Infiltration Part3.8 – Yes or No

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just blew up again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mira did not respond.

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

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

“Can you hear me?” Esther said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mira tilted her head. “No?”

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

Mira shook her head. “No.”

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

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

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

“Clean your hands,” Esther said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Esther said simply.

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

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

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

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

Mira narrowed her eyes. “No?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

We got Oliver!

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” Mira added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another nod. “Yes.”


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

Infiltration Part3.7 – Ksondelet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a minute,” Sam shouted back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam did not respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than a few times,” Sam interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

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

Esther shook her head.

“If it was Macy?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Infiltration Part3.6 – Mira’s Overflow

She didn’t know if the spot she was instructed to dig at was the best spot for a well – especially with all the activity happening underground. Still she continued to dig in spite of her ignorance toward the higher-ups’ intentions.

While she dug mud out of the ground, Faust gathered it up and proceeded to mold it into bricks for the well. Both of them were silent for much of the time they had spent outside, Esther knowing it wasn’t a good idea to complain about the task she was given while Faust was around. Faust was not of the same mindset.

“Do you know how many brick molds the other guys have out there?” he asked, half talking to himself as he flicked the grime off his hands. “I bet they haven’t got a shortage of molds at all!”

Esther wiped some of the dirt off her face. By now she was almost completely submerged into the hole, but she had yet to hit anything wetter than slushy mud. As it currently stood, she barely needed the provided ladder to climb out. “Do you want to switch places?” she suggested.

“No,” Faust grumbled.

They continued to toil in silence. Esther was careful not to chuck a shovelful of dirt behind her whenever she sensed his shadow looming overhead, Faust was careful not to lose his composure and drop an unfinished brick on Esther’s head – at least she assumed that was an urge he had to resist. Sam had done a good job instilling a sense of caution in her around this boy.

Sensing an overhead shadow once more, Esther waited for him to pass over the hole once again, only to remain still longer than usual when the shadow didn’t go away. “Do you need something?” she asked, turning her head upward to see not Faust, but a small cat. “Faust?” she said, wondering where the boy had gone.

“What is it?” he asked with a huff, his voice carrying in a direction opposite of where Esther was gazing.

“You aren’t allergic to cats, are you?”

“No?”

“How about we let the cat stay here, then?”

“What in the hell are – oh, goddammit!”

Just when Esther was about to ask, she heard a grunt from Faust as he stepped toward the small animal. “Hey, don’t hurt it,” she cautioned.

“I make no promises!” With that, he stomped toward the kitten, making it pivot backward, but not retreat. He took another step – and again the cat refused to retreat, but instead frisked its way over to the other side of the unfinished well.

Esther flung another mount of dirt, careful to hit neither Faust nor the cat. “You’re going to make it fall down the hole if you’re not careful!” she said. But still Faust refused to listen, jumping over the hole to make the cat leave, only for it to follow the circumference of the hole once more.

“Honestly,” Esther sighed, tilting her gaze upward as she set her shovel down. She put both hands on her hips for good measure, making herself look just angry enough to come across as slightly annoyed, but not enough to appear furious. “Are you going to spend the rest of the day chasing that thing around?”

Faust snarled, his gaze switching back and forth between Esther and the cat, which proceeded to lick its paw. Perhaps realizing had no high ground in this argument, he huffed and returned back to his work. He kept his eyes on the cat before kneeling down to the unfinished bricks.

Hoping to keep things calm for the time being, Esther got on the tips of her toes and clicked her tongue. “Come here, kitty!” she spoke, her voice low as she reached a hand above her head.

The cat reeled back for a second, then smelled Esther’s hand. It then proceeded to lick her fake flesh as if tasting it. Esther almost took her hand back, unused to the texture of the tongue. In seconds, the licking turned into biting – hard biting. From there, the cat rolled on its back and, its teeth gripping Esther’s finger, proceeded to grab the rest of her hand with its claws.

