During the last few months of childhood, one of Amity’s most pressing goals was to get herself into Bailey’s arms. They were hardly friends, hardly acquaintances, but it was her goal: a way for her to be able to proudly say that she was very much in the adult phase of her life. They hadn’t had a marriage ceremony yet and their first date could have gone way better than it had, but at the very least Amity felt some sense that she was going on the right path at a very early point in her development as a young woman.
Seeing what had happened to Toni last night had turned her back into a frightened little girl.
Everyone in camp knew about it now. How she, Bailey, and Toni had snuck into the tunnels. How they went to a room that they weren’t supposed to be in. How Toni was captured. And there was more: Esther had disappeared, as well.
“That bitch must have done it,” she fumed, sitting at Bailey’s side as the two of them waited in Sam’s tent. “There’s no way it was anyone else. She was the first one to go in those caves; it’s not a coincidence that Toni got captured by some robots we’ve never seen before right when Esther and Mira show up.”
Eyeing her nervously, Bailey nodded slowly, trying his best to appease Amity’s assumptions though he refused to completely give in to them. After the last sleepless night, neither of them were in any mood to argue, but that wasn’t going to stop Amity from arguing whenever she had a chance.
Her shoulders tucked so tight to the sides of her neck that she looked almost as if she’d break her top vertebrae, Amity received some form of comfort when Bailey slunk his arm over her shoulders, bringing her in a little closer. “I’m sorry, alright?” he said. “Even if Esther really is that bad, Toni would be fine if I hadn’t brought you with me.”
“Toni also would’ve been fine if she hadn’t brought her damn self!” Amity retorted, then grunted, rubbing both temples. The thought of being captured by one of those machines wasn’t preferable for her either, but at least the guilt that guided her thoughts now wouldn’t have lingered in every crevice of her mind.
For their entire conversation, Amity had barely looked Bailey in the face. She kept her gaze mostly forward, staring at the wall of the tent as if she were afraid to look at him – as if she weren’t worthy of his recognition.
Soon the arm around her shoulders faded into the back of her mind, intangible to all her thoughts. She took a shaky breath through her nose and blinked rapidly. His shoulder pressed against hers, inviting her to cry on it.
“Are you okay?”
She blinked a few more times, gaze still forward and lips pursing when she nodded. She was beyond the point of crying now. Even in front of the boy she wanted to call her man, she couldn’t, and for a moment even she wondered why she couldn’t. By the time she could even think to cry, the tent door flapped open.
Her demeanor brightened slightly, expecting Sam. Instead it was one of Macy’s kids. Immediately Amity wiped her eyes, hoping the girl wouldn’t see the traces of pink at the corners.
“Miss Amity!” the girl exclaimed, her face glowing with a radiance Amity hadn’t seen all day. “They’re here – Miss Esther and Toni!”
Almost immediately Amity stood up from where she was. “Wait – seriously?!” she replied, er bedraggled hair puffing up slightly against her shoulders, revealing to the girl just how stressful the last night had been. “Holy shit – where are they?”
“I hope you know it was nothing personal,” Tarren explained as he started to undo the knots that the sujourne had tied around Toni’s and Esther’s wrists. “For all we knew, you could’ve been one of the highwaymen or some Autorians.”
Before either Toni or Esther could give a response, a nearby Faust shot a bewildered look over at the boy. “Tarren!” he said through clenched teeth, stepping over as Rouken and Bertha spoke with the local deputy. “You’re not supposed to talk to other people about that!”
“About what?” Tarren asked, completely unaware of Faust’s barely-contained rage for a second. It was only after staring back at the dead stillness in the older boy’s eyes when he realized he was in trouble. It took him a second further to realize what the fuss was all about. “O-oh…right.”
“Don’t let that stuff slip, alright?” Faust clarified. When Tarren nodded in response, Faust let out a sigh and scratched his head. “I’m sure the others want to see me right now, so let me go talk to the kids’ caregiver here so she can help you all out, okay?” Again Tarren nodded, along with the two they had rescued earlier. With that, Faust left the three of them by themselves, the captives sitting outside the children’s tent
His lips pursed, Tarren returned back to what he was doing with the knots. “So, anyway…nothing personal?”
