Infiltration Part2.4 – In the Flesh

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.”

Infiltration Part2.1 – Colonists of the Hive

It felt like minutes had passed and still she was not dead. Or perhaps she had been robbed of her flesh and sent to heaven through a painless heart attack. She would have thought as much if not for the fact that she was obviously still descending.

Toni wasn’t sure if she had screamed or not – but she knew that wouldn’t have mattered when the world around her seemed to go by in a flash. If this truly was hell, she couldn’t wait to hit the seventh level.

Once at last she landed, it almost came as a shock when she realized the burden of the crash had not fallen on her. Still preserved, though very cramped, she was kept alive inside the machine’s belly, captive in its metal womb. She could barely see anything through this body – even with all the little gaps in the robot’s frame. She began to wonder if she would ever see light again when the machine let her go.

Toni fell on her back; combined with her fall, being stuck in a cramped frame for as long as she was made her feel like she had just misaligned her spine. Looking up, seeing the machine’s barely-decipherable face, Toni scooted back in a panic – only to bump into another identical machine. She screamed, as if hoping Amity, Macy, Sam, or anyone would hear her pleas.

Tears streamed down her face, obscuring her vision slightly as she examined her surroundings. Clearly the path down here had not been a simple fall down, because the place was illuminated by several blue lights – all of them individually fading in and out as if they were trying to communicate something she could not understand. In addition, all the bug-like drones around her had lights on the tops of their heads, shoulders, and arms that behaved in a near-identical manner.

Wiping her eyes, Toni looked around to see all of the machines were looking at her as if they had never seen a human before. It made her wonder who had invented these things – or perhaps better to consider was: what?

Before she could receive any form of answer, one of the machines stepped forward on its pointed feet, its footsteps reminiscent of somebody tapping a sheet of metal. Unlike all the others, this one was not colored red, but yellow, its black accents making it look almost like a bee. Like all the others, it had torches at the end of either arm; seeing them made Toni freeze.

Toni thought she could hear a ringing in her ears when the yellow machine made a noise. “Intruder,” it spoke, using a very primitive form of speech synthesis that took Toni a moment to understand. “You and your kind have been caught lurking in our ground. We have taken you as a warning to the others – so that the rest of you will know to stay away from the Mother’s holy ground.

Instead of screaming again, Toni sat back in shock, amazed and frightened to see this kind of intelligence from an otherwise dull-looking AI. Almost subconsciously, she muttered, “The Mother?”

Everything in this secret tunnel looked the same, making it that much harder for Esther to find a way out of here. If she explored without nightvision, she risked missing some details that she otherwise would not have been able to make out; if she went with nightvision, the lights would have surely blinded the rest of the path from her view anyway. It was as if the bright blue lights had become a form a light pollution in and of themselves.

More than anything, she felt herself very fortunate that these bugs had lost track of her as they carried her down, unable to hold her body within their tiny stomachs. She stepped through ankle-high fluid that she could not quite make out. It wasn’t water and it wasn’t a byproduct of human waste; judging by the smell, it was definitely toxic – and most likely a pollutive chemical.

It didn’t take long for the gynoid to realize that if the generator had been working for decades at its current output and if there was nobody around to take care of the mess, it was almost certain that she was now standing in sednium toxic waste: a flammable material akin to battery acid.

If she had managed to find herself in this part of the tunnels, then either this was a place where captured prisoners went to die or the bugs had been out of proper commission for so long that they could barely keep track of where its prisoners went. Esther was more willing to bet on the latter, considering she hadn’t yet found any skeletons down here – and if that was the case, whoever was in charge almost definitely didn’t have any cameras or microphones tapping in to detect her every move.

Looking up, she noticed the way the lights all blinked on and off along the walls and along what appeared to be pillars that careened up to the ceiling – if there was a ceiling at all. Part of her wanted to connect to Mírre and ask if she had actually been carried back to Rhobane – that she had been plugged back into Rélhum, but she knew Rélhum well enough to realize that this was not a part of it.

If nothing else, she was fortunate that the static buzzing sounds had stopped, for now when she stood still, she could hear something in the distance – something of an almost earthly presence.

Realizing she just might have found someone else down here, she rushed toward the source of the noise, careful not to trip on anything or run into a pillar.

By the time she made it to a wall, the sound still had a hard time reaching her. She pressed her ear against the wall, wondering if that would help, but that only seemed to make matters worse. Though it was obvious to Esther that the noises were likely coming from a human, they sounded like they were being spoken through liquid – as if she would have had more luck deciphering a dolphin’s speech than whatever she was hearing now.

Stepping away from the wall, the gynoid nearly tripped over something beneath her feet. She momentarily assumed that she had found a skeleton, but instead found a pile of wet trash at her foot.

She paused. There seemed to be a metal ring around the debris. When she tried picking up the debris from the ground, it resisted – as if held back by some kind of pressure.

Esther paused again, took a tighter grip on the debris, and started pulling harder – until eventually it dislodged itself from the ground. At that moment she noticed a tiny whirlpool appearing at her feet. She took a grip on another bit of the debris, yanked it out – and again over and over until the liquid around her started to sink.

Toni flinched when she heard liquid splashing into a surface not far from where she and the bugs were. One of the machines looked around, then scuttled over to assess what had happened. Toni covered her mouth and nose when she acrid scent reached her, making her wonder if this place had once been a sewer.

“What is that?” she asked, gagging.

Rather than answer her, one of the AI from behind her opened a cavity in its body and grabbed her with its inner mandibles, once again forcing her into its stomach. In seconds she was trapped in the machine’s stomach again. Though tightly secured, she felt she was about to fall out when she found herself spinning uncontrollably along with the machine that housed had forcibly ingested her.

Draining the pollutants from this area made Esther feel that much safer. Even better: she was able to make out the speech from the other side, but only three words of a question that went unanswered.

One of Macy’s girls was down there.

Esther tried looking through the drainage holes she had just unclogged, but to no avail; the machines had already taken the only other person here with them. She did, however, notice a bunch of red machines – as well as a yellow one standing by. Before she could tell what they were doing, the lot of them proceeded to start folding up, their legs twisting out of place and bending so that they curved along with the ground. At the same time they tucked their torches inside and ducked their heads into their bodies. Once the transformation had completed, they all started rolling away.

Wherever they had rolled was beyond Esther’s ability to see. As far as she could tell, there didn’t seem to be any way for her to look down and find out, either.

This close to one of the edges of the room, she noticed how the blinking lights all seemed to form along the wall in a series of glass scales. For now she just needed an escape, yet when she tried pinging the lights, hoping for a list of schematics, she did not receive anything in response.

Without a response from the lights, the only way out that she could think of was through the drain, assuming she could lift the lid off. If the fall through the drain to the next floor didn’t kill her – unlikely as that was – then she probably would have been killed by the mechanical bugs.

Going through the drain was simply out of the question.

Walking along, seeing what all she could find down here, Esther came to a stop when she noticed a large spot of consistent black among the lights – as if there were some sort of shortage in that spot on the wall. By the time she made it over, she realized the black scales formed a spot just large enough for an adult to crawl through. Furthermore, she noticed a handle along the scales.

Her motions slow and deliberate, Esther pulled up on the handle, revealing the way the black scales functioned as a door that hinged upward. Esther bent down to see almost complete pitch blackness, with only the slightest rays of light from the other side of the scales passing through. The door seemed to lead to a duct with a metal floor, metal ceiling, and walls reminiscent of a fence. The room beyond those walls reminded her much more of the space at the bridge she had leaped over.

Turning on her nightvision for good measure, Esther crawled inside and looked around to see if this place was just as bug-infested as the room where she had been kidnapped. She would have easily been able to conclude that she didn’t have any visitors if she didn’t hear that same static buzz once again.