This method of play quickly became less-than for Esther. “Okay, stop,” she said, as if the cat would understand. Using her free hand, she attempted to pry it away, but that only caused it to sink its claws deeper into her skin. “You’re going to—!”

Before she could finish, the cat let go, coughing uncontrollably as it got back on its feet. Esther, meanwhile, noticed the tiny animal had left a deep cut, causing a discomforting amount of blood to gush out. Esther was quick to squeeze her finger with her other hand before Faust could see – in which time it started clotting.

Expecting a snarky comment from the boy, Esther was surprised to find Amity had walked in to comment on the situation. “What the hell? Is it sick?”

“Probably,” Faust mumbled, barely paying attention.

As Esther pulled herself out of the hole, Amity continued walking past the dirty duo. “I recognize this little shit,” she said, her voice monotone. “Glad to see it’s pissed off even more people than I thought.” She continued walking, then wrinkled her nose when she saw how filthy Esther was. “Do I want to know?”

“It’s going to be a well,” Esther insisted. “Some people around here think we can get water from this well, instead of just going to the nearby lake.”

“It’ll be cleaner from a well,” Faust pointed out. “Assuming you don’t dig too deep and fall into the passageway.”

Esther rolled her eyes. “So, you know this cat, then?”

“You could say that,” Amity said. “Yeah, I know this roach.”

“Did it do something to you?”

“You could say that,” she repeated, taking her turn to roll her eyes. “Do you care?”

“It is allergies?” Esther wondered.

“No!” Amity groaned. “Good God.”

Esther almost wanted to recoil after being barked at like that.

Brandishing her emotions on her sleeve, practically unapologetic for every outburst or shed tear in the face of the slightest of triggers, Amity continued: “I’m just going to say it: you and your girlfriend need to back off and let me deal with my own drama! You’re both just oversheltered shut-ins who’ll never understand anything regular people have to go through. You wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t comprehend an inkling of what I’m dealing with now! Less than anyone else, you and your girlfriend haven’t had to grow up in a traveling shithole for the past fourteen years with only a distant uncle at your side!”

Faust sat by in silence, continuing his work as if nothing was being said. Esther stood by with the same level of silence, keeping her gaze eye-level even with Amity’s despite the height difference between them. With Amity being considered an adult, she had more control over herself than the average girl – and from what she had seen, the other girls back with Macy were much easier to read – but seeing her fall apart now with such a light breeze, any sense of control had vanished within seconds. Unfiltered, unfettered, Amity and Macy’s girls were the easiest people to read in the entire camp.

Amity boldly tilted her gaze upward as Esther attempted to calculate the best response she could, knowing full-well that almost anything she could say to Amity at this point was likely to backfire.

“You know, we are all concerned about you,” Esther began. “I know I haven’t been here long enough to have the fullest picture of what your leaders are planning or what life is like for you people, but nobody – myself, Macy, or Mira – wants this to negatively affect your development as a girl.”

Amity’s eyes widened at that last word. “Do NOT call me a girl!” she snapped. “And for the last time: fuck off or I’m going to send one of the girls over to watch every single finger-fuck you and your whore share in the tent together!”

Her outburst was enough to make even Faust cringe.

“At least I have something to show for what I’ve done as a woman,” Amity claimed, coming millimeters from stepping on Esther’s toes. “What have you got?”

From Esther’s backside, Faust scoffed.

Amity peered around Esther in a motion so sudden that she could have broken her neck if she wasn’t careful. She looked as if she were about to speak, but could do no more than glare at him. Whether because Faust’s gaze was starting to intimidate her or because she was afraid of saying something else she would regret, Amity walked her way past Faust, continuing down the path she had set. Meanwhile the black cat walked up to Esther, its ear twitching as if confused.

As expected, Esther ended up eventually needing the ladder. After throwing enough dirt out of the hole, she realized it would likely be much easier for her to start carrying dirt out by the bucketful, rather than throwing it straight out, where it had the chance of raining back down on her. Because Faust still had more bricks to craft, the job of fetching a bucket was left to Esther.

