Infiltration Part1.9 – The Art of Horror

Amity never thought she could sweat so much at this time of year. Her nerves were getting to her – which was something she dared not express to anyone. But at least now she could confidently say that her work on the tent was nearing completion. All that needed to be done now was the assembly.

Knowing it was the best place to store such materials for now, Amity kept the cloth and poles in Macy’s tent – meanwhile Macy herself had gone to meet with the scouts out east for some medical chemicals. There were still some things Amity needed to retrieve from her bed at the girls’ main tent – one of those things being the notebook.

There was still a lot that needed to be copied over from the MDA. With its battery capacity, Amity wasn’t sure how long she would be able to work with it before it died; she could only hope that she got at least an hour out of it. And with Macy’s work keeping her from watching the girls, that meant Toni and Cynthia were on their own to watch everyone else – which they did without complaint.

This meant the girls’ tent was empty. Nobody would see Amity with the MDA if she went to copy her notes in there.

It was only once she got into the tent when she turned the device on. She proceeded to pick the notebook out from under her sleeping bag and pull the pen out of the pocket of her new pants as the MDA’s tiny disk spun. The device beeped twice once ready – at which point Amity picked it up and scrolled through her stories with the directional pad.

The newly-branded woman rested her head on one of the tents’ supports as she looked through several documents she had written over the years. Among them were her alien series, her detective series, some almost-autobiographical oneshots, and some romance bits she was ashamed to admit she had written – and which would no doubt be the last thing she copied to paper.

Once again she thought about the wrist-aches this was going to cause and wished her fellow nomads still had access to printers. The Domain would, but it wasn’t like she knew – or cared to meet – anyone from the Domain.

Suddenly she remembered the two new women and almost wanted to ask if they could lend a printer. She shook the thought out of her head and carried on.

She continued scrolling and clicking through the filesystem on the device. There was folder on here that she wanted to copy over more than any other: Kraykozen Chronicles. These so-called chronicles were part of her alien series – which she had worked on perhaps more than any other series of hers. It was certainly her favorite project to work on.

Scrolling through a little more, she found the first story she wanted to move over. Starting from there, Amity flipped the book open, readied her pen, and started jotting down the manuscript one letter at a time.

The battery on the device was at one hundred percent when Amity had begun – and within minutes it dropped a percentage, draining from the stress of keeping the light on and scrolling down line by line. There were times she struggled to get a good glance at the words on her screen and times where she had made a typographical error and needed to figure out what she was trying to say in the first place: a typical problem when sometimes she used this device when barely awake. Still she dotted every I, crossed every T, left no stone unturned – and by the time she finished her first manuskript, her device’s battery sat at eighty-two percent battery and her wrist ached in at least eighty-two places. She had assumed her hands would be used to this kind of abuse, but handwriting was not quite the same as pushing buttons.

Onto the next story.

Part of the fun of rewriting was re-experiencing the stories she had made long ago. Some of the plot points made her chuckle, some made her smile, some made her screw up her face, but all of them brought her back to those times when her fellow men and women were still hopping from one spot to another – and wherever they stopped, Macy let her sit in her tent to type away at the MDA. Their current settlement didn’t give her the level of nostalgia she had for their old home, yet the act of simply copying her old documents over almost made her feel like those days were with her again. On this transitory day from childhood to adulthood, she had one last chance to be a kid again.

She wondered how she did it all. Without a real keyboard, touchscreen, or handwriting feature to speak of, Amity was limited to using the virtual keyboard – which she had to traverse with the handful of buttons beneath the screen. With the way she was writing then, she had no reason to complain about handwriting the bulk of her work onto paper.

Story done. Sixty-seven percent. Next one. This one was a lot scarier than the others.

“Isn’t that Miss Macy’s?”

Nearly jumping off the floor, Amity looked up to see Cynthia glowering down at her. The little girl’s angry, condescending scowl turned into a satisfied smirk, perhaps following the realization that she had caught her former partner in a vulnerable state.

For a moment all the color drained out of Amity’s face. She wanted to scream, yet doing so would have drawn more attention to the fact that she had blown Macy’s secret. It was only after remembering to breathe when her surprised expression turned to one of smug annoyance. “What does it matter to you?” she challenged. “She barely uses this thing anyway and she said I can use it if I feel like it.”

“Really?” asked Cynthia. “Well, what are you doing with it?”

As soon as the girl asked, Amity turned off the device’s screen. “Nothing you need to worry about. Just don’t tell anyone I was using this thing, okay?”

