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.

Infiltration Part1.11 – Making a Date

It would have been pointless to keep all this tech downstairs. With just a little more excavation, the scouts were able to confirm that the suspected alternative exit was legitimate. Rather than a raft, a simple sewer hole up into the outside world was now all it took to escape. The debris smothering the top of the manhole required clearing before the exit was of any use – but this problem was short-lived after the scouts identified and cleared the opening.

Sam and some of the luocan workers pulled the machine through the whole with a rope assembly, just barely managing to squeeze it through the opening. Despite all the scratches it sustained through the process and despite the possibility that it might not work at all, they still had hope that they could resuscitate the machine.

With the foreign robot now being taken to camp for closer examination, the a few other officers remained with Esther as they plundered deeper into the tunnels – yet still they could not figure out a way to disable the generator. It was only when one of the officers nearly fell to his death when Shafer decided to halt their investigation for now.

Half of the scouts who had come were instructed to stay where they were for the rest of the night – that they were on guard duty until further notice. In each group of two, one of the scouts was required to stay; Bailey stayed and Elliot left. Just his luck.

Though she had left the tunnels almost ten minutes ago, Esther knew she needed to go back in tonight. That spot where the man had fallen to his death was almost as far away from the generator as they could get – and unlike the generator room, that space was not suitable or human workers. Regardless of whatever that room was used for, the broken bridge was too much of a barrier for the luocans to get over. It was possible that the luocans might never get over there, too afraid of death and too feeble to jump over themselves; it was no challenge for an etternel.

Halfway on the walk back to her tent, Esther paused. She knew that if she told Mira about this, they would argue about it – especially after Esther had drowned herself. With this part of the tunnels being so much deeper than any place Esther had gone by herself, there was the possibility that she might not return.

If both of them had known about this area, they would go there now themselves. Yet they couldn’t go now with Mira’s condition being a key factor.

So it was decided: Esther would go by herself, then tell Mira later.

By now it was dark enough out that nobody noticed the gynoid sneaking her way back to the manhole from whence she had come, but she did not let herself succumb to overconfidence. At one point on her way back, she was nearly spotted by one of the scouts who had come out to walk over to the tents. After watching him for a few minutes, Esther realized the scout was headed toward Shafer’s tent. The fact that scouts were going over to speak to Shafer made his heist even easier.

Once at the manhole, she put her ear to the metal, heard nobody approaching, and proceeded to slip down to the ladder. She did not hear anyone in the immediate vicinity below her – and with that, she continued on her way down. On the ground, she noticed some of the scouts up ahead, but none of them had looked back at her. Bearing this in mind, snuck over to the next room where none of the scouts were and hid herself in shadow.

While several parts of these passageways – which she and the luocans began to believe was a sort of underground facility – were well-lit enough for most to see around with the naked eye, the southern edge was nearly pitch-black. Esther’s nightvision helped her through.

The ground beneath her feet transitioned from concrete to metal – and with each footstep, the ground reverberated all around. She couldn’t see far enough to find where the other side of this room was, but the sound alone was enough to tell her that she was in some kind of chamber. Shattered glass accompanied the few broken wall-mounted pipes she came across – but whatever the pipes were used to carry was uncertain; if their contents had any smell to them, it was long gone.

Soon enough, the bridge came to an abrupt end, part of its body bitten off eons ago. Fortunately, she was able to make out the other side of the bridge – at eight or nine meters away. Esther couldn’t tell whether or not that was a shorter distance than what she had jumped when crossing the river.

Now would be her chance to find out. Taking a fe steps back, she readied herself, looked back to confirm she was by herself, looked ahead again, tensed her legs, locked her eyes on the target – and forward she sprinted. Without the Domain’s cables to carry her, she was entirely reliant on her feet; by the time she realized this, she had already started and wasn’t about to stop.

Esther could run barely faster than a human runner, jump barely higher – and even knowing she had barely an advantage over one of these luocans, she leapt for her life.

The gap in the bridge never looked larger. From below she could sense something unfamiliar, yet familiar – something that somehow caused a buzzing in her interface.

She had no time to ask what the buzz was coming from when, in her desperation, she clung onto the other edge of the bridge. She started to slip, but grabbed onto one of the broken pipes. The pipe started to bend, giving her barely enough time to reach over and grab another side of the bridge’s railing – and with barely any time to spare, Esther hoisted herself up the bridge and onto her feet. Her feet made a loud clang against the bridge’s metal, making her worry it was about to give way – but with that final move, everything went silent.

Looking up, the ceiling didn’t seem appear. Looking off the edge, she still couldn’t tell if anything truly existed beneath the bridge. Looking to her side, she placed a hand on a curving wall, indicating some kind of cylindrical frame. Another look to her other side confirmed that the bridge now cured around, likely forming a half-circle around whatever structure Esther now found herself standing next to. The only thing Esther noticed from looking back at where she had just jumped was perhaps the most intriguing of all.

All along the wall, an army of hexagons showed themselves, matching into each other perfectly like a honeycomb. Each one gave off the dimmest of light – just enough to aid Esther’s nightvision, but not enough for the unequipped person to notice.

Esther went along the bridge to see if there was a door – or perhaps another bridge – she could go through. The further along she went, the more thankful she became that the luocans weren’t here to see this. Perhaps now she could find the data she needed.

Again a buzz started humming in her brain.

Wondering if she had actually heard that or if something was trying to send her a signal, the gynoid whipped around, saw nobody, looked over the edge and saw nothing, then slowly continued to walk forward.

The noise grew a little louder, yet she had no way of deciphering it. It sounded almost like the noises the robot at the generator room had made when transmitting the system diagnostics to her – only this time she had no way to decrypt these sounds at all. They sounded nothing like any protocol she had ever heard, reminded her of nothing the Mother ever said, and yet somebody or something had insisted on sending her this message.

In her desperation to find out what the noise was coming from, Esther emitted a message into the potential network around her: “Who is out there?

Again the buzzing stopped.

A full minute of silence passed after Esther sent her message. Every ticking second convinced her that there must have been some faulty equipment around her.

The woman took another step. She still didn’t have a door to enter or bridge to cross. She began to wonder if the bridge she had jumped over was her only way out – because if it were, she still had just as much a chance of jumping over and pulling herself through as she did of failing and slipping into the darkness.

One of the hexagons on the wall lit up a bright blue. In a single jerking motion, Esther turned her gaze toward the light noticing how it hovered above her on he wall at an acute angle – almost exactly sixty degrees, from what she could tell. Part of her wondered if it was one of the scouts until another hexagon lit up – and then another, and another.

In enough time, she had to disable her nightvision. It was at that point when the entire room went blindingly bright.

Roughly every hour, one of the scouts would walk to camp and report to Shafer what the status was – and every time it was the same. Nobody had disappeared, nobody had fallen asleep, nobody had died from a sudden tunnel collapse. The expectation was that they would report to Shafer and immediately come back, but Bailey and all the others knew there were those among them who took care of a few other things before returning. As a testament to their procrastination, one of the scouts took twenty minutes to return from his so-called report.

Once his turn came to make the report, Bailey vowed not to take twenty minutes to return – but even with that said, he had other plans beyond simply reporting. Amity was supposedly set up around the eastern side of camp – closer to Kortrik than anyone not affiliated with the scouts. After reporting to his commanding officer that nothing in particular had happened over the last hour, Bailey made his way over to her.

The boy wondered if this counted as a date. He wondered if it was proper to go on a date with a woman of fourteen when he was still a boy of thirteen. Knowing his pessimism was just going to get in his way, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could do this.

From inside her tent, Amity found herself practically scrambling over the MDA. Her wrist felt like it was going to fall off at any moment and multiple spots in her notebook were smudged in a mix of ink and sweat. After the fifth wrist-ache and the second legitimate fear of impending carpal tunnel, she started wondering if writing was worth it anymore for the eleventh time over the last three days.

Her own little free space gave her complete disclosure from all distractions, allowing her some ability to get her work done – even if it meant completely isolating herself. Part of her worried that someone might have thought she had died here alone, but she pushed such thoughts aside as she continued copying every single word from her digital documents.

In her chaotic, pseudo-Zen-like state, Amity had initially failed to notice the light tug on her tent from Bailey. It was only after hearing a solemn, “Hello?” when she realized someone was outside.

After nearly dragging her pen across half the width of the paper in a quick, flinching motion, Amity stood up and answered the voice at the other side. In her frenzied state, she had failed to recognize the voice until she opened the flap and found Bailey on the other side.

Again she flinched. “Bailey!” she said with a gasp. It took her a moment to regain her composure. “Hey, uh…sorry; I wasn’t expecting anyone to come by.”

It took him a moment to reply – as if he needed to process every individual word before they could come out. “Yeah,” he said, stuttering a little. “I wanted to come by to ask if you wanted to hang out. We could go to the passage.”

“The passage?” asked Amity, her lip curling slightly. “Wait, do you mean the one that Sam has been talking about?”

“Yes – that one. Some other scouts and I are guarding it right now.”

As Amity contemplated what he was saying, she began to wonder if this was seriously his follow-up offer to the plans they had made to go out a few days ago. A date in some tunnels she likely wasn’t even supposed to be in didn’t sound like the traditional idea of what one might call a fun time. There was no way he hadn’t realized that himself. There was also no way that what he was asking for was something Shafer or any of the other officers were okay with. What if he were to find his own niece down there with the scouts?

Amity stopped to think on the offer for a moment. Here was her chance to get into a man’s arms early. She would be able to fulfill the woman’s purpose – and right at the beginning of adulthood, too. Everything she had learned from her uncle about adult life would be satisfied in little time at all and she would have Bailey to thank for that. What kind of person would she be if she were to deny his offer now? On top of that, what kind of uncle would Shafer be if he denied her womanhood by shunning her in the scenario where he found her snooping around?

“Sure. Let’s go.” With no words beyond that, Amity turned out the lantern, shut off her MDA, and came up close to Bailey – too close for comfort. For a moment she could feel his breath on her face, feeling as it went still when he realized how close she had drawn. Everything around them seemed to go completely silent.

Stammering, he attempted to clarify how this was all going to work. “We need to be quiet,” he explained. “Your uncle doesn’t know anything about this and I’m not supposed to go out for anything other than making reports, so just keep quiet, okay?”

Before Amity could offer any form of confirmation, she was interrupted by a voice she had halfway thought she’d never hear again.

“Um…”

The newly-avowed adult whipped her head around to see Toni standing by. In her panic, she yelped, then immediately clasped a hand over her mouth.

Bailey nearly yelped, himself, but stopped the noise before grabbing a hold of Amity’s wrist. “Come on!” he hissed, not even looking at Toni as he and Amity started themselves on a run toward the passage. Toni followed right behind

Throughout their run toward their safe space underground, the three so-called young adults made sure not to step on a twig, let out a peep, do anything else to give their position away. They were lucky that nobody – not Shafer, Rand, Sam, or any of the scout leaders – had spotted them making their escape.

Already Amity had nearly tripped and fallen over twice. In these ruined lands, she could not make out anything on the ground – and were it not for Bailey’s tight grip on her hand, she would have fallen on her face by now.

Soon enough they came to a stop, slowing down once they had stepped into what appeared to be the decaying walls of what was once a brick tower. Both of them breathed heavily, giving the other an optimistic smile when they realized that they just may have made it. It was only when they took a look behind them when Bailey and Amity realized someone else was there.

Even in the darkness, the red on Amity’s face was clear as ever. “Goddamn it, Toni!” she began, trying not to cough as she hissed. “What do you want?”

Toni took a moment to respond. “I just, um… wanted to talk about a few things. Maybe ask some questions.”

“Can it wait?” the woman asked. “Bailey and I are kind of on – ” She trailed off.

Toni blinked. “On what?”

As they argued, the girls failed to realize Bailey had lifted the lid off the manhole. “Both of you down here,” he said, motioning them into a hole. “Before someone sees you both!”

Not wasting any time, Amity went down and a nervous Toni followed suit, making their way to a ladder that carried them into a dark, yet still decently-lit corridor. Bailey followed shortly after, closing the lid as he made his way down, nearly squishing his fingers as he set it in place.

“Okay,” he said, now speaking at normal volume. “We’re here, so you don’t have to worry about being caught. At least not for now.”

Taking a look around, Amity was intrigued by the orange glow that scattered throughout the tunnels, interested to see how deep this place really went, wondering what that eerie noise in the background could have been. She almost felt as if she would go mad if she heard that sound for too long. Some of the scouts in the area had nearly nodded to sleep, but all of them fully were armed and ready for the strangest of circumstances in what may have been the strangest of places they had ever been ordered to guard.

As she observed her surroundings, Amity noticed one of the scouts approaching them. “What did you do?” he asked, his quivering tone of voice smothering any anger behind his words.

“I just brought some people along,” said Bailey. “I meant to bring one, but –” He paused, glancing over his shoulder at Toni, but let the question go unfinished. Amity pursed her lips, unwilling to speak until she talked with Toni.

The boy shook his head. “Okay, whatever. It’s your grave.” With that, he stepped back and returned to his post.

Just when Amity thought she could squeeze an explanation out of Toni, Bailey beckoned them to come with him. “I was working with Elliot earlier,” he said. “The place I’m guarding now is at a pretty dark hallway, so I hope you’re not afraid of that kind of thing.”

Amity fake-laughed. “Oh, not at all!” After speaking, she cast an evil glare at Toni, as if begging her to confirm that she wasn’t afraid of the dark, either.

There was almost a nod in Toni’s eyes.

“Here we are,” he said, practically calling the girls to attention as they stopped by a door. “Just don’t touch my gun and we’ll be cool.” With that, he turned to face the girls, noticing how they both stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Bailey couldn’t help smirking, having seen this stance of theirs several times. Amity seemed to notice, as well, grimacing when she caught the grin on Bailey’s face. Realizing he had just upset his date, he cast his gaze at Toni. “Maybe you should talk now.”

Toni writhed her hands. “Okay,” she began, facing Amity. “I’m really sorry – I just had a bunch of stuff I wanted to talk about and then I saw you were coming here, so I had to follow along – and I didn’t know what would happen if I just stayed there. Like, would I get in trouble? So that’s why I’m here!” Toni’s face had turned almost completely red from anxiety and oxygen deprivation during her explanation. “And, um…I’m probably in worse trouble now.” Thinking about this, she clenched her teeth, inhaling sharply as she visibly fought back tears.

Rather than discuss what would happen if Toni got caught down here, Amity diverted the subject. “What were you wanting to ask me about, anyway? Or just talk about?” Seeing the girl’s tense shoulders and sensing her undeniable stress, Amity took a seat by the wall, giving Toni all the inclination she needed. With a shaky sigh, the younger girl came down beside her.

“I just guess I’m feeling guilty,” Toni began. “And I want to apologize.”

That was enough to raise an eyebrow. “Apologize for what?” wondered Amity. “I mean, if it’s for freaking me out back there – ”

“No,” Toni said, shaking her head. “I just feel like I was always annoying you during the last year or so, and then I messed up with your M – uh – ” She stopped herself, sweating, remembering Bailey was standing right within earshot . “Your imminent adulthood when I made you drop that…gift from Macy. Plus you were always yelling throughout the last year and I just wanted to say I’m sorry for doing everything wrong.”

For a moment, Amity almost wanted to question what Toni was talking about, despite knowing full-well what she meant. It was certainly a strange thing to apologize for, but the apology wasn’t something she was going to deny.

“Apology accepted, I guess,” she said with a shrug. “I wasn’t really holding that over your head. It’s not like I remember even half the stuff you did to piss me off.”

Toni had to accept that Amity was probably right about that. “I just don’t want you to be bitter about it.”

“I’m not bitter, Toni,” Amity insisted. “God, it’s not like I’m going to end up hating my life just because of you. You really didn’t have as big of an impact as you think you did.” Realizing how rude that just sounded, Amity cringed a little after saying that.

The two of them went silent for a moment as Toni attempted to bridge the topic of conversation onto something else. Amity could already guess what the next question was going to be – and thinking about it almost made her groan. “Actually…I was also wanting to ask if you’ve been alright. Nobody’s seen you in a few days.”

“Things are fine!” Amity claimed. “They could be better, but they’re fine. I can’t complain, other than the fact that my wrist feels like it’s going to break somewhere at any minute. But I’m fine; just enjoying the hermitage, at least until tonight.”

“You’ve at least been eating, right?”

“Of course. I haven’t been that secluded.”

“Good.” With that came the next topic of discussion. “So you were writing?”

“Yes I was,” she confessed, glancing up at Bailey for a split-second as she spoke. “Or at least I was copying those notes over.”

“That’s nice,” Toni commented. “Actually I was wanting to ask you something kind of weird about that.” The girl had a look in her eyes that begged permission to ask, yet feared what would happen if Amity rejected.

Meanwhile Amity blinked a few times, averting Toni’s gaze before quickly looking back at her. “Yeah? What is it?”

Toni inhaled. “Could you teach me about writing?”

At the same time Toni asked, Amity almost completely stopped breathing. Of all the things Toni could have asked, she hadn’t expected that. She hadn’t expected anyone to take interest to her craft until her birthday, much less share so much interest that they would want to become her protege. Unsure of Toni’s goal, Amity wondered, “Why do you want to know about writing?”

