Infiltration Part3.5 – A Storage Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He still tells Bertha everything.”

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

“I can ask her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam rolled his eyes. “Very funny.”

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

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

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

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

Faust shook his head.

“Then, like I said: relax.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just following orders,” Sam chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it doing that?” Bailey repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t asked.”

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

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

Bailey was silent.

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

“I’ll just stick around here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did that come from?” Macy wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mentioned women cocked her head.

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

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

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

“Ouch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scruff!” Toni shouted.

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

All the other girls shouted in unison: “Scruff!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Cynthia asked, breathless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Tom?” “Brandon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SYSTEM DATA CORRUPTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Discord is open, as always.

Infiltration Part3.4 – Week’s End

“Miss, that’s not how Amity did it.”

“I don’t know how to do it the way she did,” Mira replied, keeping as level-headed a voice as she could.

“She didn’t tell you?” the injured child shot back, struggling to keep her hands away from the cut on her leg. “You should’ve learned from her.”

It was no use arguing. How Esther had managed to do all this work in the last few days was beyond Mira’s comprehension. It made her wonder if Esther had secretly become a pathological liar in the time they had spent away from each other – so skilled in the art that she could synthesize pathos at a whim.

If Esther were just as bad at lying as Mira was and if Esther had suffered the same backlash from these children that Mira was receiving now, then Mira would have at least expected her partner to have mentioned something about it. Instead Esther behaved as if everything between her and these kids was going as well as expected, if not better.

This child – whose name, Mira had learned, was Gail – had managed to trip and fall on a sharp rock, causing the gash in her leg. Because Cynthia still had a fair amount to learn before she could properly do stitches and because Toni’s cold was not seeing any signs of improvement, Macy had tasked Mira with curing the wound, completely disregarding the fact that Mira had never been taught how to treat wounds, let alone treat a children’s injury by herself. Mira’s qualifications for the job were based on the assumption that all adults should have been able to complete any medical task with ease. In reality, Mira had anything but an easy time working with Gail – but after winning a war of attrition to settle the girl down, the newly-healed assistant managed to put the last bandage over the wound.

Mira gave the faintest smile once the bandage was set in place. “Does that feel better?” she said.

“It feels terrible,” Gail grunted.

“Well,” Mira continued, ignoring the girl’s negativity. “Now that I’ve fixed you up, what do you say?”

Gail sniffed, but did not say anything, her lips pursed, as if trying to keep any potential words from escaping.

By the time Gail left, Mira was by herself again – alone in the very tent she had spent so many days inside while Esther went off to carry their mission on her back. By now Toni and Cynthia were busy helping Macy keep track of all the other kids, as many of the other chores they would have otherwise taken care of today were either already completed or were now in Mira’s hands. The only thing Mira knew she still needed to take care of now was cleaning and organizing some of the medical supplies in her tent – which she was already in.

There were a few rags and needles that needed to be cleansed, as well as bandages and other disposable items that could be thrown into a fire. Mira found herself most intrigued by the alcoholic cleansers these luocans had managed to concoct. Using natural ingredients, they had managed to create their own medicine and sterilizers – and while these mixes weren’t as strong as what could be made in a factory, it was still impressive.

Mira had managed to remove several stains from the clothing before proceeding to cleanse the needles – at which point she noticed someone tugging on the tent from outside. After calling the visitor to come in, in came Esther – along with Faust and Sam.

Almost immediately Sam spoke for the lot of them. “There was an incident involving nuclear hazards,” he explained. “And I thought it would be best for the people involved to take some time off. Just in case they start feeling a little off, if you know what I mean.”

Though intrigued by the mention of nuclear hazards, Mira kept her thoughts to herself, responding initially to Sam’s announcement with a single blink. “Interesting.”

Sam paused. “Right. Well, I’m leaving Esther here for you – and if she’s not looking so good in about an hour, tell someone. Could be the sign of something much worse.”

The boy at Sam’s side had a very noticeable shade of anxiety coloring him from head to toe, leaving him much more readable than the otherwise expressionless Esther. Effectively sparing the gynoids the angst that was inevitably to come once the boy was dropped off at his destination, Sam nudged Esther inside. Again the luocans left the gynoids to their own devices.

“I didn’t think we’d be together alone in this setting again,” Mira bemoaned.

“Fortunately, nobody got hurt this time,” Esther said. “Well, that is debatable with Faust – but, truth be told, I heard he might have ended up hurting himself worse without me.”

“What was this nuclear essence you found?”

Esther took a seat on Mira’s bed. “It was part of a corpse we found under the fallen bell. Some of the luocans think the body might be someone who was killed in a nuclear explosion, but that isn’t what this body was; it was an AI’s body, without a doubt. And what’s more: it didn’t look like the same kind of body that I saw in the passages. The android I found there looked nothing like this one – but this one also didn’t have a head or limbs.

“The worst part of this is that I can’t tell if it was an etternel or not. All this ordeal has done is make me wonder what else the Mother did not tell us.” Struggling to piece everything together, she ran her fingers through her dirtied hair. “Why do I keep getting the feeling that She deliberately kept information away from us.”

“You know that is impossible,” Mira asserted. “Such basic details are things that the Mother knows already – and by extension, we should, too.”

“Then did I just not get briefed on it?” Esther asked. “Or are you just as unfamiliar with potential androids here as I am.”

Mira paused. “I don’t know any more than you do, I’m afraid.”

“You don’t think we’re faulty, do you? You don’t think our memory has been tampered with in some way?”

“Why would you think that?” Mira challenged. “I haven’t encountered any reason to believe our memories of our first day here are any worse than our memories of the day before.”

“Not that recent,” Esther insisted. When she thought about what they had done before reaching this place, she remembered waiting for Mira by the train station. She remembered waking up from her latest update from Rélhum. She remembered the mission they were tasked to do and when they were tasked to do it. The memories she needed to retain otherwise were held captive by the Mother, available for any etternel to see – but now without a direct connection to the Mother, her memories beyond the relative short-term were out of reach.

The earliest memory she had retained was only one: meeting Mira and becoming partnered with her. There was a time in Rhobane where they reminisced over their days as officers upholding the order in the city – and while she recalled her time remembering what had happened, the things she remembered were now lost to her, held by the Mother.

It seemed as though Mira was correct in that the the memories of their first day here were no more fragmented than the memories of yesterday, but everything about their time in Rhobane had started to become a complete and thorough void of nothingness, with nothing happening between the day they met and the day the left the Domain’s borders.

The data she had been given from the robot in the passageways – incomplete as it was – still remained just as intact for her now as it had then, but one thing about her encounter with the android struck out more than almost anything else: the loss of her identity. She was Esther, but the identifying number she had attached to herself and the number she had attached to Mira were now lost to her for reasons that only their distant Mother knew.

But thinking about the incomplete data that the android had given, Esther realized: “Maybe that body will have some of the information we’re looking for.”

Mira shot her partner a glance. “I don’t think it will be worth it,” she stated. “Even if that were true, there is no way the luocans would let us take the body for ourselves – and no way that we’d be able to get to it without them finding out.”

“So what, then?” Esther challenged. “Are we simply not going to do anything with this body?”

“Let’s just wait it out and make a plan when we’re ready,” Mira suggested. “See what the luocans do – then, if either of us get a chance, gather any data we can. Maybe we could also benefit from doing the same thing with the bug machines you discovered.”

Thinking of those machines again and the awful static noise they seemed to emit when she entered their hive, Esther wanted to shiver. If the recently-discovered body made her hear the same thing, she would have rather not touched it at all.

“Hey!” Cynthia hissed. “Hey! Don’t fall asleep on me!”

With wavering eyes, Toni tilted her head toward the younger assistant. “I’m not falling asleep,” she said, mumbling. “What do you need help with?”

“I don’t need help with anything,” Cynthia said. “But you were totally about to fall asleep.”

Toni sniffed harshly, barely able to breathe. “I’m not…” She sniffed again, resisting the urge to wipe her nose with her hand when she sat up a little straighter. “What’s going on, anyway?”

“Miss Macy is just showing the little ones how to weave baskets,” Cynthia explained, speaking out the corner of her mouth, not wanting their teacher to hear her. “Call it a hunch, but I’m pretty sure she’ll want us both to start helping out, too.”

As much as Toni wanted to groan at the idea of using more than two percent of her brain for the rest of the day, she chose instead to relish in the fact that she had some time to sit around, look alive, and shut her brain off with eyes wide open, stationary and calm like a resting fish. That was, at the very least, her plan – but now that Cynthia was catching on, Toni started to realize that maybe she wasn’t as good at staying awake as she first thought.

She relished in the quiet moments, but ultimately could not ignore the fact that she could barely breathe. Worse still: she had left her kerchief at her bed when she didn’t need to. She had pockets; her decision to not bring the cloth gave her absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

Considering today was not a laundry day, it should’ve still been under her bed. “Cynthia,” she murmured, nudging the girl in question. “I’ll be back.”

“Huh? Wait, you – hey!” But by the time she could protest, Toni had already stood up, covering the lower half of her face behind a hand. Still excruciatingly dizzy yet noticeably more energetic now than she was a moment before, Toni left the scene – unannounced to everyone except the other assistants, just as Amity used to sometimes do.

Once she made it to the tent, she was pleased to find that Mira had not mistakenly touched the laundry today. Almost wobbling to her bed, she found the cloth underneath.

