it up?” Faust asked, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t think these people have any dynamite on them.” He paused. “You’re new here, too?”

Esther let out a fake chuckle. “You got me!”

He grinned, slightly less vexed than he was before she had arrived. “I was starting to wonder if I’d be given a partner or not,” he admitted. “It looks like everyone else has one, but the girl who brought me here said nothing about that.”

“Did they not tell you that you were supposed to get a partner?” Esther wondered. “Because I would’ve assumed you would have already been made aware of that.”

“Either they did tell me that and I forgot because I’m a dumbass, or they didn’t tell me because I’m a dumbass.”

Esther hesitated to speak again. “Right. Still – the tool offer is still open.”

Having nearly forgotten, he shook his head and blinked a few times before choosing the pickaxe, slinging it over his shoulder as Esther went to pick up the hammer.

“Good,” Esther said, satisfied. Then, nonchalant, she recalled the comment he had just made. “‘They’ didn’t tell you? Who is ‘they?’” She paused for a second – still a second too long for Faust to make a proper reply. “Oh, wait – aren’t you with the sujourne?”

The boy could not see through her falsified naivete. “Yes,” he mumbled. “That’s why I stick out so much.”

“You don’t stick out that much,” Esther argued, sensing some rising angst behind the boy’s tongue. “I only knew you were sujourne from word of mouth. Plus, anyway, you asked me earlier if I was new here, ‘too,’ implying you’re also new.”

He bit his lip. “Right.” Wanting to get his work done and over with, the sujourne boy made his way to the tower – where he proceeded to start swinging at the tower’s base, smashing the structure away chunk by chunk. Quickly he realized he didn’t even need to throw his back into the swings, as several pieces of brick practically disintegrated upon impact.

Again Esther looked up ahead, tilting her nose in the air. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to destroy the base of this structure?” she wondered.

“It will be like chopping down a tree,” he protested. “Just wait for it to go timber, and it will.”

Esther cast a concerned glance. She was really starting to see why Sam wanted somebody to look after this boy. “I guess I’ll help you with that,” she said, slinging the hammer over her shoulder as she walked to the other corner of the tower from the same side as where Faust now was. “I am just giving you fair warning.”

“It’s fine,” he insisted.

Shaking her head, Esther took the hammer from her shoulder and swung the head down to shin-height, where she proceeded to smash a massive hole in the corner. Compared to Faust, who still barely needed to try to break this structure apart, her more-than-necessary effort left her feeling that if she were to utilize her strength to its fullest potential, this building would have fallen over in ten swings, maybe eleven at most. This in mind, she made a mental note to not swing so hard.

“Have you been with those other sujourne for very long?” she began.

He cast her a sidelong glance. “A few months.”

“I see,” she replied. “And what exactly are you doing when you travel out there? And aren’t you worried about the Domain finding and jailing you?”

“The Chief says our group is one of the several sujourne groups who travels to abandoned places specifically so that other nomads around the area don’t get caught by the Domain.” He sighed. “I don’t really get it, but apparently the Domain has a huge problem with people living outside the borders of its cities. But they rarely send any military forces out to invade and take care of anything they deem a threat.”

In response, Esther could only nod. It relieved her to hear such ignorance first-hand.

“And honestly?” Faust continued. “Whether the Domain catches me or not, I don’t really care.” He scoffed. “I guess that’s why the Chief had me come along: I wasn’t afraid of getting caught, stuffed in a bag, dragged and processed, and forced to work for some robot factory for the rest of my life.” After speaking, he let out a long sigh. “Sorry. I’ll shut up.”

“No, it’s fine!” Esther insisted. “I was the one who asked, anyway.” This in mind, she followed up: “So you’re aware of the generator and the robotic bugs underground?”

“God – I think so?” he replied. “I’ve had a lot of information dumped on me in the last few hours by that Director, but I’m pretty sure he mentioned generators and bugs. Probably something having to do with the highwaymen we’ve been looking for lately.”

