Infiltration Part3.5 – A Storage Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He still tells Bertha everything.”

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

“I can ask her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam rolled his eyes. “Very funny.”

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

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

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

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

Faust shook his head.

“Then, like I said: relax.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just following orders,” Sam chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it doing that?” Bailey repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t asked.”

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

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

Bailey was silent.

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

“I’ll just stick around here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did that come from?” Macy wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mentioned women cocked her head.

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

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

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

“Ouch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scruff!” Toni shouted.

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

All the other girls shouted in unison: “Scruff!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Cynthia asked, breathless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Tom?” “Brandon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SYSTEM DATA CORRUPTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part3.4 – Week’s End

“Miss, that’s not how Amity did it.”

“I don’t know how to do it the way she did,” Mira replied, keeping as level-headed a voice as she could.

“She didn’t tell you?” the injured child shot back, struggling to keep her hands away from the cut on her leg. “You should’ve learned from her.”

It was no use arguing. How Esther had managed to do all this work in the last few days was beyond Mira’s comprehension. It made her wonder if Esther had secretly become a pathological liar in the time they had spent away from each other – so skilled in the art that she could synthesize pathos at a whim.

If Esther were just as bad at lying as Mira was and if Esther had suffered the same backlash from these children that Mira was receiving now, then Mira would have at least expected her partner to have mentioned something about it. Instead Esther behaved as if everything between her and these kids was going as well as expected, if not better.

This child – whose name, Mira had learned, was Gail – had managed to trip and fall on a sharp rock, causing the gash in her leg. Because Cynthia still had a fair amount to learn before she could properly do stitches and because Toni’s cold was not seeing any signs of improvement, Macy had tasked Mira with curing the wound, completely disregarding the fact that Mira had never been taught how to treat wounds, let alone treat a children’s injury by herself. Mira’s qualifications for the job were based on the assumption that all adults should have been able to complete any medical task with ease. In reality, Mira had anything but an easy time working with Gail – but after winning a war of attrition to settle the girl down, the newly-healed assistant managed to put the last bandage over the wound.

Mira gave the faintest smile once the bandage was set in place. “Does that feel better?” she said.

“It feels terrible,” Gail grunted.

“Well,” Mira continued, ignoring the girl’s negativity. “Now that I’ve fixed you up, what do you say?”

Gail sniffed, but did not say anything, her lips pursed, as if trying to keep any potential words from escaping.

By the time Gail left, Mira was by herself again – alone in the very tent she had spent so many days inside while Esther went off to carry their mission on her back. By now Toni and Cynthia were busy helping Macy keep track of all the other kids, as many of the other chores they would have otherwise taken care of today were either already completed or were now in Mira’s hands. The only thing Mira knew she still needed to take care of now was cleaning and organizing some of the medical supplies in her tent – which she was already in.

There were a few rags and needles that needed to be cleansed, as well as bandages and other disposable items that could be thrown into a fire. Mira found herself most intrigued by the alcoholic cleansers these luocans had managed to concoct. Using natural ingredients, they had managed to create their own medicine and sterilizers – and while these mixes weren’t as strong as what could be made in a factory, it was still impressive.

Mira had managed to remove several stains from the clothing before proceeding to cleanse the needles – at which point she noticed someone tugging on the tent from outside. After calling the visitor to come in, in came Esther – along with Faust and Sam.

Almost immediately Sam spoke for the lot of them. “There was an incident involving nuclear hazards,” he explained. “And I thought it would be best for the people involved to take some time off. Just in case they start feeling a little off, if you know what I mean.”

Though intrigued by the mention of nuclear hazards, Mira kept her thoughts to herself, responding initially to Sam’s announcement with a single blink. “Interesting.”

Sam paused. “Right. Well, I’m leaving Esther here for you – and if she’s not looking so good in about an hour, tell someone. Could be the sign of something much worse.”

The boy at Sam’s side had a very noticeable shade of anxiety coloring him from head to toe, leaving him much more readable than the otherwise expressionless Esther. Effectively sparing the gynoids the angst that was inevitably to come once the boy was dropped off at his destination, Sam nudged Esther inside. Again the luocans left the gynoids to their own devices.

“I didn’t think we’d be together alone in this setting again,” Mira bemoaned.

“Fortunately, nobody got hurt this time,” Esther said. “Well, that is debatable with Faust – but, truth be told, I heard he might have ended up hurting himself worse without me.”

“What was this nuclear essence you found?”

Esther took a seat on Mira’s bed. “It was part of a corpse we found under the fallen bell. Some of the luocans think the body might be someone who was killed in a nuclear explosion, but that isn’t what this body was; it was an AI’s body, without a doubt. And what’s more: it didn’t look like the same kind of body that I saw in the passages. The android I found there looked nothing like this one – but this one also didn’t have a head or limbs.

“The worst part of this is that I can’t tell if it was an etternel or not. All this ordeal has done is make me wonder what else the Mother did not tell us.” Struggling to piece everything together, she ran her fingers through her dirtied hair. “Why do I keep getting the feeling that She deliberately kept information away from us.”

“You know that is impossible,” Mira asserted. “Such basic details are things that the Mother knows already – and by extension, we should, too.”

“Then did I just not get briefed on it?” Esther asked. “Or are you just as unfamiliar with potential androids here as I am.”

Mira paused. “I don’t know any more than you do, I’m afraid.”

“You don’t think we’re faulty, do you? You don’t think our memory has been tampered with in some way?”

“Why would you think that?” Mira challenged. “I haven’t encountered any reason to believe our memories of our first day here are any worse than our memories of the day before.”

“Not that recent,” Esther insisted. When she thought about what they had done before reaching this place, she remembered waiting for Mira by the train station. She remembered waking up from her latest update from Rélhum. She remembered the mission they were tasked to do and when they were tasked to do it. The memories she needed to retain otherwise were held captive by the Mother, available for any etternel to see – but now without a direct connection to the Mother, her memories beyond the relative short-term were out of reach.

The earliest memory she had retained was only one: meeting Mira and becoming partnered with her. There was a time in Rhobane where they reminisced over their days as officers upholding the order in the city – and while she recalled her time remembering what had happened, the things she remembered were now lost to her, held by the Mother.

It seemed as though Mira was correct in that the the memories of their first day here were no more fragmented than the memories of yesterday, but everything about their time in Rhobane had started to become a complete and thorough void of nothingness, with nothing happening between the day they met and the day the left the Domain’s borders.

The data she had been given from the robot in the passageways – incomplete as it was – still remained just as intact for her now as it had then, but one thing about her encounter with the android struck out more than almost anything else: the loss of her identity. She was Esther, but the identifying number she had attached to herself and the number she had attached to Mira were now lost to her for reasons that only their distant Mother knew.

But thinking about the incomplete data that the android had given, Esther realized: “Maybe that body will have some of the information we’re looking for.”

Mira shot her partner a glance. “I don’t think it will be worth it,” she stated. “Even if that were true, there is no way the luocans would let us take the body for ourselves – and no way that we’d be able to get to it without them finding out.”

“So what, then?” Esther challenged. “Are we simply not going to do anything with this body?”

“Let’s just wait it out and make a plan when we’re ready,” Mira suggested. “See what the luocans do – then, if either of us get a chance, gather any data we can. Maybe we could also benefit from doing the same thing with the bug machines you discovered.”

Thinking of those machines again and the awful static noise they seemed to emit when she entered their hive, Esther wanted to shiver. If the recently-discovered body made her hear the same thing, she would have rather not touched it at all.

“Hey!” Cynthia hissed. “Hey! Don’t fall asleep on me!”

With wavering eyes, Toni tilted her head toward the younger assistant. “I’m not falling asleep,” she said, mumbling. “What do you need help with?”