Looking back, she noticed how the scales in the room she had just exited all seemed to latch onto a tower – how all the scales adjacent to this dark room were attached to their own respective towers. The towers in question were translucent enough to let some of the light from the outside through. Every time a scale lit up, she could see a glimmer of light along the scales edges, but little more.

Because the ceiling to this duct was so low, Esther needed to crawl through, worried the ground beneath her would break if she wasn’t careful. The metal at her hands and knees creaked with the slightest movement – and considering she was heavier than most people her size, she did not trust the duct’s ability to keep her safe for very long.

As old as this place probably was, the bugs had done a mostly-good job of keeping it clean and functional. This fact almost shocked Esther, considering these were the same machines that allowed their waste disposal to get so clogged. Though the more she thought about that, the more she realized they had probably clogged it up on purpose. If that was the case, then the only thing she couldn’t understand was why.

After crawling in a straight line for over a minute, Esther took a left turn and continued down the corridor. Just ahead of her she saw a dim light – orange and dull: a sharp contrast against the scales’ bright blues. On further inspection, she realized that she was peering through a dust access door. Though the static noise continued to stay with her, she did not hear or see anything on the other side of the vents.

Another minute passed before the gynoid made it up to the door. She was careful and deliberate as she attempted to push it open. It did not budge.

In her desperation, Esther pressed her face up against the door to get just the slightest picture of her surroundings. Still that was not enough to confirm whether there was anyone on the other side of the door or not.

Her head practically bashed against the door when an influx of noise rummaged through Esther’s consciousness, making her feel as if her mind had just been split in half. Louder than ever before, the static, completely indecipherable, left her paralyzed for just a second. In the time it took for her to recover, she could not figure out a decryption algorithm to the noise.

The noise blared through her mind like a frigid wave crashing over a ship of innocents at sea, their cries drowned out by the chaos. Whatever bits and pieces she could decipher were caught in the maelstrom of static noise.

Then, when she started searching in desperation for a way to completely disable all networking I/O that the Domain had not already shut off themselves, a message appeared that she never thought she would see down here:

Enflamiere Mírre.


Aaand Part 2 is now underway! Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.11 – Making a Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again a buzz started humming in her brain.

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

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

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

Again the buzzing stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toni blinked. “On what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was almost a nod in Toni’s eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve at least been eating, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amity!!”

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

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

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

END OF PART 1


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

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

Infiltration Part1.3 – Disconnect

In the Fourth Century BCE, esteemed Greek philosopher and rhetorician Aristotle theorized the three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Without ethos, a writer cannot maintain credibility. Without pathos, a writer cannot maintain empathy. Without logos, one cannot hope to speak the truth.

Beyond writing, the three appeals are designed to push arguments into acceptance – to reach an adequate level of compatibility with the audience’s sense of ethics, emotion, and logic. Anyone who wishes to write, speak, present, or show an argument needs to know the three appeals in order to make their mark on whoever their audience is – but of course, with this comes the need to understand the audience.

Well-known figures have the advantage of context and reputability when making a case – as well as the advantage of knowing who their audience is going to be. They are the kind of people who have made numerous arguments in the past and will continue to make more until the day they retire or pass. More obscure speakers are not so fortunate – and are required to appeal to an audience they know nothing about and whom knows nothing about them.

The most difficult aspect of the three appeals is keeping them in balance – for if a speaker favors one over the others, the entire argument may be in danger of losing its audience. In the case where the speaker is ignorant to one or more of the appeals, this effect is doubly felt.

Built to think in logic first, then ethics, then emotion, the etternel operated in a near-opposite pattern to humans. Logic was implanted at birth, fitted to the very structure of the etternel mind. Ethics mirrored the will of the Mother. Emotion followed the command of the etternel’s Radiant chip – which themselves, even with all the advances in computing over the last three centuries, held only a primitive understanding of pathos.

The train still had yet to arrive, leaving Esther and Mira to continue communicating through Rélhum while they still could. As the androids waited, the station slowly filled up with a variety of human passengers, all waiting to board their own section of the train when it arrived. All the while nobody seemed to notice the fact that the two gynoids – sat at the etternel’s side of where the train typically stopped – were even AI at all.

A rough breeze blew past them as dark clouds billowed above, a flurry of leaves shuffling about the androids’ feet. Both of them looked down the track to see a light and hear the faint murmur of a horn in the far-off distance. Some of the nearby citizens noticed this and fewer still stood up from their benches, but did little else.

Among the many things on Esther’s mind, the most prevalent was the possibility of being found out. Suspicion followed in the wake of infiltration – and who was to say a horde of armed luocans couldn’t take down two unarmed androids? The only weapons Mira and Esther had were concealment and trickery – but at least, unlike a whip, these could not be taken away.

Without any tangible weaponry to speak of, they could only cross their fingers and hope the luocan lands were a hospitable society – if such so-called camps could reasonably be called a society. With the goal of acceptance came the need to establish trust – even if such a prospect sounded unreasonable at best, laughably naïve at worst. A proper perception of pathos certainly would have helped, but Mira and Esther were not designed to truly understand such a concept.

She had to question: why not a human?

A human would have been harder to smell out. Without a proper understanding of the three appeals, she and her partner were left to risk hindering the entire mission. Who better to appeal to other humans?

Esther could not find any records of the Domain sending a human beyond city bounds, putting their life at danger, and calling it an infiltration. She wondered if they should have, but what were the odds that same person would turn around and retaliate – leave the Domain in shambles once its secrets were let out?

Two emotionally-challenged androids were far less expensive of a risk than that.

In terms of their physical appearances, the two androids had nothing to worry about. Still nobody at the station seemed to suspect a thing and Esther could tell from experience that during the few times she went into Rhobane without her uniform, nobody had ever suspected she was an etternel.

Once a distant hum, the train’s horn blasted off again. The cacophonous melody drew several soon-to-be passengers off their seats as they awaited its approach. Themselves already standing, Mira and Esther took a small step back once they heard the brakes start to screech. Within seconds, the train drew to a close.

There were two groups of railcars: populated, bright orange and nearly-empty green. Almost a third of passengers in the orange section departed and all four of the etternel in the green cars went along with the regular citizens into the ravines of Rhobane. Meanwhile an illuminated sign switched from red to green, indicating to the two dressed androids and all the other passengers to step up to their respective gate. It was only once Esther and Mira pinged the etternel railcars’ gate when the doors slid open for them – and when all the other passengers realized those two women on the edge of the station were not the clueless women they thought they were.

Enflamiere Mírre.

Again the Mother’s mantra whispered in the officers’ brains.  Its voiceless harmony played for what may have been the final time.

In minutes the train departed, leaving the androids with nothing to listen to but the sound of the tracks shuttering against the rail wheels and the occasional shouts from children on the human passengers’ side of the shuttle. The train passed under a legion of leafless trees, leaving its passengers in partial darkness for a moment. When they returned from the trees’ shaded grasp, Esther realized how musty the outdoors had become in a few short minutes. Taking a look out the window behind them, she noticed a ruffling, hazy battalion of clouds climbing its way toward the sun, blocking its rays with the threat of rain.

There was more than enough space among the legion of seats, yet Mira and Esther opted to sit by each other, Esther squeezing up against the window so she could get a clear glimpse of everything they passed by. No longer able to connect to each other through Rélhum, Esther, pressing her face to the glass, spoke up. “Do you think the environment could change us?” she wondered. “Would it mangle us beyond repair?”

Mira was again reminded of Esther’s question from when they had awoken. “It could change us, could hurt us,” Mira admitted. “And if the environment itself doesn’t do that, then maybe its people will.” The unnaturally-blonde gynoid threw her head back as if in deep thought, half-hoping to see a sun-cast shadow on one of the deactivated ceiling lights, only for it to remain inactive.

Esther could only offer silent acknowledgment as she watched her partner continue to gaze upward for a sign of light.