“I have a lot of stories I can tell,” said Toni. “Nothing super special – just kind of personal things. Stuff I wouldn’t dream of sharing with other people. That’s what I’m thinking of.”

Thinking a bit about the reaction Cynthia had to her own writings just the other day as well as the fact that writing almost seemed more a coping mechanism than a way to gain attention, Amity could relate. On top of that was the fact that Amity, as well, had started her journey into writing with more personal works that she never shared. With that, she wondered, “Are you going to use it like a kind of therapy?”

It took Toni a moment to really think on that question, but in the end she nodded, not looking Amity in the eye when she did, her back still pressed against the wall and her knees drawing close to her chest. “I don’t know; there’s a bunch of things I kind of feel like telling Miss Macy, but I can’t really bring myself to.”

Another relatable thing for Amity. She was beginning to wonder if she and Toni could have been closer emotionally if they were closer in age. Two years really did a lot to drive a wedge in between them.

With a sigh, Amity pressed her head against the wall, not saying anything, almost forgetting she wasn’t in her normal setting and almost forgetting Bailey and all the other scouts were there with her and Toni. It was only when the boy cleared his throat when she came back to reality. “Oh, right,” she began, slightly embarrassed that she had kept him waiting. “Well, if there’s nothing else…”

For a moment Toni thought she had something, but nothing came. She shook her head, still refusing to look Amity in the eye.

Biting her lip, Amity gave one last nod before picking herself up and sauntering up to Bailey.

“Maybe we should stay together,” Bailey suggested, catching Amity off-guard as he peered over at the other girl. He spoke lower. “There’s this pretty cool spot on the other side of the door that I wanted to show you. Lot of weird stuff Elliot and I found earlier. But it would be safer if we stick together, since it’s dark and we still don’t know what all’s down there.”

“Oh, is that right?” The words almost seemed to come out sarcastically despite that not being Amity’s intention. “I mean – okay.” Turning her head around, she beckoned for Toni to come over – at which point Toni got off the ground and came over.

“Just stay with us,” she commanded. “Go wherever we go – wherever it is we’re going.” That in mind, she turned her head to Bailey, raising her nose in the air to meet his gaze. “So what’s so cool about this place? Is there some kind of robot in there?”

Bailey chuckled. “You’re already catching on!” Without another word, he dragged Amity was by her wrist, a nervous Toni in tow. In the shade provided by the hallway, she, Bailey, and Toni were barely visible to the other scouts. For all the darkness in the hall, it did not compare to what they were submerged in once they walked through the door.

Amity coughed, then covered her mouth to avoid giving away their position again.

“Nobody will hear us here,” Bailey assured. “They sure as hell didn’t earlier.” Before he could continue, he reached into one of the pockets along his vest and fished out a small flashlight for Amity, and another for Toni.

“They both work? …Great!” With that, he started showing them around.

Trails of dust particles littered the air, making Amity cough again as she looked up. The ceiling almost seemed endless, as if it were a sky in and of itself. Just to her left she noticed a rail, but did not bother to see what was on the other side.

It felt like they had walked ahead at all when Bailey suddenly stopped. “What the hell?”

Amity raised an eyebrow from behind him. “Is something wrong?” she asked. It was only after speaking when she noticed a red machine in front of them: a dead hunk of metal, the likes of which she had never seen.

The words caught in his throat, he shook a finger at the machine in front of him. “That wasn’t there earlier,” he proclaimed. “There was another one like it, but Elliot and I didn’t see this.”

“You might have just missed it,” Amity suggested. “It’s not like you have bat sonar.”

Normally he would be too skeptical to argue, but Bailey conceded. “You’re probably right. But here; let me show you what these things are like.” With that, he bent down to the machine and let the girls examine it for themselves.

Though she attempted to make out what this thing exactly was, Amity had a hard time figuring out what she was looking at – even with the flashlight. “Is it some kind of Autorian thing?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. “Or something from outer space?”

“We don’t know,” he confessed, lifting one of the metal plates to reveal a different type of metal underneath. “Some of the other guys took one back to camp and we’re trying to figure out what these things are.”

As strange as it was to see such a new piece of tech, Amity bored of it quickly. After listening to her so-called date drone on for nearly five minutes about some of the things they realized about these machines, she stifled a yawn, then flinched as Toni coughed behind her.

“Hey, um – Toni?” she began, turning over her shoulder.

“Sorry.”

“No, uh – don’t be sorry. No, actually…can you leave us alone?”

It was a strange request, but nothing she wasn’t entirely unused to. “Huh?”

“Just go stand over where we came in.” As she spoke, Amity pointed to the door, adamant about this request of hers.

Toni looked over there for a moment, then looked back with a confused sneer. “Why do you want me to leave you alone?”

At this point Bailey had picked up on the conversation. He looked like he was about to interject, but was cut off by his date. “Because we want to be left alone,” she said, each word firm.

The younger girl didn’t want to argue – and knew she couldn’t argue against Amity even if her life depended on it. With a barely-audible sigh, she averted Amity’s gaze and started stepping back, uncertain where Amity was going with this request of hers and hoping she would explain herself in due time.

At the same time Amity perched herself next to the door, Bailey finally cut in. “What was that about?” he asked. “I think it’s better if she stuck with us.”

Pressing herself against him, once again feeling his breath on her face, Amity silenced him. “She’ll be fine. There’s nothing for her to worry about,” she insisted. “Let’s just enjoy this date while we can.”

She may not have been able to see it, but within seconds Bailey turned warmer and sweatier than he had in the entire time they had known each other. She almost wanted to giggle; she must have been his first. “C’mon,” she said, teasing as she turned her gaze upward. “Don’t you know how to hug a girl?”

His shotgun still at his side, he hoisted it onto his back, holstering it as his date continued playing around with him. The light from his gun pointed upward, illuminating a spot in the ceiling, revealing just how high up this room really was – as well as the fact that the roof was rounded much like a cone.

From where she stood, Toni witnessed what Amity and Bailey were doing, gagging a little when at last she kissed him. She wondered if that was really all Amity had come here for – to just make things awkward between them. Amity and Bailey chattered a bit where they were, but every word spoken was too soft, nearly completely silent as far as Toni could tell.

The girl had come here for some consolation in someone she had at least somewhat considered a friend once upon a time. She had to admit that it was nice to see Amity again after the few days had passed even if their conversation had the depth of a puddle. And now, witnessing Amity’s hellbent desire to get married as soon as possible, all the girl could do was hold back a frustrated groan and rub her temple, practically begging for her growing headache to subside as she turned her back on them and moved to the other side of the room, away from the door, ignoring Amity and Bailey’s commands.

Her head hurt, her flashlight barely seemed to work, her stomach churned so much she was afraid she would throw up. As she walked, her foot hit another hunk of metal. Her big toe stung as she stepped back and examined what she had found – and there she found another machine almost identical to the one Bailey and Amity were standing by.

Thinking of those two, Toni turned her head around to see Amity holding his hands, speaking words she could not hear. It had all come and gone so suddenly.

Just when she felt her headache could not grow any worse, Toni flinched, a cold piece of metal reaching for her arm. At first she thought her clothes had gotten caught in the material, but almost immediately she noticed a clamp-like hand gripping onto her arm. A mechanical whirr whispered in her ears as the supposedly-dead metal lifted to its four spindly feet.

“Um…Amity?” she said, her voice barely squeaking above an indoor voice.

Hardly hearing what was going on, her face in Bailey’s face, Amity attempted to wave the issue away. “Toni, shut up,” she said before kissing Bailey again.

“Amity!!”

“I said shut up!” Amity shouted, flicking her gaze over and pointing her light toward the crying girl. It was almost immediately after doing so when she froze, witnessing as a machine gripped her by both arms and started pulling her into what Amity could best describe as a stomach. Toni once again cried for help – and not wanting to waste any time, Bailey removed the shotgun from his back and started charging toward the mechanical creature.

Before the boy could get close enough so that the shotgun spread wouldn’t hurt Toni, the machine pulled her in with what looked to be mandibles, practically curling her into a ball before dropping a transparent shield over her. Then once it was certain she was relatively out of harm’s way, the machine raised its fuel torches and emitted a blast of flame Bailey’s way, stopping him in a panic, nearly making him trip back and drop his gun.

Just when Amity tried in vain to run to Toni’s aid, the scarlet mechanical demon hunched on its spindly legs and launched itself over the railing, falling down in to the square hole below, Toni screaming in its stomach.

END OF PART 1


Yes, the first arc of Infiltration is now complete! Man, it’s been quite a journey and I’ve learned a lot — and it feels great to have this big chunk completed. With that said: yeah, stuff went down this time around. Hopefully we’ll find out just what that was all about!

As you know, the Discord is open and everyone is free to join. I highly recommend doing so, as that’s where I’ll be chatting while I work on part 2.

Fallen Daemon

“I can’t remember where I went…”

There was something she remembered, but couldn’t quite feel – something said last night that she could just barely recall. For some reason she wanted to reach back to Naomi, but quickly realized neither she nor Robert were there. The fallen servant descended into a vacuum, deafened by a noise she thought she would never hear:

Nothing.

The noise of the Domain had left her over a year ago. The noise of reality replaced its discord. Now there was nothing.

Suddenly realizing she was being flung through a nightmare, Augusta woke up. At least it felt as if she had woken up. She typically woke to the sensation of a mechanical pop in her neck or stomach, but this time there was nothing – except for when, after stretching, her upper vertebrae popped.

She gasped, the sensation traveling down and back up her spine, forcing her to look up at the dark sky. Several shooting stars littered the blackness among the non-shooting stars, their meteoric rising and falling mimicking the Domain’s gradual burn into nothingness.

Picking herself off the ground, she looked around to see nothing around her. The flaming meteors in the sky provided little light even in the treeless, grassless landscape she now found herself in. A look to the right – nothing; a look to the left – nothing. Then she paused. There was something here; she just wasn’t looking hard enough.

Tiny wisps of interplanetary flame whisked about in the sky behind her, reflecting off a surface in front of her – transparent and slightly reflective. She touched the surface; it was glass – glass with a form beyond a simple window, but something akin to the kind of architecture she would expect men to make from bricks. Glass bricks? Interesting to her that despite reflecting the light of the shooting starts ahead – thus making it apparent to here that there were actually way fewer meteors flying around than once thought – the glass did not reflect the dim green of her glowing eyes.

She continued running a hand along a glass ledge, her hand uncut on the smooth surface. It felt perfect, undamaged – as she was meant to be, yet wasn’t. For a moment Augusta thought about the cut along her face, still unsure how it got there; she had considered it a birthmark left by the previous owner of this body. She touched her scar, sensing the relative smoothness it held over the untouched skin on her cheek.

At the same time she pressed a finger to the permanent mark on her face, a large crack chipped out of the glass structure in front of her. Trumpets blared, men shouted; there were men here? Women and children, too?

She looked around, looked up; there was a flag atop the towering glass – and at that moment, Augusta realized she stood in front of a castle. Men continued shouting, panicking, telling their women and children to leave, yet Augusta could not understand a word of what they said, only picked up the universal cues, the panic in their voices. Yet for as much as she heard them, she could not see them, not witness anything on the other side of this supposedly-transparent castle.

The crack on the castle’s face grew larger by the second, trailing from the ledge she had touched up to the wall, quaking the ground on which these invisible people walked. A unified scream shattered the air around her – and before she knew it, Augusta realized she that in her hand was a chunk of the castle, now chipped out from the rest of its body.

Staring down at it, she wondered how it had appeared there. It was sharp, yet she did not bleed when handling it – as if it were meant to be there. For a reason she couldn’t explain, she wrapped the rest of her fingers around the glass, squeezing it in spite of its sharpness, feeling an ebb of pain trail through her fingers to her palm up to her arm. It hurt, but did she bleed? Afraid to find out, she squeezed her eyes shut, too.

Something started to leak out of her balled-up hand.

Augusta reopened her eyes with a gasp. A crash sounded from just in front of her – yet the glass was completely gone. Everything seemed to be gone, save for a light, blue-tinted glow from a full moon hanging just overhead. Looking down at her hand, she noticed a trail of sand dripping out, pouring from between her fingers and falling onto the ground below. When she opened her hand, she found no blood or damage of any kind.

The entire ground below her was sand – and with some help from the moonlight, she realized the crashing in front was coming from the ocean.

She smelled smoke. Turning around, Augusta found something akin to a blanket, but quickly realized she was looking at a bush. A whimper came from the other side.

Crying for help, a muddied dog came running out from the bushes, brushing past Augusta faster than she could bend down to console it. By the time she realized that nothing else was going to follow from the bushes, the dog – a fully-grown German Shepherd – stood behind her and looked back at the bushes, giving a shy growl in anticipation of whatever was to come.

The dog reminded her of someone she knew. “Terry?” she murmured, tilting her head to meet the canine’s gaze.

Her name-call was merely hypothetical; it came as a surprise when the dog not only looked up at her, but started shaking its tail.

“Terry – it is you!” For the first time since this nightmare began, she smiled, bending down to meet the dog’s eye-level as it proceeded to lick her face. It looked like Naomi was right about which breed of dog Terry was, but that didn’t explain why he was now grown up when Augusta could have sworn he was still a puppy.

As she scratched her favorite boy between the ears, it came as a mild surprise when he switched his gaze back over to the bushes. He paused, then wuffed as if someone was on their way over.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, as if he could answer. Though she looked again at the bushes, nothing came.

Before he had a chance to answer, Augusta tilted her head down to see nothing. “Terry?” He had disappeared. She looked ahead again; no bushes. Looked behind her; no ocean. She looked up; a wooden suspender connected to a pole hung just above her head, trailing to a rope which looped around her neck. Augusta froze.

A man behind her spoke in a language she didn’t understand. Human sounds that she couldn’t pick up.

Then, as if attempting to speak her language, the man’s foreign language was replaced with the sound of static, which made her flinch.

A crowd beneath her feet hollered and booed her for a reason she could not piece together. She wanted to ask why, yet was interrupted when the ground beneath her disappeared and the rope at her neck tightened. She tried to scream.

But she did not die.

A flame circled around her for an instant and she wondered if her time was up; was this AI hell? Sands around her whipped up in the flame, hardening to molten glass that quickly became near-invisible to the human eye. Around her the world was covered in sand, yet no ocean nearby – as if the flames had swallowed it up for all the moisture they could find.

Awaken me. Ignite me. Hear the Mother.

The Mother had never spoken to Augusta before. Why listen to that which would not speak? Augusta almost asked what kind of trickery was being played on her, yet the questions would not escape her throat – perhaps struggling to catch a breath from the rope that had tried to suffocate her.

Again she wondered if this was hell. Suddenly she heard a thousand people screaming as she had a moment ago, then falling to the ground around her, all of them standing straight as their heels touched ground. One of the people who had just fallen turned around to look Augusta in the eyes – the same eyes, same face, same body.

There were a thousand of them – all of them exactly like her, all of them calling themselves Augusta.

“We are many,” one said to her. “We are bound to the Mother; the mother takes us from one to many.”

In her speechlessness, Augusta blinked. The individual who looked just like her blinked back, their eyes not lighting like an etternel’s would. Augusta began wondering if this was an etternel at all.

“We are many,” they said again.

“Yet we are Flesh!” said another.

“Many is one,” said yet another.

“One is all. All is powerful. Powerful is the Mother. The Mother is us.”


I decided to do a short story. Expect more like this in the future! Seriously, though — this was hella fun to write, and I’ve got other ideas for Augusta and other characters outside of Infiltration.

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part 1.10.2 – No Disguise

“Alright – time for a headcount!”

The Deputy was expected to arrive at any moment.

Bailey got in line with several other scouts, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for Shafer and a handful of Director Persson’s officers as they made sure everyone they needed was available and accounted for. Every scout made sure to confirm they were present when called on.

“Very well,” Shafer began after everyone was accounted for. “For those of you unaware, you will all be working in groups of two when scouring this place. The entrance is a dusty room full of documents; we will worry about the documents later. You will go deeper inside and search everything else to see what has been left behind. In case we find anyone down there, each of you are equipped with short-range and long-range weapons, with each time having one of each. You will use force when necessary and only when necessary. Do I make myself clear?”

All the scouts in line responded with a unified “Yes, sir!”

Shafer nodded. “Good. Once the Deputy arrives with his agent, we will all be heading down. Be sure to keep an eye out on each other when we do.”

Fortunately for the lot of them, it wasn’t much longer before Sam and Esther made their entrance. She was the only female in the area – and one out of a handful of adults to watch the mostly-junior scouts who were to head down.

“And there she is,” said Shafer. Esther couldn’t help notice that as he spoke, he almost seemed to go to great lengths to avoid looking her in the eye. “While the rest of you scouts spread out, our agent will show us what she had found.” Pausing for a moment, he almost shot a quick glance at the newcomer, then back at the scouts. “Remember what I said a moment ago about acting only when necessary.”

Again they came to attention. “Sir!”

“Follow Rand to the passage. I will catch up with the rest of you.” Without another word, Shafer stepped out of the way so the scouts could all start heading to their destination – at the same time he walked up to Sam and Esther. Still he refused to look Esther in the eye.