“I don’t need help with anything,” Cynthia said. “But you were totally about to fall asleep.”

Toni sniffed harshly, barely able to breathe. “I’m not…” She sniffed again, resisting the urge to wipe her nose with her hand when she sat up a little straighter. “What’s going on, anyway?”

“Miss Macy is just showing the little ones how to weave baskets,” Cynthia explained, speaking out the corner of her mouth, not wanting their teacher to hear her. “Call it a hunch, but I’m pretty sure she’ll want us both to start helping out, too.”

As much as Toni wanted to groan at the idea of using more than two percent of her brain for the rest of the day, she chose instead to relish in the fact that she had some time to sit around, look alive, and shut her brain off with eyes wide open, stationary and calm like a resting fish. That was, at the very least, her plan – but now that Cynthia was catching on, Toni started to realize that maybe she wasn’t as good at staying awake as she first thought.

She relished in the quiet moments, but ultimately could not ignore the fact that she could barely breathe. Worse still: she had left her kerchief at her bed when she didn’t need to. She had pockets; her decision to not bring the cloth gave her absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

Considering today was not a laundry day, it should’ve still been under her bed. “Cynthia,” she murmured, nudging the girl in question. “I’ll be back.”

“Huh? Wait, you – hey!” But by the time she could protest, Toni had already stood up, covering the lower half of her face behind a hand. Still excruciatingly dizzy yet noticeably more energetic now than she was a moment before, Toni left the scene – unannounced to everyone except the other assistants, just as Amity used to sometimes do.

Once she made it to the tent, she was pleased to find that Mira had not mistakenly touched the laundry today. Almost wobbling to her bed, she found the cloth underneath.

Unsure if she just needed a moment to catch her breath or if she were being overcome by sleepiness, Toni took a moment to sit on her bed – at which point the pressure in her sinuses lessened considerably. She stole a glance at Amity’s bed, not amused by how unworn it was now.

She wouldn’t be sick now if it weren’t for that so-called adult ignoring her pleas. If the robot had decided to capture Amity instead, sending her hurtling toward the ground at an ungodly speed, surviving a crash that would have been lethal if the machine’s interior had not taken in the impact, maybe Toni would have had some reason to feel sorry for Amity – a genuine reason beyond simple anxiety that anyone with responsibilities had to deal with. Imagining Amity trying to kiss her boyfriend, grossing him out, and getting him sick in the process made a sneer pass the unknowing Toni’s face.

Amity acted as if Toni didn’t matter. Perhaps Toni was too wish-washy for someone of Amity’s temperament, hence the head-butting that tended to transpire between the two of them.

Toni sighed, hoping that was the reason – but at the same time her wavering inspiration broke out of her, she remembered she had practically left Cynthia out by herself. Knowing that the last thing she wanted to do was abandon the girl, Toni quickly blew her nose and left the tent.

Nearly tripping as she headed out of the tent, Toni found herself in the same state of dizzying fatigue that she was in when she entered the tent in the first place. Practically aimless, it took longer than normal for her to return to the other girls – at which point her head had practically started pounding in a rhythm Toni could not make out.

By now she had expected Cynthia to march up to her, screaming about how her stomach had knotted itself several times as she waited for Toni to return. She expected a younger, brattier Amity to spring out of Cynthia, but instead Cynthia appeared with a peep, barely a tap on the shoulder.

“Hi Toni,” she mumbled. “Nobody’s called for help. Not yet.”

The world around her became fuzzier with every passing beat. “Oh,” she replied. “Is Miss Macy helping—?” Her words started to drift off.

“Miss Macy—” Cynthia hesitated. “She went back to her tent. You just missed her.”

Just then, their conversation was interrupted when one of the girls in the crowd raised her hand.

“I’ve got it,” Cynthia chirped – and just as quickly, Toni was by herself again. It took a moment for her to realize Cynthia was practically gone, yet she was more confused by the change in attitude.

An hour passed for Esther. Almost exactly an hour. Practically on the second, she started heading back to the field.

As Esther went off to work with who-knew-whom, Mira went on to check anything else that might have needed service outside. She noticed that by now, most of the girls were on their way back to their large tent – perhaps ready to do their last activity before dinner today. Mira had no idea what this activity could have been, but anything was possible when she considered the things some people would do to kill time.

The gynoid’s leg felt more like a bag of leather – poorly cobbled together with metal bits rattling inside – than a hunk of flesh and bones. Standing up from a sitting position still took a tangible amount of effort, given the way the still-damaged parts of her tended to grind uncomfortably when shifted from one position to a completely different one. The grind wasn’t serious enough to occupy Mira’s thoughts entirely, but it was definitely noticeable to her.

When she stepped outside, Mira was greeted to a slightly-receding sun, its overcasting gaze dashing the land with the faintest tint of orange. The sun seemed to be moving in the direction of where Macy, Cynthia, and Toni were set at – and just as Mira realized this, Toni started to leave the scene, a cloth in her hand, her footsteps slow and deliberate and somewhat disturbing in their predictability.

Herself already set close to the girls’ tent, Mira had an ear turned to what the little ones were talking about. Regardless of the fact that so much of the chatter overlapped to the point of making little sense at all, Mira could barely tell what most of them were talking about at all. What she could make out was petty gossip and secret-sharing, but most of the context was lost on her when she still knew very few of them.

Yet today it felt as if most of the girls had already come to know who she was. The realization that somebody knew her better than she knew them came with an uncomfortable air of unfamiliarity. Not being able to tap into a database and pull up every minute detail about a person – from their race, religion, eye color, etc. – left her that much weaker, crippled mentally when her current physical limitations were debilitating enough.

There was a point where Mira swore she had heard one of the girls say her name, making her flinch for a second as if somebody were calling to her. Taking a step closer to the tent, she attempted to piece more of the conversation together – but with all the other noise clouding everything, she would have had an easier time trying to piece together Esther’s garbled data. Aside from her name, the rest she was able to make were a few words that children in this particular age group should not have uttered

Nearby footsteps pulled Mira away from the tent. Slightly concerned that somebody had been watching her, she looked around the corner of the tent to see Toni, hazy-eyed, barely standing straight, just about to enter the tent’s entrance – when she fell over into the grass.

Mira initially responded with mostly-muted surprise, then took a few steps toward the girl as she struggled to get herself back on her feet.

“Toni – are you okay?” she began, bending over as the girl coughed into the ground.

Initially Toni could only mumble. In a few seconds’ time, she moaned, trying again to pick herself up, then giving up again. She wiped her face with her sleeve despite having a perfectly capable cloth in her hand.

“Hey,” Mira said, her feet now at Toni’s head. “What are you trying to do?”

Toni mumbled something that sounded like “sorry” before sniffling and trying to get up for the second time. With enough struggle, she managed to at least get herself into a sitting position.

“Oh – Miss Mira?” she said, her voice stuffy. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to get in your way.”

Mira blinked. “You didn’t get in my way. I’m just concerned, that’s all,” she clarified. “Do you need help?”

Toni didn’t initially reply. “Sorry,” she said again.

The girl was off in her own world. Realizing this, Mira reached down and grabbed Toni’s free hand before lifting her back on her feet again – where she proceeded to continue stumbling. Had Mira let go just after picking her up, Toni surely would have fallen back down again.

“You’re the one who caught a cold, aren’t you?” Mira noted.

“I think it’s more than a cold now,” Toni grumbled.

Mira continued gripping Toni by the paw as she led her into the very tent in which she’d spent much of the day. “Sit here,” she directed, walking Toni to the bed before moving over to the medical equipment. “You might have caught influenza when you were drifting out there with Esther.”

“This is stupid,” Toni argued, muttering under her breath. “Esther didn’t get sick. I saw her walk out earlier like the water didn’t even bother her.”

