Fallen Daemon

“I can’t remember where I went…”

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she did not die.

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

Awaken me. Ignite me. Hear the Mother.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are many,” they said again.

“Yet we are Flesh!” said another.

“Many is one,” said yet another.

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


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

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part 1.10.2 – No Disguise

“Alright – time for a headcount!”

The Deputy was expected to arrive at any moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again they came to attention. “Sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still shaking, Elliot nodded, swallowing hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration Part1.4 – Mother of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixty years ago.

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

5/21/29

Talbot,

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

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

Sr Proj Dev

Tomas Gagnon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Esther.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” asked Esther with a blink.

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

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

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

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

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

Esther nodded, then coughed into her sleeve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther waved back.


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