Unsure if she just needed a moment to catch her breath or if she were being overcome by sleepiness, Toni took a moment to sit on her bed – at which point the pressure in her sinuses lessened considerably. She stole a glance at Amity’s bed, not amused by how unworn it was now.

She wouldn’t be sick now if it weren’t for that so-called adult ignoring her pleas. If the robot had decided to capture Amity instead, sending her hurtling toward the ground at an ungodly speed, surviving a crash that would have been lethal if the machine’s interior had not taken in the impact, maybe Toni would have had some reason to feel sorry for Amity – a genuine reason beyond simple anxiety that anyone with responsibilities had to deal with. Imagining Amity trying to kiss her boyfriend, grossing him out, and getting him sick in the process made a sneer pass the unknowing Toni’s face.

Amity acted as if Toni didn’t matter. Perhaps Toni was too wish-washy for someone of Amity’s temperament, hence the head-butting that tended to transpire between the two of them.

Toni sighed, hoping that was the reason – but at the same time her wavering inspiration broke out of her, she remembered she had practically left Cynthia out by herself. Knowing that the last thing she wanted to do was abandon the girl, Toni quickly blew her nose and left the tent.

Nearly tripping as she headed out of the tent, Toni found herself in the same state of dizzying fatigue that she was in when she entered the tent in the first place. Practically aimless, it took longer than normal for her to return to the other girls – at which point her head had practically started pounding in a rhythm Toni could not make out.

By now she had expected Cynthia to march up to her, screaming about how her stomach had knotted itself several times as she waited for Toni to return. She expected a younger, brattier Amity to spring out of Cynthia, but instead Cynthia appeared with a peep, barely a tap on the shoulder.

“Hi Toni,” she mumbled. “Nobody’s called for help. Not yet.”

The world around her became fuzzier with every passing beat. “Oh,” she replied. “Is Miss Macy helping—?” Her words started to drift off.

“Miss Macy—” Cynthia hesitated. “She went back to her tent. You just missed her.”

Just then, their conversation was interrupted when one of the girls in the crowd raised her hand.

“I’ve got it,” Cynthia chirped – and just as quickly, Toni was by herself again. It took a moment for her to realize Cynthia was practically gone, yet she was more confused by the change in attitude.

An hour passed for Esther. Almost exactly an hour. Practically on the second, she started heading back to the field.

As Esther went off to work with who-knew-whom, Mira went on to check anything else that might have needed service outside. She noticed that by now, most of the girls were on their way back to their large tent – perhaps ready to do their last activity before dinner today. Mira had no idea what this activity could have been, but anything was possible when she considered the things some people would do to kill time.

The gynoid’s leg felt more like a bag of leather – poorly cobbled together with metal bits rattling inside – than a hunk of flesh and bones. Standing up from a sitting position still took a tangible amount of effort, given the way the still-damaged parts of her tended to grind uncomfortably when shifted from one position to a completely different one. The grind wasn’t serious enough to occupy Mira’s thoughts entirely, but it was definitely noticeable to her.

When she stepped outside, Mira was greeted to a slightly-receding sun, its overcasting gaze dashing the land with the faintest tint of orange. The sun seemed to be moving in the direction of where Macy, Cynthia, and Toni were set at – and just as Mira realized this, Toni started to leave the scene, a cloth in her hand, her footsteps slow and deliberate and somewhat disturbing in their predictability.

Herself already set close to the girls’ tent, Mira had an ear turned to what the little ones were talking about. Regardless of the fact that so much of the chatter overlapped to the point of making little sense at all, Mira could barely tell what most of them were talking about at all. What she could make out was petty gossip and secret-sharing, but most of the context was lost on her when she still knew very few of them.

Yet today it felt as if most of the girls had already come to know who she was. The realization that somebody knew her better than she knew them came with an uncomfortable air of unfamiliarity. Not being able to tap into a database and pull up every minute detail about a person – from their race, religion, eye color, etc. – left her that much weaker, crippled mentally when her current physical limitations were debilitating enough.

There was a point where Mira swore she had heard one of the girls say her name, making her flinch for a second as if somebody were calling to her. Taking a step closer to the tent, she attempted to piece more of the conversation together – but with all the other noise clouding everything, she would have had an easier time trying to piece together Esther’s garbled data. Aside from her name, the rest she was able to make were a few words that children in this particular age group should not have uttered

Nearby footsteps pulled Mira away from the tent. Slightly concerned that somebody had been watching her, she looked around the corner of the tent to see Toni, hazy-eyed, barely standing straight, just about to enter the tent’s entrance – when she fell over into the grass.

Mira initially responded with mostly-muted surprise, then took a few steps toward the girl as she struggled to get herself back on her feet.

“Toni – are you okay?” she began, bending over as the girl coughed into the ground.

Initially Toni could only mumble. In a few seconds’ time, she moaned, trying again to pick herself up, then giving up again. She wiped her face with her sleeve despite having a perfectly capable cloth in her hand.

“Hey,” Mira said, her feet now at Toni’s head. “What are you trying to do?”

Toni mumbled something that sounded like “sorry” before sniffling and trying to get up for the second time. With enough struggle, she managed to at least get herself into a sitting position.

“Oh – Miss Mira?” she said, her voice stuffy. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to get in your way.”

Mira blinked. “You didn’t get in my way. I’m just concerned, that’s all,” she clarified. “Do you need help?”

Toni didn’t initially reply. “Sorry,” she said again.

The girl was off in her own world. Realizing this, Mira reached down and grabbed Toni’s free hand before lifting her back on her feet again – where she proceeded to continue stumbling. Had Mira let go just after picking her up, Toni surely would have fallen back down again.

“You’re the one who caught a cold, aren’t you?” Mira noted.

“I think it’s more than a cold now,” Toni grumbled.

Mira continued gripping Toni by the paw as she led her into the very tent in which she’d spent much of the day. “Sit here,” she directed, walking Toni to the bed before moving over to the medical equipment. “You might have caught influenza when you were drifting out there with Esther.”

“This is stupid,” Toni argued, muttering under her breath. “Esther didn’t get sick. I saw her walk out earlier like the water didn’t even bother her.”

Mira bit her tongue for a moment. “She was already sick last week,” she declared. “Her getting sick again wouldn’t make sense, since she already built up immunity for the season.” At least Mira thought that was how it worked. Hoping not to come across as too cold or distant, Mira added further: “I’m sorry you aren’t doing well, but you’ll be fine. Everyone gets sick, you know.”

She wasn’t sure, but Mira thought she could see Toni rolling her eyes for a moment right as she turned around to dig through a medicine cabinet. “I know that,” she said. “And I get it,” she continued, pressing her nose into the cloth. “Esther was luckier than me.”

“It has nothing to do with luck.” At the same time Mira spoke, she started pouring orange, sticky fluid into a cup, then mixed in some water.

“Everything that’s happened has to do with luck,” Toni snorted. “And I’m luck’s bitch this week.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Mira berated, mixing the fluids with a spoon as she made her way to Toni. “I don’t care that you’re one of the assistants; I have been given instructions to keep you and the other girls from using that kind of language.”

Toni screwed up her face as if she were about to say something snide in response, but ended up giving in with a sigh. “Okay.”

“Now drink this,” Mira said. “If you need an extra handkerchief, I can get you one.”

“I’m okay,” Toni replied as she took the cup. “But thank you.” With that, she squeezed her eyes shut and tipped the cup’s contents down her gullet, cringing as she guzzled it down.

Mira gave a light smile as Toni finally complied. “I just remembered something,” she began. “You were the one who gave me those crutches when Esther was trying to help me get around. I should thank you again for that – even if I don’t need them now.”

Beyond her intent, Toni smiled back. “You’re welcome,” she said, almost shrinking as she spoke.

“Are you feeling better now?” Mira prodded.

The girl shrugged. “I guess.”

“You’d better get back to the other girls.” With that, Mira motioned Toni out of the bed, at which point the girl handed the cup back to Mira and, still dazed, made her way up. She blinked a few times as if fighting sleep while standing, but continued moving ahead as Mira held the tent flap open for her.

And just a few steps beyond the exit to Mira’ tent, Toni fell again, once again catching Mira by surprise. A girl nearby, having seen the event unfold, yelped where she stood. Tilting her head up, she noticed Mira close by. “Miss Macy? Cynthia?” she called. “Help!”


As of the beginning of this month, the Discord is now an open community for anyone to join.

Let’s try something a little different for an outtro…
Get ready for things to heat up as Amity begins her new job in the passageways and as Toni gets used to her new role as the oldest of Macy’s assistants — as both Toni and Mira realize what happens when you tamper with what doesn’t belong to you.

Infiltration Part3.3 – Back on Track

She was starting to lose track of how many days it had been. Macy had told her that she could hold onto the MDA for a week, but it felt like more than a week had passed. If anything, the chaotic events of the last week made Amity feel as if she had aged an entire year, as if her literal coming-of-age birthday was not enough to convince her that she was getting too old for things to stay the same.

At least for the moment, Bailey was with her in their little tent – albeit only for the moment. Likely thinking she wouldn’t want to be interrupted, he didn’t say anything to her when he walked in – only to be surprised when Amity called out to him from where she sat, a pen in one hand, MDA in the other, notebook in her lap.

“Are you too busy for a hug?” she inquired with a lilt, a pen in her sweating hand and a smirk on her face.