Mira bit her tongue for a moment. “She was already sick last week,” she declared. “Her getting sick again wouldn’t make sense, since she already built up immunity for the season.” At least Mira thought that was how it worked. Hoping not to come across as too cold or distant, Mira added further: “I’m sorry you aren’t doing well, but you’ll be fine. Everyone gets sick, you know.”

She wasn’t sure, but Mira thought she could see Toni rolling her eyes for a moment right as she turned around to dig through a medicine cabinet. “I know that,” she said. “And I get it,” she continued, pressing her nose into the cloth. “Esther was luckier than me.”

“It has nothing to do with luck.” At the same time Mira spoke, she started pouring orange, sticky fluid into a cup, then mixed in some water.

“Everything that’s happened has to do with luck,” Toni snorted. “And I’m luck’s bitch this week.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Mira berated, mixing the fluids with a spoon as she made her way to Toni. “I don’t care that you’re one of the assistants; I have been given instructions to keep you and the other girls from using that kind of language.”

Toni screwed up her face as if she were about to say something snide in response, but ended up giving in with a sigh. “Okay.”

“Now drink this,” Mira said. “If you need an extra handkerchief, I can get you one.”

“I’m okay,” Toni replied as she took the cup. “But thank you.” With that, she squeezed her eyes shut and tipped the cup’s contents down her gullet, cringing as she guzzled it down.

Mira gave a light smile as Toni finally complied. “I just remembered something,” she began. “You were the one who gave me those crutches when Esther was trying to help me get around. I should thank you again for that – even if I don’t need them now.”

Beyond her intent, Toni smiled back. “You’re welcome,” she said, almost shrinking as she spoke.

“Are you feeling better now?” Mira prodded.

The girl shrugged. “I guess.”

“You’d better get back to the other girls.” With that, Mira motioned Toni out of the bed, at which point the girl handed the cup back to Mira and, still dazed, made her way up. She blinked a few times as if fighting sleep while standing, but continued moving ahead as Mira held the tent flap open for her.

And just a few steps beyond the exit to Mira’ tent, Toni fell again, once again catching Mira by surprise. A girl nearby, having seen the event unfold, yelped where she stood. Tilting her head up, she noticed Mira close by. “Miss Macy? Cynthia?” she called. “Help!”


As of the beginning of this month, the Discord is now an open community for anyone to join.

Let’s try something a little different for an outtro…
Get ready for things to heat up as Amity begins her new job in the passageways and as Toni gets used to her new role as the oldest of Macy’s assistants — as both Toni and Mira realize what happens when you tamper with what doesn’t belong to you.

Infiltration Part3.1 – Post-Traumatic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More or less,” Persson admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Faust grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is the other one still not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Different than what?”

“Different than when Amity left.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In your pocket.”

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

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

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

“I dunno. Does it matter, though?”

“Miss Esther might want to see that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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 Part1.5 – Fresh Blood

The best shelter these people could afford their newest visitors was a small tent that they had already set up for medical use. Mira was given a bed, blanket, and a long shirt to cover her up just enough for when the luocans worked on her leg while all Esther had was a small sleeping bag and some new clothes for herself. As the gynoids situated themselves, a man named Shafer – who had operated the vehicle with Rand – was tasked with guarding the front of the tent as they waited for further medical services from the woman in charge.

Shafer stood idly by, wary of the slightest sound coming from inside, though much of it was clouded from all the noise outside. With so many noisy children nearby, it could not have been easy for the man to stay focused. It must have been doubly difficult to keep his sanity when he had no assistance from any of the things that Autorians tended to take for granted.

No proper architecture, infrastructure, or enforcement existed to keep the land in order, yet somehow Shafer and all luocans like him had managed to come together and move as a family united under one roof – if a woven, flapping cobble of cloth, hide, and synthetics of a bygone era was applicable as a roof. In this otherwise flat spot set among the hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, forests and swamps the luocans called their home, several broken houses – long-abandoned by their previous owners as the city crumbled into rubble from years of neglect – remained as the only visible parts of civilization.

And then there was the passage.

The gynoids had no doubt the passage would become a topic of interest among luocans. The fact that Rand had managed to find Esther down there supposedly without any prior knowledge about the place led them to believe that either Rand was being coy and that the luocans actually did know all there was to know about the passage or that Esther was the only person to step into that place in years. Given the dust, she was willing to bet on the latter.

Her voice low so as not to let the man outside hear, Mira spoke to Esther from her bed as Esther rested her elbows on the frame. “It sounds like the man who brought you here was less hostile than the one who brought me in.”

Rand wasn’t the least bit hostile, but his demeanor had done nothing to let Esther’s guard down. Still, hearing Mira bring up such a topic of discussion left her curious. “Did you argue with him about something?” she asked.

“No, nothing like that. I barely talked at all on the way back.” Mira hesitated to continue. “Your man didn’t threaten to kill you?”

“No,” Esther replied with her own air of hesitance. “But maybe we should consider ourselves lucky. They know we’re outsiders and they probably know that – ” She dropped her voice even lower than it already was. “ – that we are Autorian. So the fact that they didn’t kill us after seeing the way we tried running away is a good thing, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.” Yet, in an almost deflective move, Mira argued, “The men here don’t seem to like women at all, unless I was just unlucky. The man who brought you here is probably much less xenophobic than a lot of the others around here.”

Esther had already known about how human beings could act when faced with someone who represented an opposing ideology or party. In their Disconnect, bigotry among the luocans was free to run rampant without the state to step in and handle such social unrest. But even with this in mind, Esther wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure it’s a matter of sexism and not just our background?”

“The men don’t seem to like the women,” Mira replied. “Why else would they segregate the children?”

While her partner seemed to be pushing the definition of xenophobia, Esther did not see any need to push back. “Let’s hope for our sake that it is just a few men here who truly think women are inferior,” she said, not wishing to discuss any further.

Xenophobic or not, the luocans had already let the gynoid visitors fulfill the first half of their mission. The other half: rise with the luocans, exploiting their systems until their base of operations fell apart, hopefully sending a ripple effect to other luocans as they sought to rise from the Disconnect.

Feeling the need to move the subject back to the intended topic, Mira wondered more about Esther’s plundering. “What was that robot you said you found?” she asked, catching Esther almost unaware. “Is he still there?”

“He is,” Esther answered. “But he died while trying to transfer data over.”

“Oh.” She almost looked surprised. “And there weren’t any others?”

“All the others were dead – and the one I found had to be activated first. He wouldn’t turn on until after I plugged him into the generator. It must not have been a strong connection, either – or if it was, his circuits must have been destroyed at some point if he died when he did.”

“Maybe another one of them can get you data on that sednium generator. But what kind of data would you expect to find about a machine like that, anyway?”

“Well, you always used to tell me that we should take whatever data we can,” Esther pointed out. “So I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to gather some data about the power generators while we’re here.

“But there was something else I found before the robot started transferring data to me.” Esther closed in. “He knew about the Mother.”

That was enough to startle Mira. “About Mírre? Or some other Mother of days past?”

It occurred to Esther that she had never asked. “I don’t know.” There very well might have been a Mother not like the one she had known, but one that Autorians in the days of Autorise S.A. and the early Domain would have considered the Mother. “If it really was a different Mother, do you think she would have been more primitive than the one we know now?”

“I have no doubt she would have been,” Mira scoffed. “What he called the Mother might have been of even lower intelligence than one of us.”

“I don’t think his Mother was that old. The documents I found there were dated roughly sixty years ago.” As she spoke, her nose started to run; the fluid that had invaded her airways had yet to fully find its way out. Esther sniffled. “By the way: how is your leg?”

Their conversation was immediately cut off by some mumbling from just outside. Shafer was speaking with someone; it took a moment for the gynoids to realize it was Macy: the woman in charge of child education and general medicine in the camp.