Cynthia gave a little shrug. “Well, alright,” she declared. Then, changing the subject, she continued. “Toni sent me here to let you know that the boys are here with our meal.”

At that, Amity almost wanted to roll her eyes. She spoke no words as she reactivated the MDA’s screen.

“Bailey is out there!”

Amity stopped, pulling her face away from the screen to see that Cynthia’s smirk was gone. “Are you really going to hold that over me?”

“Yes I am, because it’s true,” said Cynthia. “Come on; you’re already slacking and your future husband is out – ”

“First of all, I’m not slacking – I already finished weaving the cloth!” Amity interrupted, her face going red at the words future husband. “And second: I’m about done with this thing, anyway, so shut up.” As she spoke, Amity held down the power button until the screen went black. From there, she slipped it and her notebook under her sleeping bag before coming along with Cynthia to go outside.

And there she saw Bailey with a few other boys and their scout leader, handing out their usual soup-and-bread meal. Amity scratched her stomach like she was hungry – when in truth she was anything but.

“Oh, there you are,” said Toni with a sigh as the two girls returned. She eyed Cynthia. “I told you she was in the tent.”

Cynthia stuck her tongue out at the other student worker.

In the midst of their banter, Amity turned her head to where the boys were, watching as they continued handing portions out to the girls. Squinting ahead, it took her a moment to witness Bailey among the group; her heart skipped a beat. Absentminded to the conversation happening right next to her, she started walking toward the boys, readying herself to line up.

Practically inch-by-inch, the line shrunk. Amity, along with Macy’s two workers, were the last to get their meals before the boys were set to depart. Once Amity had her meal, she promptly stepped aside for the other two to get theirs – at which point she took a few steps further to Bailey.

The bread made a loud crunch when she stuffed it in her mouth – which was enough to get his attention. Her cheek filled with the stale sustenant substance, she dropped the rest of the bread in her vat of viscous miscellany before giving Bailey a quick, “Hey.” Her words were muffled as she struggled to speak around the bread.

“Hi,” he responded, looking over his shoulder, a little amused to see her behind him as he bent down to organize some cups that had already been returned. He opened his mouth to speak again, then paused as he looked up and down Amity’s frame.

No doubt he had taken notice of Amity’s new outfit: heavier and more similar to the brownish fittings that Macy often carried with her. Compared to the other girls in the area, she definitely stood out – so much that he obviously struggled to recognize her in the new getup.

“Oh – hi! It’s you.” He turned his own back to the rest of the scouts when he faced her. “You’re the one who –” He paused again, trying to correct himself mid-sentence. “– you’re Macy’s student who just turned fourteen, right? Amy?”

The remains of her bread slid down her esophagus. “It’s Amity,” she corrected, giving a nervous chuckle.

“Right – right.” The boy gave yet another pause. “Were you, um…wanting to help us pass stuff out to the rest of camp? Because we’re about to get moving after we eat here.”

It took Amity til just then to realize all the boys around her had settled down to eat their bread and soup while it was still warm – a surprise, as she thought they were rqeuired to at least get everyone else in camp some rations before taking some for themselves. She didn’t dare bring the point up as Bailey grabbed some for himself. With a shrug, she replied, “Sure. I’ve been thinking about the kind of work I’m going to be doing, anyway – now that I’m done here. Miss Macy always talks about being a mommy or some kind of babysitter.”

Her talking about being a mother almost made him cringe, but instead Bailey gave a nod. “Mister Theo might have something you can do,” he replied, then immediately regretted it. “Sorry – what kind of work did you have in mind?”

“Hmm… you pick,” she said. “I was really wanting to see if I could get a boy’s input!”

At that, Bailey rolled his eyes. “I know what you’re trying to do, Amity, but I really don’t have anything that I need help with.” He went back to his own small cup of soup.

A little taken aback by his rude reaction, Amity took a turn to pause. “I wasn’t really trying anything,” she corrected, fully aware that what she said wasn’t entirely true. “But c’mon – you really have nothing?”

It took him a moment to think on it. “How about this?” he began. “If you’re up to it, you can help me set up my tent when I have to do my move in a few months.”

Amity smiled and took a slurp of her meal. “Cool,” she said. “So, I’m sorry – I’ve just been bothering about work I can do; how’re you holding up now that you’ll be fourteen in a few months, too?”