Bailey paused, somewhat flustered by his girlfriend’s comment, almost completely forgetting why he had come here. All he could recall was that whatever he had come for likely had something to do with his shotgun, hence the reason why he had just opened the gun’s chamber.

“Did you shoot something too many times?” Amity offered, still speaking in a somewhat teasing tone.

He paused again. “No – no, I didn’t,” he mumbled, then nodded when he remembered. “No, actually, Theo said this thing needs to be cleaned better.”

“Really,” Amity mused.

“Yeah,” he replied. “And some of the other guys need some rounds, too.”

Amity’s demeanor diminished slightly. “So are they actually shooting things out there?” she muttered, raising an eyebrow.

“No, no we’re not – I swear,” he assured, a nervous smile on his face. He proceeded to pull some shells out of a crate and set them in the pockets of his jacket. “Some of the other guys just forgot to load up.”

Amity rolled her eyes. “Okay, then.” She winced, looking down at her wrist again as something in it seemed to contort in a most uncomfortable manner.

Seeing her grimace and grunt as she thumbed the top of her wrist, Bailey pocketed the rest of the shells and put the shotgun down on the floor. “Are you taking breaks, Ames?”

She wrinkled her nose at that nickname, but paid it little heed. “Yeah,” she replied, shrugging the question off. “Yeah, I have.”

“When?”

She hesitated. “What day of the week is it?”

Now was Bailey’s turn to roll his eyes. He bumped his lower palm against her head – just hard enough to make her flinch, but soft enough that she almost didn’t feel it. By the time he removed his hand from her forehead, he revealed traces of black residue on her skin. Almost immediately she could tell there was something wrong with her head now.

“Did you,” she began, chuckling. “Did you just smear oil on my head?”

“Sorry bout that,” he said. “Just some shotgun residue. Don’t wipe it on your sleeve!”

Fortunately for Amity, he had said that last part right when she was about to do just that. “Okay, then,” she said, wiping it with her bare hand, wincing when she pulled her hand away. It was better than staining her white sleeves, but now her palm felt as if she had stuck it in a vat of honey – and she couldn’t tell if that was going to make writing more or less painful for her hand to endure. Still, she couldn’t help responding to her boyfriend’s warning with a simple “Thanks.”

For what felt like the fortieth time that day, a short, high-pitched cacophony chimed from outside. Amity covered her ringing ears – a second too late – and grunted. “Someone’s been making that goddamn sound all day!” she said, groaning.

“Sounds like they’re swinging their pickaxe at something,” Bailey thought.

“I think I’m gonna swing a pickaxe at their head if they make that noise again,” Amity mumbled. “Seriously; I’m lucky I haven’t screwed up and torn a paper after hearing that sound so many times by now. This entire place is so noisy and I’m already having enough trouble concentrating on getting these notes copied as it is!”

Bailey almost seemed to sigh in silence as if contemplating his next words, then shook his head before speaking again, looking down at his girlfriend as he stood up tall while she buried herself in her paperwork. “You’ll have to get used to it.” He knew he would come to regret those words.

Amity clenched her jaw, but said little else on this matter. Compared to this pickaxe noise, all the conversations her uncle had had with scouts and the like in his tent next to theirs were less of an intrusion in her attempts at reaching zen when she was writing. This was despite the fact that those meetings tended to involve shouting, especially when younger scouts were involved. Still less ear-grating than swinging a pick at concrete for no apparent reason.

That man was always working, but at least that meant he was always leaving his niece to do her work. From what Bailey had told her about his parents, any time he wasn’t spending with the scouts was spent helping the family out with whatever mundane task they needed from him – as if fetching and supplying rations to everyone wasn’t enough of a task. Perhaps it would have been different if his parents had decided to have more kids than just him, in which case he would have been in a similar position to Amity where he was forced to tolerate children even in the dead of night.

While Amity mused over such things, she heard a jingling coming her way. She looked up to see Bailey’s shadow casting overhead. A hand in his pocket, he reached down to peck her on the cheek, then picked his gun and a cloth off the floor with one hand and left the room.

Just as quick as the kiss and Bailey had left, the ear-splitting shriek of a pickaxe on stone ruptured her tympanum. She was starting to contemplate shoving the pen in her ear just to keep herself from hearing the noise.

Before she could do anything insane, she took a deep breath and set the pen down, then rubbed her hand again. Now was a good time for a break; Bailey could thank her later.

It was only after considering the noise she had been enduring when she realized her uncle was not in any sort of meeting. Brushing the dust off her pants, she picked herself up and proceeded to exit the tent – right when the pickaxe struck the rock again.

“Shut the hell up!” she shouted, to no one in particular, then pursed her lips as if she were afraid of someone realizing she was the one who had said that. Screwing up her face, she proceeded to walk toward her uncle’s tent.

She was fortunate enough that by the time she walked in, her uncle did not mention anything about her outburst – though she wasn’t sure if he was just staying silent to spare her the agony or because he genuinely had not heard her. Judging by the fact that he had not tapped into his MDA with any sort of headphones, he most likely heard her.

When she walked in, he gave her a little wave despite directing most of his attention on the papers on his desk. Seeing the state he had put himself in, she did not directly respond right away. She instead drew closer to him in silence, going down a straight path as if walking along a long red carpet to meet him, unable to speak to him until she reached the end of it. Along the way, she saw that same bug-like machine just standing there, still as ever – though last time she saw it, she hadn’t asked if anyone had drained all the potential fuel from the torches.

Out of all the things she could have started the conversation with, Amity started with: “So, has it been a slow day for you, too?”

Keeping his eyes on his desk, Shafer shrugged. “No, not really. Scouts keep making noise all the time, and so are you.”

Amity clenched her fists; he had heard. Hoping to direct her attention from that embarrassing moment, she glanced upon the desk and noticed what looked like a bunch of maps and written directions for something she had no idea about. Among all the papers was her uncle’s MDA, which seemed to be installing something as several lines of text scrolled across at a rate too fast to read.

“Is that something from the scouts?” she inquired. “From Bailey, maybe?”

“I didn’t get anything from him,” he replied. “But no, these are from the sujourne – at least most of it is. They should be coming back pretty soon, too.”

“I see,” Amity said. “It sounds like a lot of writing they’ve been doing.”

“And they’ve been doing almost all of it by hand,” he said with a light chuckle. “Poor saps must’ve gone through hell if they ever got one of these things wet – which they have, judging by how shitty some of ‘em look.”

Directing her attention to where her uncle was pointing among the scattered papers, she noticed a few of them looked as if somebody had been using them as tissues. They looked a lot like what her hyperactive imagination thought her own manuscripts looked like when she pressed her sweaty wrist to paper for too long; simply thinking about that made her cringe.

“Doing it by hand,” she repeated, running a thumb up and down her still-aching wrist. “How I wish I didn’t know how that felt right now.”

For once, it seemed, Shafer perked up a slight bit. “Oh, right – you’re still doing that, aren’t you?” he asked. “Hasn’t it been a week by now?”

“It’ll be a week by tomorrow,” she corrected.

“I still can’t believe Macy let you play with that thing for so long and didn’t tell us,” he said with a scoff. “Of all people, you’d think she’d tell me or Persson, but instead she went right over our heads and made it your little toy for a few years.”

Her uncle’s wording made Amity raise an eyebrow. “Toy?”

“I said what I said,” Shafer continued. “And if you saw what MDAs were being used for before people started hacking them, you’d know what I mean.”

As much as Amity didn’t want to roll her eyes in front of her superior, this time she couldn’t help herself. “God, you know – Cynthia said something like that, too,” she replied with a snort. “Thought I was turning into some kind of gamer – as if I want to play the stupid Snake game on this thing forever.”

“So what was she letting you use it for?” Shafer inquired – though while his words suggested he had a genuine interest in what his niece was doing, the look of pure indifferent on his face implied he already knew.

Suspicious and confused, Amity eyed him with a sidelong glance. “For writing,” she said. “Like I just said I was doing.”

“But what do you mean?” he pushed. “Is it just a bunch of journal entries or some kind of diary like girls used to have?”

“There are bits and pieces of that, yeah,” she admitted. “But a lot of it was just writing whatever came into my head. Fictional stuff – like the stories my parents told me at night before bed.” Though, she wanted to add, her stories tended to be of a much more unique identity than the tales of old.

Her uncle was silent for a long while, almost as if he was struggling to process what she had just told him. Just as the silence was about to subside, he looked up at her with a very puzzled face – and for a moment, perhaps as a method of coping, she wanted to believe he was just very confused by the program he was trying to install, and not about to step all over her.

“So you’re making fairy tales?” he started. “What kind of good is that going to do you? Even if you have kids, they’re going to grow up and get too old for fairy tales, and then all the things you’ve written will have outlived their use.”

Whether or not her uncle had intended to raise his voice, his intentions did not change the level of wobble affecting her knees. “Not really fairy tales,” she corrected, looking off to the side as she spoke. “I was just wanting to write some stories and maybe novelize them.”

“Novelize them, and who’ll read them?” Shafer challenged. “And would you expect some kind of compensation for your work, despite nobody wanting any kind of book – let alone a fictional one?”

“Hey – Macy had some good books!” Amity argued. “The kinds she’s gathered up over time: she reads those aloud to the girls.”

“Which brings me back to my point: why write for sellers who have no way of compensating you and will stop being your audience once they grow up?”