“I guess not,” Toni said, sniffling as she rubbed the spots on her wrists that the knots had restricted. “I think I already said thanks enough times for saving us.” Though even as Toni spoke, she sounded as if she were still submerged in the icy-cold water, her nose so clogged that she had to keep her mouth open at all times just to breathe.
“It’s what you had to do,” Esther added. She wanted to clarify that she knew what it was like to take those kinds of precautions, but she stopped herself before she jeopardized her mission. The fact that she – someone who was still seen as a foreigner – was the one to save one of the children in a place nobody here knew about left her highly suspect and she knew it. She couldn’t only begin to guess the tings the other two sujourne were saying to Sam and what they were going to say to the Director once they got to him. From where she sat, Esther could barely hear their conversation at all.
Esther took a moment to relax her own hands once Tarren had unbound them. “That should do it!” he proclaimed, as if proud of his handywork. “Now – what did Faust say he was gonna do?”
The boy flinched when an unfamiliar voice sounded from behind. “I will take things from here, young man.” He turned around to see an older woman hunched over him.
“Oh – Miss Macy,” he presumed, taking a step away from the captives. He looked up to see that she had two towels in her arms. Seeing the warm, yet authoritative smile on her face, he moved out of the way for her so she could tend to the wet – and possibly sickly – women. Like Faust before him, he said not another word as he went to approach the other sujourne, leaving Esther and Toni alone with the children’s caretaker.
“You have no idea how relieved I am to see you’re both okay,” Macy confessed as she came down on her knees to hand them their towels. “Keeping up a calm demeanor in front of several children during unprecedented events is just as difficult as you would think it is.”
“I’m just glad that’s over,” Esther said, glancing at Toni to see the girl drying her normally-poofy hair under the towel. Toni shivered and sniffled, making Macy wince.
“I’ll see if I can find a handkerchief for you, dear,” Macy offered. “Are you feeling alright, though, Esther?”
“I’m fine, shockingly,” she admitted. After being thrashed around the lake, she was almost surprised that ice-cold water hadn’t found its way into her system once again.
“Well, I’ll go find that hankie for you, Toni, and then leave you ladies here to dry up for now.” Her smile turning to one of sympathy, she got back up on her feet. “Forgive me if I take a bit longer than usual; Cynthia herself has had a lot to deal with this morning.”
Toni brightened up when she heard that name, probably wondering what Cynthia must have felt when she realized she was safe. Hoping Macy would return soon, she brought her knees up to her face and sniffled again, her backside almost completely covered in the towel as if it were a cloak.
By the time Macy had gone out of eyeshot, Esther turned her gaze toward Toni again. “I just remembered something,” she began. “You had a few of those drives left with you, right? Do you think they could be of any use to someone around here?”
“Huh?” asked Toni, her voice groggy. Just before Esther could wonder if that was the wrong thing to say, Toni suddenly perked up. “Oh yeah – no, sorry. They kind of all slipped out of my pockets when we were in the lake.” The flushed a little, worried she had just upset the woman.
“Oh,” Esther replied. “Well never mind, then.”
Just in time, Macy came by to hand a handkerchief to Toni before immediately dashing back over to the other kids. As Toni buried her nose in the fabric, she noticed a familiar face from last night headed their way – along with her date.
Her shadow cast over Toni, Amity returned Toni’s surprised gaze with a relieved smile. “Oh, thank God you’re okay!” she said, awash with elation. She almost bent down to hug the rescued girl, but stopped herself before getting too carried away.
“Hey, Amity,” Toni replied, exhibiting very little energy as she spoke.
Taken slightly aback by Toni’s low-energy response, Amity puckered her lips. “You okay, Toni?”
Toni gave a little shrug. “I think I got sick out there. I can barely breathe through my nose.” Immediately after speaking, she buried her face in the handkerchief again.
“Oh. Damn.” But as she spoke, Amity couldn’t help drawing her gaze over to Esther – and at the same time feeling extreme discomfort talking about this kind of thing as she sat right next to Toni. As far as Amity was concerned, Esther didn’t belong here and should not have sat within the same vicinity as this conversation. With that in mind, Amity sighed and put her hands on her hips.
“Miss Esther,” she began. “Do you mind giving us some privacy?”
It was immediately clear to Esther that Amity was being more than a little brash to her. “I don’t think I need to, do I?” she wondered.