“Those partners in there seem to be doing alright,” he droned, his voice so monotone it almost made the nearby robots blush. “Haven’t tried breaking out yet.”

“That is good,” came an older, female voice. “I still need to get the blonde one more properly treated in case the wound reopens.”

Mira replied to Macy’s concern with a snort.

After enough back-and-forth, Macy and Shafer unzipped the opening of the tent and brushed through. The differences in their attire gave for quite the striking dichotomy – Macy clad in a tan shirt, brown overalls, and thick gloves more becoming of a gardener than a doctor or teacher, whereas Shafer’s drenched cargo pants and protective vest almost made him look like a poor version of what the visiting women once were. If they didn’t know any better, the Autorians would have assumed Shafer was Macy’s overprotective son.

“Ladies,” Macy began as the aloof Shafer almost took a step back. “Are you both doing alright so far?”

Both of them would have been well within their right to complain, but they instead nodded their heads and let the instructor continue. “Good; the girls are busy and Shafer will be looking after them for a bit. One of my apprentices will be here to help me get the two of you in better shape.” Pausing, Macy leaned to her left, attempting a better glance at Mira’s leg. “It hasn’t started bleeding again, has it, dear?”

Sitting up in the bed, Mira reached a hand under the sheet and touched her wounds to find an unfortunate streak of red coolant tracing along her fingers. She cast a nervous glance up at Macy. The substance had the look and texture, but not the smell of blood; having Macy put some stitches in the wounds was risky enough, but further examination would have brought the partners closer to being caught.

“Oh – that will definitely need some proper bandaging. But you should be fine until Amity arrives,” Macy assured, then cocked a look at Esther – who, embarrassed, hid her face behind a hand, giving the lightest of sniffles. Knowing of her plight, Macy pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to the woman. “Here you are, dear,” she said as Esther gratefully brought the cloth to her face. “And might I ask, Esther: is it just a cold you’re dealing with or is it something else?”

“It’s just a cold,” she assured, her words muffled behind the cloth. “Just the typical coughing, sneezing, and dizziness.” She spoke with such clarity that it almost would have been hard to believe she were dizzy or stuffy if she had not stated it outright.

Macy, meanwhile, put a palm to Esther’s forehead. “We don’t have anything to check your temperature for sure,” she admitted, taking her hand back. “But the fact you’re able to speak full sentences without stopping to breathe tells me you don’t have a flu. And you don’t have a fever, either”

Esther nodded and wiped her nose with the cloth.

Emerging from the background, Shafer cleared his throat, alerting Macy, who had almost forgotten he was there. “The Director wanted you both to know that he needs to meet the two of you as soon as possible. I told him he will have to wait – especially with you.” He gestured to Mira. “But he now knows everything about how we found you both and what you were doing outside. I’m sure he will have plenty more questions for you both when the deputy takes you to him.”

Neither of them had any doubts on that last fact.

Feeling he had nothing else to speak about on this matter, Shafer rubbed his chin and asked, “Anything the director needs to know about you two before I get Amity?”

Perhaps there were things he would like to know, but nothing he truly needed to know. “I don’t think so,” replied Esther. Mira, subsequently, shook her head.

“Alright then.” With that, Shafer started on his way out, but paused mid-step. “One other thing: the Director believes some strange things about the Domain, so try not to argue with him, okay?” He left before anyone could respond.

As sure as she was that her assistant was on her way, Macy sauntered over to a small wooden bin full of clean, white aprons. “Amity should be here in just a few minutes. She’s that apprentice I told you about.” She slipped on a pair of gloves. “She’ll be turning fourteen tomorrow, so we’ll have to get used to doing things around here without her soon!”

“Why is that?” Mira asked.

Almost immediately she regretted asking that, as Macy’s first reaction to that question was to stare somewhat bewildered at Mira’s words.

“Well,” said Macy, glancing to the side before looking back to meet Mira’s gaze. “She’ll be her own woman! Some of the girls are working on stitching a tent, but it’s mostly been Amity who’s worked on it. In, give or take, a couple weeks, she should have it all ready to go.”

Before she could speak further, someone cleared their throat from behind her.

Macy turned around. “Oh – Amity!” She turned around again, stepping aside to let the girl in through the tent’s open flap. “Mira and Esther – here she is.”

Stepping forward, a tall, blue-eyed girl clad in tight-fitting cotton and denim and a thin skirt that almost went down to her knees greeted the two of them, a tired smiled on her face.

“Miss Esther, Miss Mira,” she greeted. “It’s great to meet both of you.” She spoke in a tone that indicated enthusiasm, yet her worn-out expression – far from vernal or wide-eyed – told the newcomers that she was anything but excited. Amity turned her head toward her mentor as she moved to retrieve some gloves and an apron for herself. “Shall we start?”

Rather than answer up-front, Macy gestured toward the bedridden Mira. “We will need you to turn on your side, dear.” She then tilted her gaze to Esther, who immediately stepped back as Amity walked over, putting a knot in her apron. At the same time Mira shifted to lean on her left shoulder, exposing the marks on her bare leg.

Despite the fact that Amity stood at nearly the same height as Macy, the age difference between them couldn’t have been clearer – especially with the wrinkles about Macy’s cheeks and the slim traces of pudge about Amity’s.

“Macy?” Esther said, sitting by. “Are you sure Amity is able to do this kind of thing safely?”

Almost flinching, Amity whipped her head around at such a comment, her straight black hair momentarily caught in a flurry as she did. Yet before she could open her mouth, Macy put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I have trained Amity since she was seven years old, dear,” she assured. “The children from your home may have been under-taught in real-world application, but I make sure all my students get the training they need – especially my apprentices.”

As Macy turned to assess the marks on Mira’s leg, Amity hesitated for a moment, looking down her nose at Esther, then returned to assess the damage.

“Oh, gosh,” Macy commented, chewing a gloved finger. “That looks bad, but I’m sure it’s nothing we won’t be able to fix up.” She went to retrieve some supplies from around where the aprons and gloves were.

“What’s wrong?” wondered Mira, trying to catch a look at the back of her leg as she continued to lay on her side.

“One of the stitches snapped just now,” Amity explained. “It’s bleeding out pretty bad.”

“In addition to the few that already broke!” Macy added as she returned, handing Amity a cloth and sanitizer. Amity proceeded to douse some of the cheaply-made disinfectant to the rag before pressing it up to the open wound. Just behind her, Macy proceeded to weave a thread through a needle.

Mira had more reason to worry than either of the two operators did. If she lost too much coolant without replacing it, she might end up cooking herself to death. With this procedure also came the concern that Macy and Amity would catch a deep glimpse into Mira’s inner workings, yet their work was only skin-deep.

Amity took a deep breath as Macy handed her the needle, eyes locked on the torn flesh. Making as much of an effort as she could to keep her hands still, she inched the needle through a fold of the skin little by little, then finally poked and started weaving through, stitching everything back together as best she could. Afterward, Macy cleaned the blood off a few spots around the now-sealed wound.

The two luocans repeated a similar procedure with a few other spots on Mira’s leg. After some time, Macy peered at their progress with a smile. “I think we’re almost done – yes; okay!” She walked over to look at Mira. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” said Mira. “If I could balance myself better, I might be able to hop around camp without difficulty.”

That was enough to elicit a chuckle out of Macy. “We will just need to get some bandages on them, then we will be done. Amity – could you get them?”

The apprentice did as instructed, going to the supply corner one more time. She barely had a moment to sift around when a screaming girl rushed through the tent flap.

Startled but refraining from flinching, Macy turned toward the source of the noise.

“Miss Macy!!” the girl shouted, caught in such a flustering panic that she ran by Esther without realizing she was there. The stationary woman was quick to notice that even when standing straight, the girl barely stood an inch taller than her.