Amity wasn’t sure how to respond to this question – especially when, she knew, her original goal with her writing was a means of escapism for her and nobody but her. Up until last week, the thought of sharing her work with someone else had never crossed her mind. Thanks to Toni and Cynthia, Amity had only now started opening up to others about her literature.

Contemplating her next words, she directed her gaze to the ground between herself and her uncle – during which time she started to realize that a mere two weeks ago, all she thought she ever wanted was someone to swoop her off her feet, be her man and share the rest of his life with her. Now she had all of that, but still she couldn’t help feel as thought things were still not going according to plan – like someone had put a hold on things before they could truly begin.

Even after this last week they had shared together, Bailey still had some growing to do before he would be considered an adult. Then and only then could things finally start going according to plan. In the meantime: writing – or at least copying old things she had written – occupied her time. At the same time she both loved and hated writing, but all this time she had spent with her notebook was clearly putting her over the edge.

She wouldn’t argue. “You’re right,” she said.

“What are you looking at the ground for?”

Before her uncle had mentioned it, Amity had almost forgotten she wasn’t even looking him in the eye anymore. The woman-in-training brought an unflinching gaze up to his and repeated herself. “You’re right. If I’m going to write, it should at least be something worthwhile. And just so you know: I’m only copying my stuff over now for the sake of longevity.”

“I really wouldn’t bother with it,” Shafer argued.

Beyond her intent, Amity raised her voice. “But I’m almost done! I just have a few more stories to copy over – just a few more and the MDA goes back to Macy.”

“That’s pitiful, really.” Gesturing toward the MDA on his own desk, he continued. “You’re now at an age where you actually might be able to make good use of these little things. Hell, with any luck, we might be able to find some old computers down in the passageways that we can repurpose to do the same stuff these devices do.”

Amity raised an eyebrow. “I guess that’s true,” she acknowledged. “But I don’t know anything about the kind of stuff you and the scouts out here are doing on those MDAs. I don’t think I’d be able to figure out an old computer, either.”

“Oh, please,” Shafer said with a grin. “You obviously know how to write on an MDA, and the scouts have found a bunch of documents in the passages. We’ve been thinking of hiring one of the scouts to make records of all the documents, but considering all you’ve been doing over the last week, I think I might have found the perfect person to take care of this job.”

“Me?” Amity asked. Though Shafer seemed to be expecting a smile, she couldn’t bring herself to do such a thing.

“You’d be the perfect candidate,” he said. “So what do you say about starting work tonight?”

She blinked a few times. “Can I at least get my stuff copied tonight?”

Her uncle’s response was an almost immediate and exaggerated sigh. “If you can’t start tonight, then you’re not going to be able to start at any point. And that is non-negotiable.”

It took everything within her to keep from scoffing at her uncle’s insistence – at the illusion of free choice.

Yet based on what he was implying a moment before, taking this job meant Amity would get to keep the MDA – at least for awhile longer. Though she wasn’t entirely sure if she would be keeping her exact MDA with no modifications made to it, she dared not ask; the last thing she wanted him to know at this point was that she was going to be holding onto these documents.

And if she did accept this offer: her wrist could finally catch a break. On its own, the opportunity to avoid arthritis was almost good enough of a reason to accept the position.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it. But when exactly do I start?”

“I’ll have someone get you later when it’s time,” he said – and just as soon as he did, a loud crash sounded in the distance, making them both jump. “What in the hell was that?”

While a little relieved that the tension that had permeated the air a moment ago had subsided, Amity couldn’t help feel both frightened and annoyed by the crashing sound. “Maybe it was from the same person who kept making that godawful noise from earlier.”

Shafer paid her little mind, stepping away from his desk, past his niece through the front flap; Amity followed suit. It was then when they noticed a puff of dust that had spread from the source of the noise.

Just before Shafer could ask, one of the nearby scouts came rushing over. “Shafer, sir!” he said. “We just found a body over by where the tower crashed.”

“What?!” he replied. “One of our men died?”

“No, sir – it’s a corpse.”


Starting today, the official Discord server for the Domain is going to be getting some major changes — including the transition to a community! Come join the official server to meet the rest of the the Autorise Domain community and its creator.

Infiltration Part2.5 – Jump On It

It was like being a kid again! After playing the adult for what felt like forever, Amity was going back and straight into the Director’s tent. She may as well have been told to stand in the corner.

Sam was here. The Director was here. Worst of all: her uncle was here. She and Bailey were left to sit, squaring off against the three of them – in this tiny mess the Director called an office – while the Director sat in his own special chair and the men behind him were left standing at his side.

“If I am to be understanding this predicament correctly,” the Director began, his fingers interlacing as he rested back in his chair, “then the two of you led Toni into the tunnels with you to be captured, presumably to engage in coitus in front of her.”

Both Amity and Bailey flinched in their seats. “Sir!” Sam interjected. “Even I know that’s not what happened!”

From behind Sam, Shafer looked down at the Director’s head with a mildly amused smirk.

For some reason Amity felt as if the Director was entirely correct in his assessment. There wasn’t much of a reason for them to not think that – and even though Toni could have offered some further insight, Amity didn’t feel she deserved it.

“Is that true, Bailey?” asked Shafer, eyeing the scout with an unblinking stare.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I swear it is.”

Knowing what the boy risked by lying to him, the scout leader pressed further. “So if you weren’t doing that, then what you were you doing with my niece?”

Amity could already feel some heat rising between both of them.

“We were –” He hesitated. “– making out.”

“You kissed her,” Shafer commented, leaning on the Director’s desk. “And you did it while on guard duty, too.”

“She kissed me!” Bailey blurted.

In milliseconds her face went from red-hot to ice-cold as she flicked her gaze to her boyfriend, gawking in disbelief. Her body stiff as a board, she stopped breathing, made nary a sound, wondering when embarrassed tears would start flowing out. Everything went silent as the only sound she could make out was the blood pumping in her ears.

Sam and the Director exchanged a quick glance as Shafer bit the inside of his cheek and nodded. “We’ll discuss this later, you and me.” And with that, Shafer tightened his lip, letting the other two take over.

Her uncle’s words to snapped Amity out of her frozen panic, the hysterical background noise in her mind subsiding as she returned back to the equally-hysterical reality that she had written for herself.

Slightly unsure how to follow from what the scout leader had just laid out, the Director ran a hand through his long beard and remained silent for a moment. All the while Sam followed along, keeping his breath still as he awaited the Director’s next words.

“So,” he began. “We have a scout leaving to bring someone into the passageway where nobody else was allowed, managing to bring a third wheel along, going into parts unknown with the third wheel dragging behind, and losing the third wheel when one of the machines we thought we had taken care of springs to life and takes it off.”

That was more or less true. Both kids nodded.

“I would think both of you know better!” the Director chided. “You, scout, for bringing people into parts unknown – and you, miss, for being the adult in the room who did nothing to stop it!”

“Sir,” Sam spoke again. “Amity only just became an adult.”

“Right you are,” Persson commented. “Which is why I believe it only appropriate for her to receive punishment like a child would.” Before Amity could ask what on Earth that even entailed, the Director turned to her uncle. “Shafer – as her parental figure along with Macy and as his mentor, I trust you will come up will come up with a suitable punishment for young Miss Amity and Bailey?”

Sam cast an uneasy look at Shafer and Shafer gave a light nod. “I’ll discuss with both of them,” he said.

Resisting the urge to groan, Amity swallowed hard and took a deep breath. She and her uncle never had a particularly close relationship – even after her parents had passed her on to him – and she had hardly any idea what to expect for a punishment when most of the punishments bestowed upon her over the last several years had been from Macy.

In her nebulous state of mind, the girl failed to realize that Sam and the Director had started muttering some words to each other in front of her and Bailey. It was only when Sam mentioned something about the camp’s “position in assisting” her that Amity directed her gaze to them – at which point the Director visibly rolled his eyes beneath the deputy’s willful gaze.

Seeing the Director behave so casually to what was otherwise a serious situation left Amity with more questions leaving the tent than she did going in.

By the time she, Bailey, Sam, and her uncle had finished their meeting with the Director, Rouken was up next. Amity felt herself a proper child standing next to him, so dwarfed by his immense stature that she almost wanted to hide behind Bailey.

“Hey,” said her boyfriend, squeezing her hand. “You haven’t said a word in a long time. You okay?”

The past five or ten minutes had felt like she was merely a ghost that had been forced to carry out autonomous work while her brain droned off to think of everything and nothing both at once. Now back in her shell, the cold attitude most had suspected from her returned, displayed thoroughly upon her countenance.

“Yeah – totally fine,” she huffed. “I’m just beaming with the info that I’ve already been scolded and called a baby by the goddamn Director. Except he really can’t scold us, because he doesn’t give a shit about what we do – just that you and I don’t go around causing him to have to call us into his tent like that.”

As they both walked behind her uncle, Bailey winced and looked over at Shafer, noticing that he didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the conversation at his backside.

“Well,” he began, his voice fully accusatory and ready to rip deep into his girlfriend. “He only says that kind of thing as a formality. You do know that, right? Why do you think he doesn’t give a shit?”

Amity did not know that. Nor was she sure that was even feasible.

“That’s not true and watch your language,” Shafer demanded from up-front, his tone catching the teens off-guard. “Don’t make me change my mind about the punishment I have planned, scout.”