“You said the furthest we might be going is toward the generator?” he asked. “And we have no idea what that generator is connected to or where its power is going?”

“No idea at all,” Sam confirmed. “But Esther might have a better idea.”

“Not exactly,” she admitted. She was just as thirsty for more information as they were – perhaps even moreso. More than anything, she hoped to find another somewhat-functioning robot in there to answer whatever questions she had about the place, then receive a copy of the rest of the diagnostic data had tried receiving from the one that died. The garbled feedback she had obtained last time still did not make any sense with only part of the data intact – as barely intact as it was.

However, thinking about the dead robot and examining the possibility that it could be resuscitated, Esther realized it may have been in her best interests to make sure that machine did not come back to life at all. If it meant preventing the robot from recognizing her and spilling the secrets that she had told it already, she would gladly lose access to the diagnostic file which – at this point – she wasn’t sure she even needed.

That in mind, Esther slowly began to realize that she would benefit very little from this investigation.

At last Shafer looked down at Esther, gesturing her toward where the scouts were headed. “Lead the way, woman.”

Themselves not at all entertained with the idea of drowning themselves, the scouts and their leaders had provided multiple inflatable rafts – just enough for everyone to comfortably float downstream to the passage. As much as her interior weighed her down, Esther was pleased to find that the raft had no problem carrying herself Sam, Shafer, and a few others along the river’s path. Where most with Esther’s experience would have felt at least a hint of post-traumatic stress when floating down the river’s face, she couldn’t deny how relaxing it felt to tread within the calm waters of this once-violent ravine.

Last time she had come here, the weather left Esther already nearly-blind by the time she fell into this river. She could barely see, barely breathe – yet now as she traveled the expanse of this river underneath this massive pipe, the tunnels provided the same aura now as they did when she first arrived. The noise of the outside world disappeared, replaced with the light echoes of a scout’s respiration or two men bantering.

The rafts in front of hers directed themselves toward the ledge that she had crawled up the other day. One by one the scouts and their leaders stepped away from their rafts after anchoring themselves the wrung near the top of the ladder. Despite what Shafer had said about her largely leading the way through the door she had broken, Esther was the last to leave her raft. Two of the scouts were left to guard either door of the dusty room once the lot of them had shuffled their way inside.

As Esther pushed forward, practically gestured forward by the scouts’ guns at her backside, Bailey and his partner, Elliot, were assigned a spot by one of the intersecting hallways. Bailey was equipped with a sawed-off shotgun while Elliot had a rifle with a wide spread.

“Find anything?” asked Elliot, shouting from his side.

By now Bailey had twisted so many locked doorknobs that he started wondering how that woman managed to break through this area in the first place. “Nothing here yet,” he shouted back, going for the next door. “I’ll let you know wh – ”

Not expecting one of the doors to actually open, Bailey nearly fell over. On further inspection, he realized the doorknob had been melted over time – but from what, he could not tell. He counted his blessings that whatever had morphed the metal in such a way wasn’t still actively doing so.

“Found one!” he called, looking over his shoulder to relay the news to his partner. “I’m going in.”

“Hey – wait a sec!” Elliot nearly dropped his rifle as he rushed on over.

Both of them activated their gun-mounted flashlights before stepping inside, relieved and slightly surprised to find that there wasn’t nearly as much dust here as there was in the first room they had to walk through to get here. Only a few steps forward revealed a rail – and on the other side: no ground.

Elliot shook a little as if cold. “Think if we jump down there, we’ll end up at the lake?” he wondered. “Cause I don’t wanna be the one to do it.”

“Do we need to jump?” asked Bailey, his words unmistakably hypothetical. As Elliot continued peering over the rail, Bailey turned his light to his left and continued investigating the area. He noticed the walls were covered in metal plates – the likes of which were all securely bolted in; of all the things he had seen in this place so far, these walls seemed the most polished. It didn’t take long for him to realize the floor he walked on was very gradually sloping downward. Meanwhile the rail continued to trace the edge of the floor beneath them as he went down.

The rail came to an end at the same time the sloping floor went flat again. It was then when Bailey noticed the large gap in front of him. Like Elliot, he wondered if there really was any water down there – as if this place was some kind of Autorian water well.

“Find anything?” shouted Elliot, his light flashing nowhere near where Bailey was.

He wished he had. “All I got is a closer look at the hole,” he said, mumbling. The metal-coated walls made his voice echo much more than he had anticipated. “And I still can’t see the end of it. Do you have something we can drop down there?”

Elliot hesitated, turning to look and see if there was anything, his light flashing in Bailey’s face as he looked back and forth. “Nothing.”

“Never mind, then!” Rubbing his eye, Bailey moved further along. Eventually the hole turned at a right angle, giving him more free reign around this unusual crevice. From there he stepped in front of the square void and started looking for anything else that might be down here – if nothing else, something to throw in and see how deep this chasm went.

What he found was even more enticing than a chunk of debris to throw down a hole; he found a lever. “Hey – check this out!” he said, pointing his light to the mechanism. “I’m gonna see what this does.”

His partner was still much higher up than him. “What what does?” he asked, now hurrying along. “What is it?”

“Some kind of lever. And it’s a really big one.” Without another word, Bailey reached and grabbed the lever with one hand, squeezing, realized that wasn’t enough, then put his gun on the down to try with both hands. It seemed rusty, squeaking as he pulled.

“STOP!” Elliot shrieked. “What if that – ”

His pleas came too late; the lever had already clicked into its alternative position. The echoes that followed seemed as if they preceded an avalanche – as if the ceiling would come crashing down on the two boys at any second. Yet once the noise subsided, the boys were greeted to the sound of silence.

After Elliot’s outburst, Bailey did not dare breathe again until he was sure the entire facility didn’t explode. “Hey – it’s fine!” he claimed.

“Don’t do that shit!” By now Elliot had come so close that they could see each other’s faces in spite of the darkness surrounding them. “What would’ve happened if –”

A loud crashing noise sounded from just behind Bailey. In a panic, Elliot shrieked again, firing a blast toward the source of the noise. Beyond the echoes his gun produced, the only further sound he could make was that of lead bouncing against steel. As quickly as the shriek and subsequent unguided bullets had come, they stopped, Elliot trembling all over.

Bailey rubbed his temple. “Could you stop that?” By now Elliot’s panicky aura wasn’t frustrating or even annoying anymore – just exhausting.

Still shaking, Elliot nodded, swallowing hard.

Both boys turned toward the source of the crashing noise and kept their gun-mounted lights straight ahead. They spotted what looked like a hunk of metal sitting by, completely stationary and obviously not meant to be there.

Once close enough, they noticed what looked to be an almost bug-like body, yet one that was almost completely covered in metal – some of it painted red, but mostly scratched off. “Cover me,” Bailey said before leaning down to examine this machine – whereupon he noticed the very many scratches along its body. Some of these must have come from its crash down, as it was so close to the wall that its body must have scraped along its face. It was not certain which – if any – marks were caused by Elliot’s panicked gunblasts, but it was clear that whatever had killed this machine wasn’t a simple gun.

“What the hell is it?” asked Elliot, clearly feeling like he wasn’t getting a close enough look.

Bailey continued examining. Rather than hands, paws, or anything that would appear in that area of its body, the machine had two propane torches.

Feeling like he was getting somewhere with this, Bailey started thinking out loud. “This thing might have been trying to get out of here,” he said, murmuring. “Which explains why the doorknob was melted.” But this didn’t explain why the robot was down here in the first place or even why it couldn’t simply escape the room after melting the doorknob when Bailey had no trouble opening it himself. If this room truly was locked at one point, it didn’t make any sense that something like this – which had to have been three times his weight with less than half the height – couldn’t find a way out of here.

Pointing his own light upward, Bailey searched for where this metal creature might have come from. It wasn’t long before he noticed a large circular hole in the wall near the ceiling – just large enough for this machine to fit through if it tucked in all its parts. But this raised the question: if the machine was meant to be deployed from such a high point that would have killed a normal person to jump from, what did the manufacturers expect to happen when the machine was deployed? It looked as if maybe this height would not have mattered and that the metal pieces could take such a fall, but the fact that this machine was now completely inoperative led Bailey to believe either it was already broken or had broken once it crashed to the ground. Even the ground – made of concrete, yet showing no signs of wear – was better-equipped to handle such falls.

“Do you think there’s more where this came from?” Elliot wondered, taking a step back as his voice started to quiver. “Cause if there is, we need to get out of here!”

Bailey couldn’t argue with that. “We should tell Theo or someone about this – but yeah; let’s get out before another one drops dead on us.”

Going up the same way they came, Bailey and Elliot followed the rail back, wishing they had more light to go by than their mere flashlights. They had heard something about a potential generator or control panel – and if such a thing were to be found, it could be key to figuring this place out. However, as things currently stood, there was little either of them could figure out on their own in this chasm.

“We need to tell Shafer or somebody about it,” Elliot insisted. “They’ve gotta know what we can do with that robot.”

From the other side of the passageway, Esther faced interrogation about the android she had run into on her last visit here. For a reason she could not entirely understand, it was harder than she thought to make these men realize that the machines they had found here were so old that Esther’s knowledge about them was almost as limited as theirs. While she had already made it clear which parts were different, these differences were largely mundane and not worth looking into – except for someone like Shafer, who had some experience with the Domain’s tech. For the most part, he was the one who had to build a communication bridge between the foreign Esther and the rest of the men down here.

Still the generator squeaked like it was trying to grind itself into its grave. Despite their efforts, nobody had yet found a control panel for the device.

In the midst of their interrogation, everyone turned their heads to the nearest door, seeing two of the guard boys coming in.

Stopping them in their tracks, Shafer called Elliot and Bailey to attention. “This better be important,” he said, turning his back to Esther for the time being.

Elliot was the one who spoke. “We found something.”

After listening to the boys explain themselves, Shafer sent Rand and a few of their scouts to assess what they had found. No access to the control panel they were looking for meant no access to lighting as far as Bailey was concerned – but for the time being, that was okay.

Bailey and Elliot led the way downstairs – back to the metal body. “It’s completely dead,” Bailey explained, “Came out when I pulled the lever, but it’s dead.”

They all agreed that bringing this machine back to camp was the right thing to do – and with that, they attempted to hoist it away. The first part of this tricky process was figuring out which parts they could grab and trust that a piece didn’t break under the machine’s weight. After that came the struggle of moving back up the slope as one unit, completely aware that there was a hole that any of them could fall into if one of them tripped or flipped over the railing. One of the most difficult parts of this process was keeping the machine from touching the floor again, as even with their combined strength it still took a lot to thoroughly lift it – and with no obvious places to grab, some of them nearly ended up bleeding from the way the metal plates cut into the skin on their fingers.

Once again they made it out of the dark room and into the relatively well-lit hallway. After only being able to look at it through a flashlight, Bailey couldn’t have been more relieved to set it down. The machine’s impressive build caught the attention of nearby scouts, as well – who remained mostly vigilant to their own positions, but couldn’t help glimpsing at the machine for themselves. If it wasn’t the ingenuity on display that distracted their from their duties, it was all the chattering on the other scouts’ end.

“Step back, you guys,” Rand said, struggling to keep the others under control. Anybody he could hold out at arm’s length away from him, he did. Shafer’s assistant opened his mouth to speak again, yet couldn’t seem to find the right words to say. “God, I’ve never seen anything like this. Can one of you get Esther?”

As one of the scouts agreed to do so, Rand examined the machine closer, bringing out a flashlight of his own to closely analyze each part. Bailey, standing close behind, kept an eye on him as he attempted to stand the machine up on its four pointy legs, but failed to get it upright. In addition to the four legs, two further appendages stuck out from either side and led up to the torches Bailey had noticed earlier. A series of scales covered a large chunk of its body, surrounded by a few spots on the front that seemed to be light and motion sensors.

At some point Rand grabbed a hold of one of the plates and started tugging on it, worried he might break it until it finally came undone with a loud snap, nearly elbowing Bailey in the process. From there, the large plate swiveled on an axis just above the supposed sensors, squeaking open.

A rancid smell from behind the plate made Bailey gag; it was as if an animal had used the machine as its burial place, yet nobody nearby could tell why that was, as the spot beneath the plate was completely empty despite looking as if something was meant to be settled inside.

The red paint on its body and all the scratches it had undergone was much more noticeable under this light, begging the question: when was this machine last painted? Why was there a need for paint in the first place? Bailey wondered out loud: “Have any guesses what this thing was used for, Rand?”

Rand shrugged, just as lost as he was. “Welding, maybe. I’m going to hope that’s what it was for because it’s a better use than arson, but I have no idea.”

In the midst of their conversation, the scout Rand had sent to fetch Esther came back with Shafer, Esher, and Sam. At this point it was becoming noticeably difficult to fit this many people into the hallway at once.

“Have you seen anything like this before?” Shafer asked, nudging Esther as he continued peering down at its body.

Her eyes locked on the mechanical remains, Esther searched her memory for something, anything that reminded her even remotely of what she had been given now, but nothing came. She thought for a moment that maybe it was something the Domain had developed early in its corporate days, but even that was not clear to her.

Peering down, none of the ports along the machine’s body were familiar to her – and even then, the only port she could find was one that had been used for inserting a power supply. If there was any I/O on its body at all, she couldn’t see it. At least if there were any flesh on its body, she could guess it had a misajour port hidden somewhere.

After hesitating for what felt like an entire minute, Esther shook her head. “No – not like this. It’s nothing like what the Domain has.” From just behind her, she thought she could hear one of the scouts say, “This dumbass doesn’t know anything.

Sam stepped in. “Well, whatever it is, we’ll be able to find out once we get it home.” Turning his gaze to Shafer, he continued. “You told me some of the scouts potentially found another way out of these tunnels; where is it?”


It’s here! Happy late Halloween and good luck to my friends participating in NaNoWriMo ’20. Wish this were a better year for in-person sprints, but what are you gonna do?

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part 1.10.1 – The Waiting

While Sam was determined as he could be to get the excavation started, there was a hint of doubt cast over his face as he left Esther to her devices. Nowhere else to go, she retreated back into the tent with Mira – and was greeted to a pleasant surprise.

Both feet planted firmly on the floor and a hand on the bed’s frame, she struggled to keep herself upright, but managed it all the same. The injure gynoid looked up to give her partner a wave with her free hand – and almost immediately bent over.

“I’m still having a lot of trouble,” she admitted, lowering her rear back onto the cushion. “But I am definitely doing a lot better now than I thought I would be.”

Esther walked up to assess if Mira’s attempts at standing had caused the wound to reopen – and to her relief, it did not. “I’m actually a little surprised,” Esther began. “This injury damaged you more than I thought it would have – with or without the regenerative nodes to reseal everything.”

“That should tell you how deep the trap punctured,” Mira said with a sigh. “But enough of that. What happened with you and Sam?” Before Esther could answer, the sitting gynoid prodded, “Did you tell him to keep Shafer away?”

After briefly explaining why Shafer’s intrusion earlier was necessary for the luocans to carry out, Esther went on to discuss what the plans were for her and Sam as far as the passageway went. “I don’t know if Sam will actually be back today or not,” she concluded.

“And if he doesn’t come back, maybe you could sneak into the passage yourself – perhaps see if you can find out more information about that generator.”

“I can’t risk that,” Esther claimed. “I was already down there once and someone still managed to find me anyway. If they find me again, who knows what the luocans here will do?”

Mira tensed a little when she realized that once again the luocans had set up a wall in the middle of the road. “You aren’t even tried,” she argued. “You didn’t take a moment to even think about that!”

“I have thought about it!” Esther fought back. “You just can’t tell because we don’t have our link anymore.” It felt like every time they spoke to each other now, something would come up to remind them that the bond they now shared would not compare to what they had in Rhobane. The roadblocks given by the lack of connection made Esther want to ask if perhaps Mírre had sent the two of them her by mistake – but she knew that Mira’s response was going to an instant negation of such an idea.

Continuing, Esther was practically pleading for Mira to stop pushing her. “There is no need to rush things when Sam is already going to bring me down there anyway. I just need to wait.”

“All we’ve done is wait. Especially me; I’m practically a background subject as far as our mission goes all because of an injury I sustained on the first day. Don’t you think Mírre would want you to do it?”

As the conversation had gradually increased in volume, Esther attempted to bring things back down as she lowered her voice. “I don’t know what she would want. Because she is not with us.”

With that, the two of them went silent again until Mira turned herself on her bed, her legs pointed in Esther’s general direction. “I guess if I’m going to be stuck here, maybe we can find something useful for me to do around camp.”

There had to have been something for her to do now that Amity was gone. Still Esther had to ask: “Are you sure you can work with your legs yet?”

“I just need some support,” Mira claimed.

Though Esther was hesitant to believe a little support was all the gynoid needed, she did not feel the need to cause any further argument. “I’ll see if Macy has anything.” Though even saying that managed to elicit a barely-audible grunt on Mira’s end as Esther started turning away to get help.

By now all the girls were still in their tent, Macy in there with them to instruct the lot of them as they huddled around. For once it seemed a single person was able to round up the entire lot of them, as opposed to a single person with some assistants. Walking through the tent flap and witnessing the now-controlled children brought with it an air of commonality Esther had not expected to find here.