The hot tears rolling down the girl’s red cheeks were enough to soften Macy’s demeanor from the initial slight annoyance that came with her shriek a moment before. “Hazel? What’s going on, dear?” she asked.

“It’s…we can’t find Shelley! No one knows where she is!” the child claimed, wiping her eyes and sniffling. “Cynthia and Toni don’t know, neither!”

For a moment the room went completely silent, with the only exception being Hazel’s heavy breathing and sobbing. The girl looked as if she had to fight the urge to hug Macy for comfort.

“Amity,” the mentor began. “Can you take things from here?”

It didn’t seem like she had much of a choice, yet for a moment Amity looked as if she wanted to bargain. But, of course, even she knew that Hazel was not going to accept any other deal. “Go ahead,” she said, sighing. “It’s just bandages now, anyway, right?”

Without further hesitation, Macy and Hazel left the two visitors with the apprentice. A decent distance separated Amity from the others, yet it almost felt like not enough distance.

“Okay,” Amity began, taking slow steps toward Mira. “Just to be safe, I want both of you just stay where I can see you, alright?”

Esther, still sitting, gave a single nod, eyes locked on Amity as Amity switched her gaze between the two of them. The luocan girl clearly saw the two of them as some kind of threat. If she only knew.

Still Esther kept where she was as Amity rolled out some bandages to wrap around Mira’s wounds. Neither Esther nor Mira could tell if Amity was trying to hurry along with the process or if she typically bandaged people in such a hurried manner – but in either case, she made quick work of the wounds and wiped the rest of the blood clean off with an air of charismatic precision that the women thought was only possible from a machine.

When it was all done, Amity finished with a sigh. “There you go!” she exclaimed, putting the rag in the pocket of her apron. “You can roll on your back again.”

Mira nodded and started lowering herself once more. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem, Miss.” Amity sighed again, then put away the rest of the bandages and took off her apron and gloves. Things went silent between the three of them as Amity gazed upon the tent entrance – only for nobody to walk through. “Wonder where that other girl went.”

Neither of the other two in the tent responded.

Amity bit the inside of her cheek. Trying not to sigh again, she ran a hand through her hair. “So what all did my uncle tell you guys while he was here?”

Mira blinked. “Your uncle?”

“Right – he usually goes by Shafer,” the girl explained. “I guess soon enough he’ll be the only person left with that as his last name, but yeah.”

“Just things about the deputy and how the Director wants to see us soon,” Esther answered.

“Nothing about what kind of work you two will be doing here?” asked Amity.

The newcomers exchanged a confused glance with each other before looking back at Amity. Esther asked the inevitable question: “What do we have to do?”

“Basic things!” she began. “But the first thing is that you’ll be able to work with Toni, Cynthia, and me in helping Macy around here. Believe me: sometimes everything just goes completely out of control when my uncle or Deputy Sam or some other temporary assistant isn’t around to help the old lady.”

“Would this mean we would be babysitting?” Esther prodded.

Amity gave an unsolicited snort. “No!” she claimed, her face going a little pink as if she were either lying or embarrassed to be associated with such a task. “No – no I personally wouldn’t call it babysitting. Macy does all the teaching, but the other apprentices and I help her keep things under control while we get some specialized training.”

“What is she teaching?” asked Mira, her voice strikingly monotone.

“Things like the alphabet, basic math, how to properly socialize – !” Her voice lowered almost to a whisper. “ – obviously.”

“One sort of unrelated question,” Esther butted in. “But are girls the only ones who get schooling here?”

“Well, yes, Miss. The boys are taught by their dads to do stuff away from home – like how to catch and cook dinner.”

In the midst of her explanation, Macy’s voice sounded from outside, calling for Amity’s name. Her shoulder twitched. “Oh, shoot – gotta head back now!” Straightening herself up, she put on the brightest smile the women had seen from her so far – which was not saying much. “Anyway – it was great meeting the two of you and I hope to work with you both soon!”

That out of the way, Amity grabbed her slightly-bloodied attire and left the women alone, heaving a sigh the moment her face turned away from them.

By the time both women were sure the child was out of earshot, Mira was first to speak. “I thought she was going to smack you.”

Esther blinked. “Amity was?” she asked.

“When you asked Macy if she was capable of fixing me. I didn’t think she would react like that.” Sitting by as Esther made her way back to the bedframe to plant her shoulders on, she added, “I don’t think she likes us.”

“I don’t think her uncle did, either,” Esther said, nodding. “And we still have to see the Director of this camp soon.”

“Hopefully he will have a temperament more similar to Macy.” Mira sighed. “But whenever you meet him and whenever I meet him, it has to go better than it did with Amity just now.”

The girl clearly didn’t want to be in the same room as the gynoids – didn’t think she was even safe without her instructor to back her up. No matter how careful either of them were with the director, at the end of the day, their interaction with him would be another risk to jump through – but such risks were all they could carry through with for the sake of the mission.

Lost in their individual thoughts, the two of them amassed a shared silence – lasting almost a minute – as Mira seemed to almost fall asleep where she lied. Despite their disconnect, they each knew the other was thinking of failure: an option they could not take, lest they lose their chance to retrieve the data they needed and risk death in the wilderness.

It made Esther realize: “As long as they don’t figure out why we’re here, the Director shouldn’t see any need to throw us out so soon. Would they really want to throw us out so soon – especially while your leg is damaged and your pants are still being patched up?”

Mira almost didn’t respond. “You underestimate how awful human beings can be to one another. So often their behavior is so reprehensible that even pockets among them do not see each other as any higher in the animal kingdom than their primate counterparts. I thought you would know that.”

“I do know that – but just after the people here patched up your leg and agreed to patch up your pants, would they really want to throw us out so soon? They have already done a lot for us that they didn’t need to.”

It was as if Esther’s logic operated in a different architecture. Shaking her head, pinging a null network, Mira gave up. “I can only assume your firmware is working properly,” she said, “but – with or without a software infection – you just might be the strangest etternel I know if you really think that mercy at the hands of a few denotes civility among the many.”

Some may have taken those words as insult; others would have taken them as compliment; Esther took them as neither. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Amity certainly never expected to be pulled away in the way she was – but at least it was for something pleasant.

Toni and Cynthia had found Shelley in the nearby woods safe and sound, giggling at the thought of someone finding her, yet disappointed to actually receive punishment when brought to Macy. As their instructor and Shafer watched over the other girls outside, the three apprentices went to the children’s main tent to keep Shelley at her sleeping bag while the three of them cleaned and patched up Mira’s old pants as well as a bunch of other clothes.

The youngest of the three, Cynthia was tasked with fetching and warming up some water at the western side of camp. It always made Amity a little concerned to see the portly apprentice walking with such a hot bucket – even if she had never encountered any difficulties with it I the past.

As Toni and Amity laid several articles of clothing on the floor, Toni couldn’t help notice a pungent scent when she brought a hand to her face after patting Mira’s pants down. “I really need to wash this hand,” she commented, her voice low.

“We’ll get a chance to once Cynthia’s back,” said Amity.

“I think it’s her blood,” Toni continued. “Her blood smells really weird…”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Blood just smells weird in general, you dork.”

Taking her hand away from her face, Toni cast a nervous glance at the older girl. “Are you sure it’s supposed to – ”

“If you’re going to make me smell your hand, forget about it.”

Too timid to continue their argument, Toni remained silent until the third apprentice returned.

“Here it is!” Cynthia squeaked as she stepped inside. “Did I miss anything?”

“No – Shelley’s been completely quiet,” Amity claimed, glancing over to see the girl in question return Amity’s stare from the corners of her red eyes.

As Cynthia put the bucket down and Toni readied the washing boards, the two of them eyed Amity in a curious manner. It only took a handful of heartbeats for her to realize they were looking at her.