It came as a surprise when, after taking only a few steps out of the hole, Esther noticed the Director headed her way. Even more unusual: he had come on his own, without Sam, Shafer, or even a scout by his side.

“Director Persson?” she prompted, looking around his shoulder to make sure he actually was alone.

“Pleasure to see you again, Esther!” he greeted, stopping just in front of her as he held both hands behind his back. “I see you and the boy have been keeping busy.”

“Well, actually I was just wanting to come speak to you or someone else about a request I have.” With that, she wiped some off the dirt off her forehead with a sleeve, which only smeared more of the offensive substance on her skin. “Do you have a bucket we could borrow?”

Almost as if he hadn’t listened to her question, he gave her a cheeky smile. It was only after he said, “We should definitely have one,” when Esther was assured that he was at least somewhat paying attention to what she had to say. “I was meaning to give you something else, though.”

The coy tone of his voice made Esther want to brace herself for something obscene. “Is that so?” she said, voice monotone in spite of her expectations.

“Yes,” he said, stepping backward and away from Faust as he motioned Esther toward him.

Knowing this was not going to go well if she outright ignored the Director, Esther took the smallest of steps toward where he was going, but stopped there. “Can you please just tell me what you want to tell me? Here?”

Again he smiled, albeit with an air of protest. “You don’t mind if your friend hears it?” he asked, his eyes shifting to Faust for a heartbeat.

“We’re not necessarily friends,” Esther said, her voice low.

That was enough to elicit a chuckle from Persson. “In any event: I was wanting to let you know that I have discussed with other officials around camp, and we agree that we could benefit from having someone like you work close with the rest of us.”

“Work close?” she echoed. “What do you mean? What would I do?”

“The rest of us can fill you in,” the Director explained. “All you need to know for now is that we will have many tasks for you to take care of down in the passageway. We have discovered much about the generator and several of the machines underground thanks to your findings, but I believe we shall find even more with some help from yourself!”

His offer would have been enough to flatter the most humble of human outsiders. The opportunity to work with the highest authority in the area after only spending a weeks here seemed a high honor – and she wasn’t even with the sujourne. But as good as it sounded, she couldn’t ignore that this seemed all too convenient.

Biting her lip as she brought a fingertip to it, Esther blinked a few times before speaking again. “What exactly have I helped you find?” she inquired.

“Very many things, my dear – all of which will be discussed in the meeting later on!” the Director insisted. The way he said “my dear,” gave Esther just a slight bit more cause for concern. “I’ll be talking this over with all my other constituents after dinner today. We’ll all be in the main tent. I fully anticipate you being there!”

Several questions swam through Esther’s head, yet the Director seemed either completely incapable or completely unwilling to answer any of them. While she definitely had reason to be enthused by the opportunity to go even deeper into the operations at camp, she remembered what Sam had told her about the Director. If he went in too deep and left her with no escape, the results would have been immeasurably disappointing for him and the equivalent of a deathnail for her.

“Of course, you will be allowed to go down into the passageways in the meantime,” he said.

Halfway expecting someone to come and kidnap her while she was down there, Esther tilted her head, wondering how many human women would have started retching by now. “I see,” she responded. “But wait – you’re letting me go anywhere down there?”

“So long as it’s a place that the scouts have already gone,” he replied. “But of course, if you were to accidentally fall again and find more for us to explore, we’d be glad to see what happens, assuming you’re able to make it out again!”

“You still haven’t explored the whole thing yet?”

“Not even close, I’m afraid,” he chortled. “But I’m sure if you explain to the scouts what is going on, they will let you through all the same.”

“I see,” she said again. “Sorry. I’m just surprised by—” she paused, “all this opportunity.”

“You have given us a lot of opportunity, yourself!” Persson argued. “But, in any event, I must get going back.” The Director said not another word as he turned right back around the way he came, leaving Esther, dirtied up and mangled as she was, to watch by in silence.

“Hey – wait!” she called. “I still need to get a bucket!”