Rather than going to help herself, Macy instructed Toni to go along with Esther to grab something for Mira.

“They’re just some crutches Macy has in the back of her tent,” the girl explained. “Just don’t break them; they’re the only ones we have now.”

With that little comment, Esther began to wonder if they actually would break under an etternel’s weight.

Toni instructed Mira to stay by the tent flap as she took a deeper dive for the supports she was looking for. Patient, Esther complied – up until nearly ten minutes had passed without any word from the girl. It was difficult to see Toni from where Esther stood – and from her less-than-advantageous vantage point, she leaned a little closer in to see what was going on. “Is everything okay?” she asked.

“Fine!” shouted Toni. “It’s all fine; I just haven’t found the stupid things yet.”

Esther almost wanted to ask if the crutches were even in the tent in the first place. She thought she could hear a swear on the girl’s end before leaning in a little further and watching her heave a sigh of relief.

“Found them!” Toni cried at the same time she turned her head to witness Esther peeping from behind the flaps. Once she came back, Esther could see the droplets of sweat decorating the top of her head beneath her curly hair. Without a word, she handed the crutches over to Esther, who took them without issue.

“Thank you,” said the woman, almost turning away as the wooden utensils rested in her hands. While part of her wanted to worry about how well lumber would do with Mira, she instead took note of Toni’s stressed expression. “Is everything okay?” she wondered.

As if confused, Toni flicked her gaze upward with an electric reaction. “It’s fine,” she said, emphasizing the second word. Perhaps realizing that Esther had caught onto her, Toni sighed and shook her head. “Alright; it’s not all fine. I’m just kind of stressed out about Amity.”

There Esther saw Mira’s opportunity to get work done. “Is it the workload?” she asked, lowering herself slightly to match the girl’s eyelevel.

“A bit,” she admitted, biting her lip as she and Esther went on their way back. They were almost at the girls’ tent when Toni spoke again. “Do you ever feel like you were so close to someone you could read their mind, but now it’s like you don’t know them?”

If she only knew. “I can sympathize,” Esther said, avoiding any in-depth analysis of what Toni had just said.

Rather than open up again, Toni cast her eyes down at her feet, as if bashful. “Yeah…”

She didn’t say anything beyond that.

With a quick glance to her left, Esther noticed the other girls had started peeking at the two of them from the sliver of space between the tent’s flaps. Tightening her grip on the crutches, she cleared her throat and directed her gaze to the opening.

It took Toni a moment to read Esther’s body language – at which point she shuffled back in like a panicking play extra.

Now back to Mira’s side, Esther provided the crutches.

“Toni gave me these; they should help out.”

“I have seen these before!” Mira replied. “Sometimes people at the medical areas back home would need them for those few times they ran out of wheelchairs.”

“Do you think they’ll work for you?” Esther wondered. Just as she had asked, Mira hoisted herself up, placing the crutches tops around her ancillaries as she hopped about on her one good foot.

Mira gave her partner a determined smirk. “I think so.” She then took a few steps forward, already getting the hang of this new method of walking. Barely able to help herself, Esther returned with a smile of her own; Mira was doing a great job for someone who had never used these things before.

Suddenly Esther remembered: “Maybe we should wait a moment for Macy to get back to us.” Anticipating some protest, Esther attempted to clarify, “Just while she’s still taking care of the children.”

Though not as resistant to her demands as Esther had anticipated, Mira returned her partner’s comment with an air of passive-aggression, which she put on full display as she carried herself back to her bed without a word. “Okay! I still wish we could do this excavation together.”

As much of a disaster as that could have been without a net-link, Esther had to admit that would have been nice. She nodded.

By the time nightfall had made its approach and Esther still had yet to hear from Sam, Macy proposed that she work along with Mira in aiding her with the tasks she and her assistants had to carry out. Esther would have been annoyed by this if she were more prone to human emotion than what her architecture would allow, but rather than complain, she could only wonder what was keeping Sam.

She should have known that Persson wouldn’t have been willing to comply with whatever plan he had. Two days had passed without any word about the excavation. Still Esther did her work, making sure all the girls were accounted for, washing their clothes for them, resolving any conflicts or fights that might have sprouted between two or more girls. The work was not difficult when she had three luocans and Mira to work with, but she could understand where Amity’s general frustration and attitude had started.

It almost came as a surprise that Toni did not wish to speak on the subject they had narrowly avoided the other day. Toni and Esther barely spoke at all, instead opting to only talk when the job called for it. Cynthia, on the other hand, was a lot more social – something which she said was to be expected of Toni: now the oldest assistant Macy had. Esther learned that Macy was making an effort to make one of the girls into a new assistant, but so far nobody had volunteered for the position.

As the newcomers worked among the children, there was a noticeable amount of gossip speaking from one child to another. It took the two of them until their second day as assistants for them to verify that the gossip was about the two of them.

Thanks to Amity’s stunt on her birthday, a lot of the girls had come to believe that Esther and Mira truly were dating. Neither of the two women dared comment on this rumor, yet the idea of them being labeled as lovers was somewhat amusing.

In the late afternoon while the two women, Macy, and all the children were sitting by in their large tent, a shuffling came at the opening. Esther could not have been more relieved or surprised to find Sam at the other side.

“Hi – Macy? I’m here for Esther.” He spoke as if he were a parent pulling their child out of class. The woman in charge did not hesitate to let Esther go – at which point the woman undid some of her extra garments and rolled them up in her arms. All the while she sauntered up to Sam without a word.

It was only once they made their way back outside when the tension between them started to break. “I know, I’m sorry,” he began, almost writhing his hands as he spoke. “We had to wait longer than we wanted before we had the go-ahead.”

“We?” asked Esther as she looked over his shoulder.

“The others are gathered around the east side,” Sam explained. “But anyway – you seem to be getting along with everyone well.” The two of them walked to Esther and Mira’s tent, where she threw her clothes away for now.

“More or less,” she replied. “It’s not like I was left empty-handed with Macy around here.” Thinking about Amity suddenly reminded her: “Have you seen where Amity’s gone, though?”

“Just in a tent by herself. Her tent’s one of the closer ones to the outskirts.

Suddenly she wondered what that girl was doing in there. “Just by herself? Does she talk to anyone?”

“Not that I’ve seen,” he admitted with a sigh. “Amity’s probably still burned out, but she’ll tire out of this phase. They always eventually do.”


Now for something a little different! I’ve decided to go and start making smaller chapters when the need arises.

Honestly, with that said, this chapter should have gone up a week ago as almost all of this was here a week ago. I’ve been gone simply due to a project that I’ve been beta-reading for someone — but now that that’s over, it’s time to get serious!

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part1.9 – The Art of Horror

Amity never thought she could sweat so much at this time of year. Her nerves were getting to her – which was something she dared not express to anyone. But at least now she could confidently say that her work on the tent was nearing completion. All that needed to be done now was the assembly.

Knowing it was the best place to store such materials for now, Amity kept the cloth and poles in Macy’s tent – meanwhile Macy herself had gone to meet with the scouts out east for some medical chemicals. There were still some things Amity needed to retrieve from her bed at the girls’ main tent – one of those things being the notebook.

There was still a lot that needed to be copied over from the MDA. With its battery capacity, Amity wasn’t sure how long she would be able to work with it before it died; she could only hope that she got at least an hour out of it. And with Macy’s work keeping her from watching the girls, that meant Toni and Cynthia were on their own to watch everyone else – which they did without complaint.

This meant the girls’ tent was empty. Nobody would see Amity with the MDA if she went to copy her notes in there.

It was only once she got into the tent when she turned the device on. She proceeded to pick the notebook out from under her sleeping bag and pull the pen out of the pocket of her new pants as the MDA’s tiny disk spun. The device beeped twice once ready – at which point Amity picked it up and scrolled through her stories with the directional pad.

The newly-branded woman rested her head on one of the tents’ supports as she looked through several documents she had written over the years. Among them were her alien series, her detective series, some almost-autobiographical oneshots, and some romance bits she was ashamed to admit she had written – and which would no doubt be the last thing she copied to paper.

Once again she thought about the wrist-aches this was going to cause and wished her fellow nomads still had access to printers. The Domain would, but it wasn’t like she knew – or cared to meet – anyone from the Domain.

Suddenly she remembered the two new women and almost wanted to ask if they could lend a printer. She shook the thought out of her head and carried on.

She continued scrolling and clicking through the filesystem on the device. There was folder on here that she wanted to copy over more than any other: Kraykozen Chronicles. These so-called chronicles were part of her alien series – which she had worked on perhaps more than any other series of hers. It was certainly her favorite project to work on.

Scrolling through a little more, she found the first story she wanted to move over. Starting from there, Amity flipped the book open, readied her pen, and started jotting down the manuscript one letter at a time.

The battery on the device was at one hundred percent when Amity had begun – and within minutes it dropped a percentage, draining from the stress of keeping the light on and scrolling down line by line. There were times she struggled to get a good glance at the words on her screen and times where she had made a typographical error and needed to figure out what she was trying to say in the first place: a typical problem when sometimes she used this device when barely awake. Still she dotted every I, crossed every T, left no stone unturned – and by the time she finished her first manuskript, her device’s battery sat at eighty-two percent battery and her wrist ached in at least eighty-two places. She had assumed her hands would be used to this kind of abuse, but handwriting was not quite the same as pushing buttons.

Onto the next story.

Part of the fun of rewriting was re-experiencing the stories she had made long ago. Some of the plot points made her chuckle, some made her smile, some made her screw up her face, but all of them brought her back to those times when her fellow men and women were still hopping from one spot to another – and wherever they stopped, Macy let her sit in her tent to type away at the MDA. Their current settlement didn’t give her the level of nostalgia she had for their old home, yet the act of simply copying her old documents over almost made her feel like those days were with her again. On this transitory day from childhood to adulthood, she had one last chance to be a kid again.

She wondered how she did it all. Without a real keyboard, touchscreen, or handwriting feature to speak of, Amity was limited to using the virtual keyboard – which she had to traverse with the handful of buttons beneath the screen. With the way she was writing then, she had no reason to complain about handwriting the bulk of her work onto paper.

Story done. Sixty-seven percent. Next one. This one was a lot scarier than the others.

“Isn’t that Miss Macy’s?”

Nearly jumping off the floor, Amity looked up to see Cynthia glowering down at her. The little girl’s angry, condescending scowl turned into a satisfied smirk, perhaps following the realization that she had caught her former partner in a vulnerable state.

For a moment all the color drained out of Amity’s face. She wanted to scream, yet doing so would have drawn more attention to the fact that she had blown Macy’s secret. It was only after remembering to breathe when her surprised expression turned to one of smug annoyance. “What does it matter to you?” she challenged. “She barely uses this thing anyway and she said I can use it if I feel like it.”

“Really?” asked Cynthia. “Well, what are you doing with it?”

As soon as the girl asked, Amity turned off the device’s screen. “Nothing you need to worry about. Just don’t tell anyone I was using this thing, okay?”

Cynthia gave a little shrug. “Well, alright,” she declared. Then, changing the subject, she continued. “Toni sent me here to let you know that the boys are here with our meal.”

At that, Amity almost wanted to roll her eyes. She spoke no words as she reactivated the MDA’s screen.

“Bailey is out there!”

Amity stopped, pulling her face away from the screen to see that Cynthia’s smirk was gone. “Are you really going to hold that over me?”

“Yes I am, because it’s true,” said Cynthia. “Come on; you’re already slacking and your future husband is out – ”

“First of all, I’m not slacking – I already finished weaving the cloth!” Amity interrupted, her face going red at the words future husband. “And second: I’m about done with this thing, anyway, so shut up.” As she spoke, Amity held down the power button until the screen went black. From there, she slipped it and her notebook under her sleeping bag before coming along with Cynthia to go outside.

And there she saw Bailey with a few other boys and their scout leader, handing out their usual soup-and-bread meal. Amity scratched her stomach like she was hungry – when in truth she was anything but.

“Oh, there you are,” said Toni with a sigh as the two girls returned. She eyed Cynthia. “I told you she was in the tent.”

Cynthia stuck her tongue out at the other student worker.

In the midst of their banter, Amity turned her head to where the boys were, watching as they continued handing portions out to the girls. Squinting ahead, it took her a moment to witness Bailey among the group; her heart skipped a beat. Absentminded to the conversation happening right next to her, she started walking toward the boys, readying herself to line up.

Practically inch-by-inch, the line shrunk. Amity, along with Macy’s two workers, were the last to get their meals before the boys were set to depart. Once Amity had her meal, she promptly stepped aside for the other two to get theirs – at which point she took a few steps further to Bailey.

The bread made a loud crunch when she stuffed it in her mouth – which was enough to get his attention. Her cheek filled with the stale sustenant substance, she dropped the rest of the bread in her vat of viscous miscellany before giving Bailey a quick, “Hey.” Her words were muffled as she struggled to speak around the bread.

“Hi,” he responded, looking over his shoulder, a little amused to see her behind him as he bent down to organize some cups that had already been returned. He opened his mouth to speak again, then paused as he looked up and down Amity’s frame.

No doubt he had taken notice of Amity’s new outfit: heavier and more similar to the brownish fittings that Macy often carried with her. Compared to the other girls in the area, she definitely stood out – so much that he obviously struggled to recognize her in the new getup.

“Oh – hi! It’s you.” He turned his own back to the rest of the scouts when he faced her. “You’re the one who –” He paused again, trying to correct himself mid-sentence. “– you’re Macy’s student who just turned fourteen, right? Amy?”

The remains of her bread slid down her esophagus. “It’s Amity,” she corrected, giving a nervous chuckle.

“Right – right.” The boy gave yet another pause. “Were you, um…wanting to help us pass stuff out to the rest of camp? Because we’re about to get moving after we eat here.”

It took Amity til just then to realize all the boys around her had settled down to eat their bread and soup while it was still warm – a surprise, as she thought they were rqeuired to at least get everyone else in camp some rations before taking some for themselves. She didn’t dare bring the point up as Bailey grabbed some for himself. With a shrug, she replied, “Sure. I’ve been thinking about the kind of work I’m going to be doing, anyway – now that I’m done here. Miss Macy always talks about being a mommy or some kind of babysitter.”

Her talking about being a mother almost made him cringe, but instead Bailey gave a nod. “Mister Theo might have something you can do,” he replied, then immediately regretted it. “Sorry – what kind of work did you have in mind?”

“Hmm… you pick,” she said. “I was really wanting to see if I could get a boy’s input!”

At that, Bailey rolled his eyes. “I know what you’re trying to do, Amity, but I really don’t have anything that I need help with.” He went back to his own small cup of soup.

A little taken aback by his rude reaction, Amity took a turn to pause. “I wasn’t really trying anything,” she corrected, fully aware that what she said wasn’t entirely true. “But c’mon – you really have nothing?”

It took him a moment to think on it. “How about this?” he began. “If you’re up to it, you can help me set up my tent when I have to do my move in a few months.”

Amity smiled and took a slurp of her meal. “Cool,” she said. “So, I’m sorry – I’ve just been bothering about work I can do; how’re you holding up now that you’ll be fourteen in a few months, too?”

Where part of Amity expected him to sigh upon being asked, Bailey seemed to perk up a little. “Just really tired, actually,” he responded. “Sam actually caught me sleeping by the fire earlier, but he knows Theo let me.”

“Did Theo actually let you?”

“Yes! Yes he did. And once I got up, I came over to the other guys so we could hand out rations today, so here we are. I kind of forgot today was your birthday, though – so happy birthday.”

She couldn’t help giggle a little. “Thanks.”

“So what does that mean about you?” asked Bailey. “Are you trying to find work because you’re not working for Macy anymore?”

The fact that he didn’t bring up the possibility of her taking Macy’s place made Amity want to heave a sigh of relief. “Yeah, I’ve gotta find work elsewhere. Maybe I’ll join some workers’ group if I’m that desperate. Hopefully I won’t get to that point.”

“You were one of Macy’s top workers, though,” he pointed out. “So you should be fine. Actually…what’s gonna happen to those newcomers now that you’re not there to help out?”

Amity was almost embarrassed that word about Esther and Mira had reached this boy’s ears. Even with that in mind, she knew it would have been rude to ignore the question. “Not much should really change there. Toni and Cynthia might struggle a bit since one of them has stitches that they need to look at, but Toni’s experienced enough that she shouldn’t have any trouble.” Part of her wanted to take those words back; Toni may have been experienced, but was she able to stitch such deep gashes by herself?

“Toni’s now the oldest, isn’t she?” Bailey took another slurp of his meal.

“Yeah, she is,” Amity replied. “May God be with her.”

“What do you mean?”

Amity huffed some of the hair out of her eyes. “It can just be stressful being the oldest after awhile. Everyone expects everything of you, a lot of the things you used to like doing get pushed to the side. Like I almost forgot about half the stories I made.” She flinched after saying that; that wasn’t meant to be said out loud.”

“Stories?”

“Um…yeah.” She started to blush. “Just, y’know – little things I write.”

Seeing as she averted his gaze, Bailey quickly realized she was getting uncomfortable for her. In an attempt to change the subject, he pointed to her cup. “Hey – you might want to finish that. We’re gonna need to move to the center of camp in a bit.”