“I guess not,” Amity admitted. “But you also don’t need to hear what we’re going to talk about. It’s kind of a chick thing, if you know what I mean – something you wouldn’t get, considering your age.”
Still Esther couldn’t quite understand what Amity’s deal was. Before the argument could go much further, Esther shot a look to her right to see Mira limping her way, still needing some support from the crutches. Esther gave a little wave, but quickly realized Mira wouldn’t feasibly be able to wave back.
“You have no idea how relieved I am right now,” Mira said, practically hopping on one leg as the other still had a bit of healing to do.
“This is the most amount of distance I’ve seen you walk in awhile,” Esther commented.
Mira replied with an obviously-fake chuckle. “Macy told me you were here, actually,” she continued. “If you could come with me, I think there’s a lot we need to discuss.”
A relieved smile threatened to break through Amity’s lips as she watched Esther get off the ground. To her surprise, Bailey stepped in on the situation.“You sure you don’t need any help with the leg, miss?” he prompted.
“I’ll be fine, thank you!” Mira barked back as if a cap within her had been waiting to pop. Her insistence was enough to make him step back, letting Esther handle her partner as they made their way back to their tent.
By the time the two women were out of sight and Bailey had returned to the girl’s side, Amity sighed. “Thank god,” she said. “I though she’d never leave.”
Toni lowered her head a bit, clearly holding words back as Amity finally had a moment to relax. Unfortunately for her, Amity was quick to notice, giving a confused blink as Toni stared back at her. It took another moment for Toni to finally say something.
“So, um…how is the writing going?” Toni asked in a desperate attempt to change the subject.
The corner of Amity’s lip turned up in a smirk. “Not great, considering I haven’t written a thing since we went into the passage,” she said with a chuckle, though the thought brought a bead of sweat down her head. “Actually, I can’t even remember what I was writing before this guy came along last night.”
As Amity spoke, Bailey took a seat by her side, his fingers intertwining with hers as his right hand came within close proximity to her left. Even as he took his spot with them, Toni behaved almost as if he wasn’t even there – and so did Amity, by extension, feeling merely a part of herself left partially filled as he grabbed a hold of her hand.
“But you’re gonna keep writing?” Toni asked.
“Of course!” Amity stated with a level of confidence Toni would have died for. “Doesn’t matter what happens in the real world; I’ll still be making stories no matter what happens. Hell, I’m not anywhere near as busy now as I was a week ago, anyway – so it’s not like I would have much trouble writing while doing a bunch of other work, either. Plus now with Bailey around, I’ve already set out to complete everything a woman would need to complete.”
Immediately after those words spilled from her mouth, Amity felt as Bailey’s grip on her hand loosened slightly.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he said.
Behaving as if she were surprised to hear him speak, Amity whipped her head back around to his side – at which point she realized he had let go of her hand entirely. The look in his eyes said something that she could very well decipher, but she wanted to hear the words from his mouth, as if she needed further translation. “What are you talking about?”
“Just –” The words seemed to get caught in his throat as Amity glared at him. “ –don’t be unrealistic.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Unrealistic? What are – ”
Both of them were cut off when Toni started coughing loudly into her handkerchief.
Bailey looked around his girlfriend to see Toni burying her face in the cloth. “Oh!” he commented as if only now realizing what the noise was. “You alright?”
“I’m fine,” she mumbled with a sniff. “But Amity – I was wanting to ask you some stuff last night.”
Amity paused. “You mean about writing,” she said, to which Toni simply nodded. It occurred to her that she had never really answered any of Toni’s questions last night, but rather she had added questions on top of what Toni already had. “Sure – what did you wanna know?”
For a moment Toni contemplated which question to go with first. “I guess…when you decided to start writing, how did you know which story to start with first?”
“It takes a bit of intuition,” Amity admitted. “But one day I just kind of sat down and wanted to write, so I did. The story I wrote was the one I had on my mind for the past few days.”
“Oh.” Toni paused again. “Then I think I actually have something in mind for a story I can write.”
“Wanna tell me what it is?” Amity pushed.
“I don’t know if I want to, but –” Toni thought on it for a moment. “Well, alright. I wanted to write about that time we were traveling with Miss Macy and found a wolf skull. And then some of the other kids took it and started acting like it was some magical talisman.”