As if he couldn’t hear her, the Director kept walking.

Let me keep it!” “What did we decide to name the little baby?” “Who cares? Get the thing in its mouth!

The girls had been at this for nearly five minutes by now, and they showed no signs of stopping. Had there been anyone on the outside to listen, they would have noticed them coming very close to screaming. Instead the three of them clustered around in their corner of the tent, giving the black cat no way to escape as it held the drive in its mouth.

It totally took that from me!” “It wasn’t yours in the first place.” “You know Miss Macy would want that back.”

Some more muttering – just loud enough for the passerby Mira to hear from outside. In the short time she had spent working on her flimsy leg, this was the third or fourth time she had had to stop and take a listen to a conversation in the tent – before proceeding to break things up before they got any worse.

I need it!” “What are you going to do with it?” “Stick it into Amity’s MDA again?

Mira could hear a sharp breath.

I want it for a reason!” one of them shouted.

With that and the realization that these were the same girls who usually caused trouble in these kinds of isolated incidents, Mira took a step inside, careful not to tear the door right off. “What are you three arguing about now?”

All three of them froze. Surprised by Mira’s presence, they looked to have completely forgotten what they were fighting about. Mira wondered what they were expecting, wondering if they really thought nobody would notice their in-fighting and come inside to check it out.

When none of them responded, the cat in the corner let out a loud meow that made the girls flinch.

“Let that cat go,” Mira instructed. “And you,” she said, holding a hand out and directing her gaze to the girl with the drive. “Let me have that.”

At first the girls said nothing. Under Mira’s shadow, they scooted closer to each other, letting cat jump out of the way; it almost came as a surprise when it didn’t steal the drive out of the girl’s hand as it left. It took another moment before another one of the girls took the drive out of the other’s hand and hid it behind her back.

“You’re not getting it!” With that, she stood up, prompting the others to do the same. Though they were nowhere near Mira’s height, they made an effort to appear as if they were.

It’s not yours!” “It’s three versus one!” “Try and catch it!

There was a logical reason to believe she wouldn’t be able to get this drive by herself, but Mira wasn’t about to let that deter her. Shaking her head, she feigned a sigh. “You’re not going to win over me so easily.”

One of the girls blew a raspberry.

Mira crossed her arms. “Don’t be difficult.” One step at a time, she started to close the distance between herself and the adversarial trio. “You three do know what difficult means, right?”

Back away!” “We’re not afraid of you!” “Miss Macy will fire you!”

“If any of you are going to grow up into proper women, you’ll need to stop the act.” The lack of a response told Mira that attempting to play with their sense of apeirophobia was not going to work. Still she continued to close in on them.

No response from the girls. By now they were all shoulder-to-shoulder, about to huddle up. Once Mira came within armsreach, they turned their backs to her, huddling so close that their faces squished together. They almost tried to shuffle where they were, making Mira temporarily lose track of which one had the drive.

“You!” Mira grabbed the one with the drive by the collar of her shirt. “Hand it over.”

Just when she thought she had her chance, the girl handed the drive over to one of the others, who proceeded to rush toward the exit, stopping only once Mira caught her by the collar, as well.

“Stop this game,” she insisted.

Flipping around, the girl returned a fearless gaze. More than anything, she seemed only mildly annoyed. She looked around Mira’s shoulder, stole a glance at one of the others, raised her hand, and threw the drive the other girl’s way – only to miss by a sizable distance.

The three girls attempted to scramble toward the drive. Their legs carried them as quickly as they could – only for them to fall short when Mira swooped the device off the floor. From there, they attempted to reach up and grab it from the woman’s hand, failing as Mira held the device high above her head, higher than any of them could ever hope to reach.

“Are you all done now?” Mira sneered.

That was mine!” “Give it back!” “You call that a throw?!

The brief unity they had held a moment ago crumbled before Mira’s eyes.

Mira sighed again. “Go on and play with the others.”

Their battle lost, their shoulders sagging, the three of them left the scene, but not without one last remark:

Go play with your girlfriend!