“Highwaymen?”

Faust halted in the middle of his swinging. He cast the chatty woman a glance, lips pursed as he realized he had almost definitely said too much by now. The heat rose to the top of his head, making him sweat slightly before he eventually snapped. “Just shut up and help me take this damn thing down!”

His slight explosion didn’t catch Esther too off-guard, though she was disappointed that she couldn’t squeeze just the slightest bit more information out of him. Still, the amount she had received was plenty for now – but perhaps there would be somebody else who knew more about the operations around here. Surely the Director would have known, considering he had apparently told Faust a lot of top-secret information already.

“Okay, then,” Esther said, her tone dry. It was then when she realized she may as well have blown up her corner of the building with a stick of dynamite, as that seemed to have been the effect of her smashing the building over the last few minutes.

“I’m going to go to the other side,” she said, picking up her hammer. “Just be aware: I don’t know how much more this tower can take.”

Faust responded with little more than a simple “Okay” before Esther escaped his line of sight. Only once she made it to the other side did she realize how damaged this side really was. It seemed like there was once a unique top to this structure that had since been blown off – and, taking a look behind her, Esther could guess that the now-separated part of the tower had everything to do with the bell that stood behind her.

Suddenly she remembered: she and Mira had walked by this building before. There was no mistaking that this bell was the same one she had seen days ago – and for all the noise that surrounded them in this abandoned city, the presence of the broken, chimeless bell captivated her more than anything else.

Perhaps now was a good time to see if there as anything inside the structure – but without a door or steps, she would be forced to scale it. “I’m going to try climbing up this tower,” she called from the other side.

In response, she heard nothing – and with little hesitation, Esther dropped her hammer and took a large leap up to grab onto a ridge among the structure’s many aging bricks. It didn’t take long for her to get her footing – at which point she attempted to reach for an opening in what used to be the tower’s roof. Before she could get far, though, she was interrupted when she heard Faust stepping around the corner.

“Don’t do that!” he demanded.

She looked down at him from her vantage point, needing to peer under her forearm to see his face. “I already told you I was going to climb this thing!” she argued. “Why didn’t you say someth—”

Just when Esther attempted scaling even higher, a loud cracking sound emanated from the tower’s base – and almost immediately thereafter, the structure started to tip over, bringing Esther with it. In a panic, Faust stepped back, nearly tripping on his feet, and Esther jumped off the wall, falling backward and downward until she hit the bell. Almost right after she crashed in a move that likely would have ruptured most people’s spines, the tower hit the ground with an ear-shattering crash.

After the tower fell, the noise and air around Esther and Faust seemed to sizzle into silence.

“Are you okay?” Faust asked.

Unable to see him, Esther attempted to pick herself off the bell, only to realize that she had tipped it over, as well. She rolled over in an attempt to gain footing once more, but was interrupted when Faust gasped.

“Was that under the bell?” he shouted.

By now a small audience had gathered from other parts of the ruined town – but by the time Esther got back up, they were all fixated on whatever it was that she had unearthed.

There where the bell had once been was a skeleton – but unlike any human remains she had ever heard of, this one was radioactive, as she realized when her inner sensors picked up the unstable particles rising from the body like steam from a geyser.

Unable to reveal her ability to detect such an anomaly, Esther remained quiet, but backed away, letting the other luocans investigate.

Infiltration Part3.1 – Post-Traumatic

This meeting could have been going better if the Director didn’t speak a thousand words a minute. At the very least Sam could have been given a better way to track down his demands than through a basic MDA. Still he didn’t complain; he never complained.

If nothing else, the deputy was glad to at least be in the same meeting as the sujourne. For as meager as that sounded and as little to do with them that this actual meeting had, there was at least now that feeling that Persson trusted Sam to some greater extent than he did before.

“I may even put James on the case,” Persson tutted. “By now he has probably gotten tired of being my personal bodyguard, anyway.”