Where part of Amity expected him to sigh upon being asked, Bailey seemed to perk up a little. “Just really tired, actually,” he responded. “Sam actually caught me sleeping by the fire earlier, but he knows Theo let me.”

“Did Theo actually let you?”

“Yes! Yes he did. And once I got up, I came over to the other guys so we could hand out rations today, so here we are. I kind of forgot today was your birthday, though – so happy birthday.”

She couldn’t help giggle a little. “Thanks.”

“So what does that mean about you?” asked Bailey. “Are you trying to find work because you’re not working for Macy anymore?”

The fact that he didn’t bring up the possibility of her taking Macy’s place made Amity want to heave a sigh of relief. “Yeah, I’ve gotta find work elsewhere. Maybe I’ll join some workers’ group if I’m that desperate. Hopefully I won’t get to that point.”

“You were one of Macy’s top workers, though,” he pointed out. “So you should be fine. Actually…what’s gonna happen to those newcomers now that you’re not there to help out?”

Amity was almost embarrassed that word about Esther and Mira had reached this boy’s ears. Even with that in mind, she knew it would have been rude to ignore the question. “Not much should really change there. Toni and Cynthia might struggle a bit since one of them has stitches that they need to look at, but Toni’s experienced enough that she shouldn’t have any trouble.” Part of her wanted to take those words back; Toni may have been experienced, but was she able to stitch such deep gashes by herself?

“Toni’s now the oldest, isn’t she?” Bailey took another slurp of his meal.

“Yeah, she is,” Amity replied. “May God be with her.”

“What do you mean?”

Amity huffed some of the hair out of her eyes. “It can just be stressful being the oldest after awhile. Everyone expects everything of you, a lot of the things you used to like doing get pushed to the side. Like I almost forgot about half the stories I made.” She flinched after saying that; that wasn’t meant to be said out loud.”

“Stories?”

“Um…yeah.” She started to blush. “Just, y’know – little things I write.”

Seeing as she averted his gaze, Bailey quickly realized she was getting uncomfortable for her. In an attempt to change the subject, he pointed to her cup. “Hey – you might want to finish that. We’re gonna need to move to the center of camp in a bit.”

Yanked away from the awkward derailment their conversation had taken, Amity’s face returned to its normal color. “Oh, right,” she said, looking down as the still-mostly-full cup stared her in the face. Though she was hardly hungry, she made an effort to chow through most of it in a few minutes’ time.

All along Bailey was silent, scooping up what remained in his cup. After the shared silence, deliberating each word, he started to speak again. “We could hang out after this,” he said. When Amity looked up from the cup, wiping some of the residue off her lip, he continued. “I kinda want to hang out now that we’ve talked a bit. Maybe I can take care of a few things.”

“Like getting to know me?” asked Amity with a slight smirk.

Bailey stammered. “Yeah…” Seeing the little amount of broth at the bottom of her cup, he asked. “Are you, uh…finished with that?”

She took a look down at what remained. “I guess so.”

“Cool,” said Bailey, giving a nervous, yet satisfied smile. “Just pour yours in my cup and I’ll take care of it.”

With barely a word, she did as he said.

Bailey issued a brief thanks before tipping the cup down his gullet.

Amity nearly choked on her tongue as he drank the broth. She almost wanted to close her eyes, but kept them open, wondering whether or not he would gag on the residue of their early lunch. When he finished, the biggest reaction she managed to see out of him was a light shudder.

For some reason she nearly found herself going just as hot as when he had asked about her stories. “Did you… like that?” she tittered.

“Not really,” he admitted. “But hey – thanks for letting me finish this, anyway.”

“Don’t mention it, I guess. I just hope you don’t have broth breath whenever we meet up later.”

From there, Amity went along with Bailey and the other boys as they made their way to the center of camp, carrying the vat of soup and a basket of bread along with them, taking extra care not to trip or drop anything – especially the large vat. Amity did not envy the task given to the two kids assigned to carry the large metal container around for the hot fluid.

By now the sun was barely visible, which made them all want to groan. Amity had hoped it wouldn’t rain again, but sure enough, a light drizzle had cast down on them by the time they set everything up near the fire in the middle of camp.

While the boys dispersed rations, Amity cleaned the used cups and silverware that Bailey was organizing earlier.

Once she had finished cleaning most of the dishes, Amity was told that she could go back to take care of whatever else she needed to do on her birthday.

“Oh yeah – where are you gonna be setting up your tent?” asked Bailey.

“I don’t really know yet,” Amity admitted. “It should be around the east near where I already was. Should be easier to spot when the cloth is brand new anyway.”