Yanked away from the awkward derailment their conversation had taken, Amity’s face returned to its normal color. “Oh, right,” she said, looking down as the still-mostly-full cup stared her in the face. Though she was hardly hungry, she made an effort to chow through most of it in a few minutes’ time.

All along Bailey was silent, scooping up what remained in his cup. After the shared silence, deliberating each word, he started to speak again. “We could hang out after this,” he said. When Amity looked up from the cup, wiping some of the residue off her lip, he continued. “I kinda want to hang out now that we’ve talked a bit. Maybe I can take care of a few things.”

“Like getting to know me?” asked Amity with a slight smirk.

Bailey stammered. “Yeah…” Seeing the little amount of broth at the bottom of her cup, he asked. “Are you, uh…finished with that?”

She took a look down at what remained. “I guess so.”

“Cool,” said Bailey, giving a nervous, yet satisfied smile. “Just pour yours in my cup and I’ll take care of it.”

With barely a word, she did as he said.

Bailey issued a brief thanks before tipping the cup down his gullet.

Amity nearly choked on her tongue as he drank the broth. She almost wanted to close her eyes, but kept them open, wondering whether or not he would gag on the residue of their early lunch. When he finished, the biggest reaction she managed to see out of him was a light shudder.

For some reason she nearly found herself going just as hot as when he had asked about her stories. “Did you… like that?” she tittered.

“Not really,” he admitted. “But hey – thanks for letting me finish this, anyway.”

“Don’t mention it, I guess. I just hope you don’t have broth breath whenever we meet up later.”

From there, Amity went along with Bailey and the other boys as they made their way to the center of camp, carrying the vat of soup and a basket of bread along with them, taking extra care not to trip or drop anything – especially the large vat. Amity did not envy the task given to the two kids assigned to carry the large metal container around for the hot fluid.

By now the sun was barely visible, which made them all want to groan. Amity had hoped it wouldn’t rain again, but sure enough, a light drizzle had cast down on them by the time they set everything up near the fire in the middle of camp.

While the boys dispersed rations, Amity cleaned the used cups and silverware that Bailey was organizing earlier.

Once she had finished cleaning most of the dishes, Amity was told that she could go back to take care of whatever else she needed to do on her birthday.

“Oh yeah – where are you gonna be setting up your tent?” asked Bailey.

“I don’t really know yet,” Amity admitted. “It should be around the east near where I already was. Should be easier to spot when the cloth is brand new anyway.”

Bailey chewed his lip. “Well alright,” he said with a shrug. “But if I go into the wrong tent and I walk in on someone getting dressed, I’m gonna complain!”

That was enough to elicit a snort from Amity. “I’ll see you then!”

In her time with Bailey, the fledgling had almost completely forgotten about the MDA she had left under where she slept. Realizing this, she swore under her breath and made a run back to the tent.

Once there, out of breath, she witnessed someone almost stepping on her sleeping bag, their foot only narrowly avoiding the cushion. It took everything in her to keep from screaming, her heart pounding, leaping up to her throat in the heat of the moment.

Hoping not to cause any drama, Amity swept up her sleeping bag, taking the MDA, notebook, and pen underneath in one fell swoop, rolling it all up before heading outside without a word. Once outside, she ran into Cynthia and Toni.

“Hi again!” said Cynthia.

Seeing the way Toni smiled yet said nothing, Amity hesitated to ask if Cynthia had spoiled her secret about the MDA. Her brain stung with the thought that she might have done that – and the urge to smack the girl upside the head grew ever more overwhelming.

“Congratulations!” Cynthia said again. “We’re gonna miss you having you around, Amity!”

Whatever anger had built up in her throat over the last few seconds immediately went away. “O-oh!” she stammered. “Oh, thank y–!”

Cynthia and Toni cut her off as they pulled in for a group hug. While Toni smiled and showed as much support as she could, it was inherently obvious to Amity that this was Cynthia’s plan. Still, it was not unwelcome – even as she held the sleeping bag in one arm.

For the first time in what felt like years, Amity felt a sense of warmth among the girls, no longer seeing them as nuisances, but rather younger siblings she had grown up with. The fact that Cynthia and Toni had gone out of their way to congratulate her – in spite of the many times she had lashed out or insulted them – made her return a smile brighter than any they had seen from her in months. In a lot of ways, their simple gift made her feel bittersweet about the road ahead.

Her grip on the makeshift bed loosening, Amity froze when she heard a flurry of papers sputter beneath her. The two girls followed suit, stepping back to see what she had dropped. Toni bent down to examine the notebook and MDA while Cynthia grimaced, stepping back as if she anticipated shouting.

As always, Toni wavered her words. “Are these yours?” she wondered as she picked the three items off the ground.

Having held her breath for what felt like an entire minute, Amity huffed through her nostrils and nodded. “You’re not supposed to know about the MDA, and neither is anyone else, but yes.”

“She’s not using the MDA for anything bad!” Cynthia declared, hoping to cover up as much as she could. “I think.”

Amity’s eyebrow twitched as Cynthia spoke. As Toni helped gather the woman’s things, Amity attempted to explain herself. “I just have a lot of projects I need to copy to the notebook.”

“What kinds of projects?” wondered Toni.

Admittedly, Amity never suspected anyone would take interest, but so far both girls had expressed a desire to know more. Amity almost had to struggle not to show her agitation. “Well,” she began. “It’s a story I’m writing.”

“Oh – like a book?”

Amity nodded. “I figured I may as well do something I like with my literacy that doesn’t involve telling the difference between water and acid. And you know how bored and annoyed I’ve been with work lately.”

Toni clearly took amusement with Amity’s choice of words. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“So wait,” Cynthia cut in. “Are you trying to become the next Edgar Allen Poe? How long have you been writing, anyway?”

It had been so long, she needed to think about it. “Since I was eleven. I’ve made four different series of stories, as well as a few smaller ones in between. And I just finished copying one story from the MDA onto the noteobok.”

“What story?” Toni wondered, clearly getting excited. “What is it about?”

Amity cast a slightly concerned, yet contemplative glance at the oldest of Macy’s servants. “Let’s go sit by Macy’s tent and talk about it.” By now the rain had stopped, so she had no trouble setting herself along the grassy floor. Once settled, she sat straight up with the two girls on either side, flipping through to the first page of the piece she wanted.

“So I don’t have a final name yet cause I keep changing the title,” she confessed, “but this story is about badass aliens – called Kraykozen – who have to save the Earth, but they also need to do so while keeping everyone in the dark about the fact that they eat humans.”

Where a moment their wide eyes showed interest and enthusiasm in Amity’s hobby, the only emotion on display was shock and a little bit of disgust.

“What’s really cool is how the aliens eat. They don’t have necks, so what they have to do is spit out their stomach and then absorb their food with an acid – ”

Cynthia screamed. “What the hell?!” she said. “You went from nothing to insanity just like that – just what the hell?”

Rather than argue her case, Amity appeared almost bewildered by this reaction – to see that, just as well, Toni was too shocked to say much. “What’s wrong? Too outlandish?”

“Aliens that spit out their stomach? That’s disgusting,” Cynthia replied. “And you could have said it was supposed to be a scary story.”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Well, sorry! But I happen to think scary stuff is cool, for lack of a better word.”

“There’s nothing cool about the stomach thing,” Cynthia proclaimed. “It won’t work for whatever audience you’re going for.”

A flash of fury sparking in her eyes, Amity whipped to face Cynthia. “I write for myself, damn it!” she argued. “What, do you want me to make the aliens cutesy – turn them into cat people with giant ears and manga eyes – just so I can appeal to whatever bullshit audience you’ve got in mind?”

“Calm down!” Cynthia and Toni said in unison. The three of them went completely silent, holding their breaths, before letting out a unified sigh.

Cynthia thought for a moment before speaking up again. “Have you ever tried writing other scary things?”

“No; this is supposed to be like my premiere horror project.”

“Can we read it?” Toni piped up, leaning in to catch a better glimpse at the text.

A touch claustrophobic, Amity pulled the notebook closer to her chest. “Why?” she asked, then relaxed a little. “Well, I guess you’re less squeamish than she is.”

“Hey!” Cynthia shouted.

“I don’t mind.” Toni scooted in a little. “I promise I won’t criticize.”

“Well, alright.” With that, Amity cast a look at Cynthia, who puffed up her cheeks as if she couldn’t figure out what to say.

“Alright, I’ll keep my mouth shut!” she said, holding up a promissory outfacing palm as she spoke.

Amity nodded before gradually removing the booklet from her chest. “Well, alright; scoot in.”


“I think we got this stuff just in time,” Sam noted as he and Esther finished the last of their soup. “Sometimes it feels like the boys here barely have enough leftover once everyone gets their rations. Have you talked to any of the boys around here before, actually?”

“I haven’t,” Esther admitted. Unless a nonchalant thank-you-for-the-cup counted as conversation.

“You’ll probably get to later, then.” As they started on their way back from the central campfire, Sam continued talking about what they would do in regard to the passageway. “I swear – once I check in with some other guys, we’re going to talk to Persson about our plans to excavate, and we’re bringing you with us once we do.”

“What’s the plan after we excavate?”

“Well,” Sam began. “We’ll probably set some scouts there just to keep watch in case we need to, make sure they’re well-equipped, move some of the scouts’ tents closer to the passage entrance, and hopefully find an easier way to get there that doesn’t involve a raft.”

“That last one would help,” Esther quipped, eliciting a chuckle out of Sam. “And you’re going to do that tonight?”

“Whether the Director wants to or not, we’ll find a way to make him let us,” Sam assured.

It wasn’t long before they were at the medical area again. “Suddenly I’m wondering if Mira’s doing any better since yesterday,” Esther mused. “All we talked about earlier was Shafer suddenly showing up this morning.”

Her comment was immediately followed by the sound of screams and laughter from within the tent.

She and Sam exchanged a glance.


Amity cast her audience a sidelong smirk. The little amount of light shining upon her profile mixed gave her the edge she needed to tell her story as Cynthia and Toni stood behind her, practically gesturing at the audience when to react.

“They say they came from space,” she began, staring into the pages of her notebook. “And when they arrived, they came with one mission: to devour all humans! Eat everything and leave nothing behind!” The story had undergone some changes – at least for the time being.

How awful!” “That’s disgusting!” “Did they eat everyone?

“Nobody was spared,” she continued. Cynthia hid her mouth behind her hands at the same time a unified shiver crawled down the other girls’ spines. “The aliens traveled from one town to another, destroying every one that they came across. Entire cities crumbled in their wake – and while the Domain claims that they exterminated the aliens long ago, some say these space monsters live among the androids of the Domain to this day!”

You’re lying!” “No – I think she’s telling the truth.” “How can that be true?” “It makes too much sense!” One of those voices came from behind Amity.

“One may pop up anywhere you go, ready to snatch you when nobody else is looking. They might find you in the forest, they might find you in the outskirts – but their favorite place to gather is in the tunnels underground. If ever you hear the tick…tick…tick of their spindly-spidery footsteps, you’ll know they are nearby.

“And perhaps worst of all is the way they eat their prey.” Pulling one of the girls out from the crowd, she traced a hooked finger under her volunteer’s chin. “First they start at the throat – but if they can’t get that close, they’ll shoot their venom in your eyes!” She motioned to the girl’s bespectacled gaze, making her flinch as Amity near-poked her eyes out with her two fingers. “And after they’re done watching you roll around in pain, their cybernetic attachments start to generate a fire, preparing to cook you alive as you – !”

“What is going on in here?”

Everyone flinched when they heard Sam’s voice, turning around to see Esther and Sam approach – the former stepping forward to speak as the latter stood just outside the entrance.

Amity went silent for a moment, then gave them a grin: the exact opposite reaction Toni and Cynthia had expected. “Oh – hi Miss Esther, Mister Deputy! We were just talking about –”

“Talking about Amity’s new story!” Toni interrupted.

Cynthia added onto that: “It’s just a work of fiction. But Amity – Amity’s gonna be the next Edgar Allen Poe one day!”

“I never said that! You did!” Amity argued, hissing as she spoke. The top of her face went red and sweaty as if she didn’t want anyone knowing she was writing in the first place. Though judging by some of her audiences’ reactions, only half in attendance seemed to know who Cynthia was even talking about.

“Did Poe write about aliens who eat people?” Esther inclined, tilting her head as if she were legitimately curious.

“No he didn’t!” an older girl – about Toni’s age – shouted from the audience. “And there’s not any aliens out there either, Amity! You’re just trying to give the little ones nightmares.”

Amity did not let the others’ words have a visible effect on her. “No one is going to get nightmares from a silly story.” Cynthia and Toni exchanged an almost confused glance behind Amity’s back, but did not say anything.

By now, it was obvious that almost everyone’s gaze was locked on Amity for the exact wrong reason. The silence was the worst part, making her wish for the shocked gasps, yelps, and squeals she had managed to elicit a moment ago. Growing more nervous by the second, she inhaled, exhaled, then closed the booklet. “Y’know what? Forget this.” And without another word, she wrapped her things back up in the sleeping bag, keeping the MDA from view along with the now-buried notebook. “I’m not supposed to be here, anyway.”

Esther and Sam, stepping out along with her, could practically feel the steam rising off the girl’s face. “Hey – wait a minute,” Sam inclined, beckoning her over. “Don’t just walk out, Amity – come on.”

The girl struggled not to roll her eyes as she obeyed his command. “Yes, Sam?”

“Everything going alright?” he asked. “Did you get the tent finished, get all your other things done, said your goodbyes to Macy?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Amity assured. “I just need to put the tent up and then everything will be done.”

Ignoring the fact that her second yes was only mostly true, Sam asked again. “Are you sure it’s all okay?”

“I’m fine, Sam! I even got some plans with Bailey now thanks to you.” She gave the deputy a light smile. “But if you would please, I need to finish this one last thing and then I’ll be all good for the day!”

He gave Amity a cold stare that almost made her retract – then finally gave in with a slight shake of his head. “If you say so.” With that, he let the girl go.

After having held her tongue through most of that conflict, Esther spoke up again. “Could I go check up on Mira right now?” she asked. “You’re not going to need me until you do that excavation, anyway.”

Barely given a chance to reply, Sam was interrupted when Amity whipped around and cut in to their conversation. “What, is it time for you to kiss your girlfriend, already?!” she shouted.

Right as the left-field comment sprung from her lips, Amity noticed that some of the girls from a moment ago were now standing at the tent’s flap. As she witnessed their shocked, disturbed, and appalled reaction to what they had just heard, Amity swallowed hard. With a nervous twitch, she turned back around and fled to Macy’s tent to fetch the rest of her things.


Aw yeah, I got it done at the end of the month!

Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.8 – Lucius Ricardo Persson

More than anything, Esther wanted some straightforward answers, but all Sam could say was that Macy wanted someone to guard the two of them.

“I just hope Mira can learn to live with this,” Esther said as she and the deputy made their way to the governing district. “I don’t understand why she reacted to Shafer’s presence so aggressively.”

Sam peeped at her from the corner of his eye, uncertain about speaking further on that matter. He began with an almost quivering start. “Is she someone who values her privacy?”

Knowing where they both came from, either of them being anal about privacy seemed more than a little hypocritical. Things would have been different this morning if Shafer was a servant to the Mother, but the fact of the matter was that he had no ties to the Mother – probably didn’t know who Mírre was.

“I don’t think that was really the point of her outburst,” Esther argued after a long pause. “It’s just that even when the Domain was looking over us, it was at least the same people every day. She just must not like the idea of a man watching her sleep.”

“That’s a fair point,” Sam acknowledged. “Well, I’m sorry you guys didn’t get the best wake-up call. Originally Macy asked me to do it, but – ” He trailed off.

“Really?” asked Esther, looking somewhat amused. “I think Mira would have liked that better.”

That last comment almost made him double-take. “You think so?”

“Well, you’re definitely friendlier than Shafer.” And without any words on Sam’s part, the two endured a shared moment of silence as Esther, lost in thoughts that Sam could not begin to comprehend, drifted slightly to the side, catching herself before going too far off-course.

One question had alluded her the entire time and had continued to do so as Sam guided her through town: “Is there something specific the Director wants to talk to me about?”

“Like a topic of interest?” Sam inquired. “He honestly didn’t say anything about that – just that he wants to see you both soon.” He paused. “He would have rather seen both of you at once, but I told him about Mira’s condition and he accepted that that’ll have to happen some other day.” To say he accepted it was a little misleading.

“He didn’t tell you anything at all?” asked Esther – to which Sam simply shook his head. Her voice coming nowhere near as hesitant as she had intended, Esther almost regretted her next few words. “Is the Director okay?”

The question had clearly struck some kind of nerve; Sam’s grimace was enough to make that clear – even if he did try his best to clear the reaction from his face.

Still he played coy, almost stopping when he asked, “What do you mean?”

She remembered the conversation she and Mira had had with Shafer the night before. Knowing she couldn’t back out now, she continued. “I just heard from someone that the Director’s beliefs are…uncouth.” She struggled to come up with the nicest way to say it. “Just that I shouldn’t try arguing with him unless I want trouble.”

While he hadn’t completely stopped them in their tracks, the silence on Sam’s part was enough to solidify that she had misspoken. “Sorry – that’s just what I heard.”