Change your mind?” Amity mouthed. Those three words made her raise an eyebrow, made her contemplate letting her uncle change his mind if it meant being able to see if there was any grain of truth in Bailey’s claims. If everything the Director did was only for the sake of formality, she did not want to know what would happen to him if he was taken out of the formal role. Even now as she looked back, spotting Sam among the few who stood outside the Director’s tent, knowing Rouken was in there with the man who had stood at the helm for the last three years, she hoped that what Bailey had said was false and that her uncle was right.

From just outside the Director’s tent, Sam let out a sigh as he turned to glance at the three newcomers. The woman among them had fallen asleep and the young boy was scribbling away at a large document, leaving just Faust – who, among all of them, certainly looked the least bored.

“How’re you liking this place so far?” Sam asked.

It took Faust a moment to realize someone was talking to him. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as Sam took a seat at his right side, completely casual, though far from charismatic enough for Faust to simply shrug off the slight invasion of his personal space. It took another moment for him to respond with a shrug. “That depends on what ‘this place’ means. The camp? It’s fine. Kortrik? Hell no.”

At that, Sam cocked his head. “I take it you’ve been through it?” he asked.

“No,” the young man stated. “Well, yes. You wouldn’t get it. I’ve definitely been through hell, though – if that’s what you mean.”

Whatever brief silence had befallen the two of them was cut short when a bout of laughter erupted from the Director’s tent. Sam sneered, almost wishing he could shut them up. “Do you have any idea what they might be going on about in there?” he wondered, hoping to change the subject.

“I kinda thought you’d know,” Faust replied. “I thought you being the deputy, the Director would have said something to you about it.”

“No, he didn’t say anything to me.” As the words spilled out, he sensed growing suspicion on Faust’s part.

“Really?” he wondered. “Rouken doesn’t tell us shit half the time, but that’s ‘cause he has a lot of things that he keeps secret between himself and camp directors like your boss – and also cause Tarren and me are just a couple of kids who wouldn’t be able to understand what’s so important about what he’s got to say, anyway. Bertha probably doesn’t even understand his topics of discussion, either.” As he spoke of her, Faust swore he could see the sleeping woman stir.

“You and him are kids?” Sam asked. “You look older than those kids who just walked out.”

“I’m sixteen,” Faust said. “I know you guys are dumb enough to think fourteen is old enough to be an adult, but around Rouken, Bertha, and Tarren, I’m still considered a kid. Probably will be for awhile, as long as I’m living under Rouken’s shadow.”

Pondering Faust’s words, Sam hesitated to open his mouth again. “It sounds like you don’t entirely respect him.”

Sam cringed at the deputy. “Are you serious? Of course I respect him – and Tarren and Bertha. When it’s just the four of us out there, we can’t afford to let little disagreements get in the way.” That said, he kept his scowling gaze on Sam a moment longer before changing his tone. “What is it, mister deputy? Is there something you want to tell me about the Director?”

Not terribly far away, Tarren had taken a listen in on what Faust and the camp deputy were talking about and he couldn’t help but smile a little. His reaction did little to boost Faust’s ego or even propel him further than he had already gone, but the fact that Tarren had noticed was enough to steer the situation further off-course than it had already gone. It wasn’t until Tarren spoke when the conversation really started to move forward. “Yeah – something you wanna tell us?” he called.

“Tarren, shut up,” Faust retorted, his scowl still present, unchanging, his eyes swimming with an intensity that demanded Sam’s attention. By the time he returned his gaze back to Sam, Faust continued. “I’ll tell you this now about Rouken: I wish he would have turned us the hell back when we were told to come to Kortrik.”

“You really hate this place, don’t you?” Sam muttered, eyes still locked on the boy. “Did it do something to you?”

Faust wrinkled his nose. “You could say that, sure.”

“Don’t you think that’s something the Director would want to know? Or maybe I would want to know?”

“Like I said earlier,” Faust said with a scoff. “You wouldn’t get it.”

Once again Sam had the upper hand and he took his chance. “Oh yeah? Try me,” he offered.

“Why? Because you’re the deputy and I have to tell you?”

“No – because you look like you want to get it off your chest.” When that didn’t work, Sam added, “The Director is going to need to know it at some point. Who knows? Your chief might even be telling him about what’s bothering you right now.” He wasn’t sure, but Sam thought he could see a sliver of Faust’s bottom lip recede into his mouth as he proceeded to bite down on it.

“How about I ask you another question,” Faust began after a long silence, shifting himself to sitting upright. “What do you know about cryogenics?”

“Not much,” Sam confessed. “Just that they haven’t really been in popular use since the US was still fully established here.”

Faust nodded. “Right. And do you know if Autorise has reinvented it or not?”

“Reinvented?” The deputy couldn’t keep himself from chuckling. “Autorise invented those systems in the first place, didn’t they? If anyone has them still, it’s gotta be them – so it didn’t need to be reinvented.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” Faust said with a grunt, then followed with a sharp inhale and soft exhale. “Okay,” he continued. “So basically nobody’s managed to reverse-engineer the Domain’s systems – and now that the Domain is a global superpower, it’s not like they’re going to give that tech to just anyone. I’m just holding out hope that they haven’t totally destroyed the blueprints to make that kind of tech.”

Eyeing the teenager suspiciously, Sam tilted his head, uncertain where he was coming from but feeling as if he had a strong enough idea at this point. “So you wanna be frozen?” he prompted.

“Til all this shit’s over,” Faust replied. “Maybe go so far in the future that my brain ages so much that I’ve forgotten about everything that’s happened.”

“What? What happened?”

Faust shot another cold stare, which immediately warmed up slightly. “I might tell you later.”

“Still better than never,” Sam said, fully aware of the fact that he was coping with what little information he had. “Well, what do you think is going to happen now that you’re all here?”

At that, Faust could only shrug. “Could be anything. This is the first city I’ve been to with Rouken and either we end up milking these ruins dry for everything they’re worth and make nothing out of it, or we change the landscape forever, make it a great city, and then maybe someone reverse-engineers cryosis before I’m dead.”

“Is that really his name, by the way?” Sam wondered. “Rouken?”

Faust snorted. “Is your boss’ name ‘Director?’”

From just in front of Sam, two men walked out of the tent; it took the deputy a moment to realize one of them was the Director – who he had not seen beyond his tent since they set up camp.

“Sam, my boy –!” he called over. “We have some arrangements to make!”

The rest of the walk to her uncle’s tent with all the other scouts was just as silently awkward as Amity could have expected – or at least that was the case until a group of scouts walked within their vicinity. Almost every one of them looked over at Amity and Bailey, fully aware what they were doing in the caves. By now everybody had heard and everybody who knew was fully willing to share their knowledge of what was meant to be a private moment between the lovers.

Following single-file behind one of the scout leaders, several scouts walked adjacent to Amity, Bailey, and Shafer. Some of the younger ones made unflattering kissing faces at the two of them before Shafer turned his head around, scaring the boys out of their silent gibing as they continued to follow their leader.

Amity hadn’t been inside her uncle’s tent since they all moved to Kortrik – and even then, she was only there to help him set it up. In a lot of ways, this part of camp served as a parallel to the one Amity had come from – where instead of catering to girls, this spot in camp was meant to cater to boys. Unlike Macy’s tent, the scouts’ area was comprised of kids above the age of thirteen, since a lot of boys preferred to stay and become scout leaders for new boys that came in.

As she pushed herself beyond the culture shock, Amity followed her uncle’s command as she and Bailey took their seats in front of a large desk. Amity noticed there was not much that distinguished the interior of this tent from that of the Director’s – at least until she spotted one of those bug-like machines staring her in the face from the corner, its eyes unassuming and metal frame completely still.

Seeing her blank, unblinking gaze, Shafer snapped his fingers in front of her. “Hello? Ammy?” he said. “It’s not gonna kill you. Thing’s dead.”

“Are you sure?” she sneered. “Last time I thought one of those things was dead, it ended up eating Toni right in front of me.”

“I’m well-aware,” Shafer replied, leaning against his desktop. “Let me also say: aside from that girl being captured by one of those robot bugs, I completely expected something like this would happen. Most people who paid attention to you two would’ve seen you acting like horny dogs around each other.”

Even though he spoke with the best of intentions, it didn’t stop the oversaturation on Amity’s cheeks.

“But anyway – you two are going to need to be punished for what’s happened,” he continued. “So here’s my proposition. Amity: you’re going to move your tent next to mine – and Bailey: you’re going to help her with the move.”

With how much her wrists had been hurting from writing and with how much she still needed to move over, using her hands to once again build her tent after less than a week with it made Amity groan. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” She shot a glance at Bailey, who responded with little more than a blink.

Shafer blinked as well, clearly surprised. He could barely keep himself from scoffing. “Really now?” he replied, raising his voice. “So, what – would you rather just get some other boy to help you with the tent?”

“Why do I have to move my tent at all?” Amity asked.

“Amity.” This time it was Bailey who spoke, squeezing her hand as he said her name. “It’ll be fine.”

She shot a look at him to see a warm smile – and within seconds she calmed. “Alright, fine,” she said with a sigh. “Should we just jump on it?”

Holding his arms out as if he was walking over to hug her, Shafer gawked. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Yes – jump on it! Go!” With that, he started walking toward the two of them, herding them out as they got out of their seats and made their way to the exit. Once they were out, Shafer zipped the tent flap and left the kids to their devices.