Being reminded of that incident from several years back almost made Amity burst out laughing. “Oh, my God,” she said, struggling to keep a straight face. “Yeah, until Macy and I found out where they were taking the skull and we took it for ourselves before losing it.”
Sucking some air through her teeth, Toni cringed. “Yeah, I didn’t tell anyone this, but I’m the one who got rid of it.”
Amity cocked her head at her. “What? You?” she inquired. “What, you stole the skull from them? And then you got rid of it? You of all people?”
Thinking back on those days and how much she had grown since then, Toni visibly shrunk. “Yeah,” she said. Averting Amity’s gaze. “I guess I’ve sort of turned into a spineless joke since then.”
“Well, hang on,” Amity continued. “So you were just going to write all about what happened there?”
“Kind of,” Toni clarified. “Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what would have happened if what the others were saying about the skull being magical was true. And wha t would’ve happened after I kicked it into the river.”
“Maybe it would’ve mutated into some kind of Autorise nuclear wolf?” Amity offered.
Toni wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think so. I’d probably just have something magical happen – like something even Autorise couldn’t make happen.”
At that, Amity blinked. “Oh,” she responded. “That doesn’t sound very believable at all.”
“I don’t think magic is supposed to be believable,” Toni answered.
“But if it’s not believable, where’s the fun?” Amity declared. “Because if I can’t believe something could really happen, then there’s just going to be a large part of me that’s screaming about how fake the story really is – like there’s no way magic could ever realistically be made, but the skull being mutated? It’s a stretch, but it could happen!”
“But what if I’m not trying to be realistic?” Toni offered.
Amity stuck her nose up in the air. “Well, then you don’t have any reason to write at all.”
Just like that, Toni could feel a knot forming in her stomach. Suddenly the urge to write at all had disappeared entirely, along with the idea that had been forming in her head over the past few days. “Right,” she replied after a long bout of silence. “That probably is a dumb idea. Never mind.”
At the same time Toni spoke, Amity realized that Bailey had stood up from where he once was, practically leaving her by herself with Toni as he watched looked over at Macy and the children she overlooked. At the same time she realized, she saw the deputy headed their way.
“You two,” he began, pointing to Bailey and Amity. “Come with me.”
Mira sat back at disbelief of what she had just heard. “And you had no way of encrypting the data at all?”
“No way at all,” Esther clarified.
Mira shifted a bit in her bed, still struggling to sit comfortably even after all the healing she had undergone so far. “That sounds like more than just a different system,” she noted. “If you can’t encrypt it with any known keys or methods, then these machines must be using a completely different architecture.”
“But why would they use a different architecture and still serve the Mother?” Esther challenged. “That was the part that confused me most of all: the fact that these machines had reverence toward Mírre despite very clearly not being one of us or having any ability to connect to Rélhum the way we once did.”
Unable to answer her partner’s questions, Mira contemplated a response, rubbing her temple as if such thoughts put her in strain. “This may be the reason the Mother sent us here in the first place,” she said. “Not because she knew we would find machines of a different architecture here, but because the luocans might find the machines before we did if we didn’t come.”
Thinking about what Mira had just said, Esther bit her lip. “Maybe I should have waited longer before saving that luocan girl, then – if nothing else, to see what they would have done to her.”
“But now that you have saved her,” Mira corrected. “The luocans here will either revere you as a hero or suspect we have something to do with the machines down there.”
“Regardless of which conclusion they come to, we need to get the Mother’s help with this,” Esther insisted. “It is only a matter of time before the luocans manage to either wipe themselves out or wreak havoc against their enemies with these machines. We need to get out of here.”
“I’m still not in any condition to leave,” Mira reminded her partner. “Plus we still need to be proper about this, not jump to conclusions like the Disconnect would. If we get the Mother’s help too early, we may just end up damaging the Domain worse than if we were to strike after the luocans have fully exposed themselves to these machines.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good enough reason to stay here,” Esther muttered. Her options were twofold: leave Mira behind as she went to get Autorian help, or wait until Autorian help is absolutely needed, and then go with Mira to speak with the Mother about this – assuming Mira’s leg had fully healed by then.
“We need to stay,” Mira said plainly. Until the problem has become a definite threat, we stay here.”