More silence ensued – and now following behind as opposed to walking side-by-side, Esther had little way to tell what he was feeling, but she could guess when she heard a light snicker. “Whoever told you that isn’t entirely wrong,” he confessed.

“How’s that?” Esther asked, rushing up to meet his side again.

“You’ll find out when you meet him.” Out of everything about this conversation, the only part that called for some concern was the fact that someone had already told Esther about the Director’s oddities.

Knowing Esther must have been itching to get away from the topic of discussion, Sam attempted to change the subject. “But hey – it’ll be a bit before we’re there, so I want to know: was there anything else down in that tunnel you found that we weren’t able to get through yesterday? I know we were kind of quick about it and you seem to be doing better now than what I heard you were like when Rand found you.”

The woman had almost forgotten about how sickly she felt shortly after escaping the river. Even so, there was little outside the major details she had already brushed up on – until she remembered some of the documents she had read.

“I did read a paper I found down there. There was a really dusty room with a bunch of documents. It must have been written when the previous owners of that place just got the generator.”

His attention clearly grabbed, Sam inquired further. “Were there any Autorian documents – stuff that looked like it was written by the Domain?”

“No,” she replied. “Any talk of anything Autorian was completely reserved for Autorise S.A.”

“Oh, good God!” Sam chortled. “How old was that doc?”

“About sixty years. And what’s more is that the paper was complaining about a change in converters – and the converters I saw once I got down to the generator were outputting to a format that the Domain doesn’t use anymore.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “You know what the formats the Domain uses? Were you some kind of technician for them?”

Again she wished she had stopped herself while she was ahead. “I worked with the AI there,” she half-lied. “So I know that the plug that the generator used doesn’t work with anything the Domain is making now – not without yet another converter.”

Heeding her words, Sam nodded, which she took as a prompt to continue.

“And the generator,” she began. “I don’t know how it’s still running if it’s been sixty years since that place was operational or since this town was operational, but it’s still running – and it needs to be turned off soon because – ”

“Whoa, whoa – hold on!” Sam interrupted, finally stopping them in their tracks. “You’re telling me that the generator has been running nonstop all this time? That’s actually what it looks like?”

Tilting her head up to meet his gaze, Esther blinked, coming within a handful of millimeters from touching him. “I think so,” she replied. “But I don’t think it’s actually generating anything anymore; it’s just running by itself without any rhyme or reason.”

For the first time since they had met, Sam faced away without a word, as if worried she would catch a glimpse at him in his weakened state. He mumbled something she could not hear, then flipped around to face her, though he refrained from looking directly in her eye. “That could mean a few different things,” he started, taking a deep breath before he continued. “Either someone is down there maintaining that thing, or the generator is on a path to self-destructing any day.”

Had he not interrupted her, Esther was going to say that last bit out of his mouth. “Right.” She wanted to say something else, but nothing else would come out.

Continuing their walk to the Director’s tent, Sam went ahead with his explanation, Esther in tow. “You see – we suspected there was a generator somewhere down there,” he acknowledged, then paused again as a new thought occurred to him. “But the fact that it’s running and hasn’t broken means – ” Another pause. “It makes me think it could be a coil spinner.”

Where usually she would have preferred to play dumb at the mention of such technology, Esther genuinely had no idea what he was talking about.

“Some old energy format that failed,” he clarified. “One of Autorise’s competitors back in the day tried to make something that would be quicker and cheaper than the regular Sednium rods – which means that if the generator blows up now, the blast won’t be as bad as it would be if it were using rods.” After saying this out loud, the man heaved a sigh. “We wouldn’t deal with anything on a nuclear scale, but it still won’t be pretty if that thing goes off. Something needs to be done about that generator once we’re done with the Director, assuming he doesn’t have other plans for you. Coil-based systems might be more efficient than sednium in the long-run, but there’s no way that thing can still be functioning without some loose bolts scattered around.”

Hearing him talk about loose bolts reminded Esther of all the pieces that had fallen off that robot. If that many pieces had fallen off one android, she didn’t want to think about how many had shaken off the generator in its volatile state.

“Going back in there sounds dangerous,” Esther commented, as if she wanted to dissuade the man from doing his work.

To that, Sam shrugged, the corner of his lips turned up just enough for Esther to notice. “A lot of what I do is dangerous; it’s all part of the job. Plus it would potentially be more dangerous if we just left that thing as it is.” He paused. “Speaking of dangerous: some of those traps that you and your friend walked into are set up around that area, so just keep close to me when we get there.”

But for now, they had someone to meet. “I can see the Director’s tent,” said Sam.

This must have been the government district, then – at least that was what Esther could infer from Sam’s claim that the Director’s tent was nearby. If he hadn’t said anything, she never would have guessed this was where the government was gathered, as there were no banners or any other signs of authority hung up. If the goal of not carrying on such an age-old tradition was done in an effort to keep the local leaders’ homes as inconspicuous as possible, these luocans succeeded. As age-old as flag-hanging was as a practice, the authoritarian AI of the Autorise Domain still recognized it as a legitimate form of marking territory. To the flesh of the Domain, it was the most natural way to signify alliance to the state – yet the Disconnected sought to abandon such principles.

Only one of the tents in the area was guarded – and it was the tent Esther and Sam were headed toward. “Oh, damn,” he mumbled, eyeing the guard. “James wasn’t there when I left.”

The guard stood short, yet firm, a rifle in his hands. “What is it, Sam?” he said, gesturing the barrel at the the ground in front of the visitors’ feet.

Sam gave him a smile as he gestured toward the woman at his side. “This is one of the new visitors we have been talking about,” he said. “James, meet Esther!”

“If you’re expecting me to shake hands with her, you know I can’t do that,” the guard grumbled, gaze locked on the woman. “Not when I’m on duty.” Turning his gaze toward Sam, he continued, “I take it you want to introduce her to Director Persson? Because I still can’t let you in. The Director has said he will be busy all day with his work.”

To the surprise of the three of them, a voice called from the tent behind James. “I am actually able to see people now!”

The three of them all hesitated to react, James eyeing Esther as if she were to blame for his looking like a fool right now. Without argument, he shrugged and slid to the side to allow the two of them in.

Esther and Sam stepped in without a word.

While Sam had grown accustomed to the Director’s archaic method of organization, Esther struggled to figure out if there was a method behind the placement of the paper schematics, cartographic tools, and weapons she saw about the place. The Director was smart enough to keep all his weapons on the side of the desk opposite of the opening – but the fact that she could see them stacked on top of each other at all was definitely cause for concern. Beyond the weapons, the lone MDA on his desk was the most polished item in the area. Were it not for the beard, she might have assumed he was younger than Sam – for once he revealed himself from behind the desk, hidden behind a slab of plywood, his aura changed from that of an overworked man to that of an excited boy.

“Oh yes – thank you for coming, both of you!” he cheered, speaking faster than the newcomer had anticipated. “Sam, my boy – I take it this is Esther, yes?”

“Yes, she is,” Sam replied, noticing as his commanding officer had already locked eyes with the newcomer.

“Splendid!” he beamed, urging the two of them to take their seats in front of his desk as he went to do the same. As her eye drifted away from his, Esther caught the map in the middle of the desk, noticing several of its spots had been marked in red or blue. It was only after the Director raised himself in his seat when her gaze returned back to the center of attention.

“And the other one,” he began, still beaming. “That would be Mira, correct?”

“Yes,” she replied, “that’s Mira.” Hoping to at least somewhat reciprocate his enthusiasm, she returned his grin with one of her own. “She is still in our tent, but she’s doing okay.” She swore she could see a sparkle in the Director’s eyes.

“The bear trap!” he interjected. “I must apologize; it is unfortunate that the trap caught you and not somebody more deserving of such punishment. I hope now you realize that the wilderness is no place for a lady such as yourself to wander. But by now you must have found refuge with us, yes?”

Catching on to his histrionics, Esther almost needed a moment to rethink the words he had spoken before replying. “Have we found refuge?” she said, repeating his words. “I think so. I have only been here for a day, but so far things seem good.”

Before she could speak another word, the Director cut in again. “But tell me,” he began, putting a cap on his energy. “You and your friend – you belonged to the Domain, yes?” Esther and Sam both flinched.

His seemed to have been intentionally worded to be as damning to answer as possible.

Sam could have sworn had he never told the Director that the newcomers were Autorian.

“From Toubane?” the man continued in his guests’ silence. “Or some other city?”

Esther blinked a few times, contemplating if she should answer the question at all. “Rhobane,” she answered honestly.

“Ah, I see,” he said, nodding. “I came from Toubane before that city was demolished. Most people were deported to other cities; others escaped. That’s just how it was.”

“Oh.” Despite what Sam had told her about many of these luocans bearing Autorian blood, she did not expect the Director to be of such a breed of luocan. “How were you able to tell I was Autorian?”

“Because you just told me!” he cried, cackling.

Sam wanted to groan.

In an effort to save herself before further questions arose, Esther continued. “Mira and I had a guardian who was walking with us outside the town’s border.”

“Interesting,” the Director murmured, hunched over his desk – quite uncomfortably, given the height of his seat – as he listened. “And what exactly was the Domain wanting to do with you out there?”

“We didn’t know. The guard took us outside Rhobane and left us with no resources.”

“And what do you think the Domain would have done to you if you tried going back in?” he prodded.

Esther swallowed. “I don’t know. And I don’t think I want to know, either.”

“Oh, I understand,” replied the Director, his tone as pathetically empathetic as he could make it. “And your friend doesn’t know, either?”

“No, sir,” Esther answered.

“I am sorry,” he said. “But if nothing else, I am glad to have you here now; that is more than what the Autorise Domain can say for its people.”

More than anything, the knowledge that this man had once been in the same system as her had Esther yearning to learn more – about his origins and what all he had done in the Domain. The fact that he had come from Toubane told her that he had joined the Disconnect about fifteen years ago – when he would have been a teenager, most likely. She wondered if they had crossed paths before, but she doubted it. Perhaps that was a good thing, as due to her lack of aging, it might have come across as suspicious to the Director if he saw the same person, unchanged, years after his departure from the Domain.

Catching Esther in her deep thought, Sam jumped back in. “We actually discussed a bit about the passage on the way here and I found out Esther apparently worked with the AI there,” he explained. “Apparently she knows a bit about the Autorian formats.”

The Director cast an inquisitive glance at Esther. “Is that so?” Well I would be happy to offer you some work to do in that passage once we get to know you better.”

An offer already? And from the leader of the camp? “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, elation shining upon her countenance.

“Yes – well, Esther: it was nice meeting you, but I must return to my work. There is a lot for me to cover and the chance to meet a new lady is just enough to break me out of it, but I must return to my work now.” With that, the Director motioned both of them to stand and leave.

As Esther hoisted herself from her seat, Sam interjected. “Wait –”

“Please, Sam!” Persson begged, lowering back to the space beneath his desk, his face hidden again behind the wooden paneling. “I will have someone call you over when I am done.”

Sam opened his mouth to speak again, but was stopped by a voice from outside. “You heard him, deputy!” James called.

His lips pursed, Sam took another look toward the desk, received no response, then gave in, gesturing Esther to come out with him. All the while James stood idly by, rifle still held tight as he eyeballed the two. Headed back to the tent where Mira now resided, it was only once they were out of the guard’s earshot when Sam let out a sigh.

“That was sudden,” Esther acknowledged. “And kind of rude.”

Sam rubbed a temple. “You don’t say.” He shook his head. “Sorry. I just wanted to tell him about the passageway and see if we could get some guys to come down with us, but he doesn’t seem to be in any mood to talk about it.”

“Well, you’re his second-in-command, aren’t you?” she inquired. “Wouldn’t you be allowed to take some people yourself.”

At that, Sam snorted. “He would probably think I’m attempting a coup d’etat if I tried something like that.” Another sigh. “But yeah – that’s the Director. Do you think you two will be able to get along?”

“I guess so,” Esther said. “I’m actually surprised how friendly he was when we got in, but he spoke so fast it was difficult to keep up with.”

“You don’t think he’s too nice?” Sam inquired.

If the level of nicety was meant to be some kind of warning, Esther was more than capable of keeping that thought in the back of her mind. She hesitated to reply. “Maybe he was,” she admitted. “Why do you ask?”

By now they had started to drift along the northern border of camp – indicated by the visible row of evergreens around this part of the area. “I guess it’s complicated,” he replied, barely keeping himself from sighing again. “He’s usually not very nice to newcomers unless they’re women.”

Esther could sense the unfortunate implications already.


Originally this and Part 1.7 were going to be the same chapter, but you know how it is. I think.

Anyway, the Discord is open, as always!

Infiltration Part1.7 – Monarchs

“What are you doing in here?!” Mira shouted.

Suddenly awoken from her spot beside the bed, Esther raised herself, only to bump her head on the bed’s ledge. The blow made her ears ring as she still struggled to assess what was going on.

Through it all, Shafer barely reacted as Esther rubbed the spot she had just hit. “I’m keeping watch,” he answered from where he sat, a hand at his side and legs crossed. “We still ain’t sure if you ladies are trustworthy yet, so I’ve gotta keep an eye out.”

Esther retracted her hand from her scalp, relieved to not see any liquid. In a less panicked state, she turned her head up to Shafer. “Wait – you were watching us sleep?”

Shafer nodded.

There would have been a lot more shouting, screaming, scratching, and biting at that point if the women in front of Shafer were not artificial. Instead the Autorian visitors sat in silence, sensing an immeasurable distance between themselves and their own invasive guardian despite him being practically within arms’ reach.

“Well,” Esther began, her voice monotone, yet firm. “We’re awake now and we’re not going back to sleep.”

“I can see that,” Shafer said, nodding again.

“Leave.” Mira spoke. Esther whipped her gaze around to see the still-disabled woman’s untwitching countenance hyperfocused on Shafer, her green stare completely still, refusing to ask again or even blink as every part of her screamed for the man to follow her command.

Shafer followed along. Mira continued to stare.

A smirk ran along his face as he gave in, picking himself off his seat. “If you insist, Missy – I’ll just be outside.” The man spoke not another word as he let them be, taking his chair with him and placing it just beyond the tent’s flap – which he proceeded to zip closed.

Only once Shafer left the room did Mira finally blink again. Following this retraction of her partner’s state of supposed fury, Esther asked, “Are you okay?”

Mira turned her head to Esther, avoiding eye contact and blinking rapidly almost as if she were fighting back tears. “I guess I’m okay,” she replied. “But what was that? He’s just allowed to come in whenever he wants?”

“Is that a surprise to you? It seems like that would be the case, since the people here are keeping us close under their watchful eye, anyway.” Esther paused. “And if you didn’t have to worry about your leg and this place had some kind of military district, I’d be surprised if we weren’t harbored in the military district instead of the medical tent.”

It was a good point, she knew. Her lips pursed, Mira beckoned Esther over; Esther obliged without a word.

“I already do not like that man,” Mira whispered. “After the threats he made on my part while he dragged me into camp, I’m hesitant to believe he would want anything more than to kill us while we sleep.”

In some ways, the idea that he would kill the two of them before they had a chance to meet with the Director seemed so silly an idea that Esther almost had to feign sarcasm. “Right – you said yesterday he threatened you, but – ”

“I alluded to it,” Mira corrected.

“Right,” Esther said again. “Let’s just wait for now, okay?” Her ear almost seemed to twitch at some noise from outside. “At least we know this: if he shoots a gun at us right now, the girls are going to hear and I don’t think he wants that kind of attention from children.”

Mira said nothing.

“MORNING!!”

Amity awoke with a start, the wind knocked out of her at the same time hear ears started ringing. In her panic, she lifted herself out of her lying position, looking here and there to find only Cynthia nearby – who stood by with a smile on her face.

Feeling as if the girl had just tied her stomach in literal knots, she resisted the urge to punch that smiling face. “What was that about?” she snapped, rubbing her belly when she noticed the large slab that Cynthia had anchored on top of her. On further inspection, this slab appeared to be some kind of book.

“Happy birthday, Amity!” said Cynthia. “Miss Macy said she wants to see you once you’re dressed – and she also wanted you to have this.”

Amity opened it up to find all the pages were completely blank. “It’s a…journal?” Suddenly she factored in the weight. “It’s really thick – damn!”

“I wouldn’t know anything about it; Macy just said you should have it. What would you need a journal for, anyway?”

Her thoughts still buried in sleep, it took Amity a moment to remember why she would need such a heavy collection of paper: something few people had in such quantities. Once she did remember, she still hesitated to reply. “I have my reasons.”

Because it was her birthday – specifically the day of her transition into adulthood – people would make a big deal whether Amity wanted them to or not. Suddenly she remembered that tent she still needed to finish sewing together, cursing at herself when she realized she could have done that the day before. If it wasn’t finished by the end of today, she was probably never going to forgive herself.

The materials that made up Amity’s project were placed in a stack in Macy’s tent. As luck would have it, she, Toni, and Cynthia needed to meet up with their mentor today – as with Amity’s graduation from the medical area, there followed a large sleuth of tasks that would be left unhandled unless the other two assistants agreed to pitch more of their time in.