Giving a painstaking one-line-at-a-time scroll through his list of instructions, Sam struggled to make a proper response. “Sir? That’s already a lot of people ‘on the case’ – whatever that means. What would happen if those robots manage to make it to this part of camp while everyone who normally helps around this area is ‘on the case?’”

Persson leaned back in his chair. “I guess you are right. Never mind, then!”

For once a grunt came not from Sam, but from Faust. The noise was loud enough to direct everyone’s heads toward him, except for Sam’s. Quickly realizing he had just made that noise out loud, he promptly apologized; meanwhile Sam took another look through his list of demands.

  • Look over cleanup
  • keep track of findings; report to dir
  • accom for damages
  • lookat bluprints + confirm them
  • put these people ‘on the case’:

Even with an additional ten demands to follow, the list seemed small, considering everything the Director had been saying – but assuming Sam hadn’t just stopped listening to his demands at one point, this should have covered everything. One omitted factor made Sam scratch his head.

“Where do the sujourne fit into this?” he asked.

To his surprise, Bertha spoke up. “I was wondering the same thing, Director. It sounds like you just want us to do the same work as everyone else.”

“More or less,” Persson admitted.

Sam wasn’t sure, but he thought he could see Rouken’s fist tighten when the Director said that. Hoping to avoid a conflict, Sam cut back in. “So what exactly are each of them going to do?” As he asked, he began to worry that not even the sujourne knew what they were meant to do here.

The Director paused, then pointed to each one of them. “The girl can keep an eye on the scouts, the little boy can make a map of this place while we’re setting things up, and the other boy can help clean up.” With a nod, he added: “Rouken knows what he’s going to do.”

Even if the sujourne’s chief did know, he didn’t look entirely pleased with the way Persson was operating things around here.

“Okay, then,” Sam said. “Is there anything else?”

“Not that I can think of right now!” Persson replied. “But now that you have everything you need, you know what to do.”

Some part of Sam felt like he still didn’t know what to do, but seeing everyone else getting out of their seats and heading toward the tent exit, he decided to get up, as well. He caught a glimpse at Faust, noticing the way he sneered at the Director on his way out – as likely all the sujourne would have done if they all had that same lack of restraint.

With all the new changes of plans, the area just outside the Director’s tent was more bustling than ever before – almost as if everyone in camp had come here for lunch despite lunch already being served that day.

Just to make sure everything was in order, Sam looked down at his list of demands from the Director once again. He couldn’t think of much else to add, unless checking in with Faust was among one of the things he could have added to his list. Before he could do such a thing, he noticed Faust in a conversation with the other sujourne, who had huddled up away from the tent. Though he couldn’t tell what the conversation was, the looks on everyone’s faces painted a near-perfect picture of what Sam felt about this meeting, as well.

When their conversation was finished, Faust turned his head and shot a glance at Sam. There was definitely a flickering fire in those eyes, and Sam hardly needed to imagine why. As the sujourne started heading in the direction of the town ruins, Faust broke off from the rest of the group to head toward Sam. Sam almost had to choke back laughter from the pouty look on the boy’s face.

It felt like forever before Faust stopped and sighed. “Is that always how he assigns jobs to people around here?”

Sam felt like he needed to take a look and see if there was anyone else listening in on their conversation before he made any sort of response. “More or less,” he replied. “Your chief didn’t look too pleased about it, either.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Faust said, shaking his head. “He was pissed off. I’m not going to say the reason why because I don’t really know either, but he was pissed off.”

Sam thought the reason why was obvious, but he refrained from asking any further. “Don’t worry too much about it,” he said. “With any luck, once we get Kortrik running again, we’ll have someone else as mayor.”

Faust couldn’t help chuckle at that. “I don’t know if this place even had a mayor back when it was still working. Going from Director of a camp to a mayor of some place that’s barely put together doesn’t sound like an upgrade. And I don’t think your Director is smart enough to know that.”