“Well, what the hell,” Amity mumbled. “Whatever – I guess we’ll go get –”

She was interrupted when Bailey reached in to peck her on the lips. “Ammy,” he began, having clearly picked that up from her uncle. “Don’t you get it? He’s making us work together on purpose.”

“Huh?” After the trauma she’d endured over the last twenty-four hours, it took a moment for her to realize when something good was happening. When at last she made that connection, her face lit up with a bright smile. “Oh – oh my God,” she chuckled. “Please smack me; I deserve it.”

“Nah – come on,” Bailey began, beckoning her as he started on a path away from Shafer’s tent. “Like he said: we should be thrilled to jump on it.”

Infiltration Part2.3 – Further Backwoods

His short legs just barely keeping him in-pace with his partners under the slowly-setting sun, the boy took out his flashlight and scanned the map in front of him. A beaming smile spread across his face. “Should be just another hour til we’re there!”

“We kind of figured that, Tarren,” said a woman in front of him.

If his hands weren’t already weren’t full of cartographic equipment, he probably would have folded his arms at that comment. “And how do you already know that, Bertha?”

One of the travelers in front of Tarren looked over his shoulder. “She knows because there’s a lake in front of us.”

If his feet weren’t already on autopilot, Tarren probably would have paused. “Oh…oh! You’re serious?” He held his breath for a moment. “I swear, Faust, if you’re playing with me again – ”

Faust interrupted Tarren with a chuckle. “Yes, I’m serious – it’s just over the edge here.” Unable to wipe the smile off his face, he looked forward, glancing down at the orange light shimmering on the lake’s surface, casting a gold glow on the trees nearby. Suddenly he felt bad for Tarren; being the youngest and shortest of the group certainly had its disadvantages.

“Don’t be too hard on him,” a deep voice from up front said – and just as the man called out to the three other sujourne, the lot of them flicked their gazes up ahead, with Tarren poking his head from Bertha’s side. “The fact that he was able to guess an hour from the map alone shows he’s better at this job than you two have been giving him credit for.”

Again Faust chuckled, sensing a grin from the boy behind.

“With that said,” the chief began, “I think we should take a moment to rest soon. There should be a stopping point nearby. Tarren?”

Practically whipped up into a frenzy by the chief, Tarren buried his nose in the map as if he were analyzing the insides of ancient scripture; the fact that he didn’t bump into one of the others while searching was practically a miracle. “If we go southeast once the trees fully cover the lake again, we should find a station.”

From up ahead, Rouken nodded. “You all know the drill.”

As soon as their chief had said that, Faust reached into his pocket for his knife and Bertha searched her belt to make sure she had all the rounds she needed.

It wasn’t long before the family of four made their way down to where the station was.

Nobody else seemed to be there. That was to be expected: not the fact that nobody was there, but that no one seemed to be there. For all the knew, someone could have buried a land mine in the area since they were last here. They could have set a trap for them right where they stood – perhaps a tripwire to send them into a spiked pit. If there was any foreign influence here, it needed to be eliminated before they could carry out their usual operations.

So close to Kortrik, this station that the sujourne had set up was bound to have some problems – and this had definitely been the case. There were multiple times where Chief Rouken had attempted to send a message or receive a message on his MDA, only for the connection to break – and likely it was due to some interference from something in this area. He and the other sujourne had chalked this up to so-called “highwaymen” – and along with the other bits of evidence they had found of these people, they had reason to believe that they existed. As to what capacity they existed, none of them could be too sure.

As they all neared the perimeter of their station, witnessing the human-sized beacon that stood in the middle of an otherwise cleared-out area, the sujourne kept themselves completely quiet, hanging their heads low as they approached.

Being the smallest yet also the one with the heaviest burden to bear, Tarren felt a great rush of relief to take off his backpack before setting it under some foliage. The others, meanwhile, did not bother to remove their loads, yet still managed to move about quicker and quieter than he could.

For the most part, Rouken was still for the operation, opting instead to watch Faust and Bertha take care of things for the rest of them as Tarren kept watch from his own point in the woods. Knife in hand, Faust hid behind several trees as he and Bertha closed around an open circle – the likes of which may have once served as a camping ground, but had since deteriorated partially back to its normal self. With the land already chilled by autumn’s bite, he had to be more careful than usual – careful not to step on a twig or reveal himself because the normal greenery he would have otherwise had to cover himself with was no longer there.

He came to a point where he could no longer see Bertha – not her or the barrel of her single-shot rifle. By most accounts, this was a good thing – so on he went.

Rouken and Tarren had told Faust that there might have been a tree-mounted switch panel somewhere nearby if somebody had tampered with their equipment, but he couldn’t see anything like that from where he crouched. It would have been easier to tell if any of the campground’s buildings were still intact, assuming they had built any at all once upon a time.

Peering beyond the dried foliage that littered the place, Faust spotted their beacon sticking out of the ground from a still-decent distance away. There didn’t seem to be any drones or anything of the like hovering around it – and if there were, Bertha would have likely shot them down by now.

On he continued circling around the grassland, hoping to see something unusual – something he could use his paracorded knife on, but still nothing. In time he found himself the closest he would ever get to the beacon without outright stepping away from the foliage. Looking up, there was nobody; looking left or right, there was nobody: nothing but the normal foliage and noise of the autumn forest. Realizing everything was probably okay, he stepped out from the shadows and made a run toward their station.

The cylindrical little tower in the dirt stood barely any shorter than Faust. It took him a moment to analyze if there was anything inherently wrong with it. Deciding to bite the bullet right in front of his chief, he jammed his knife near the tower’s cap and started prying until the top came off with a satisfying pop – at which point he let out a sigh, realizing there wasn’t a bomb under the cap.

“Alright, come out,” he shouted to the others. “Coast is all clear.”

“Oh, thank God,” Bertha joked. “I almost fell asleep before I heard that pop noise.”

Faust rolled his eyes, then looked back down at the tower. “There’s supposed to be a light on, right?” he wondered, using the flat side of his knife to move some wires out of the way, practically shuffling them as he as stirring through a bowl of unseasoned pasta.

“The light is not on?” Rouken asked.

“No it isn’t,” Faust replied, shaking his head. “I think somebody must have deactivated it.”

“Let me try anyway,” Rouken demanded, gesturing Faust to step away before reaching for the MDA in his holster – after which he set the device in the cradle at the beacon’s side. No power.

The chief took his device back out and put it back where it was. “And it does not seem as if there’s any way to find out who or what might have done this.” But even as they spoke, the sujourne already had their suspicions.

Highwaymen: so-called due to how they seemed to always travel back and forth down the same highways. The sujourne had studied these people for the past several months, but still had yet to find them. Even with the limited amount of technology at their disposal, they had managed to pick up signals from underground and map out where these men seemed to be going, but still there was yet to be a crossroads mapped anywhere.

Coming in on cue, Tarren pulled out his map of highway etchings and laid part of it out on a board before proceeding to write something down – likely just a note of what had happened at the station and how this would help them find the highwaymen’s location.

Faust and the others gathered behind Tarren as he scratched some notes with the little ink he had left in his pen. “Still not enough to make a map,” he murmured, practically cursing at himself. “But it’s close.”

What he called close looked like a bunch of mostly-disconnected lines pointing in several different directions – some thicker than others, but not following a general flow. It was obvious to Faust that their youngest recruit had not made any assumptions of where the highwaymen could have been going – because if he had done that, these lines would have been connected by now. Faust realized he was probably the only one among the four of them who actually would have Tarren to make assumptions when he saw Rouken nod and watch close as Tarren layered his highway map over the terrain map.

“Where do you suppose it all leads?” Bertha asked.

“Where I had suspected,” Rouken answered.

The rest of the sujourne each exchanged nervous glances. Again Bertha spoke up. “And where was that?”

The smirk on their chief’s face made the rest of them feel a horrid sense of unease; it was the face he made when he knew they were about to dive head-first into danger.

Daylight burning out, the sujourne decided to set up camp around the station after making one last trip to see that everything was safe. Faust gathered wood, Bertha kept the fire going, and Tarren and Rouken set up the tents before heading out to capture the group’s dinner somewhere in the woods.

Faust took a longer time with gathering firewood than he had intended.

Before meeting the other sujourne, Faust had had his palms and feet wrapped in tape as he was set to be put to sleep. Years after his cryogenic stasis had began and only a few months after being awoken, here they still were, plastered to his hands as if he still needed them. Beyond protecting his palms whenever he touched something that might have splintered them, they served no purpose. He almost asked why he didn’t cut them off with his knife right now.

For some reason he felt as if he could barely see in the dense forest, as if he hadn’t been traversing this kind of landscape for the past three days with minimum amount in the way of proper nourishment. He started to wonder if the full effects of dehydration were starting to kick in. Not wanting to take a risk, he took a drink out of his canteen – and by the time he felt sustained enough, it was still half full anyway.

Again he looked down at his hands – not to view the bandages, but to view the nothing he had in them. Whatever sticks he had carried in his hands a moment ago were now on the floor, though he didn’t remember ever dropping them. He also didn’t remember setting his knife back in its holster. Reaching down, Faust was careful with one of the sticks, as one of them was pointier than the others, reminding him that he had sharpened one out of complete boredom.

Realizing this, he started to worry that he was taking too long gathering wood. Faust picked up the sticks he had already gathered and proceeded to go around the area for more.