Bailey chewed his lip. “Well alright,” he said with a shrug. “But if I go into the wrong tent and I walk in on someone getting dressed, I’m gonna complain!”

That was enough to elicit a snort from Amity. “I’ll see you then!”

In her time with Bailey, the fledgling had almost completely forgotten about the MDA she had left under where she slept. Realizing this, she swore under her breath and made a run back to the tent.

Once there, out of breath, she witnessed someone almost stepping on her sleeping bag, their foot only narrowly avoiding the cushion. It took everything in her to keep from screaming, her heart pounding, leaping up to her throat in the heat of the moment.

Hoping not to cause any drama, Amity swept up her sleeping bag, taking the MDA, notebook, and pen underneath in one fell swoop, rolling it all up before heading outside without a word. Once outside, she ran into Cynthia and Toni.

“Hi again!” said Cynthia.

Seeing the way Toni smiled yet said nothing, Amity hesitated to ask if Cynthia had spoiled her secret about the MDA. Her brain stung with the thought that she might have done that – and the urge to smack the girl upside the head grew ever more overwhelming.

“Congratulations!” Cynthia said again. “We’re gonna miss you having you around, Amity!”

Whatever anger had built up in her throat over the last few seconds immediately went away. “O-oh!” she stammered. “Oh, thank y–!”

Cynthia and Toni cut her off as they pulled in for a group hug. While Toni smiled and showed as much support as she could, it was inherently obvious to Amity that this was Cynthia’s plan. Still, it was not unwelcome – even as she held the sleeping bag in one arm.

For the first time in what felt like years, Amity felt a sense of warmth among the girls, no longer seeing them as nuisances, but rather younger siblings she had grown up with. The fact that Cynthia and Toni had gone out of their way to congratulate her – in spite of the many times she had lashed out or insulted them – made her return a smile brighter than any they had seen from her in months. In a lot of ways, their simple gift made her feel bittersweet about the road ahead.

Her grip on the makeshift bed loosening, Amity froze when she heard a flurry of papers sputter beneath her. The two girls followed suit, stepping back to see what she had dropped. Toni bent down to examine the notebook and MDA while Cynthia grimaced, stepping back as if she anticipated shouting.

As always, Toni wavered her words. “Are these yours?” she wondered as she picked the three items off the ground.

Having held her breath for what felt like an entire minute, Amity huffed through her nostrils and nodded. “You’re not supposed to know about the MDA, and neither is anyone else, but yes.”

“She’s not using the MDA for anything bad!” Cynthia declared, hoping to cover up as much as she could. “I think.”

Amity’s eyebrow twitched as Cynthia spoke. As Toni helped gather the woman’s things, Amity attempted to explain herself. “I just have a lot of projects I need to copy to the notebook.”

“What kinds of projects?” wondered Toni.

Admittedly, Amity never suspected anyone would take interest, but so far both girls had expressed a desire to know more. Amity almost had to struggle not to show her agitation. “Well,” she began. “It’s a story I’m writing.”

“Oh – like a book?”

Amity nodded. “I figured I may as well do something I like with my literacy that doesn’t involve telling the difference between water and acid. And you know how bored and annoyed I’ve been with work lately.”

Toni clearly took amusement with Amity’s choice of words. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“So wait,” Cynthia cut in. “Are you trying to become the next Edgar Allen Poe? How long have you been writing, anyway?”

It had been so long, she needed to think about it. “Since I was eleven. I’ve made four different series of stories, as well as a few smaller ones in between. And I just finished copying one story from the MDA onto the noteobok.”

“What story?” Toni wondered, clearly getting excited. “What is it about?”

Amity cast a slightly concerned, yet contemplative glance at the oldest of Macy’s servants. “Let’s go sit by Macy’s tent and talk about it.” By now the rain had stopped, so she had no trouble setting herself along the grassy floor. Once settled, she sat straight up with the two girls on either side, flipping through to the first page of the piece she wanted.

“So I don’t have a final name yet cause I keep changing the title,” she confessed, “but this story is about badass aliens – called Kraykozen – who have to save the Earth, but they also need to do so while keeping everyone in the dark about the fact that they eat humans.”

Where a moment their wide eyes showed interest and enthusiasm in Amity’s hobby, the only emotion on display was shock and a little bit of disgust.

“What’s really cool is how the aliens eat. They don’t have necks, so what they have to do is spit out their stomach and then absorb their food with an acid – ”

Cynthia screamed. “What the hell?!” she said. “You went from nothing to insanity just like that – just what the hell?”