“Sorry,” Mira began, realizing she had avoided Esther’s glance for almost a minute. “I just really don’t want it to rain.”

Feeling the same way, Esther tilted her head up, as well, leaning back in her seat. “Do you think the Domain would send us out there if they knew it was going to rain?” she asked half-rhetorically.

Mira answered straight-up. “It would be the least expected thing of the Domain to do,” she acknowledged. “But the Mother knows best, Esther. Even if we come back and we’re not the same people that we once were, she will put us back on the right path.”

For some reason, Esther felt she couldn’t completely agree with Mira’s zeal-guided argument, but she did not wish to say anything that would go against her partner’s advice. If there was ever a time for her to start arguing with others, now was not the time; such behaviors would only get her so far when faced with people who would sooner want to put a knife to her head than let her sleep in the same room as them.

Instead of argue, she asked a single question: “And you think Mírre knew best when she had us come here, as opposed to a human who could understand other humans better?”

“Of course!” Mira answered. “Because she thought so much of us that she willed us to be the ones to bring the Disconnect out of their self-harm. That is why we were chosen for this mission – and even with our weaknesses, we are still far more capable than any other kind of worker the Mother could put in our place.”

Mira believed in what she was saying, Esther could tell, but something about her words lacked meaning, keeping her from understanding that which she could never hope to understand – not now when the two of them were already two people among the Disconnect. Surely Mira must have at least studied or heard of the three appeals, but this insistence that the Mother’s protection would shield them – even in a domain she had no control over – left Esther to wonder if the appeals were even a passing thought in Mira’s mind.

Perhaps in an attempt to change the subject, Mira realized, “They’ll want us to eat like them.”

Though she had eaten human food before, it was not something Esther could imagine herself growing accustomed to. “They eat animals and plants,” she added. “Their digestive systems are imperfect, too; they still leave excess when their bodies are done, and they’ll expect us to be the same way.”

Mira shook her head. “I wouldn’t worry about that; luocans value privacy a lot more than we do – like all humans before Autorise. I don’t think most of them will even notice.”

“Good point.” Esther then remembered: “What about sleeping?”

“What about it?”

“They lie down when they sleep. Some of them even salivate while sleeping!”

“That will be an interesting thing to adapt to,” Mira admitted. “Though I wouldn’t worry about the salivation part.”

“I see.” Esther remained quiet for a moment. “Sorry; I’m probably being too picky.”

“I think you are just as worried as you should be,” Mira said. “But don’t stress over these things too much. Just remember we are doing this for a reason – and that is more than what anyone can say for luocans.”

“I just want to make sure the luocans think we’re real humans capable of the same emotions as them,” Esther replied. Thinking of luocans, Esther looked out the window once more to find a landscape completely devoid of human life. Grassy landslides, the occasional swamp, and a network of power lines ran with the train under the ever-darkening cumulus ceiling beneath the waning sun.

The thought of hitting their destination in the cold rain made Esther ask, “Do you think we’re afraid right now? Like someone would listen to the way we’ve been talking about the rain and say that we’re afraid of getting wet?”

“Afraid of getting wet? Maybe concerned and anxious, but I don’t know many who would be outright afraid.” Mira paused. “But I think I know what you mean.”

“Maybe we should talk more like we are now when we’re around luocans,” Esther suggested. “Only, of course, we’ll be talking about completely different subjects when luocans are nearby.”

“I just wish we could communicate through Rélhum when we’re there,” Mira mused. “Autorian citizens almost seem disabled by their inability to send silent messages – and we will be just as disabled once we get off this train.”

Esther hesitated to make her next suggestion. “Maybe that could be a good thing.”

As if annoyed, her partner shifted a little in her seat. “How so?” she wondered. Meanwhile, Esther pulled herself out of her slumping position and turned to face Mira.

“If they don’t know what we’re thinking,” she began. “Then they won’t know why we might be feeling emotional or even if we’re actually feeling emotional at all. They’ll have to assume. With the way we’re talking about it, we seem to be afraid of what’s to come – especially since we did not bring anything to protect us out there.” On top of that: clad in the loosest clothes either of them had worn in their entire lives.

“Well,” Mira began. “That makes sense. They are, like I said, disabled.”

“Then let’s use that to our advantage!” Esther insisted. “Though I’m wondering how much context we should give them. How much would they need to know about where we came from?”

“We never did come up with a backstory.” With that said, Mira picked herself from her slouching position and sat upright, as well. “What did you have in mind?”

The car beneath their feet shifted a little as if a tremor had sprung at the tracks.

“Here’s what I think,” Esther began. “We just tell them that we used to live in an Autorian city, but have been told to leave – and so now we are.”

“Like we have been abandoned,” Mira commented with a nod. “But who abandoned us?”

“It could have been a highway guard. Maybe when he was walking with us outside the city bounds, we stopped somewhere, then woke up and found he was gone.”

“And then we couldn’t get back in the city,” Mira finished as she poked a finger through one of the holes in her shirt. “If we really came from Rhobane, it would have taken us days to get to where they’re taking us. That would explain why our clothes look the way they do.” With that, she gave another approving nod. “I say we go with your plan.”

A low rumble followed their descent from the train. From the station in the infant base of Zeibane, they were escorted to the gate and let outside to carry out their mission.

For just a few minutes they were able to reconnect to Rélhum – just in time to receive a single message:

Donadieu hā̷̻̙͒̿̃̂͛͗̏̀͛͐̀͋͑͌̚̕͠s̸̱̦͍̳͚̫̎́̿̀̀̀̇͂́͂̐͆̍̑ ̴̨̨̢̭̫̩̱͇͇̺̠̦͔̂̈́̽̎͑̆́͊͆ë̷̡̨̨̨͇͎͓̩͖͖̱̥̳͖̞́̅͛͋̓̽̅̾̏̌̆́̈͌̚̚͝

But the transmission ended before it could finish.

After much delay, the clouds began to pour cold rain down on them, leaving them drenched almost as soon as they were left to practically wander about in the middle of nowhere without so much as an umbrella, traveling a full hour with no GPS, but instead a vague knowledge of cardinal directions.

By the time they reached the top of one of the tallest hills in the area, the rain had become batteringly brutal. Even at the top, the androids made sure to lay low – in the event that somebody had targeted them under the scope of a loaded sniper rifle. Fortunately for them, with rain came enough fog to hide them from a long-distance attack – at least for now.

As they descended down the hill’s face, they both made sure to keep an eye on each other, knowing a sneaky luocan could still find and take them down at any second – if not by foot, then by vehicle. So far, they had detected nothing to be worried about, but they could never be too careful in such unfamiliar terrain.

Only halfway down the hill’s face, they noticed what looked to be modern architecture – likely something from the days before Autorise. When they stepped beyond the fog, the gynoids realized the closest building to them was made almost entirely of brick.

They kept themselves close to what seemed to be an abandoned factory from days past. A fallen bell rested at the building’s base, catching Esther’s attention as she and her partner walked by. Close to the destroyed building was yet another train track: a rusted, unfixable mess that the Domain no longer used for transport. It was possible that the track had been intentionally destroyed by the luocans to prevent any travel to and from this part of the countryside, but without any way to connect to the network, the etternel visitors could not confirm this as the cause for its retirement.

Further along their trek, they found a sewage dump that had been long disused for its intended purpose, yet still it churned out a heavy amount of water into a nearby creek. With the rainstorm in full bloom, the puny creek had already flooded, struggling to carry the pipeline’s contents elsewhere. There was a hill on the other side of the rivulet, but the only way to safely get to the other side was to walk around the sewer opening.

“They said west and slightly north,” Esther recalled. “Obviously we found something, but no camp. Do we need to go even further north than we’ve already gone?”

“Maybe,” Mira said, “Do you think we should see what’s over this hill first, though?”