Once he returned to the others, he quickly got some form of answer as to how long he had been out when Bertha sighed.

“Jeez, man!” she commented, standing on her knees as if groveling for a stronger fire with the few twigs and weeds she had. “Another minute and I might have thought you were either dead or taking a dump out there.” When he didn’t respond to her joke with a laugh, smirk, or even a roll of the eyes, her demeanor vanished. “What’s up?” she prompted.

He dropped his forest findings in the pile with Bertha’s twigs as if that were supposed to be an answer. “The usual.” As if that response implied anything good.

Bertha immediately saw right through him. “Hey, c’mon,” she prodded further. “You nervous about Kortrik again?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Nervous?” he muttered. “What would I have to be nervous about? It’s not like anybody I know is there. God’s sake, from what you guys have told me, that place has been empty for years until recently.”

“Don’t be coy, Faust,” she insisted. “You and I both know what’s up.” Seeing as he took a seat in the dirt, she got off her knees and sat down as well, at which point she proceeded to rest her cheek on her palm. “It’s okay, man; any of us would feel the same if we had the same experience with Kortrik that you did.”

He really didn’t have a rebuttal to that.

“I promise nothing bad will happen there,” Bertha continued. “We’ll work with the guys there, help set things up, and it basically won’t even be the same by the time we’re done with it.”

Cringing at how much Bertha had missed the mark, how she’d missed the thing that truly was bothering him, Faust resisted the urge to shake his head. “You think maybe someone could figure out cryogenics again once we get it set up?” he asked, his voice so monotone one might have mistaken him for an Autorian unit.

Bertha hesitated, clearly realizing that neither yes nor no was the correct answer to his question. Holding her breath, she pursed her lips in contemplation, then sighed. “You were frozen once, man. Just one time and you’re hooked on it like it’s a drug,” she tutted, folding her arms. “Sure, dude – I suppose if someone manages to reinvent cryogenics, you can freeze yourself until hell itself freezes over, too. Or hell, Autorise might even have cryogenics at this point for all we know, but good luck getting any of the officials there to cooperate with you.” As she spoke, she absentmindedly shuffled the wood around with a stick of her own, barely paying Rouken and Tarren any heed as they came back from the woods, a rabbit slunk over the boy’s shoulder.

The others gathered around altogether for a somber night, no wind to blow the smoke anywhere but directly up into the cloudless sky. From there the rabbit was properly skinned and roasted that night. By the time the fire had nearly died out, they split up in their groups of two and slept in their tents until morning.

Rouken was first to wake, rising out of bed just before the break of dawn. Realizing they had a chance to find out if the fish were edible around the area, he woke the other sujourne up and prepared them for a trip down to the lake. With twice as many people to work on the tents, the four campers cleaned their site twice as fast as it had taken Rouken and Tarren to set it up – and from there, they continued their trek down.

In the morning fog, it took Faust a moment to notice just where the water began and where it ended. He heard geese honking overhead, indicating to him that there was active, growing wildlife at the lake – though the amount of toxicity flowing in their blood would remain to be seen until the sujourne retrieved a reading from a sample fish. Until then, they were content with taking a chance on the morning fish if it meant a chance to get something to eat this morning. Likely those at Kortrik wouldn’t have much in the way of a real meal.

Things continued to look good for the sujourne as – three-fourths of the way there – Tarren’s Geiger counter had not gone off yet. It figured that everything Autorise had ever touched – Kortrik included – would have only improved with time away from Autorise.

Faust witnessed as Bertha readied her harpoon. Without proper fishing rods, this was the best they could do – but it wasn’t like any of them knew how to use fishing rods anyway.

With no beach to speak of, the sujourne were left to watch their fish from a ledge – one high enough that they could just barely reach their arms into the water if they stretched far enough. Being that she was the first one to bring a harpoon out, Bertha was the first to find a spot for herself, at which point the rest of the group split up.

As Faust found a point as far away from the others as possible while still keeping them in sight, he desperately hoped Tarren would be able to contain himself this time. He didn’t want a repeat of last week when Tarren kept hurting himself and scaring the fish away.

If there was any danger of contracting radiation sickness, Tarren or one of the others would have shouted about it right now. That in mind, Faust kept his harpoon at the ready. No fish in sight yet. He could see a turtle, but no fish. If he was lucky, maybe he could drive his harpoon through that turtle shell; if he were even luckier, the others would decide out of nowhere to not go to Kortrik at all.

It felt as if ten minutes had passed and still there were no fish to be found. Judging by the lack of activity on the others’ end, they hadn’t had much luck, either.

Nearby he noticed a large tunnel that drained into the lake – likely the remnants of Kortrik, the realizing of which made a shiver run up his spine. They were definitely close – and the fact that he hadn’t noticed until now made him want to scream.

The morning fog covered up two ducks flapping about in the distant waters – perhaps trying to find fish for themselves, as well. They made a lot of noise splashing about: too much noise for so-called waterfowl. It probably wouldn’t have been long before they died of starvation.

At the same time one of the ducks extended an inproportionately-long arm, a faraway voice – distinctly human – called out.

“Hey, um – there’s someone out there!” Tarren called from his point.

Bertha groaned. “Tarren, for God’s sake –!”

“No, wait,” Rouken spoke. “He’s right.”

The faraway voice called out again. “Help us!


Well, that was fun. Yep, we’re introducing some new characters — the last ones we’re gonna see for awhile, most likely. It’s the legendary (or maybe not legendary) sujourne!

Discord is open, as always.

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.

Fallen Daemon

“I can’t remember where I went…”

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she did not die.

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

Awaken me. Ignite me. Hear the Mother.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are many,” they said again.

“Yet we are Flesh!” said another.

“Many is one,” said yet another.

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


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

Discord is open for all, as always!

Infiltration 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 Part1.7 – Monarchs

“What are you doing in here?!” Mira shouted.

Suddenly awoken from her spot beside the bed, Esther raised herself, only to bump her head on the bed’s ledge. The blow made her ears ring as she still struggled to assess what was going on.

Through it all, Shafer barely reacted as Esther rubbed the spot she had just hit. “I’m keeping watch,” he answered from where he sat, a hand at his side and legs crossed. “We still ain’t sure if you ladies are trustworthy yet, so I’ve gotta keep an eye out.”

Esther retracted her hand from her scalp, relieved to not see any liquid. In a less panicked state, she turned her head up to Shafer. “Wait – you were watching us sleep?”

Shafer nodded.

There would have been a lot more shouting, screaming, scratching, and biting at that point if the women in front of Shafer were not artificial. Instead the Autorian visitors sat in silence, sensing an immeasurable distance between themselves and their own invasive guardian despite him being practically within arms’ reach.

“Well,” Esther began, her voice monotone, yet firm. “We’re awake now and we’re not going back to sleep.”

“I can see that,” Shafer said, nodding again.

“Leave.” Mira spoke. Esther whipped her gaze around to see the still-disabled woman’s untwitching countenance hyperfocused on Shafer, her green stare completely still, refusing to ask again or even blink as every part of her screamed for the man to follow her command.

Shafer followed along. Mira continued to stare.

A smirk ran along his face as he gave in, picking himself off his seat. “If you insist, Missy – I’ll just be outside.” The man spoke not another word as he let them be, taking his chair with him and placing it just beyond the tent’s flap – which he proceeded to zip closed.

Only once Shafer left the room did Mira finally blink again. Following this retraction of her partner’s state of supposed fury, Esther asked, “Are you okay?”

Mira turned her head to Esther, avoiding eye contact and blinking rapidly almost as if she were fighting back tears. “I guess I’m okay,” she replied. “But what was that? He’s just allowed to come in whenever he wants?”

“Is that a surprise to you? It seems like that would be the case, since the people here are keeping us close under their watchful eye, anyway.” Esther paused. “And if you didn’t have to worry about your leg and this place had some kind of military district, I’d be surprised if we weren’t harbored in the military district instead of the medical tent.”

It was a good point, she knew. Her lips pursed, Mira beckoned Esther over; Esther obliged without a word.

“I already do not like that man,” Mira whispered. “After the threats he made on my part while he dragged me into camp, I’m hesitant to believe he would want anything more than to kill us while we sleep.”

In some ways, the idea that he would kill the two of them before they had a chance to meet with the Director seemed so silly an idea that Esther almost had to feign sarcasm. “Right – you said yesterday he threatened you, but – ”

“I alluded to it,” Mira corrected.

“Right,” Esther said again. “Let’s just wait for now, okay?” Her ear almost seemed to twitch at some noise from outside. “At least we know this: if he shoots a gun at us right now, the girls are going to hear and I don’t think he wants that kind of attention from children.”

Mira said nothing.

“MORNING!!”

Amity awoke with a start, the wind knocked out of her at the same time hear ears started ringing. In her panic, she lifted herself out of her lying position, looking here and there to find only Cynthia nearby – who stood by with a smile on her face.

Feeling as if the girl had just tied her stomach in literal knots, she resisted the urge to punch that smiling face. “What was that about?” she snapped, rubbing her belly when she noticed the large slab that Cynthia had anchored on top of her. On further inspection, this slab appeared to be some kind of book.

“Happy birthday, Amity!” said Cynthia. “Miss Macy said she wants to see you once you’re dressed – and she also wanted you to have this.”