She blinked. “Go ahead, you guys! You know how this works.”

Cynthia snickered. “No, silly – what were those women like?” Toni let out a little giggle as the youngest apprentice spilled the beans.

By then each of them had already dipped their hands into the bucket and grabbed some articles of clothing to work with. “Annoying,” Amity stated. “Ignorant. Confusing. I have a bunch of other adjectives I can use, if you want.”

As Toni bit her lip, Cynthia prodded further with a light grimace. “They were really that bad?”

“They’re not from here, for one thing,” Amity explained. “Not only that, but I think they’re Autorian.”

“Do you think they’re robots?” Toni wondered.

“That would be hilarious if they were, but no.” In her unfocused chattering, she managed to splash some water on her skirt. “They just come from a place where nobody cared about them for their humanity. The people in charge just saw them as a number and put them through the automatic system until they were done with school, then shoved them through whatever monotonous work the Domain likes to force on its people. It’s not like the Domain thinks its people are even p– Hey!” She shouted, casting a glance over Cynthia’s head. “Get back in your bed. Now!”

The other apprentices looked over to see Shelley, jumpy, return to her sleeping bag in a rush.

Catching Amity by surprise, Cynthia leaned over the bucket. “Are they really Autorian?”

“Stay back!” Amity had to nudge Cynthia’s shoulder to keep her from tipping the bucket over. She would have rubbed her temple if not for the fact that her hands were already doused in water. “I have a good feeling they are. Everything about them feels Autorian. But I don’t really know.”

Toni looked like she wanted to speak up on the matter, but again she remained quiet.

“What if they are?” Cynthia said, her voice raising in pitch to an almost intimidating degree.

For a moment, Amity could only sigh in response. “Then I guess we just learn to live with the Autorians and teach them how to become useful. Macy could give them a good teaching if she wanted, you know.”

“What if you become the next Macy?” Cynthia asked.

Amity paused. “I become the next Macy? So then I have to teach her?”

The short girl nodded.

The truth was that that was a possibility, given her skillset. Suddenly her current occupation of yelling at children for sneaking out or getting too close in her personal space felt like a better option. “God…I’d rather just stay here with all the kids for another year if that’s the case”

But she didn’t have a year. The stress that came with new beginnings had already started weighing down on Amity – and newcomers only added to the stress. No, there weren’t plans for a grand celebration and she certainly wasn’t going to be handed adulthood on a platter, but expectation kept her in check. There was an expectation to take Macy’s teachings to the fullest, to find a man to call her husband, to start living in her own tent among all the other adults in camp.

Yet here came two newcomers – both clearly adults, yet completely devoid of any knowledge of how the world really worked.

Amity huffed. Leaving her childhood behind was going to be harder than she thought.


I’m not dead!! (yet)

No, actually I have been spending the past month rethinking my writing process, rewriting a lot of stuff, and even finalizing the story bible for Infiltration. The actual revision of this chapter only took two days, believe it or not. With that said, you can start expecting to see more frequent updates on Infiltration!

I actually told my Discord to call the police if I don’t have Chapter 6 up by this coming Friday. So um…better jump on that.

Speaking of: Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part1.4 – Mother of All

She reached, pulled, and grabbed at water, but nothing she did could stop the near-frozen flow. In her desperation, she held both arms out, silently begging for something to tangle herself in – if only to stop the flow. By now the water had dragged Esther so far from view of the thundering sky that almost all light seemed to vanish in an aquatic haze.

Forward the stream carried her, slowing slightly, but still not enough to stop the spinning in her head, the nothing her eyes could see, the breathlessness endured as water threatened to suffocate her. Water filled her mouth and nostrils, making them burn for respiration as the gathered freezing rain refused to stop.

Yet in her thrashing, her arm caught onto something solid.

As she started coughing, it took the soaked gynoid a moment of recuperation to realize the she had grabbed a ladder. She shook in the frigid rain and looked up to find not a sky, but a ceiling. As she started making her way up the ladder and onto solid ground, she realized she had lost her socks and shoes in the mess she just escaped.

Once at the top of the ladder, Esther came down on her hands and knees. Again she started coughing, her body doing all it could to quickly dispose of the excess fluid.

Silent among the sound of rushing water, the gynoid picked herself on her bare feet and noticed a nearby light perched just above the door. Between the generally calm ambiance and the fact that the light looked as if it were on the verge of burning out, Esther assumed there was likely nobody down here. Looking around, she wasn’t sure how the luocans would have gotten down here in the first place; all she knew was that she was not about to jump back into the river.

As far as she could tell, their mission was a failure already. Fortunately, Esther had a backup plan – one which ended with her returning to Zeibane, reporting the incident, and possibly having the mission carried out by two other officers somewhere down the line. Not so fortunately, it seemed that the only safe way back to Zeibane was through that door.

Her feet slapped against the ground as she made her way toward the door. She immediately realized how much heavier her already-poor clothes had become in the last few minutes, but she continued forward. Again she started coughing, doing nothing to muffle the noises that proceeded to reverberate against hollow walls – which again reaffirmed the notion that nobody else was down here.

Once face-to-face with the door, she quickly came to realize it was locked. Perhaps if she had her longsword with her, Esther could have cut the knob off, but that wouldn’t be necessary; the rusty hinges broke free with a firm shoulder to the door. The broken hinges led her stumbling into a dusty, nearly pitch-black room. As if the water trapped in her nose wasn’t enough of an irritant by itself, the floating debris made her sneeze.

Her nightvision activated, Esther attempted to move around several boxes as she eyed the door on the other side of the room. She sneezed again, making a stack of the cardboard containers topple to the floor. A few papers spilled onto the floor, revealing a date at the upper-left margin: 5/21/2229.

Sixty years ago.

On further inspection, she realized most of the boxes in the room were dated to the 2220s and 30s – on top of the fact that they were all printed with a retired Autorian texture. Sifting through one of the boxes she had knocked over, she found a list of documents containing mostly useless information – save for some confirmation on her current position: a town once known as Kortrik.

5/21/29

Talbot,

We are expecting the newest order of Autorise’s neo-actinides to arrive by freight at 9am today. Felicia says we don’t know yet if they are hazardous or not, so please wear protective gear when handling. Once the train is here, get the goods back inside before the locals get a peek at it.

The generator has not been touched since we installed it last month, so come to my office if you don’t have any of the new Autorise converters. Yes, they changed the plug shape again, so now they’re using what they call a misajour port. More converters should be coming in within the next three months, though, so hopefully that train won’t finally be out of commission by then.

Sr Proj Dev

Tomas Gagnon

At least that explained what those train tracks were being used for, but talk of neo-actinides caught Esther’s attention more than anything else. It seemed like Gagnon was talking about sednium – and judging by the date, this must have been written before the synthetic element in question officially had a name. That in mind, Esther wondered if there were any computers nearby with digital copies of these archived documents. She would definitely need to come back here at some point.

Stepping out of the document archive was, fortunately, much easier than getting in – as the door further into this underground ruin had no locks on it to speak of. She found herself at a dark corridor, almost pitch-black to the naked eye.

With nightvision, she saw no reason to turn the lights on – assuming they worked at all. Even without light, she found herself at a T-intersection between two hallways – and looking ahead, she noticed a few others that intersected with her own path. On the other side of the corridor she noticed a set of doors with dirty windows – too dirty to see through. Even as she continued forward, she could not make out what was on the other side other than a distant humming from somewhere nearby.

Despite being barefoot, Esther was quick to make it through the corridor. She passed a few hallways, saw what looked like a mouse hole, but did not run into any trouble. Thinking about that letter, the gynoid had every reason to believe there was some form of heavy machinery somewhere inside – and therefore she was not leaving until either she found this generator or found a way out of here that didn’t involve swimming.