Though he refused to make any direct reaction to the boy’s last comment, Sam couldn’t help but smirk.“I promise not to ask him about his future plans, then.” Quips aside, he remembered one more thing: “Do you have any idea where you’re going to be cleaning up?”

“No,” Faust grunted.

Sam rolled his eyes. “I guess he expected I would take care of that, too,” he muttered. “Okay, well: there should be a spot to the southeast of the ruins. There’s a bunch of bricks laying around near the base of a broken tower. I don’t know if anyone’s there right now, but that’ll be a good place to start .”

“A tower with lots of bricks. Got it.” By now Faust had started walking on his way over to the ruins. “Still sounds pretty boring.”

To that, Sam could only shrug. “Sorry, man; it’s the best I’ve got.”

Looking like he might fall asleep right there, Faust sighed. “Whatever. I’ll do it.” Without another word, he left the deputy to his business.

It was only after the sujourne had started making their way out when Sam remembered the women at Macy’s tent. As far as he was concerned, Macy only needed one of them.

The deputy took one last look over in Faust’s direction before heading back to the Director’s tent. From what little he could make out from the now-faraway figure, Sam wondered if there was something about the boy that the Director was keeping from him. Whether that information was supplied through Rouken or some other means, it didn’t matter; any information he could get would be good.

Sam walked in to see that Persson had already stepped straight out of his chair. He a almost couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

“Something else on your mind, Sam?” he asked.

“Just a couple things,” Sam began. “What do you know about that Faust kid?”

Persson perked up. “The older boy?” To Sam’s disappointment, the Director could only shake his head. “Seems like a lost cause to me. I don’t know why Rouken keeps him around.”

After the trash-talking Sam and Faust had done behind the Director’s back just now, Sam had not expected to be doing the same to Faust. “Really now?”

The Director shrugged. “Maybe he has some special talent. But he doesn’t contribute a thing to the sujourne!”

Whether or not that was actually true, Sam couldn’t help wincing a little at the Director’s words. Sam pondered a few of his own before letting them out. “Does Rouken really speak that poorly of Faust?”

“Oh, Rouken has never said anything about the boy,” Persson confessed. “But he just has a nasty attitude and I can’t tell what his role is in the group.”

Just as those words left the Director’s mouth, Sam wanted to smash his head against that same brick tower Faust was walking toward. Instead a simple “I see,” was all he said, before taking a deep, inaudible breath and changing the topic.

“I think now may be a good time to check on Macy’s women and see if Esther is good enough to work yet.”

“Is the other one still not?”

Wondering how bad the Director’s memory and judgment could possibly be, Sam shook his head. “I really doubt Mira is good enough yet to do any serious work. I think I saw her wearing crutches still last time I saw her.”

“Unfortunate, but understandable.” The Director stroked his beard. “Yes, I like the idea of Esther going to do some work out there. I’ll let you decide.” Though immediately after speaking, he looked as if he regretted laying such a burden on Sam.

“I’ll go get her, then,” Sam assured. “Thanks.” Just as quickly as he had entered, Sam left the tent and proceeded to make his way back to the two women. Even with all the noise around him, nobody seemed to pay him any mind, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Every other place in camp was getting ready for the possibility of an invasion, explosion, or general devastation when local forces failed to apprehend these alien enemies. Almost every district around camp was more chaotic than ever before – with the only exception being the girls’ district, which had its own dramas to worry about.

For Toni, she hoped more than anything that her own dramas with Amity were over. All the other girls were outside, leaving her and Cynthia to redress and gather up everyone else’s worn-out clothes for the week.

Placing Toni’s still-soaking clothes with the rest of the girls’, Cynthia grimaced. “They still feel cold,” she mumbled.

Toni sniffed. “You think so?” she mumbled, her nose still clogged. “Because I’m cold all over.”