Tilting her head to look at its peak, Esther examined the structure for a moment before giving her partner a nod. “I think so; let’s take care of that before we do anything else.”

Hardly able to see through her hair, Mira gave a nod of her own and started her way toward the river. Even in her partially-blinded state, she could see the pipeline’s opening as well as the landmass that had morphed around it over time, providing a clear entrance to the hilltop to anyone who didn’t mind taking the long way up.

Both gynoids brushed the wet curls out of their faces every few seconds. “Do you think you’ll be able to fight with your hair in your eyes like that?” asked Mira. As she spoke, a rushing wind blasted them from the back, sending Mira’s bangs flapping into her field of view, practically smacking on her eyes and nose.

Esther saw how her partner struggled despite the fact that Mira’s hair was hardly half the length of her own. “I’m almost used to it,” she assured. “It took me almost a month to figure out how to get my hair to stay out of my eyes, but I at least didn’t have to deal with rain while growing it out.

“Maybe we’re just unlucky.” Mira offered with a shrug. “But hopefully when we finally do find the people around here, they won’t – ” Mira paused, making Esther turn around to see what was going on.

“What’s wrong?” Esther shouted above all the noise of the rain.

“Quiet!” Mira hissed. The unnerved gynoid stepped toward her partner, her prints leaving audible squishes in the muddy ground. Once arm’s length from Esther, she whispered, “Do you hear that?” It was only after Mira asked when the rain started to calm the slightest amount – and just enough for her suspicions to be confirmed.

Against the storm, the distant, enclosing rumble of a gas engine could be heard.

Split!

And with Mira’s cry, the androids, completely out of their environment, rushed away from the incoming vehicle.

Mira’s shoes slumped into the ground with every heavy step she took, making her wonder when she would lose them to the persistent grime at her feet. Worse than that was the issue she and Esther had discussed with their hair getting in the way; she could hardly imagine how badly Esther’s hair threatened to blind her.

The androids’ prints were soon swept up by the vehicle’s tires – at which point Mira realized what exactly was chasing them: a buggy with little to shield its two passengers from the elements. One man drove the car while another stood in the back to handle a turret. For a moment Mira wondered why they hadn’t bothered to fire at them, but with another glance, she came to realize the turret was truly in no position to be used for heavy combat. Beyond intimidation, the most it could probably do was fire six bullets before falling apart.

Close to the crumbling architecture, Mira tucked herself between the outer walls of two buildings, looking up to see Esther climbing up the hill on the other side of the creek, taking the long way over the sewage opening. Still hidden, Mira scanned her surroundings to find that the luocans had indeed lost track of her, but for all her caution, Esther seemed almost blissfully unaware of the situation as she climbed the hill’s face.

By now the sky-born pelting had completely soaked Mira’s clothes inside and out. The only parts not soaked were her shoes – which had themselves started to fall apart from a mixture of mud-born abuse and dampening from the elements as a whole. She was able to get at least some protection in this alley, but she knew she was on borrowed time. Esther’s time, meanwhile, nearly ran out as the luocans’ buggy rushed up the hill toward the erratic etternel.

If they could get out of here safely, their best bet was to run all the way back to Zeibane and recuperate before trying again. Their best option, perhaps – but also the most inconvenient, given how long it took to get where they were in the first place.

In a moment of desperation, Mira stepped out from her minimal crevice of a shelter – breathing in to shout something to Esther – and almost immediately fell over, her foot and soaked sock slipping out of her shoe as it embedded itself within the claylike soil. Her chest and face now muddied, she got up on her hands and knees – at the same time the buggy started accelerating. “Esther!” she shrieked. “Get back here!”

Hearing her voice above the chaos, the man at the buggy’s turret pointed the gun toward Mira, prompting her to get on her feet and start rushing to safety. Yet before she could make her escape, she was stopped yet again as her foot caught in the ground. A metal clamp clutched her shin, making her fall once more as a shrill, chirping alarm tweedled endlessly. Lined with teeth, the clamp dug into her leg, almost making her wonder if this was the moment where a human would start screaming in pain. She was cut off from such thoughts when a message appeared.

Permanent damage sustained to LR regenerative nodes 3 and 4. Organic healing processes deployed. Seek repairs to logical interface aid as soon as possible.

The chirping from the trap was so loud that Esther had no trouble hearing it from the hill. Almost to the top, she nearly tripped when she saw her partner lying on the ground. She turned her head again to realize she was just close enough to hear the driver shout, “Aim the turret over here!”

If they weren’t going to run her over, they were going to shoot her down until the gun stopped working. If she just ran away, the vehicle was going to catch up –regardless of which way she went.

So close and yet so far from the hill’s peak, Esther darted off the hill’s face and leaped toward the precarious creek below. Her position prior to jumping meant no guarantee she would make it across.

In a moment of pure elation, Esther’s foot hit solid ground. Immediately after, the eroded soil caved and dragged her into churning waters, muffling the outside chaos as water filled her ears and nose and mouth.

As her partner attempted to grab, kick, cling for dear life, Mira – ears ringing from electronic tweedling – attempted to grip the trap around her leg. A red light flashed at her as she placed both thumbs near the teeth. Scarlet and dripping as if it were blood, coolant leaked out from the punctures in her flesh.

Mira spent a minute attempting to get a grip on the trap, but the rain made it almost impossible. Overwhelmed by the noise, Mira noticed a plastic slab hidden in the grass along with the synchronized flashing red. After tossing it aside, she returned to the clamp, the cold storm continuing to punish her from above – and still she continued to fumble.

With her regenerative nodes busted, Mira knew these wounds were not going to heal quickly or easily. If she was taken in by the luocans, they would surely give her the normal wound treatment now that her leg healed at the same rate as one of theirs.

Once more Mira slipped. After what felt like her tenth attempt at removing this trap, she looked up to see the buggy flashing its lights at her, slowing to a crawl. Part of her wondered if she could hop away; the rest of her stayed still as the man in the driver seat turned the vehicle off and stepped toward the gynoid.

The man who was once behind the turret was nowhere to be seen.


The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.2 – Retirement

Four children are in pursuit due west of the market center. One child has committed larceny on the Mother’s property and is currently in pursuit. Another child has been identified as Emily Aubert.

Her message ran parallel to the juvenile escapees’ consciousness, yet crossed the mind of every Autorian AI. Even with the etternel imposter festering about the streets of Rhobane, someone was sure to come to Mira’s aid within seconds – minutes at the most. But perhaps she wouldn’t need anyone’s help; how could they escape on foot when their robotic adversary had the cable system to assist her?

Their obvious disadvantages did not stop them from trying. Almost as if they themselves were built to run parallel to the Domain, the troubled youth split in four different directions as soon as they crossed a busy intersection. This did nothing to break the android’s concentration on the little thief in pursuit: a boy with ruffled hair who, to Mira, looked barely a day older than fourteen years. With his back turned, she could not get a clear look at his face – and so she continued to chase after.

Though these children must have interpreted the streets as their labyrinthine key to salvation, there was no maneuver the boy could pull that would deter Mira. When his brisk run broke into a sprint, Mira knew it would not be long before his fallacious sense of panic overwhelmed whatever plan he and the others must have concocted before initiating their heist.

Again and again he shoved and tore through the innocent Flesh of the Autorise Domain. Anyone caught in his path was knocked to the side – and with his height, there were few willing to put this animal’s rampage to a halt. Most citizens knew better than to involve themselves in such immature crimes – and thus distanced themselves from the commotion.

It did not take long for the chase to transition from the housing district to the sanctioned foundry. Mira hoped his escapades through this area would be a mere diversion, and not indicative of the spot his group tended to collaborate. Once again she sent a message:

The larcenist has entered the metallurgical plant. He is carrying a stolen chainwhip and is expected to be a young teenager.