Which of them had said it was a mystery to Mira – but at this point, that was none of her concern.

Realizing she had effectively emptied the tent, Mira contemplated what to do with the drive. Almost immediately she could tell this was the same drive that Macy had taken out of the MDA earlier.

Wondering how the cat had managed to get its paws on the drive again, Mira gripped it in her fist, left the girls’ tent, and made her way back to her own, Esther’s absent as she usually was now.

She took a seat on the bed, examining the drive further. One of the ends was rounded and the other was what looked like USB. In the middle of the device was a ridge: an obvious link between two halves. Taking a risk, she pulled the device apart at the midsection, revealing a misajour connection combining them.

This was the same device that Amity was shouting about yesterday – the same one that she had plugged into her MDA. Mira had no idea where the device had been before that incident, how she got it, or what she had done with it, but the fact that it had been in Amity’s device in the first place was enough for her to seriously consider using it.

Now that those three girls had supposedly gone off to play with the others, Mira was the only person still occupying this district of camp – and so she would remain until at least the end of the day. Unless any of the girls were feeling particularly rambunctious, it was unlikely someone would barge inside now.

Mira got off her bed and walked over to the medical supplies. She was quick to find a scalpel.

She paused. A quick step outside, a quick scan, she confirmed no one was nearby – and promptly pulled herself back inside. Scalpel in one hand, drive in the other, she tilted her head up, rested her palm on her collarbone, and dug the blade of the scalpel through her pseudo-dermis.

Like a pen trailing down paper, the drove the scalpel downward, her synthetic blood pouring out like ink. Using little more than the blade tip, she felt around for the misajour port. Careful not to jab it with the blade, she wiped some of the fluid out of the way, attempting to leave only the metal connector visible. Once certain she could get a clean connection, Mira paused, looking down, making absolute sure she had the correct position.

This was nothing at all like using a collar. Nothing about what she was doing was clean or quick – and by the time she realized this, enough blood had poured from her neck, poured onto her hands, that by now if someone walked in, there was no reason for them to not believe she had just killed herself.

And yet silence comprised the entirety of the outer milieu.

Mira drove the device into her misajour port. She blinked a few times. An influx of information came pouring in all at once for the first time in far too long. In milliseconds, the data flooded in at a rate greater than any human could comprehend. After so long, something about it felt, in a word: nice. It was the closest she had come to experiencing tranquility – and all without a direct connection to Rélhum. The task of reading the drive overtook every cycle in Mira’s processor – and before she could begin to read through the value in the raw data, everything flashed to black.

Her body went limp as, drive jutting out of her red-stained neck, she fell forward, onto the medical supplies, and rolled over onto the ground.


I think it’s about time I put a hard deadline for every new chapter. So starting now, expect to see new chapters every two weeks.

And of course, as always, the Discord is open to all!

Infiltration Part3.5 – A Storage Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He still tells Bertha everything.”

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

“I can ask her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam rolled his eyes. “Very funny.”

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

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

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

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

Faust shook his head.

“Then, like I said: relax.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just following orders,” Sam chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it doing that?” Bailey repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t asked.”

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

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

Bailey was silent.

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

“I’ll just stick around here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did that come from?” Macy wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mentioned women cocked her head.

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

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

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

“Ouch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scruff!” Toni shouted.

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

All the other girls shouted in unison: “Scruff!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Cynthia asked, breathless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Tom?” “Brandon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SYSTEM DATA CORRUPTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Discord is open, as always.

Fallen Daemon

“I can’t remember where I went…”

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she did not die.

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

Awaken me. Ignite me. Hear the Mother.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are many,” they said again.

“Yet we are Flesh!” said another.

“Many is one,” said yet another.

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


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

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part 1.10.2 – No Disguise

“Alright – time for a headcount!”

The Deputy was expected to arrive at any moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again they came to attention. “Sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still shaking, Elliot nodded, swallowing hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration 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 18, 2287. 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 2280s, 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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