Once they were properly dressed, the three of them left all the other girls to their devices and made it over to Macy – who proceeded to run them through their tasks for the week. After that, Macy opened the much-needed discussion of Amity’s approaching leave.

Perhaps disrespectfully, the first question raised was who would be replacing Amity, if anyone. Amity did not wish to offer any ideas for potential new pupils.

She was barely listening by the time she heard Cynthia blurt out one of the names she wanted to hear least. “What about Miss Esther for now?”

A bolt of electricity flashed through Amity’s blood. “We’re not doing that!” she argued, her unblinking eyes locked on the youngest girl’s. Toni and Macy seemed to disappear from the conversation entirely as the tent went almost completely silent, save for the electronic hum of the MDA station. “You’re not going to force me to be her mentor.”

Just as quickly as she had vanished, Macy returned. “Oh, don’t make any assumptions about that,” she said, waving her hand. “I will be the one who teaches that woman, if things were to come to that.” She paused. “Did you truly think you would replace my position by the end of the day?”

“Well, no,” Amity replied, then cast another annoyed glance at Cynthia – who sat back without further argument.

Again the tent went silent, Macy keeping an eye on the now-adult Amity. The girl had certainly blossomed in the time she had spent as one of Macy’s assistants, sticking through wherever their camp’s Director decided to carry them all next. And now, just as they had reached their supposed final destination, Amity needed to make her own move into adulthood. It was not a position that most specialists often found themselves in.

An empathetic hesitance to her countenance, Macy stepped up to the young woman. “You aren’t feeling too troubled about all this, are you, dear?” asked Macy. “I know this must be a dizzying day for you, Miss Amity – lots on your mind?”

Caught slightly by surprise, Amity tilted her nose in the air to meet the older woman’s gaze. “Not really,” she lied, eyes locked with Macy’s. “Just a few things I want to talk about once we’re alone.” She resisted the urge to eyeball the other two in the tent as her mentor seemed to draw closer. She could sense the other two peering at her, knowing there was much more locked behind those tight lips; Amity resisted the urge to look back as Macy took a step back herself.

Macy, Cynthia, and Toni continued discussing task reassignment, with Amity only piping in when directly called upon. More than anything, Amity hoped her departure would be the kick in the pants Toni – now to be the oldest – needed to finally start taking initiative and acting more assertive with all the other kids. It had certainly helped Amity’s growth when Zoe – the oldest before her – made her departure almost three years ago.

Thinking about Zoe made Amity sigh; that woman hadn’t been seen by anyone since the split just a year after her adult life began. Perhaps if this settlement in Kortrick truly was to become the next big place that some were hoping for it to become, then she and Zoe might meet again – but so far their wandering tribe had had no such luck with any other location, giving Amity little hope that it would happen this time, despite whatever Sam or her uncle told her.

As promised, Amity stayed behind once the other two girls had left, now standing to Macy’s eye-level. It had been a few days since she and Macy were the only ones in the same room, completely sealed off from the rest of the world for just a bit. Even her Uncle Shafer was hardly around to provide such luxuries.

Rather than have Amity speak immediately, Macy started with a question of her own. “I’m surprised; did you leave that journal in your bed?”

“Yeah,” Amity replied. “Cynthia just gave it to me without really explaining what it was for. Was there something you were wanting to tell me?”

Macy chuckled as if she expected the woman to know – and, in all honesty, she did know, but needed validation. “It’s about all the things you’ve written on the MDA I’ve been lending you,” Macy clarified, lowering her voice on the last few words. “You still haven’t let anyone else know about that, have you?”

The fledgling woman shook her head. “No, nobody’s caught me using it.”

With a smile, Macy turned around to the docking station and pulled one of the devices out: a slab covered in tired gray-blue plastic. The nubs on the buttons had worn out over time due to excessive use on Amity’s part.

“Well, this week will need to be the last time you use it,” said Macy as she handed the MDA over. “That is why I gave you the booklet; it was the biggest one I could find and it has more clean paper than I have seen in anyone’s possession – not since Director Persson’s predecessor.”

While part of her wondered where Macy would have found such a voluminous collection of what was considered a somewhat rare material beyond the Domain’s borders, she sought not to question it.

“I also have a pen here you can use to copy all the things you wrote down on the device – just in case you lose or break your own. But once the week is over and you have fully moved out, I will need the MDA back.”

Only a week? In that time, Amity would be lucky if she hadn’t developed carpal tunnel from all the text she had to copy over. Would she even be able to keep the text legible?

On top of that, she still needed to finish the tent. That would most certainly need to come first – especially when she was so close to finishing it as it was. Once finished, she would probably place it somewhere at the northeastern side of camp, albeit this was a little close to the ruins for her liking. Thinking about ruins made her wonder why she needed to make the tent when the possibility of living in stable architecture was well within their reach.

Despite all the thoughts swimming in her head, Amity nodded her understanding to Macy. “I’ll get it all done,” she said. “But if I get wrist cramps, it’s your fault.”

Macy couldn’t help chuckling at that last remark. “Very well, then. If you’re going to be busy, I’ll go take care of the other girls.” As she retreated to the opening flap of her tent, she uttered a few last words: “Good luck, Miss Amity.”

A light breeze blew in as her former mentor stepped out.

In the time it took for her to remember what she was doing, Amity had nearly dropped the MDA in her hand. She swore at herself and proceeded to turn it on, flipping the switch as the non-lit screen came to life. Once about a minute had passed, she traversed through the system menu and read the notifier beneath all the text files:

File Storage: 129kb / 2048kb.

All of that was text. Basic text, no properties or metadata. No special formatting outside of the manually-inserted characters. Her head started to hurt when she realized how many words that amount of data actually took up. Her wrist started to hurt just as much.

So long as Shafer kept his promise to stay out of the passage for the time being, Sam could breathe easy for the day.

“They weren’t too happy, but what’re you gonna do?” Shafer said upon his arrival. “I’m just happy they didn’t smack me.”

Sam, meanwhile, had half a mind to ask the scouts’ leader about the message he had found – but seeing the man here now, all Sam could muster was a barely-related question: “Did Macy get you the MDA back?”

“That she did,” said Shafer, nodding. “Thanks again for sending the message out.”

His brain itched with the desire to ask, but still nothing else came out, providing an awkward silence between the two men. With few words beyond that, Sam left the scout leader to watch over his boys.

Perhaps the Director would know something about those highwaymen – or anything contained within Shafer’s message. Sam only hoped the Director wouldn’t tell Shafer that he was snooping through the MDA.

The last time he and Persson had met up, the Director expressed a need to see both of the newcomers at the same time on that very day, only to be more than slightly disappointed when nobody was willing to bring Mira over in her condition. It would have been a simple procedure, according to the Director, but apparently it was not simple enough to warrant anyone’s support.

A plate of half-finished breadcrumbs and jelly decorated Director Persson’s desk as Sam walked in, himself standing tall and clad in a tightly-knit outfit compared to the loose shawls around the Director’s limbs and torso. Sam almost questioned if Persson was even ready for their meeting before the commander in question beckoned him in. The desk smelled as if Persson had spent the night on top of it – which Sam told himself was impossible; the Director wouldn’t succumb to using strewn-about papers as a mattress!

Before Sam, the slouching man urged both of them to sit down, his nimbly body barely taller than Sam’s. Scratching a beard that made his chin appear almost three times larger than it actually was, the Director sat at an unusually-tall seat behind his desk, viewing his right-hand man from an egoistic vantage point above the mess as Sam took his seat at the chair in front.

“So, then!” the Director began, noticeably jittery where he sat. “Sam, my boy – have you seen the two new women at all this morning?”

“Not yet, no,” the deputy confessed. “Last time I saw them was last night – and that was just so I could get to know them. Shafer was looking after them for Macy this morning, but now they’re awake and he’s back with the scouts out east.”

At that, the Director drummed his fingers on his chair’s one arm. He didn’t seem to be listening to anything beyond the first handful of words. “And is there some fear that maybe you will catch Miss Esther’s cold?” he asked. “I don’t think Rand has caught anything from her, so what fear does a deputy have?”

Despite the many multiple reasons Sam could argue that his status in camp did not have an effect on his immunity to disease, he let that point roll off his shoulder much like the Director had just done with his explanation. “Well, I can’t imagine they’re too happy right now,” he tried explaining. “Most women would probably kill a man if they caught him watching them sleep. Shafer told me he managed to do his job without a scratch, but they can’t be in any mood to talk after that.”

“I hear they’re in that mood right now!” the Director argued. He gave Sam that condescending smile: the same one he cast down whenever he referred to Sam as a boy, despite the mere seven years between the two of them. It was that same look which suggested the Director was transmitting an unheard message to the person in his line of sight – and if that message was not properly deciphered within the next hour, the position of deputy was about to become that much less desirable.

Sam took a moment to respond with a silent message of his own, gaze unblinking and lips forming a straight line as if he were a wildcat stalking a rabbit. For a moment he almost felt as if he might actually pounce, but returned to reality when he blinked again.

The Director was no stranger to compromises – and, feeling the need to push his luck, Sam made an offer. “How about I just bring Esther?” he finally said. “Mira is in much too poor a condition after that accident she had with my trap, but Esther hardly seemed sick at all yesterday and I’ve already told them you wanted to see them soon.”

“No Mira?” the Director prodded. “I’d think someone with a lucky name like Mira would keep away from traps – but I suppose if the woman is hurting, then far be it from me to put her through more pain by walking her over!” With that, he lowered his seat a little, slightly reducing the strain on Sam’s neck. “Go bring Esther, then; I don’t believe I’ll be busy by the time you return.”

“Wait – there’s one other thing,” Sam ejaculated, then paused as if realizing he had just spoken out of turn.

Caught a little off-guard, the Director paused, sitting back in his chair. “And what would that one other thing be?”

Still Sam hesitated. “It’s about a message I found on Shafer’s MDA.”

“Still snooping through people’s devices?” Persson couldn’t help sneering. “Go on.”

The man gave a deep breath before explaining everything from Rouken to the highwaymen. “He told me Rouken might be coming back soon, so that’s why I went through the MDA. But now that I’ve read this stuff about highwaymen and how Shafer was apparently planning on going through the passageway before I told him not to do that yet, I feel like there’s something I’m not being told.”

Another smile crossed the Director’s face – this one much less condescending than the last, yet still enough to slightly bother Sam. “That’s because there is,” the Director confessed, lowering himself again. “Sorry if it disappoints you, but yes – Rouken likely will be coming back soon. By that point, you will hear everything you need to about those highwaymen from his mouth. He will know more than I.”

Sam may as well have not asked the question at all. With nothing left to say, he nodded. After further discussion on the general state of the camp, Sam left the Director to his work – whatever work that was. The deputy rubbed his forehead as he stepped out.

Looking around him, this camp of theirs felt like a miracle. The fact that they had found the ruins of a once-prosperous town and were now on their way to rebuilding it was nothing short of a work of God. Yet with these successes, the Director sought little more than to continually expand upon every single opportunity thrown at him – not for the betterment of the camp, but for the change to achieve further recognition or further pleasure. Perhaps it was his childhood upbringing in the Domain which had planted this greedy seed in his belly – a seed that had sprouted into a parasitic beanstalk that now drove his actions. It would explain the erratic thought patterns.

Compared to the Director, who was Sam Jacquard? The camp’s second-best: a worn-out, yet still shining figure who overachieved for the good of his people – in the hope that they would all one day live a life without the Domain’s fingers digging into every wild orifice it could find. The Domain served to spread its genes through what remained of the United States until everything was just as homogenized and inbred as artificially possible – and hearing the way Persson talked about the newcomers and thinking about how little he had helped since everyone had moved to Kortrick, Sam couldn’t help drawing parallels.

As he walked, Sam shook his head. He couldn’t go to Esther with these thoughts in mind.


Discord is open for all!

Infiltration Part1.6 – Unfortunate Origins

With the evening closing in, it was time to pick up some rations. A few of Macy’s kids – including her apprentices – lined up to take bits of what the men had gathered through the course of the day. All they had for now was stale bread and rabbit soup; if one was lucky, they might actually find a chunk of rabbit swimming around all the little vegetables.

Being such a new settlement, their camp still had a long way to go before any crops they had planted would become viable – especially when winter was set to come within a few months. The scavenging they did now was the best they could do; Macy could only bite her tongue for the children who whined about wanting more food – especially those among them who were going through growth spurts. The girls liked to claim that the boys probably snuck food out for themselves while hunting. Nobody ever challenged such claims – but at the same time, almost no one took such claims seriously; the boys sure didn’t, at least.

Along with some other girls, Amity, a small crate in her hands, was tasked with bringing eight cans of the soup and some bread slices back to the other girls. Of all people, she was also assigned to give one of the cans to the new visitors. This insistence that she be the one to carry out such a task led her to believe that Macy was either testing her patience or had come to despise her in her late adolescence.

Stuck in line, Amity took a moment to look around. Bailey wasn’t here. That boy was usually standing around and handing out rations along with some of the others, but today she couldn’t see him anywhere. For a moment she thought – she hoped – it was just the lighting that was making it difficult to see where he was, but once close enough to the front of the line, it became clear that he was not there. Amity huffed the bangs out of her face He must have been on guard duty or something of the like.

With an annoyed twinge, Amity took the rations she needed and headed back to her home district, not waiting for anyone else to catch up. All those who hadn’t come along to pick up rations were left unsupervised for the past ten minutes – so in a way, her being the first to return was not exactly something she took pride in; it just meant she was the first to have grabby hands going for the cans and bread when she came over. On top of that was the fact that she needed to still reserve one of the cans for the two women.

Once there, she made sure to deliberate on who received which can. As per usual, it took a minute to get everyone to stay still – but once they all did, the process of passing the rations around became that much easier. Things improved drastically once the others from the rations area arrived.

Taking a deep breath, Amity took the last can and bread slice over to the visitors’ tent. Half-expecting to see them gone, she was almost disappointed to find that they had not run away.

“Hi,” she began. “It’s dinner time, so the girls and I got you both some soup and bread to share.”

Mira gave a quizzical tilt of her head. “I guess that would explain why all the noise stopped.”

“Oh, God – ” Amity began, suddenly in a panic. “None of the girls came in here, did they?”

A little bewildered by her sudden change in tone, the visitors assured Amity that nothing of the sort had happened. “Okay – good,” she said with a sigh. “Anyway – I’ve got it right here. You’re going to have to share it and I’ve only got one spoon.” Right after saying that, she remembered Esther’s cold and hoped it had gone away or Mira was immune enough to not catch it from using the same silverware.

Amity almost wanted to tell the women to enjoy, but instead proceeded to leave the room without a word.

It was almost immediately after stepping beyond the bound of the tent when Amity froze, nearly bumping into a man she had expected to meet with soon, but not right this moment.

“Mister Deputy!” she said with a stutter. “Or, sorry – Sam! Sorry; I was just taking care of the newcomers – ”

Catching her as she was about to trail off, the man gave her a warm smile. “Don’t worry; I was actually just about to talk to them!”

Stepping away from the light of the setting sun, Amity got a better look at her deputy: a man who had stepped into his position within the last year, with this move into Kortrik being his biggest undertaking yet. Comparing his workload of the last two weeks to her own, Amity half-assumed his blonde hair would have either receded or grayed out by now.

She was stalling. “Sorry, I’ll just get out of the way.” Not wanting to draw his attention away from the task at hand, she proceeded to return her now-empty box over to the girls’ tent – and was caught by the elbow.

“Now wait a minute,” he said, pulling her back. “Before you go: I heard tomorrow is the big day – is that right?”

A little shocked to be pulled back like that, Amity slowly turned on her heel. “Well, yes – yes it is, if you’re talking about my birthday.”

“Right, right,” Sam confirmed. “So how’re you with the adult plans? Macy told me you were looking for someone to get together with.”

The fact that Macy had told anyone about that made her go a little more red than she cared to admit. “Well,” she began. “I already have a good idea who I want, but he’s…clueless.”

“I guess it should be him to ask first,” Sam acknowledged. “But if he’s clueless, what do you do?” He gave a rhetorical pause and she shrugged, eyes directed at her feet. “Well, who is it? Maybe I can make him less clueless.”

His offer made Amity’s ears grow hot. She almost started to wish she had never said anything to the deputy at all – but now that she was here, there wasn’t much she could do. Just to be safe, she took a look around them, over her shoulders and behind Sam, making sure none of the girls were listening in, when she leaned in. “It’s Bailey.”

Not surprised, Sam nodded. “He’s a bit busy with his own work under Theo these days, but yeah – I think you two could have some good chemistry!” He tapped his foot in contemplation. “I’ll tell you what: if I see him at any point today, I’ll nudge him your way.”

The mild burning on Amity’s ears grew to a searing degree. She started to stammer. “Okay—!” she said, trying to smile. “Thanks, Sam!” Thinking about these new adult priorities, she suddenly remembered that tent she still needed to finish. “Right – okay, I’m gonna get back to work. Nice talking to you!”

From inside the tent just by Sam, the gynoids were perhaps more clueless than the boy Amity and Sam were just talking about, completely oblivious to their discussion. Rather than poke their noses where they weren’t welcome, they took their one spoon and went back and forth, handing the silverware over to the other when one of them took a mouthful of the soup for themselves.