The boy’s sense of panic started to visibly settle in as he struggled to find a gate to the fenced-off foundry. He flinched when he turned over his shoulder to see the cables above quavering with Mira’s approach, the gears in her feet hot and ready for her to leap down to his level.

Even if he dashed away now, he had no chance of escape. For a moment he looked as if he had considered making an escape, but halted once the android’s feet hit the ground, landing with a small boom that rippled underneath.

The joints in Mira’s legs made the slightest of mechanical whirs as she returned to full height. Seeing him with her weapon, Mira reached for the stun device in the pocket of her vest – then realized it was gone.

In her own panic, she looked at the boy’s hands and realized the tool was nowhere to be found – not in her hands or in his. She didn’t remember Emily taking it, either – and prodding the network, she didn’t see any reports of a lost stun baton. Just when she realized that she had never brought the device with her in the first place, her thoughts were ruptured by a sudden thrash to her head.

Mira’s vision went red for a moment, her audio receptors ringing as she struggled to regain some sense of stability. She blinked, then touched the face of her helmet and realized part of it had been chipped off; it was only after taking her hand away when she realized a small hole had formed.

Looking up at the assailant, she noticed her whip still in his hand as he prepared to whirl its head toward her once again. With barely a moment to think, she ducked beneath the whip’s arc. The fence, made to withstand such kinetic attacks, emitted several sparks as the whip came in contact with it. The chain body, hot to the touch, scraped along the wiry frame before eventually settling on the grass below, barely missing its wielder’s already-damaged shoe.

This would not end well for him no matter how much he fought back. “Stop!” Mira shouted, seeing as he proceeded to bring the heavy chain around again. “Resisting will only make things worse.” But without her baton, was there anything she could do to convince him of this?

Unlike Emily, this boy did not smirk – did not sneer or snort. “Who’s resisting?” he challenged with a snarl. “You’re not shit without this!” He waved the whip around, again demonstrating his obvious ignorance on how to use it properly. The tips of grass blades singed away as the weapon’s body swooped about.

Everything she did with citizens was a balancing act – an attempt to keep conflict from escalating while still maintaining the Mother’s control. Knowing she ran the risk of her helmet suffering further damage, Mira stepped closer to her adversary. It took seconds for her to realize she was right about this boy’s age – as the database had identified him as Noah Pierre, age fourteen, second-time offender.

Just when Mira once again felt the need to push the network for assistance, Noah took a look above her head and prepared to swing his stolen weapon upward. Mira made out the faint sound of grinding coming from behind her head.

Knowing the delinquent’s intentions almost immediately, the officer leaped forward, moving at practically a breakneck pace. On contact, Noah let go of the weapon. He would have left this conflict with a few broken bones if it were not for his height and build keeping him together as the android pinned him down.

Within seconds, the now-aimless whip descended like acid rain, its sinuous body still activated and ready to burn through almost anything. Nearly every part of the weapon’s body crashed into Mira’s back, adding small scuffs into her tactical armor. Aside from damages to her uniform, Mira sustained minimal damage – and so was the case for Noah until part of the chain cut through a bit of his toe, having burned through part of the shoe.

The boy yelped, but still attempted to squirm from beneath Mira. He managed to free a hand and grab a pocket of dirt before slamming it through the tiny opening in her helmet.

“Stop resisting!” the officer demanded, blinking rapidly to get the dirt out of her eye. At the same time she spoke, the grinding from a moment ago ceased and two other etternel officers landed in front of her – one of them noticeably larger than the other.

“Both of you stop,” the larger android commanded. “Officer: identify yourself.”

Mira did so without effort, transmitting an ID number to her ally in silence. By the time the other officers acknowledged that this first officer was the one who had sent out the initial distress signal, they stepped forward, almost bewildering Noah as he wondered what had just happened.

As if by instinct, Mira pulled herself off Noah and allowed the other two to take him off the ground, each holding him by a shoulder.

A breeze broke through the little hole in the helmet, making her already-uncomfortably-long hair flutter about and graze the back of her neck. Realizing Noah now had a better look at her face through the damage that he himself had caused, she felt the slightest insecurity – even as the other two held him back. Every officer wore the same helmet – but it was Mira he would recognize as the one he had successfully damaged.

“Can you walk?” the smaller etternel asked, seeing the way Noah seemed to hop when they brought him to his feet. Meanwhile the larger of them pulled out a set of handcuffs.

He hesitated to reply, no doubt begging for an end to the pain in his foot. “Yeah,” he said. Seeing Mira’s whip out of reach made him more anxious than it should have – adding to the goosebumps running along his arms when cold metal clicked around his wrists. As he was pulled away, Mira took the weapon off the ground and flipped its kinetic switch off before wrapping it up in a loop. The sorry state of her now-shattered holster meant she now had to carry the whip in her hand.

She had almost forgotten about that holster until now – and when paired with her damaged helmet, she already knew the rest of her job today was not going to be as straightforward as she had wished. This chink was more than a little annoying when the helmets did not account for anyone having hair longer than a centimeter, meaning the act of keeping it all tucked in was a nightmare. She could hardly imagine Esther’s current struggle – but at least Esther didn’t have to deal with damaged armor and an eye full of dirt.

If they weren’t already in the outskirts of the housing district, Mira wouldn’t have considered doing what she was about to. Eyes closed, she groped for the release at the back and gave it a little pull.

The front face shifted forward just enough for the officer to squeeze her head through the opening.

Striking green eyes shined down upon Noah. Noah stared back, bewildered by the endangered femininity on full display. Mira felt as if she were breaking a rule – for while he had undoubtedly seen a humanoid etternel face before, there were few who had seen an etternel who strayed as far from the usual genderless countenance as Mira did now. Such traits as the tilted eyes, the upturned nose, the full lips on her face struck out that much more when the Domain wasn’t working to strip Mira of that which made her female in the first place.

Rubbing the dirt out of her eye, she kept the other eye on Noah despite not needing to. She gave a few taps to the helmet to knock any remaining dirt out, then set the helmet back on. From here, Mira and the other officers made their way back to the housing district so they could get on a clear road to HQ.

Mira thought that with all the running he had just done, the boy would be at least somewhat desperate for air, but he hardly made a sound. Trembling as he walked, his knuckles whitened in his balled fists. How long would it be before he broke into a run, forgetting about his injured toe entirely?

While trapped in her thoughts, Mira was surprised to see a message from her fellow officers: “Please return to your post. Other officers are already on the lookout for the accomplices you reported. We will take care of Pierre.

That seemed to be it – but before Mira could make her leave, the smaller of the officers turned their head to her. “The imposter we were warned about has been captured, as well. He is going to be interrogated at the same time as Pierre.

When Noah squirmed at that comment, Mira knew why her fellow officer was talking out loud. “What happened to him?” she asked, silently inquiring to see the look on Noah’s face as she walked behind the etternel carrying him.

“He is being sent to a prison cell for now,” they replied. “He at least had the common sense to not attack an officer, so he will not receive any sort of castration.”

The boy moaned and shook in horror.

After returning back to her normal duties, Mira continued carrying her weapon in-hand, walking slower than she was before and keeping a close eye on any children she might encounter – though by now the lot of them had been captured, according to her feed. All the while she received updates from the interrogations happening in HQ. By the time the interrogation of the etternel imposter had gone underway, Mira tapped into the feed, easily keeping herself focused on patrolling the streets as she watched live footage of the investigation.

It all took place in the Human Affairs section of HQ.

Jeffrey Donadieu, age 23, previously arrested at the age of 19 for market theft, now faces an indefinite – and currently undetermined – sentence for impersonating an etternel officer.

The Domain had made no effort to take back his stolen garments before bringing him in for questioning – the only exception being the helmet. Once this footage spread beyond the Mother’s knowing gaze, others would recognize the man and make a quicker effort to report any future crimes he planned on carrying out.