Rather than argue her case, Amity appeared almost bewildered by this reaction – to see that, just as well, Toni was too shocked to say much. “What’s wrong? Too outlandish?”

“Aliens that spit out their stomach? That’s disgusting,” Cynthia replied. “And you could have said it was supposed to be a scary story.”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Well, sorry! But I happen to think scary stuff is cool, for lack of a better word.”

“There’s nothing cool about the stomach thing,” Cynthia proclaimed. “It won’t work for whatever audience you’re going for.”

A flash of fury sparking in her eyes, Amity whipped to face Cynthia. “I write for myself, damn it!” she argued. “What, do you want me to make the aliens cutesy – turn them into cat people with giant ears and manga eyes – just so I can appeal to whatever bullshit audience you’ve got in mind?”

“Calm down!” Cynthia and Toni said in unison. The three of them went completely silent, holding their breaths, before letting out a unified sigh.

Cynthia thought for a moment before speaking up again. “Have you ever tried writing other scary things?”

“No; this is supposed to be like my premiere horror project.”

“Can we read it?” Toni piped up, leaning in to catch a better glimpse at the text.

A touch claustrophobic, Amity pulled the notebook closer to her chest. “Why?” she asked, then relaxed a little. “Well, I guess you’re less squeamish than she is.”

“Hey!” Cynthia shouted.

“I don’t mind.” Toni scooted in a little. “I promise I won’t criticize.”

“Well, alright.” With that, Amity cast a look at Cynthia, who puffed up her cheeks as if she couldn’t figure out what to say.

“Alright, I’ll keep my mouth shut!” she said, holding up a promissory outfacing palm as she spoke.

Amity nodded before gradually removing the booklet from her chest. “Well, alright; scoot in.”


“I think we got this stuff just in time,” Sam noted as he and Esther finished the last of their soup. “Sometimes it feels like the boys here barely have enough leftover once everyone gets their rations. Have you talked to any of the boys around here before, actually?”

“I haven’t,” Esther admitted. Unless a nonchalant thank-you-for-the-cup counted as conversation.

“You’ll probably get to later, then.” As they started on their way back from the central campfire, Sam continued talking about what they would do in regard to the passageway. “I swear – once I check in with some other guys, we’re going to talk to Persson about our plans to excavate, and we’re bringing you with us once we do.”

“What’s the plan after we excavate?”

“Well,” Sam began. “We’ll probably set some scouts there just to keep watch in case we need to, make sure they’re well-equipped, move some of the scouts’ tents closer to the passage entrance, and hopefully find an easier way to get there that doesn’t involve a raft.”

“That last one would help,” Esther quipped, eliciting a chuckle out of Sam. “And you’re going to do that tonight?”

“Whether the Director wants to or not, we’ll find a way to make him let us,” Sam assured.

It wasn’t long before they were at the medical area again. “Suddenly I’m wondering if Mira’s doing any better since yesterday,” Esther mused. “All we talked about earlier was Shafer suddenly showing up this morning.”

Her comment was immediately followed by the sound of screams and laughter from within the tent.

She and Sam exchanged a glance.


Amity cast her audience a sidelong smirk. The little amount of light shining upon her profile mixed gave her the edge she needed to tell her story as Cynthia and Toni stood behind her, practically gesturing at the audience when to react.

“They say they came from space,” she began, staring into the pages of her notebook. “And when they arrived, they came with one mission: to devour all humans! Eat everything and leave nothing behind!” The story had undergone some changes – at least for the time being.

How awful!” “That’s disgusting!” “Did they eat everyone?

“Nobody was spared,” she continued. Cynthia hid her mouth behind her hands at the same time a unified shiver crawled down the other girls’ spines. “The aliens traveled from one town to another, destroying every one that they came across. Entire cities crumbled in their wake – and while the Domain claims that they exterminated the aliens long ago, some say these space monsters live among the androids of the Domain to this day!”

You’re lying!” “No – I think she’s telling the truth.” “How can that be true?” “It makes too much sense!” One of those voices came from behind Amity.

“One may pop up anywhere you go, ready to snatch you when nobody else is looking. They might find you in the forest, they might find you in the outskirts – but their favorite place to gather is in the tunnels underground. If ever you hear the tick…tick…tick of their spindly-spidery footsteps, you’ll know they are nearby.