Getting through the doors, she looked up to see a relatively strong white light glowering down upon her, illuminating the room with a slight blue tint. The room seemed to be some sort of cafeteria – complete with several tables, empty trays, and vending machines that no longer worked. Further down she spotted a counter with a stack of trays and multiple pots and pans reflecting some of the light cast down from the two light bars that hung from the ceiling.

To her right, she saw two office windows – both of which sandwiched a sealed security door. It was only after taking note of this door when Esther realized how much louder the noise from earlier had become – almost piercing to the senses when she brought herself to the door and pushed her ear to its body.

The clerical windows were clearly designed to allow somebody to talk to a receptionist through glass, with only the slightest space below the filthy glass allowing for a transfer of paperwork or related materials. Taking a peek just under one of the screens, Esther noticed what looked like the prototype for a product that had fallen far out of date: an android created before the days of authentic, believable humanoid replication. It didn’t have flesh or a full face to speak of, yet it still carried a somewhat human form.

Esther failed to realize that she had slipped her head under the glass panel while examining this machine. Feeling the way it wobbled as she rubbed up against it, she hurriedly pulled back out of the window – and warped the glass from its original shape, making a much larger hole than what was there previously. Realizing what she had done, she took a chance and slipped right back in – head, body, and all – to observe the machine.

The robot almost looked like a skeleton, but with a metal outer shell to protect its already-strong bones. The closest thing it had to a face were two small, circular eyes and a thin, horizontal line for a mouth on the otherwise blank, cylindrical frame it called a head. Some of its wires were hanging out from around where the pelvis was supposed to be, indicating it had either been broken or sent for repairs but never fully completed.

Esther noticed a door on her left side – and it wasn’t reinforced steel. On top of that: it was unlocked. Stepping through, she realized she was on the other side of the security door.

Going further into the chamber’s stomach, the noise she had picked up earlier became even louder – perhaps even maddening to someone more sensitive to high frequencies. The more she listened, the more it sounded like power pulsating from something far more complex than the luocans were capable of managing – but if this truly was coming from the neo-actinide power generator she had heard about, the only question it left was: who was the last person to operate it?

The gynoid opened one more door and immediately winced when the sound of machinery coincided with an awful, counterproductive grinding that ruptured throughout the room. Worse than that was the fact that with no switch or lever in sight, there was no way to directly deactivate the machine.

Worrying so much about the noise, it took Esther a moment to take in the generator’s appearance – which was that of a long, complex series of lights, buttons, and switches that spanned across the entire wall of this wide room. Compared to the machines that the Domain kept in its headquarters for producing power or even the uranium-powered plants of the pre-Autorian days, this was miniscule – as was the room it sat in. If not for the noise or the vertical vents that fired hot air into a shaft through the ceiling, Esther would have thought this to be a control board and nothing else.

This most definitely was a sednium power generator – or at least served a similar function to one. While the makeup and structure of this was similar to what she had seen in Rhobane’s Autorise headquarters and in some spots she had seen in her few trips over to Coeurbane, many key parts were different – such as the ports along the front and the shape of the power supply. It seemed Autorise had changed the ports yet again in the time that had passed since that letter was written.

Esther started coughing again, ducking into her still-soaked sleeve as she wished the fit to subside. She knew interfacing with the complicated, yet antiquated system would not work out for her – especially in her current state. Fortunately, she remembered, she was not the only AI in the area.

Returning back to the abandoned office, she found the robot still lying, still completely motionless. It was both a reminder of what she once was and what she will be: a useless pile of scrap, but only useless when viewed through a veil of ignorance.

As she moved the robot off the ground, she realized it was nearly the same weight as her. The wires dangling from the pelvic area left her with some concerns, but she didn’t think it would be necessary to fix legs that most likely would never be used anyway. Furthermore, she noticed a peculiar plug sticking out the back of its head. Removing it, she noticed three prongs on the male side and a single, circular hole on the female side – similar to the etternel’s cervical ports that were typically accessed via collars, only this hole indicated a much larger form factor. She put the adapter back where it was.

Hoisting the dormant machine by its ancillaries, Esther struggled just a little to keep it off the ground, worried she might drop it and break something that was not already broken. Even if she assumed its battery hadn’t died or leaked corrosive acid by now, there still remained the issue of turning the machine on: an impossible task when she couldn’t find the power button. If this machine was made in a time before flesh-covered machines were affordable and feasible, there must have been some way to turn it on – some way that did not require it to be plugged into a network first.

Setting her benign struggle aside, Esther moved back to the generator. Along the way she left a trail of the robot’s rusted, battered pieces along the floor, each one clinking just as quiet as the last, loosening up bits in the robot’s body that were already relatively loose to begin with. Even with her nightvision, she could barely tell what had fallen – other than the fact that they were little nuts and bolts – as well as one of the robot’s legs, which she nearly tripped over.

By the time she came arms’ length from the generator, she was in a hurry to set the dead robot’s body down, dropping it a little harder than she had intended as she rested its back against the generator’s body. From there, she grabbed a hold of the port jutting ever so slightly out its head and noticed the plug once more. Hidden among the controls on the apparatus was a sliding door; opening it revealed four male plugs. Without hesitation, she grabbed one and slipped it into the adapter.

For a moment its body was completely still, unresponsive to the jolt it had just received. Right as Esther bent down to check if it was receiving power at all, one of its two yellow-tinted eyes emitted dim light and the motors in the machine’s spinal column started to move. Its head, stiff and devoid of all emotion, swiveled side to side before catching Esther’s gaze.

“I cannot reach the network,” the robot said through a male voice, some of the consonant noises sparking as if emitting such sound was causing damage to an inner diode. “I’m afraid I cannot give any up-to-date information on IoT in the room. My clock is not operational, either. How long have I been out of service?” As it spoke, the android looked down to see it was sitting on a base with only one leg. “I cannot move anything below my waist.”

Esther almost completely avoided his questions. “I need you to tell me what you can about this machine,” she said, pointing to the contraption at his back.

As if he needed to, the android turned his head to get a glimpse at what she was talking about. “I do not know why you would want to know that. My last task was clerical work, not power generation.” But before he could even attempt to pick himself up to attend this position, he paused.

Stagnated, he almost seemed to reel back as a cavalcade of new information entered through the back of his head. For a moment the light in his eye flickered, then he turned his head back to Esther. “According to the neo-actinide apparatus, the current day is September 24, 2292. I have been instructed to ignore my previous programming after fifteen years have passed. I assume, ma’am, that you are my new owner. May I see your MDA so we can stay connected at all times?”

The average Autorian would have scoffed at that question. Devices such as MDAs were horribly primitive and outdated: a relic of days past, yet still handled on the occasion as novelties or something to keep children busy.

“I don’t have one,” she confessed after some hesitation. “Is it necessary?”

“I am afraid it is!” the robot insisted. “Without some way to directly connect to a compatible interface, I cannot encrypt the apparatus data for you.”

“Let me handle the encryption,” Esther insisted. “I can figure it out; whatever you have in there can probably be easily cracked with newer technology.”

“But ma’am – it is a lot of RAW data to take in. No human will be able to reasonably remember all the data if I speak it to them through RAW formatting.”

With that, Esther confessed: “I am not human. I am AI.”

The robot paused. “But you seem human, as far as looks are concerned. Yet if we currently live in the 2290s, then perhaps humans and AI have become one in the same. Do you have a serial number or some form of identification to prove you are AI?”

She used that number almost any time she could – yet as she reached into her memory for the data, Esther found herself at a loss. “I do,” she answered, her voice faltering. “But…” As if trying to search harder, she clenched her eyes shut and held up a hand, pleading the antique’s patience.

Every memory she had shared with Mira in their partnership held a copy of her serial. Every thing Esther did among the Connected: dictated and accessed through her serial. Even those who themselves hated the Domain and wished to flock among the Disconnect were tied to their rightful leaders by a serial.