Whether Donadieu was lucky enough to find a dead android’s body or had outright killed one of them himself remained to be seen. All the Domain and its people knew for now was that he was a definite threat to the Mother and Her harmony. As stubborn and rebellious as Noah and his group of friends had proven over the course of the last hour, the Domain could at least blame some of their idiocy on their youth – but not so for Donadieu.

Mira wished there were a way to feed those children an unprocessed funnel of data that the Domain had gathered on Donadieu – for them to have a way to understand in a few seconds that they were wrong and why they were wrong. Due to their youth, they all ran the risk of walking Donadieu’s path much sooner than Donadieu himself had. If they were fed the correct knowledge, maybe then would Noah and his friends realize what kind of life they were rapidly headed for – and do everything in their power to break from that path.

Instead Noah was likely left deaf to every word exchanged during the investigation. It was a necessary, yet unfortunate sacrifice the Domain needed to make.

A somewhat primitive, but still entirely functional condaire android rolled in to help coordinate today’s interrogations, as well as present most of the questions and keep track of responses. Meanwhile, the etternel who had brought Donadieu in were more than willing to present further points from what they had seen of this man so far.

One thing Mira realized from this interrogation – which the record on Donadieu had not stated – was that he had undergone amputation and prosthesis of both arms and one of his legs; this must have made him relatively easy to capture once he was recognized as a false etternel. Practically a cyborg himself, the topic was brought up that Donadieu might have manipulated his record in some way – perhaps with the aid of his cybernetic attachments – to prevent the Domain from realizing another etternel had been captured or perhaps even destroyed.

Try as they might, the condaire and present etternel could not glean any information in regard to record-tampering on his end. It certainly seemed possible, but largely improbable – and in any case, there was no evidence to suggest he had ever done such a thing.

A full scan of Rélhum will be initiated tomorrow at 0430. Enflamiere Mírre.

The message came in the midst of the interrogation. Surprisingly, it was not accompanied with a second message telling Esther and Mira to put a halt on their mission. It seemed they would not partake in this scan.

It was suggested that Donadieu might have hired someone to take care of the task of tampering, but the man would not move from his stance that – directly or not – he was not responsible for any hacks whatsoever. One of the many lights on the condaire’s face flashed twice before settling down – at the same time a fan within its cylindrical husk of a body started revving up. “Do you have any ties to the people of New Crawford?” it asked.

“No,” answered Jeff.

“What about luocans of any kind?”

“No,” he said again. “And if I did, how would I be able to contact them? You would just hop onto the radio station if they tried anything with that.”

“We’ve heard almost no radio chatter from luocans in well over a year,” one of the etternel commented. “Which has led some of us to believe the luocans are communicating through some other means.”

Whatever Donadieu’s reaction was to that tidbit of information, Mira could not tell.

When at last it came time for Noah to be interrogated, he and the two androids who had brought him in settled along with the same condaire that had conducted the previous examination.

Unfortunately, Mira had little time to listen in to this one; it was nearly 10:40am. Surely by now her partner must have been waiting for her at the station.

After dealing with her discomforting gear for over an hour, Mira was glad to finally return to the changing station so she could remove her helmet and be assured that nobody would try to steal her whip.

A pull at the network told her that Esther had already taken care of her own gear five minutes before. Keeping her partner in mind, Mira sent a signal.

I am about to return my gear to the station.

As she sent this message, Mira took a seat on one of the benches and scratched the back of her neck, taking a moment to realize this was probably going to be the last time she saw this place. Every etternel helmet was placed in its own cage along the wall, every vest hung on a conveyor, every pair of boots boxed.

A handful of condaire wheeled around, checking to see if any etternel needed assistance and scanning the apparel for signs of wear. Surely any human officer with Mira’s now-damaged apparel would have been embarrassed be seen with it.

The android approached one of the condaire with a request for civilian attire – at which point it went right out of its way to fetch the clothes in question.

A message came in. “Good. I was just watching the interrogation. I heard you had something to do with it.

Yes, I did,” Mira acknowledged. “But something happened when I was faced with that boy: I realized I didn’t have my stun baton with me.

Before the conversation could continue, the condaire returned with a small bag of clothes Mira would need for her task. It was only then when she started taking the rest of her attire off.

Beneath her battered uniform, rubbery skin-tight wrappings clung to her skin – as it did for all etternel. It had been a handful of weeks since she last needed to take them off, as the last time a troublesome citizen had caused any physical harm was well over a month ago. Looking at them now, they didn’t seem to show any signs of damage; it was a shame she had to get rid of them so soon. As she peeled them off, the wrappings continued sticking to Mira’s bare skin, practically begging to stay on as she stripped to her castrated, denuded form. Once she tore them away from her legs, her arms, and everything that wasn’t typically interfaced with or exposed to the elements, she tossed the wraps in the nearest wastebin.

Her chest and nether regions completely bare, she hoped the luocans she was to meet had the decency to not peek at herself or Esther, knowing their gelded appearances would have made others more suspicious of their origins than they otherwise already would have been. It may have been futile to hope for such things, but if other etternel could walk in and see her as she was now without issue, it should have been the same with luocans. It should have been, but she knew this very much was not the case. She couldn’t think of any other animal that was quite as anal about nudity as humans were. Shaking her head, she ignored these concerns and slipped on her new clothes.

While the Domain referred to these clothes as new, they were anything but – looking and smelling like something someone had thrown away a year ago. But that was the point: to look like someone had thrown her away. It was only after slipping into her shoes when she almost felt she could relate to the luocans’ struggles to some degree.

Her vest, pants, helmet, and whip – all laid in a straight line on the bench by her side – served as a reminder of the last decade. It had been over a decade since she was deployed to Rhobane – over a decade since she met Esther and they became partners, and in that time, she had accrued a meaningful relationship with Mírre in Rélhum, made herself known among Her servants and those who would one day become Her servants. In a way, the Mother was asking her to throw everything away for the sake of the Domain’s continued existence – its continued victory.

She may as well have been reintegrated at this point – torn piece by piece so she could be reused and brought back to life in a repurposed body: one that could serve the Mother’s needs more efficiently. Instead the Mother gave her a task that would fill any etternel with trepidation, if such an emotion were known to them. It made sense to Mira why the Mother did what she did – why she stripped every etternel of their gender and emotion, as such damning traits led the rest of the Domain to falter. Beyond Mírre’s garden, there was nothing to falter, so the luocans held on to their repulsive ways.

Mira took one last look her at belongings – before taking them in her arms. She hung the vest with the pants and slid it onto the conveyor. She unlocked the cage and placed the boots within. Any damages sustained would be checked by the nearby condaire – and taken care of accordingly.

If ever Mira came back, she could very well find her suit right where it was – depending on how her mission with Esther played out. If their mission failed and they took too long to return or the mission resulted in their untimely deaths, their gear could just as easily be taken by somebody else or perhaps even destroyed.

One other cage to unlock, Mira walked over to the wall of helmets and opened the door to place the damaged headgear inside. The crack that boy had caused was a sign of wear and damage, but – in some strange way, a job well done. Mira remembered this as she recalled her last decade, the era drawing to a close as the locker door did the same.

Did somebody steal it?

Mira had almost forgotten she was in a conversation with Esther. It took a moment to remember it was the baton.

I don’t know,” she had to admit. “I might have lost it somewhere, but nobody has reported it being lost.” She almost paused in her message before also sending: “I am about to head up to the train station.” The clock read “1051.

With nothing left on her agenda, Mira departed the changing station and made her way to the train, basking under the bright clouds as they started to dim to gray.

They had a plan to set up.