Most likely unsure how to take that comment, Cynthia declined to say anything further. The two of them moved from Macy’s tent back to the main tent – where, as it seemed was becoming the norm more and more every day, nobody was there but the two of them.

Before the scouts had discovered those robots in the passageway, it seemed Amity was going to be the only person to leave – her and her alone. Even then, her departure was never meant to be anything more than a minor hindrance to anyone who wanted to see her again after her birthday. With the newfound machines in the tunnels becoming the talk of the entire camp, Amity was probably off doing work for the scouts down there – and with this stake she had wedged in their relationship for seemingly no reason, Amity may as well have gone to live her life in the tunnels at this point.

The girl’s shoulders slumped as she took in a deep, shaky breath, catching the attention of Cynthia – who remained quiet still.

By now Toni had gone on for autopilot so long that she was hardly aware of the bedsheets she had gathered from the other girls’ beds. “Do you remember Zoe?”

The youngest assistant tilted her head. “Who is that again?”

“She used to be the oldest assistant,” Toni explained. “When she left, Amity became the oldest.”

Suddenly Cynthia perked up. “Oh! The brown-haired one?” she said with a gasp.

Hearing Cynthia’s reaction gave Toni some much-needed elation. Her lips turned up in a smile. “Yes, that one!” she giggled. “She was around for years; it felt like she was one of the assistants for as long as I can remember. When I was eight, she became an adult – and a year later we never saw her again.”

“She didn’t die, did she?” Cynthia asked, her voice raised to such a level that Toni turned to look her in the eye, seeing a genuine flash of concern in her blue-eyed gaze.

Feeling a little amused by the sudden concern, Toni hesitated for a second before responding with: “No. At least, I don’t think she did. But at some point when we were all traveling through the hills and swamps and half of us went on that split, we went to Kortrik when she and everyone she traveled with went some other way.”

“I hope she’s okay,” Cynthia muttered, then groaned. “I wish you hadn’t reminded me of her; now I’m all worried!”

Now that she had said all of this out loud, Toni suddenly felt a little worried, as well. “Still, that’s not why I brought her up,” she insisted. “I brought her up because…” She blinked, unsure how to say the next part. “Because when she left, things felt different.”

“Different than what?”

“Different than when Amity left.”

“Amity didn’t really leave, though,” Cynthia corrected. “She’s still around.”

Suddenly Toni understood why Amity tended to lash out at her and Cynthia. “No!” she clarified. “She’s not! She’s barely the same person anymore and it’s hardly been a week!” In the midst of her tirade, Toni had dropped some of the sheets in her hands. While down on her knees, she felt Cynthia’s shadow towering over her.

The younger girl looked down her nose at the clambering assistant. “Just stop worrying about her!” she shouted. “She’s a busy woman now.”

Toni got back over her feet, Cynthia’s head now at the same level as her abdomen. Beyond her intent, she started bending over the younger assistant. “She’s barely a woman – now stop arguing with me about it!”

It took Toni a moment to remember to breathe again. By the time she did, Cynthia had already walked away and returned to retrieve all the sheets Toni had not already fetched herself.

An apology started to build in the back of her tongue, but she dared not let it go free. Knowing they likely had a limited amount of time before the other girls returned, she sighed and picked up the rest of the sheets – at which point she and Cynthia started heading back to Macy’s tent, only to realize she and the other girls had gathered up in front of their usual area not far from the tents. Along with them, Sam had apparently just come along.

It looked like Macy was going to need assistance from one or both of them at any minute. As Toni and Cynthia walked by in the distance, almost trying not to be spotted, Macy continued chattering on with Sam. Toni almost flinched when Macy caught a glimpse at them, but her worries were all for nothing, as the woman proceeded to pay them no heed, as if she and Cynthia were invisible to her.

Once they were at Macy’s, Toni almost wanted to continue the conversation, but she wondered why they should even bother with that. Once one of them inevitably started yelling like the embittered brats they were, Macy or Sam was sure to come right in without a word.