“And perhaps worst of all is the way they eat their prey.” Pulling one of the girls out from the crowd, she traced a hooked finger under her volunteer’s chin. “First they start at the throat – but if they can’t get that close, they’ll shoot their venom in your eyes!” She motioned to the girl’s bespectacled gaze, making her flinch as Amity near-poked her eyes out with her two fingers. “And after they’re done watching you roll around in pain, their cybernetic attachments start to generate a fire, preparing to cook you alive as you – !”

“What is going on in here?”

Everyone flinched when they heard Sam’s voice, turning around to see Esther and Sam approach – the former stepping forward to speak as the latter stood just outside the entrance.

Amity went silent for a moment, then gave them a grin: the exact opposite reaction Toni and Cynthia had expected. “Oh – hi Miss Esther, Mister Deputy! We were just talking about –”

“Talking about Amity’s new story!” Toni interrupted.

Cynthia added onto that: “It’s just a work of fiction. But Amity – Amity’s gonna be the next Edgar Allen Poe one day!”

“I never said that! You did!” Amity argued, hissing as she spoke. The top of her face went red and sweaty as if she didn’t want anyone knowing she was writing in the first place. Though judging by some of her audiences’ reactions, only half in attendance seemed to know who Cynthia was even talking about.

“Did Poe write about aliens who eat people?” Esther inclined, tilting her head as if she were legitimately curious.

“No he didn’t!” an older girl – about Toni’s age – shouted from the audience. “And there’s not any aliens out there either, Amity! You’re just trying to give the little ones nightmares.”

Amity did not let the others’ words have a visible effect on her. “No one is going to get nightmares from a silly story.” Cynthia and Toni exchanged an almost confused glance behind Amity’s back, but did not say anything.

By now, it was obvious that almost everyone’s gaze was locked on Amity for the exact wrong reason. The silence was the worst part, making her wish for the shocked gasps, yelps, and squeals she had managed to elicit a moment ago. Growing more nervous by the second, she inhaled, exhaled, then closed the booklet. “Y’know what? Forget this.” And without another word, she wrapped her things back up in the sleeping bag, keeping the MDA from view along with the now-buried notebook. “I’m not supposed to be here, anyway.”

Esther and Sam, stepping out along with her, could practically feel the steam rising off the girl’s face. “Hey – wait a minute,” Sam inclined, beckoning her over. “Don’t just walk out, Amity – come on.”

The girl struggled not to roll her eyes as she obeyed his command. “Yes, Sam?”

“Everything going alright?” he asked. “Did you get the tent finished, get all your other things done, said your goodbyes to Macy?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Amity assured. “I just need to put the tent up and then everything will be done.”

Ignoring the fact that her second yes was only mostly true, Sam asked again. “Are you sure it’s all okay?”

“I’m fine, Sam! I even got some plans with Bailey now thanks to you.” She gave the deputy a light smile. “But if you would please, I need to finish this one last thing and then I’ll be all good for the day!”

He gave Amity a cold stare that almost made her retract – then finally gave in with a slight shake of his head. “If you say so.” With that, he let the girl go.

After having held her tongue through most of that conflict, Esther spoke up again. “Could I go check up on Mira right now?” she asked. “You’re not going to need me until you do that excavation, anyway.”

Barely given a chance to reply, Sam was interrupted when Amity whipped around and cut in to their conversation. “What, is it time for you to kiss your girlfriend, already?!” she shouted.

Right as the left-field comment sprung from her lips, Amity noticed that some of the girls from a moment ago were now standing at the tent’s flap. As she witnessed their shocked, disturbed, and appalled reaction to what they had just heard, Amity swallowed hard. With a nervous twitch, she turned back around and fled to Macy’s tent to fetch the rest of her things.


Aw yeah, I got it done at the end of the month!

Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.5 – Fresh Blood

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

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

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

And then there was the passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mira replied to Macy’s concern with a snort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther nodded and wiped her nose with the cloth.

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

Neither of them had any doubts on that last fact.

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?” Mira asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of the other two in the tent responded.

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

Mira blinked. “Your uncle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther blinked. “Amity was?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The short girl nodded.

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

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

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

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


I’m not dead!! (yet)

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

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

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

Infiltration Part1.4 – Mother of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixty years ago.

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

5/21/29

Talbot,

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

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

Sr Proj Dev

Tomas Gagnon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Esther.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” asked Esther with a blink.

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

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

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

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

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

Esther nodded, then coughed into her sleeve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther waved back.


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