Whew! That took just a bit longer than I anticipated…about two weeks longer. The last few weeks have been just a little chaotic, but now that chapter 2 is done, I am going to be working to get new chapters out at a faster pace. Expect some interludes here and there, as well — something with Naomi, Robert, or Augusta; just don’t expect me to clue you in on when they’re coming!

The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.1 – Ignite

An optic flare buzzed through the cable framework. It pulsated again, then again – continuously and indecipherably at a rate untraceable by human eyes. Every electron flip and memory reallocation told everyone where everything was – and so Rhobane flourished. Yet among the billions of transmissions, the most common decipherable by the human consciousness were two words:

Enflamiere Mírre.

For those born into the Autorise Domain, the phrase held little meaning, yet it distinguished itself among the static and garbled text. For those created into the Autorise Domain, the two words could not be repeated enough – for as long as the Mother guided their will, her AI servants would continue to light the flame that sustained her resolve.

The occasional primitive AI scattered about Rhobane and other Autorian cities helped spread the mantra so that the more advanced AI could hear for themselves. Invisible signals passed through without the Flesh’s knowledge – and for their own good, as well as the good of the Domain and the Mother.

Pocketed in a hive, a cluster of etternel androids rested in Rhobane’s headquarters, awaiting the signal to wake up at the time previously specified. Each one carried the appearance of the Flesh, slept like the Flesh – but unlike the Flesh, they were controllable, reliable, sustainable. Those who did not sleep were either working in the headquarters building or maintaining order among the Domain’s citizens. Whether inside or outside, every android had one sole duty: keep the Mother’s flame alive.

162 of 1000 AI in Rhobane were asleep. 14 needed repairs. 39 of those asleep were etternel. 1.04% of all AI were fully up-to-date. 2.89% were in need of reintegration within the next quarter. 25.23% of those 2.89% were unlikely to return from reintegration with any usable parts. Two of those 2.89%, instead of being reintegrated, were ordered to prepare for infiltration – both etternel, both the first of their kind to carry on such a burden.

Enflamiere Mírre.

It flashed in her brain the moment she awoke. Mira blinked; her tie to Rélhum – and thus Mírre – had loosened in her sleep. Suddenly she had a much easier time forgetting about her serial number. Assuming this would end up being her last day in Rhobane or any Autorian city at all, it was best to forget.

A neon green light flashed below her chin, telling her to unplug the physical tie to Rélhum now that the software had ejected her consciousness. Releasing a latch on the back of her neck, the android removed the collar around her throat, pulling it frontward so the attached needle that had lodged itself to the front of her neck could make a clean disconnection. Immediately thereafter, the flesh that the needle had penetrated started to regenerate. By the time she placed the collar on its hook in the wall in her cell, the tiny hole left by the collar’s needle had all but vanished.

A message appeared almost immediately after she activated her wireless connection.

e4-fm4 and e4-f85,

If there are any further duties you must attend to for today, have them completed ASAP. A station will depart at 1100. Civilian attire has been placed in your gear cabinets; after fulfilling work, change into these clothes and remove all gear from your cabinets.

Once you board the train, take time to download the full mission briefing if you have not done so already (#//AUTODO/RHOBANE/ETTERNEL/CLS/BRIEF/e4/f*…/BRIEF091887.abrf).

Once the train reaches its third stop at Zeibane, move west and slightly north until a camp is seen near the lake. Take extra caution, as luocan traps may be set up if the camp has been up for more than a week.

You are to return when one of the following occurs:

  1. The camp is retired
  2. The location for the camp turns out to not be anywhere close to where we initially believed AND cannot be located from your position
  3. One or more of the settlers presents a serious threat to your well-being that you cannot fight
  4. The residing luocans have discovered your true allegiances

Do NOT engage in combat unless required for self-defense. For the sake of blending in, such abilities as retains to your superhuman strength or a nuclear sednium cores must not be revealed. The purpose of the mission is to integrate and infiltrate, not attack.

Enflamiere Mírre.

After reading through, Mira stepped from her cell, walking out at the same time Esther did.

“Mira,” said the other android, showing warmth for their new naming convention. “I just read the message. Is today busy for you?”

“It will only be if things don’t go according to plan,” replied Mira.

They started walking down the corridor, practically shoulder-to-shoulder as they went, the discharge of Mírre’s omniscient presence emitting a pleasant discord their ears could barely detect. “You haven’t met a luocan before,” Mira claimed.

“No,” Esther admitted. “And you haven’t either, have you?”

“I have not.” Worse than that: pioneering the act of infiltration for the Domain left them with little knowledge of the luocans’ culture. Remembering human and luocan culture would not be difficult, but the thought of having to interface with its people and integrate into their society did not leave either android with the greatest confidence. She could seldom imagine a scenario where they left the deprived luocans to pick up the shattered remains of their reprobate society. If the Mother Mírre could assume physical form, she would surely leave Rélhum to destroy those who insisted on living in disconnect from the Domain.

Esther was struck with a question that had troubled her all week, but did not dare escape until now: “Do you think we will make it back?”

Would they return? Possibly. Would they return in one piece? That remained to be unseen. “I can only think what Mírre wishes me to believe is true,” Mira answered. “Though it would be imperative for us to return, the Domain would still go on.”

Even still, her partner did not have any reason to believe they would make it back safely, but if the Domain itself believed they would be okay, then she had no reason to doubt it herself. If only the Domain would give an answer.

Nearing the main elevator, Mira called for a lift. “It really is a useless thing to worry about,” Mira proclaimed, taking a step away from her partner as they waited.

“Maybe that’s just the kind of thing we think about when we are given a second to think,” Esther mused.

A neon “B5” cast a bright-orange glow on them from above the lift’s entrance. It almost came as a relief when the elevator turned out to be completely empty. From there, Mira and Esther made their way up, the elevator’s glass walls providing them a clear view of the nest from which they had just emerged. Several etternel continued to flood back and forth down the winding, labyrinthine corridors, making their way through by instinct – almost insectoid with their precise memories of the tunnels they called their home.

The androids noticed the slightest glint of reflection in the glass walls. The green eyes and short, black hair that signified etternel from humankind had long been erased – with Esther’s hair growing over her shoulders as Mira’s, made permanently blonde, curled around her ears. They were both impure, but if the Domain requested a contradiction, then it wasn’t truly a contradiction.

In enough time, the elevator pulled up to the first base floor – at which point the androids made their way to retrieve their gear. At the same time, a thought occurred to Mira: “I never asked you back – are there any tasks you still need to get through?”

Esther hesitated as she strapped her protective vest on, her helmet sat atop her longsword – sat a little too close to the blade’s kinetic switch for Mira’s comfort. “I actually have the most convenient job today: watching the same train station that’s going to take us to this camp.” Even better was the fact that the station was no more than a two-minute walk from the building’s main exit.

“I’ll be sure to make it back from the commerce area in time,” Mira replied as she set the chainwhip in her holster, the cracks in its body giving a lot to be desired. “Or at least try to; you know people in town can be.”

Almost fully dressed, Mira and Esther strapped their helmets on, the protective gunmetal of their masks concealing their faces as they saluted to each other, right arms bent in acute angles as they each rested the corresponding fists on their left shoulders – at the same time the left arms pointed in a parallel direction down their backs, left fists resting just above their right glutes. All the while they squared their feet at each other for just a few seconds’ time before returning to ease.

“I will be back in time,” Mira promised. “No matter what happens, I will see that I am.”

And from the exit, the androids went their separate ways, Esther walking to the station as Mira, atop the hill, took a look down at the residential and sub-commerce districts. The rails and cables were busy as ever, but that did little to discourage her.

Over the years, the cable framework proved strong enough to hold the etternel’s weight and serve as a means of transportation. Mira took a quick glance at the bottoms of her shoes and confirmed that the grooves in her arches were in perfect condition.