Gathering some of the dirty laundry in a pile, the oldest looked up to see the MDA docking station that their mentor had left hidden away in the back – or at least as well-hidden away as such a heavy piece of machinery could be. For what felt like a few seconds but more likely had equated to a few real-world minutes, she wondered what it must have taken for Toni to gain the confidence, desire, and tenacity to ask Macy for an MDA when the only people allowed to have them were adults – and privileged adults, at that. What level of discipline must it have taken for her to be able to keep that a secret for as long as she did?

Now that Toni actually did know about that device and the fact that Amity had been writing on it this entire time, what were the odds that Toni would be granted permission to use one, as well? Moreover, did Zoe have one for herself, or was Amity such a special case in that that Macy would’ve only ever allowed her to have such devices to herself? There was only one way to find out for sure without letting Macy know that Amity – only at the very end – had managed to blow her secret, and that one way was on the other side of camp.

But maybe she could ask Macy. Amity would be the one in trouble for blowing her secret literary endeavors. Perhaps later on, Cynthia wouldn’t be allowed to have an MDA despite all the begging she might have to do – so maybe Toni would be the last lucky girl to use an MDA as Amity had.

Before she could truly begin to contemplate asking, the woman in question walked right through the tent entrance – though, surprisingly, not with Sam, but with a smile on her face nonetheless.

“Good thing I saw the two of you earlier,” the older woman said, beaming. “Sam is talking to the ladies right now. Given Mira’s recent condition, it’s possible the two of you may be working with her soon.”

Knowing Amity probably would have loudly groaned with that information if she was still here, Toni sniffed.

“Does that mean she and Miss Esther are going to be working with us at the same time?” Cynthia asked, her head tilted as she struggled to meet the old woman’s gaze.

Macy chuckled. “Most likely not. What with all the work happening in the outskirts, I think Sam may have something completely different for her to do. Speaking of…” She paused and took a look at the clothes and sheets the girls had brought with them. “I think I will be able to take care of everyone for now. You two have obviously been busy with laundry. Why don’t you go clean that all up, since you seem so eager to get it out of the way?”

Struck as if they had just been offered a lucky break, both Toni and Cynthia nodded. “Yes, Miss,” they said in unison.

Now that they had a plan for the time being, Toni and Cynthia were left alone as Macy went back to the other girls. Before Toni could even ask, Cynthia blurted: “Wanna get the water?”

Toni almost flinched when the younger assistant spoke. When she cast a glance at Cynthia, she saw a cat-like smirk on the girl’s face. She had forgotten that Amity was usually the one to suggest Cynthia fetch the water, but now that it was just two of them, Toni realized, she would need to have that same energy Amity always brought when forced to be in the same room as the two of them, lest she end up being the one who did all the menial labor.

Cynthia’s smirk wasn’t going anywhere. Realizing she had let this happen, Toni sighed and nodded. “Alright. You remember how to organize everything, though, right?”

“Of course I do!” Cynthia said with a snort. “Now go.”

Toni did as instructed, leaving Cynthia to her work. There probably would have been more work involved in the process of fetching water now that the scouts were overworked now more than ever – but it still was better than having to go fetch it from the lake.

Understanding this, Toni went to retrieve the bucket from the women’s tent. It was only when she reached their tent when she heard Sam’s voice, and realized he was still busy with the two women.

You’ll be working with one of the sujourne we brought along the other day,” he explained, Toni assumed, to Esther. “He’s going to be cleaning up.” From where she stood outside, Toni was unable to make out the words following that.

“Excuse me?” Toni called from outside. “I need a bucket.”

Within seconds, Sam opened the tent flap. “Oh, hi Toni,” he said before turning his head to the two women. “Do you know where that is?”

“I’ll get it,” Esther said. “Is there anything else I need to know about the job I’m going be doing?”