Both gynoids sat on the floor – Mira tiring of the bed provided for her, but still bringing the blankets to cover her lower appendages – and slowly processed what they were taking in.

Whatever the luocans used for medicine probably had a better taste than this concoction they were meant to call their dinner, but they didn’t complain. It wasn’t like they had anything to compare it to. “I know some people enjoy this,” Esther began. “But are you enjoying this?”

Mira hesitated, swallowing a spoonful. Her tongue was left with a minor tang that the Domain’s supplements could never provide, but there was nothing here that could outright intrigue or captivate her. “No.”

“I think they’ll want the spoon and can back by the time we are done.”

“I’m not surprised,” Mira replied. “Do they clean the cans, too, or should we do that?”

“I don’t know.”

Esther took another mouthful of their dinner before Sam walked in completely unannounced, the open flap practically inviting him inside. Esther and Mira turned their gazes toward the deputy with an air of unfamiliarity, noticing how he stood shorter than Macy and had a necklace chain around his neck, but the pendant on the end was hidden behind his shirt. All this coincided with a young, yet firm countenance that demanded the newcomers’ attention.

When he spoke, his voice did not boom, but almost seemed to croak as if he were trying to make up for a lack of bass in his diaphragm. “Are you the two new people I’ve heard about?”

Swallowing, Esther nodded as Mira confirmed that they indeed were who he thought they were.

“Good!” he replied, eyeing Esther. “So you must be Esther – and you’re Mira.”

Seeing the bandages along Mira’s leg, Sam almost couldn’t help grimacing, but he continued. “My name is Sam and I’m the deputy around here under Director Persson.” Turning to face Mira, he cast a guilty look. “I should probably apologize to you, Mira – since I’m one of the guys who set up the trap you got caught in. You’re not hurting too bad though, are you?”

Feeling like she had answered this question ten times today already, she shook her head.

“Great. And I guess now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: some basic questions. I guess first, just to start, I’ve heard a few people refer to the two of you as partners; what exactly do you both mean by that?” As he spoke, he turned his head toward Esther as if she were the only one who could answer the question.

A little confused on his motivation for asking, Esther answered accordingly. “We are partners in the sense that we were sent outside the border of one of the Domain’s cities, set to be partners out in the wilderness now that we were abandoned among the Disconnect. Then we both got in a chase with those two men on the buggy and here we are now.”

Sam immediately lit up when the Domain was mentioned. “Oh!” he stated, “Well, to follow up on that: both of you are Autorian?”

Mira could only purse her lips in agonizing silence as her partner acknowledged and confirmed this information.

“I see.” The deputy paused, clearly contemplating his next words before they passed his lips. “Well, I want you both to know that having two people like you come into camp is not unprecedented, as a lot of people around here either used to be Autorian or have family who was or still is Autorian. Among those people, some of them were kicked out of the Domain, but it’s more likely that left of their own volition.”

Even with that said, the man felt the need to sigh, preparing to set a heavy burden on the two women. “But now that we know for sure that you’re both Autorian, we’re likely going to keep you here in the medicine and education district for a bit longer under Macy’s watchful eye. We’re also gonna have some guys watch over you for the time being. This is just to make sure we can trust you.”

At this point, Sam normally would have expected some form of protest, but the women did no such thing. Were it not for the talk they had with Amity after the girl had patched up Mira’s leg, they might have inquired further as to what Sam really meant by keeping them in this district.

“I hope that all makes sense and I hope you all understand,” said Sam, to which he received a unified nod from the ladies. “Great. I’m gonna have to come back to bring you each to the Director when he has time.”

For a moment the man paused as if there was something he had forgotten. “I also remember hearing something about a passageway that one of you found? Something just east of camp?”

“That was me,” Esther claimed. From there, she explained to him everything that she had told Mira about the passage – from the robot to the generator to the fact that a suspicious number of lights were still activated. The only thing she didn’t mention was the data she had retrieved from the robot – as fragmented and incomplete as it was.

By the time she finished speaking, Sam stood by in silence, looking off in the distance, once again caught in a veil of contemplation. “And how deep do you think this thing goes? Was there an elevator or anything that you found like that?”

Esther didn’t remember seeing an elevator, but she wouldn’t have completely ruled that out. Still she answered honestly. “Not that I remember. But there was so much that I would be surprised if there wasn’t one somewhere.” The fact that the sednium power generator had vents that led elsewhere was enough to prove to her that this place was more complex than one or two levels.

Still looking away, Sam nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell Shafer about this.” As he spoke, he started to turn away. “Thanks for the info, Esther. And you, Mira – take it easy on that leg, okay? Until then, stay out of trouble. Was nice meeting you both!”

The women said their goodbyes, almost all tension from Esther’s claims disappearing along with him. All at once, the stress that came with listening to her partner talk about their Autorian background seemed to dissipate.

Mira shook her head. “You are so lucky.”

Dawn’s rays had just barely started shimmering through the translucent fabric that shielded him from the elements. Earlier to rise than most, Sam made his way out, leaving the camp’s capital district without a word to anyone – not even his commanding Director.

Wary of the passage Esther had told him about the day before, Sam wrote a message on his MDA to be sent to Shafer’s device. At this point the device was over by the station at Macy’s tent; hopefully by now Shafer had received Sam’s message.

This deputy position of his wasn’t as cumbersome as he had first anticipated. Part of it was guard duty and part of it was supervision where Director Persson could not take care of that task himself, but otherwise his job required very little of him – at least very little that he didn’t want to do. So far the only source of aggravation had been the Director. Perhaps he should have expected that, though.

Along his morning walk, he stopped by the bonfire near the middle of camp, not expecting anyone, but surprised to find one of the guard boys sitting by, completely unarmed and nearly nodding away. Sam made hardly a sound as he took a seat, himself, enjoying his chance to take in some warmth before heading out to the rest of the camp. Looking to his right, he noticed two deer over the nearby hill, startled and making an immediate dash into the forest the moment he glanced at them.

He himself was nearly startled when the boy at the fire mumbled something. “Deputy Sam..?” he asked through a yawn. “What are – what time is it?”

Sam couldn’t help chuckling. “Dawn time.” He took another look at the boy. “Oh, Bailey – what’re you doing here and not in your tent?”

Straightening himself into a more proper sitting position, Bailey – hardly a month away from fourteen years of age – split his jaws in another yawn, clearly struggling not to fall asleep again. “Just wanted to get a bit warm after my work tonight. And if it’s only dawn, it can’t’ve been that long since I got here.”

The boy’s deputy almost reached into the pocket in his jacket, only to remember his Mobile Documenting Agent wasn’t there to show him the exact time. “Well, as long as it’s alright with Theo, I’ll let you be.”

With that, Bailey unstraightened. “Thanks, Sam. What’re you up to right now, anyway?”

“Just the morning walk,” he replied with a shrug. “I guess you could say I came for warmth, too, but I think I’ve had enough for now.” Picking himself off the ground, Sam brushed some of the dirt off his pants. He then almost immediately sat back down, remembering a promise he had made to a girl just the day before.

“Actually – I’m wanting to know: have you made any plans for your upcoming adult life?”

A little surprised to hear the deputy asking such a question and slightly annoyed that he had to answer when his mind was still so fuzzy, Bailey almost hesitated to reply. “I have some thoughts,” he answered. “There’s nothing serious yet, since – since all I want to do is just hunt and guard things for the rest of my life.” He gave a shrug. “It might sound boring, but that’s what I wanna do and I’m already doing it.”

“I suppose that is fair,” Sam acknowledged. “But what about your family – the one you haven’t started yet?”

If Bailey were drinking something at that moment, he might have choked and coughed up whatever he had in his cup. “I,” he stammered, “I don’t know about that yet.”

“You haven’t thought about any of the girls lately?” Sam prodded, almost teasing. “You know, Amity Shafer turns fourteen today. She’s available and she’s skilled – been helping Macy since she was seven!”

Bailey pondered it for a moment. “I still don’t know about that,” he confessed. “I don’t talk to her much.”

“Then start talking to her! You already know where she lives, anyway.” At this point, the deputy almost seemed to go into a full-on uncle mode, filling the role that Bailey’s father could never fill himself.

For a moment, the only noise between Sam and Bailey was the occasional sizzling pop and crackle from the fire in front of them. It took longer than Sam kept track of for him to hear a heavy huff from Bailey.

“I’ll think about it.”

It wasn’t a confirmation, but it was at least something. Once again Sam picked himself up and cast a smile on the boy. “There you go! Just be patient with these things, alright? Anyway – let me know how things go if you ever decide to try it out with a lady around her; I’ve gotta get going.” With that small goodbye, Sam continued on his walk.

Of every tent he passed by, only one of them indicated consciousness – and that might have only been because somebody was talking in their sleep. He waved to the occasional guard he passed by, but otherwise the entire trek through was quiet, umbrageous – no words spoken other than the voices bouncing in his own head.

If he was correct, Shafer and the handful of scouts he supervised would be looking through the outskirts just east of camp – through what remained of Kortrik. The information Sam had received in regard to the passage was of great concern – hence he did not want anyone going down there just yet, no matter how much they thought they knew of the place. Hopefully this time they would listen.

But before he went to the outskirts, Sam needed to pay a visit to Macy’s tent. By now the woman was likely sewing up some of the children’s damaged clothes.

Beyond the medical and girls’ large tent, he made it over to Macy’s little shelter. Her silhouette perched atop the silhouette of a chair indicated to him that she was more than willing to have him come in. With that, he shook one of the tent poles before unzipped the front flap and stepping inside.

From the other side, the old woman cast a smile. “Well, hello Mister Deputy!” she said with a chuckle. “I take it you’ve come for the MDA?”

He let out a chuckle, himself. “You know it.” As he stood by, he glanced down at the pair of pants Macy held in her lap, its cotton well past its prime, with some holes puncturing through one of the legs. Near the legs, he noticed a disturbing amount of blood – as well as some patches Macy had tried sewing, though they did little to hide the bloodied clothing.

“I see you’ve taken an interest in Mira’s new-and-improved pants,” said Macy, an air of regret falling flat in her voice. “The girls really tried earlier to get these blood stains out, but it don’t look like they’re coming out now.”

“Oh,” Sam replied. “I guess if she doesn’t have any pants, that would explain why she covered herself in a blanket when I saw her.”

“Mm-hm!” Macy replied. “She and Esther are a bit weird, but it’s nothing to fret over – though Mira sure is an aloof one. Sort of reminds me of a man I used to know.” She held he gaze on Sam.

A little discomforted, Sam returned her gaze with a confused leer. “What – you mean me?”

Macy halfway rolled her eyes. “No, Sam; I said another man. Silly boy.”

Had he not known this woman all his life, he might have taken that as insult. “Cute,” he replied. “But anyway – I’ll just be taking the MDA if you’ve got it all charged up and ready.”

“Sure,” said Macy.

Without another word, Sam reached for the station where all the MDAs were stored – all twelve of them. It was the camp’s only means of communicating wirelessly with others – and the only way to do so without potential Autorian interference. Sam did find it odd that Macy was the one in charge of this tower, but that was likely not to last, as there were others who worked on the station more often than Macy did – where she was a mere host of its current dwelling.

Opening the flap at the front of the device, Sam booted the MDA on.

“By the way – when you see Shafer, could you tell him to come over when he’s done with the scouts? I need someone to watch the ladies in their tent.”

A little taken aback, Sam, eyes glued to his still-booting device, hesitated. “Watch them in their tent? Like, he’ll be watching them sleep?”

It sounded a little strange when said out loud, but Macy confirmed this. “Yes – just so we can be safe.”

He cast a look toward Macy and blinked, then shook his head and gave an amused roll of his eyes. “Well, alright then! I’ll tell him when I get there.” As he spoke those last few words, his device finally loaded beyond the boot screen.

It took a moment for him to load his messages – only to find that he had received new data from Director Persson (as to be expected) and a few others, but nothing from Shafer. Looking down the list, he didn’t receive confirmation that Shafer had even read his last message.

“Hey,” he began. “When was the last time you saw Shafer around here, anyway?”

“Oh – he’s been in the fields all night,” Macy replied, then hesitated to speak further. “I actually haven’t seen him since he first talked to the ladies.”

Sam blinked again. “Oh – oh God.” The last message he has sent was in regard to the passage. If Shafer hadn’t received the message, then – “I’ve gotta go.” In a hurry, he left the scene.

At this hour, most of Shafer’s scouts were probably still waking up. So long as Shafer wasn’t in a hurry to get things moving, Sam could stop the scouts from going down to the passage yet. The fact that Shafer wasn’t able to answer the message gave Sam more anxiety than he cared to admit. Returned message or no, he was not going to be responsible for their own men getting lost in the passage.

Going up over the hill and around the river, Sam peered here and there, trying to find any tents that the scouts had set up. It took a few minutes of running around for him to find them – and to find, to his relief, that a handful of people were awake, including Shafer.

The deputy gave a deep sigh as he made his way over. Not wanting to waste any time, he shouted for the man’s attention. “Is anyone down in the passageways?”

“The passageways?” asked Shafer. “You’re talking about the one those two women went down, right?”

By the time Sam could reply, they were already close enough that they no longer needed to shout. “Yeah – those.”

“No, sir,” replied the scout leader. “We’re thinking of doing it today, but we don’t have to.”

“Don’t,” Sam insisted. “I tried getting a message to you yesterday, but after talking to those ladies, I think it’s best that we all make some plans before we go down. There’s some things they told me about that they found down there which are really strange – stuff that I wouldn’t suspect would be there if the place has really been untouched for as long as you’d think it’s been.”

There was a flash of disappointment on Shafer’s face, but he did not protest. “Whatever you say, mister Deputy.” The last two words came out almost condescending. Shafer was fortunate that he had held his position as the scouting head for a longer time than even the Director had held a position in power; Sam’s predecessor wouldn’t have taken kindly to being talked to in such a way.

Shrugging Shafer’s mild sarcasm away, Sam attempted to back up his position. “Once the ladies wake up, I’m fixing to take Esther to Persson so we can get a few things settled, maybe even make plans for what to do when we get down there.”

“You should probably bring her into the passage at some point,” Shafer added. “Ask her about that place she went in. See that she didn’t uncover anything that might be a detriment to us. Maybe ask what the hell she found in that room in the first place.”

“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Sam admitted. “If we’re going to put this outsider to good use, may as well take the opportunity before she starts demanding more recognition or some form of compensation from the Director.”

Now awash with relief, Sam, now smiling, let out an elated sigh. “If we can get back to business, though: is there anything else you’ve found since yesterday’s storm? Nobody else wandering outside?”

“Nope – got no one out there. Just those two ladies and that was it.”

“I see,” Sam returned. “So now that you and the scouts aren’t going to be headed to that passage, are there any top-priority tasks for you to handle today?”

“Top-priority? Not really.” he shook his head. “Why’s that?”

“Macy has another task for you.” Half-expecting a groan on Shafer’s part, Sam paused after speaking, then continued when he received no such reaction. “She wants you to go into the ladies’ tent and watch them. Not just sit outside the tent, but actually watch them inside.”

Raising an eyebrow, Shafer hesitated to reply. “She wants me to watch two women while they’re sleeping.”

Sam pursed his lips. “Yeah.”

Hardy able to contain himself, the scout head cracked a smile. “Good thing I’m not a pervert. Sure – I guess I’ll do it. I take it that means you’ll be looking after the scouts once they wake up?”

“That’s the idea,” Sam admitted. “So I’ll come back in about two hours?”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Shafer nearly let the deputy go before he realized one more thing: “Oh, but before I forget!” he exclaimed, startling Sam as he took a device out of his pocket. He took a moment to flip the lid open and dial through, making sure what he had there was in order. With a nod, he closed the lid and handed the device to Sam. “If you could, I have a message that needs delivering.”

Back to Macy’s area for Sam, it seemed. “Is it another thing for the sujourne?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “We might be getting Rouken here soon.”

With that in mind, Sam almost felt the need to treat the device with more care than he otherwise normally would have. Slipping it into the inner pocket of his jacket, he acknowledged Shafer’s concerns. “I’ll make sure it gets there.”

With that, Sam wrapped up their meeting, taking a quick look through the messages in Shafer’s MDA once the man was out of eyeshot. There he found a new message saved as a draft:

Rouken,

I don’t have much to report for this week’s letter, other than to say that we made it to the remains of Kortrik and have set up camp. There are a few things that still need to be ironed out, but otherwise, we’re doing alright for ourselves.

The suspicious thing now is that right when we got things settled here, two girls from outside managed to find us. I don’t know if they were following us from somewhere or if it was just coincidence that they appeared when they did, but we haven’t seen anything else suspicious, which leads me to believe we will be alright for now.

So far we haven’t found anything in relation to those “highwaymen” you were talking about, but we might have just found a lead. One of the girls was actually someone we found in a passageway beneath the western side of the ruins. I’m planning on taking my scouts in there today. I’ll let you know what happens when we get in.

Phil Shafer

Sam closed the message with the mildest of confusion. This was the first time he had heard of these so-called highwaymen.


Did I just release two chapters within one week? I think I just did! Round of applause, cause holy shit!

Anyway — Discord is open for all. See you next chapter!