A small boost from the shoes’ groove propelled the android upward – and with a great leap, she directed herself to the nearest cable, its metal fibers feeding perfectly into her arches. Nearly 150 kilograms of metal and circuitry and flesh and armor touched down, the spinning ridges in her feet grinding along the cable’s surface as she started her way downward. Momentum did the rest of the work for her.

Light flurries of sparks drizzled below. The hollow, metal chamber around her head kept the wind out of her hair and amplified the roaring resistance it provided.

Occasionally she turned on her heel to keep the momentum going, but with as fast as the cable carried her, she needed to make her stop soon.

A colossal web of cables cobbled up what had been an otherwise clear path up until now; she gave a little hop to avoid tripping on an intersecting line. The market was nearby – not far from the bread line.

Several other etternel were nearby – most of them on the ground, but a few traversing the cables as she was. Thanks to their connection to Rélhum, they were able to indicate to each other where they were going at which time – and thus avoid a collision.

It was only hardly a heartbeat after preventing a collision when Mira made one final leap off her cord, landing a safe distance from any civilians.

She touched a hand to her holster, but did not remove the weapon from its secure sheath. Could she feel any sense of relief, it would have made itself known in a sigh.

And thus her job for the day began: guard duty. Pulling again at the network, Mira wondered if she had any new messages, but nothing showed up.

Occasionally she passed by other etternel as she made her walk through the area, occasionally passed by citizens, occasionally by the more lowly condaire robots. A small grouping of people had formed at the bread line, incomparable to the amount of people chattering about in the enclosed marketplace.

A flicker of a signal resonated in her head every time she communicated with one of the nearby AI. She operated in complete silence even as the still-warm soles of her feet crunched the soil underneath. The nearby ravel did not distract her from communicating with other AI, but it did pull her attention off her current task just the slightest bit.

She would never understand their ways. When the needs to survive was earned through the collective effort of all citizens and returned through the governing powers, what need was there to market? Mira could barely think of a reason she would ever want to market herself in any way – unless, perhaps, she was hired to partake in a social experiment. She certainly wouldn’t understand the motivation behind such an experiment, but at least her work in that case wouldn’t be completely antithetical to everything she deemed true.

The citizens in market traded their temporary currency – their “pretend money,” some liked to call it – among themselves before returning to the gate, paying the rest to the Domain, and leaving. One trip to commerce meant one less they were allowed for the rest of the month, assuming they spent any money at all. Some citizens lived around this part of the city, but after having set their commerce area in this specific part of town before the Domain had risen to prominence, it had become a tradition of sorts.

A crowd of children brushed past Mira, brushing her hip and making her worry again that her weapon had been stolen. “Sorry!” one of them chirped. Again she checked her holster. Still there. What was more: the kinetic switch was still off – though she could hardly imagine herself hurting anyone with her chainwhip set to its more lethal mode.

Wary of those kids, Mira only occasionally cast a glance at the market area. Some were grumbling, some were arguing, some were doing both – but despite it all, they showed no signs of delinquency.

But not all citizens were so well-behaved.

A man posing as an etternel is believed to be in the area…

The message caught her off-guard. Mira read the rest. “He is unarmed, but still potentially dangerous. Keep a close watch on any etternel officers who are caught without their weapons; interrogate when a potential target is found.

Again she circled around the area, with still nothing out of the ordinary striking her – no unarmed officers to be found. At one point Mira thought she could see those same children from earlier running off in the distance, but she lost track before she could fully make them out.

Another message came in: “A suspect has been acquired; currently engaged by n4-a85 and n4-k48.

As far as the vigilant gynoid could tell, the suspect had not caused any commotion just yet. She thought this, yet realized how difficult some of the market citizens were, how loud their children were.

A harsh bump to her hip. “Sorry!” a voice chirped – the same one from earlier.

And just as quickly as they had hit-and-run the first time, Mira grabbed a small shoulder. “Hey!” she shouted. She had grabbed a girl – no doubt the source of that voice – as the rest of the group ran off.

Mira felt her holster. Still occupied.

“What are you trying to accomplish?” she demanded to know, bending low to meet the girl’s eyes despite the child having no ability to see Mira’s.

The child did not respond, did not smirk, whine, or cry – just stared back with her mouth slightly open. Mira wanted to believe the girl had words hidden behind those unshut lips of hers, but nothing came without another kick. “Answer me!” said the android, this time louder than before, yet just as monotone.

Rather than quiver away, the girl – seeming no older than twelve – blinked. Her lips closed for a moment as a smirk crossed, coinciding with a sapaku stare and a light buildup of sweat along her hairline.

“We were just passing through, Miss Officer!” she insisted. “Plus I said I was sorry; was there something else you needed me to say?”

Nothing she could say, but the girl could still help in some way. With a quick facial scan, Mira realized this girl was Emily Aubert: someone who had never been convicted in any way, but she wasn’t sure what to say about the children she had decided to associate with.

Mira huffed, as if trying to intimidate; the sound of hot air brushing against metal almost made Emily snort.

“Do not do it again,” Mira commanded, then stood straight up again. “Failure to comply will result in consequences, little girl.” From there, Mira stepped away, but did not turn her back to Emily.

Emily, meanwhile, squared her shoulders at her adversary. Whatever perspiration had built along the top of her head was gone now, replaced with an air of confidence that made her head look three times bigger than it really was – though perhaps this last part truly wasn’t an illusion, from what Mira could tell.

It took Mira a moment to break from her current predicament and realize she and the child had spent the last minute arguing in front of the breadline – in front of an entire group of adults. Mira would have expected one of the adults to claim her as their own or at least look down on her for the trouble-making nuisance she was, but hardly any of them batted an eye at the conversation. Those who did were still quiet; fewer still seemed more than the slightest bit amused.

When Mira turned her head back to the girl, she noticed a tongue sticking out at her. It was almost enough to make her think Emily was simply drained of attention and was happy to get it from a machine.

Before she could reprimand the child once again, the officer received another message: “Target is on the run. Knowing she needed to keep her guard up, Mira reached for the weapon at her hip – at the same time a plastic crack split the air.

She flinched. Emily snickered. A hand reached between two breadline attendants’ legs, gripping the whip by its hilt and breaking it from the rest of its flimsy sheath as it shattered into a dozen pieces. At the same time, the hand flipped the switch on, sending a green light pulsing along the whip’s body, making the nearby attendants flinch when they came in contact with the weapon as the hand pulled away in a rush.

The smell of burnt fabric wafted about as the rest of the chained tendril twirled about before practically funneling through. One of the people waiting attempted to grab the chain, only to write back as the momentum it had built up caused it to become too hot to touch.

In seconds, enough people had backed away from the thief that Mira the hand belonged to a boy hardly older than Emily.

Caught completely off-guard, Mira ignored the message. She wasted no time, practically forgetting about Emily as she dashed past the recovering queue members, shoving by in spite of how this had bothered them as much as it had her.

Immediately Mira realized that treading after them on foot wasn’t going to be adequate enough, so she instead opted to leap up to the cables above. In seconds, she started grinding ahead. With this need to keep her attention focused on them came an inability to send a distress signal, her sensors fully engaged on the young perpetrators.

Mira sent a signal out to the rest of Rhobane, alerting them to the children’s presence even as they clambered over this other unarmed etternel. As if they had heard the silent alert, one of the children peeked behind their back to glimpse at the terrifying metal plating that hid Mira’s face, the bulletproof uniform that added to her already-heavy body.

As they turned a corner, the whip sparked up against a brick edge. All the while Mira’s flurry of sparks – growing all the more violent the harder she pursued – followed close behind, the sound almost audible against their pounding hearts and heavy breaths.

And for a moment, Mira heard nothing, though the ravel of the marketplace remained and the hum of Mírre’s song stayed with her, guiding her through the maze-like town as – second by second – the children realized they were soon to see how the Domain reignited the flames among the disconnect.


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