Lowering his voice, but not enough to escape Toni’s earshot, Sam replied with: “Just be self-aware around him.”

“Got it.” With that, Esther fetched the bucket, then walked out to hand it to Toni. “You’ll be working with Mira now,” she said. “I think you’ll get along nicely!”

For some reason Toni felt like Esther was trying to cover something up – but by the time she could even think to ask that, Esther was well beyond earshot. With a sigh, Toni took her bucket and proceeded to head to the scouts’ area.

To her surprise, she didn’t have to try very hard to avoid the other girls. By now Macy had taken everyone else out to a more discreet location, each child bearing a cloth in hand. Toni assumed they were sewing and began to wonder if it was a good idea to do that outside – but then considering how still the wind had stayed throughout this day, it seemed as good a day as any to do it outside. Hopefully the scouts wouldn’t blow anything up, and thereby spook one of the girls into messing up their pattern.

With so many people occupying the ruins, there were not as many scouts in their district as usual, but – as if to make up for this fact – plenty of adults from around camp had taken their place, if only for a few minutes at a time. Toni worried for a moment that the adults had moved the water pot, as well – and gave a relieved sigh when she saw they hadn’t.

Even better: the water was just barely warm enough to be steaming. That in mind, Toni proceeded to take a scoop of the liquid for herself. It was only right after doing so when she realized someone might not have liked her doing that without asking. She looked over her shoulder to see a man watching by.

“Go ahead, miss,” he called out with a grin. “Plenty for everyone.”

It had been so long since she’d last done this simple task that she’d forgotten if she still needed to get permission from someone before just taking water. Even still, she couldn’t help letting out another sigh before heading back.

Though she struggled a little to not get herself wet, she managed just fine, returning to Cynthia without tripping or making a mess of things. It was only when she got to Macy’s tent when she struggled with getting the flap open, but that was quickly resolved once Cynthia opened it up for her.

“Did you ride a turtle to get there?” Cynthia quipped.

“Oh, stop. I wasn’t gone that long,” Toni said, rolling her eyes.

“Whatever,” the younger girl replied, sticking her tongue out. “By the way: I found something in your pockets!” Before Toni could ask what, Cynthia held up what initially looked like a key. It took a moment for her to realize it was one of the drives from that dark office room.

“What the –?” Toni blurted with a flinch. “Where did you find that?”

“In your pocket.”

“That’s impossible – or, I thought it was.” Of all the things that had happened so far these past twenty-four hours, this was the most bemusing. “I thought all of them fell out of my pockets when –!”

“This one has two parts,” Cynthia cut in, demonstrating for Toni to see. She pulled the device apart near the midsection, where a round peg went into a round hole. The part with the round hole ended with a trapezoid shape on the other side. “This part where they meet up was caught in the clothing. Plus: this thing is tiny!”

Both because of derision or her cold, Toni snorted. “Do you think it would even work, then?”

“I dunno. Does it matter, though?”

“Miss Esther might want to see that.”

“Miss Esther isn’t here now. And she might not be for awhile.”

Toni pursed her lips. “That’s right; damn it.”

Cynthia seemed a little surprised at Toni’s language, but continued nevertheless. “Maybe we can find something that can use these.”

“I doubt it,” Toni said with a huff. She then proceeded to take the drive pieces out of Cynthia’s hands and putting them back together. “I appreciate you finding this and not destroying it, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it other than give it to Esther.” Though as she looked at the drive, she couldn’t help wondering if she had seen the trapezoid-looking shape before. It clearly went into something – but what that thing was remained to be seen.

“So, what now, then?” Cynthia wondered. “Are we going to clean the sheets now or what?”

Toni had almost forgotten about that until Cynthia mentioned it. “Right. Let’s get started.”


I’m back, I’ve written a plan for the rest of the serial, and as always, Discord is open!

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 Part2.2 – Queenless Bees

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.”

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.