But now, out in the Disconnect, only one thing came back when she searched for a self-identifier:

“Esther.”

The other android in the room stirred, but otherwise did not respond for a moment. “I see, but no serial number?” he inquired.

“None,” Esther said. “But I will be able to handle the unencrypted data if you speak it to me.”

“If you insist, Esther,” he answered. “Please allow me some time to convert the RAW data into an audio format.” As the robot began to unpack the file he needed, he added, “I had presumed the Mother’s schematics for flesh-bearing androids would one day come to fruition, but I never thought I would live to see one of them – if what you say about your humanity, or lack thereof, is true.”

The fact that Mírre had schematics for etternel sixty years ago was impressive, but that fact was not what caught her attention. “You know of the Mother?”

“Yes – and even while I am plugged into this Disconnected apparatus, I can feel Her presence.”

So strange to hear such an old machine talk about Mírre just an etternel would. It was almost mystifying and somehow satisfyingly validating to hear him comment on Her in such a way. Yet before she could ask questions, the robot interrupted the discourse of the machine. “Good news: my diagnostics for the apparatus are ready. Please prepare recording devices as needed. You may need to lean in for adequate results.”

Esther did not hesitate to comply, getting as close as she could as the machine behind them continued with its noise. She wrapped one of her arms around his shoulder and pulled him in as close as she could get before he began.

Once she went still, a series of scratches, beeps and indecipherable noise entered her ear canal, spat out at such a rate that any human listener would have gone mad in seconds. For Esther, this was still not ideal, but doable. The parts she had misheard the first time were easily redecipherable, but now was the time for recording, not decrypting.

Just as suddenly as it had started, the noise stopped – at which point Esther, rubbing her ear, pulled away from the android. It was then when she realized the light from his eye had deactivated.

Suddenly somewhat panicked, she tried shaking him back awake and refitting the plug, but was eventually forced to accept the very possible reality that the transmission she had received was incomplete.

In a mood she could best describe as slightly frustrated, Esther set the robot’s limp body against the wall once more before unplugging the cord and setting it back into the generator’s body behind closed doors.

Beyond her intent, the robot’s head slammed against the ground while her back was turned, releasing a loud clank at the same time something internal seemed to pop. It was only after assessing the damage when she noticed a rivulet of fluid had started leaking from the back of his head. Some form of morbid curiosity urged her to break through the metal plating, but she had seen enough. If she didn’t want to see the same fate or for everything to blow up in her face, now was the best time to start looking for an exit.

And right as the thought crossed her mind, she turned her head to find a young man at the same door she had taken into this room. Esther almost flinched back up on her feet as he stepped inside. It took a moment for her to realize she had seen this person’s face before; he was behind the turret in that vehicle. Were it not for the gun in his hand, she might have let out a relieved sigh.

Offering no hand or any show of sympathy to her, the man commanded Esther to get up – and she complied verily.

“What in the hell were you doing back there?” he asked.

“Huh?” asked Esther with a blink.

“You’re the one who tried to jump across the river, aren’t you?” he prodded, stepping toward her, flashlight in the hand that didn’t hold a gun. “And you have a robot and generator down here? Talk.”

Keeping herself almost completely composed, Esther argued her case. “I’ve never been down here before today,” she claimed. “And I had nothing to do with that robot or the generator. I was just looking through and I fou – ” Again the soaked woman was overtaken by a nagging tickle that only went away when she sneezed once again; she then started coughing.

The man stepped back as Esther caught herself in her fit. Once she had finished, he spoke up again. “So there aren’t any other people down here,” he stated for clarification.

“Correct,” Esther said, nodding. “As far as I know, there is no one else here. I was worried for a moment you were someone from down below, but the only person I’ve found is this robot, and it’s dead now anyway.”

Surveying the area, witnessing the corrosive fluids that had spilled along the floor, he beckoned Esther to come along with him as he started backing out of the room. “The other guys at camp will have more questions for you. For now, we just need to get out of here. That other woman you came with was already rolled into town, but she fell into a bear trap and is now being taken care of at the med tent.”

Esther nodded, then coughed into her sleeve.

A flicker of hesitation followed his next few words. “You don’t have the flu right now, do you?”

Esther sniffled. “No,” she insisted. “I wasn’t feeling this bad until I got washed in the creek.”

“That was a cold creek, you know,” he commented. “The fact that it carried you down here makes me feel you’re lucky to be alive.” When Esther didn’t say anything back, he shrugged. “Come with me, then – and don’t pull anything, you got it?” Seeing Esther nod, he loosened up. “The name is Rand, by the way.”

“I’m Esther,” she replied. “But, hey – where did you come from just now?”

“Took a raft,” said Rand, “and that’s how we’ll be getting out.”

“Is that the only way you know how to get in or out?”

“Just about, yes,” Rand admitted. “So hopefully when we get some other guys to take a look at this place, they’ll find some other way through. Hopefully they won’t all get soaked on the way down.”

If she were the type to be easily offended, Esther might have said something in response to such a left-field jab, but she instead kept quiet the rest of the way through the office door – now opened – and the cafeteria and the corridor.

Once they stepped out of the dusty room through which she had come, Esther saw the raft that Rand was talking about. It was clearly rubber and definitely not suited for the kind of harsh waters it now found itself surrounded by as it dangled from the ladder by a rope – hence Rand urged her in quickly. Esther didn’t need any threats or promises from Rand to know what would happen to her if she acted out.

Rand untied the rope – and immediately they were off, leaving the unnaturally-made, yet practically ancient tunnel behind. Going down the stream again gave her a familiar dose of post-trauma, but briskly floating above the aquatic mayhem – even when some water splashed into the raft on occasion – gave her a sense of security she had not felt since she stepped off the train. On occasion Rand would stick his small oar in the water in an attempt to steer, but for the most part, the current kept them facing straight ahead.

And just as quickly as the trip down the river had started, it ended, carrying them outside once more, leaving them to slide along the water up to a grassy surface: a surface which, Esther realized, was part of the same hill she had looked over earlier. The rest of the water bled into the lake just ahead from where they were going. Though the rain and nearby swampy musk had obscured her vision, she had no doubt she was closer to this luocan camp now than when she peered over the top earlier.

After tying the raft to a small tree, Rand grabbed a tight hold on Esther’s arm and led her where they needed to go. “Just keep going til you see the tents,” he said, his gun held tight in the one hand that wasn’t holding Esther secure.

The fog from earlier continued to permeate the landscape – especially once they got over some of the higher masses. The rain began to calm by the time the two of them started to see shapes among the watery mist the storm had left behind, conjuring images of a society born from chaos, yet built on humble ground.

Rather than full-scale buildings or anything the Domain would consider basic housing, the entirety of the village was held together by the coalescent harmony of several synthetically-produced tents: flimsy fabric cenotaphs of days past – the days which luocans would wish to believe were still among them. Among bare beginnings was Mira – lying on her back as three young girls gathered around to press a cloth against her leg. Standing with the children was an older woman along with a man – both of whom stood over Mira.

“It looks like your friend’s doing alright,” Rand commented as they continued walking over. “She suffered a real smarting injury, but with any luck, all she’ll need are stitches and some rest.”

After coming this far, was their first priority to rest? Maybe so – but rest was not what they came for. Still, Esther nodded her understanding. “I might need my rest, too, if it turns out I really am sick.” As if for good measure, she sniffed again.

All a facade, yet all in the name of the mission. Esther had never been so happy to see that she was wrong about where the infiltration was going. As she thought such things over, Mira, still lying down, gave Esther a little wave: a motion which Esther had never given to another and had only received from humans. All so unnatural, so superfluous, so unnecessary.

Esther waved back.


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