Amity opened it up to find all the pages were completely blank. “It’s a…journal?” Suddenly she factored in the weight. “It’s really thick – damn!”

“I wouldn’t know anything about it; Macy just said you should have it. What would you need a journal for, anyway?”

Her thoughts still buried in sleep, it took Amity a moment to remember why she would need such a heavy collection of paper: something few people had in such quantities. Once she did remember, she still hesitated to reply. “I have my reasons.”

Because it was her birthday – specifically the day of her transition into adulthood – people would make a big deal whether Amity wanted them to or not. Suddenly she remembered that tent she still needed to finish sewing together, cursing at herself when she realized she could have done that the day before. If it wasn’t finished by the end of today, she was probably never going to forgive herself.

The materials that made up Amity’s project were placed in a stack in Macy’s tent. As luck would have it, she, Toni, and Cynthia needed to meet up with their mentor today – as with Amity’s graduation from the medical area, there followed a large sleuth of tasks that would be left unhandled unless the other two assistants agreed to pitch more of their time in.

Once they were properly dressed, the three of them left all the other girls to their devices and made it over to Macy – who proceeded to run them through their tasks for the week. After that, Macy opened the much-needed discussion of Amity’s approaching leave.

Perhaps disrespectfully, the first question raised was who would be replacing Amity, if anyone. Amity did not wish to offer any ideas for potential new pupils.

She was barely listening by the time she heard Cynthia blurt out one of the names she wanted to hear least. “What about Miss Esther for now?”

A bolt of electricity flashed through Amity’s blood. “We’re not doing that!” she argued, her unblinking eyes locked on the youngest girl’s. Toni and Macy seemed to disappear from the conversation entirely as the tent went almost completely silent, save for the electronic hum of the MDA station. “You’re not going to force me to be her mentor.”

Just as quickly as she had vanished, Macy returned. “Oh, don’t make any assumptions about that,” she said, waving her hand. “I will be the one who teaches that woman, if things were to come to that.” She paused. “Did you truly think you would replace my position by the end of the day?”

“Well, no,” Amity replied, then cast another annoyed glance at Cynthia – who sat back without further argument.

Again the tent went silent, Macy keeping an eye on the now-adult Amity. The girl had certainly blossomed in the time she had spent as one of Macy’s assistants, sticking through wherever their camp’s Director decided to carry them all next. And now, just as they had reached their supposed final destination, Amity needed to make her own move into adulthood. It was not a position that most specialists often found themselves in.

An empathetic hesitance to her countenance, Macy stepped up to the young woman. “You aren’t feeling too troubled about all this, are you, dear?” asked Macy. “I know this must be a dizzying day for you, Miss Amity – lots on your mind?”

Caught slightly by surprise, Amity tilted her nose in the air to meet the older woman’s gaze. “Not really,” she lied, eyes locked with Macy’s. “Just a few things I want to talk about once we’re alone.” She resisted the urge to eyeball the other two in the tent as her mentor seemed to draw closer. She could sense the other two peering at her, knowing there was much more locked behind those tight lips; Amity resisted the urge to look back as Macy took a step back herself.

Macy, Cynthia, and Toni continued discussing task reassignment, with Amity only piping in when directly called upon. More than anything, Amity hoped her departure would be the kick in the pants Toni – now to be the oldest – needed to finally start taking initiative and acting more assertive with all the other kids. It had certainly helped Amity’s growth when Zoe – the oldest before her – made her departure almost three years ago.

Thinking about Zoe made Amity sigh; that woman hadn’t been seen by anyone since the split just a year after her adult life began. Perhaps if this settlement in Kortrick truly was to become the next big place that some were hoping for it to become, then she and Zoe might meet again – but so far their wandering tribe had had no such luck with any other location, giving Amity little hope that it would happen this time, despite whatever Sam or her uncle told her.

As promised, Amity stayed behind once the other two girls had left, now standing to Macy’s eye-level. It had been a few days since she and Macy were the only ones in the same room, completely sealed off from the rest of the world for just a bit. Even her Uncle Shafer was hardly around to provide such luxuries.

Rather than have Amity speak immediately, Macy started with a question of her own. “I’m surprised; did you leave that journal in your bed?”

“Yeah,” Amity replied. “Cynthia just gave it to me without really explaining what it was for. Was there something you were wanting to tell me?”

Macy chuckled as if she expected the woman to know – and, in all honesty, she did know, but needed validation. “It’s about all the things you’ve written on the MDA I’ve been lending you,” Macy clarified, lowering her voice on the last few words. “You still haven’t let anyone else know about that, have you?”

The fledgling woman shook her head. “No, nobody’s caught me using it.”

With a smile, Macy turned around to the docking station and pulled one of the devices out: a slab covered in tired gray-blue plastic. The nubs on the buttons had worn out over time due to excessive use on Amity’s part.

“Well, this week will need to be the last time you use it,” said Macy as she handed the MDA over. “That is why I gave you the booklet; it was the biggest one I could find and it has more clean paper than I have seen in anyone’s possession – not since Director Persson’s predecessor.”

While part of her wondered where Macy would have found such a voluminous collection of what was considered a somewhat rare material beyond the Domain’s borders, she sought not to question it.

“I also have a pen here you can use to copy all the things you wrote down on the device – just in case you lose or break your own. But once the week is over and you have fully moved out, I will need the MDA back.”

Only a week? In that time, Amity would be lucky if she hadn’t developed carpal tunnel from all the text she had to copy over. Would she even be able to keep the text legible?

On top of that, she still needed to finish the tent. That would most certainly need to come first – especially when she was so close to finishing it as it was. Once finished, she would probably place it somewhere at the northeastern side of camp, albeit this was a little close to the ruins for her liking. Thinking about ruins made her wonder why she needed to make the tent when the possibility of living in stable architecture was well within their reach.

Despite all the thoughts swimming in her head, Amity nodded her understanding to Macy. “I’ll get it all done,” she said. “But if I get wrist cramps, it’s your fault.”

Macy couldn’t help chuckling at that last remark. “Very well, then. If you’re going to be busy, I’ll go take care of the other girls.” As she retreated to the opening flap of her tent, she uttered a few last words: “Good luck, Miss Amity.”

A light breeze blew in as her former mentor stepped out.

In the time it took for her to remember what she was doing, Amity had nearly dropped the MDA in her hand. She swore at herself and proceeded to turn it on, flipping the switch as the non-lit screen came to life. Once about a minute had passed, she traversed through the system menu and read the notifier beneath all the text files:

File Storage: 129kb / 2048kb.

All of that was text. Basic text, no properties or metadata. No special formatting outside of the manually-inserted characters. Her head started to hurt when she realized how many words that amount of data actually took up. Her wrist started to hurt just as much.

So long as Shafer kept his promise to stay out of the passage for the time being, Sam could breathe easy for the day.

“They weren’t too happy, but what’re you gonna do?” Shafer said upon his arrival. “I’m just happy they didn’t smack me.”

Sam, meanwhile, had half a mind to ask the scouts’ leader about the message he had found – but seeing the man here now, all Sam could muster was a barely-related question: “Did Macy get you the MDA back?”

“That she did,” said Shafer, nodding. “Thanks again for sending the message out.”

His brain itched with the desire to ask, but still nothing else came out, providing an awkward silence between the two men. With few words beyond that, Sam left the scout leader to watch over his boys.

Perhaps the Director would know something about those highwaymen – or anything contained within Shafer’s message. Sam only hoped the Director wouldn’t tell Shafer that he was snooping through the MDA.

The last time he and Persson had met up, the Director expressed a need to see both of the newcomers at the same time on that very day, only to be more than slightly disappointed when nobody was willing to bring Mira over in her condition. It would have been a simple procedure, according to the Director, but apparently it was not simple enough to warrant anyone’s support.

A plate of half-finished breadcrumbs and jelly decorated Director Persson’s desk as Sam walked in, himself standing tall and clad in a tightly-knit outfit compared to the loose shawls around the Director’s limbs and torso. Sam almost questioned if Persson was even ready for their meeting before the commander in question beckoned him in. The desk smelled as if Persson had spent the night on top of it – which Sam told himself was impossible; the Director wouldn’t succumb to using strewn-about papers as a mattress!

Before Sam, the slouching man urged both of them to sit down, his nimbly body barely taller than Sam’s. Scratching a beard that made his chin appear almost three times larger than it actually was, the Director sat at an unusually-tall seat behind his desk, viewing his right-hand man from an egoistic vantage point above the mess as Sam took his seat at the chair in front.

“So, then!” the Director began, noticeably jittery where he sat. “Sam, my boy – have you seen the two new women at all this morning?”

“Not yet, no,” the deputy confessed. “Last time I saw them was last night – and that was just so I could get to know them. Shafer was looking after them for Macy this morning, but now they’re awake and he’s back with the scouts out east.”

At that, the Director drummed his fingers on his chair’s one arm. He didn’t seem to be listening to anything beyond the first handful of words. “And is there some fear that maybe you will catch Miss Esther’s cold?” he asked. “I don’t think Rand has caught anything from her, so what fear does a deputy have?”

Despite the many multiple reasons Sam could argue that his status in camp did not have an effect on his immunity to disease, he let that point roll off his shoulder much like the Director had just done with his explanation. “Well, I can’t imagine they’re too happy right now,” he tried explaining. “Most women would probably kill a man if they caught him watching them sleep. Shafer told me he managed to do his job without a scratch, but they can’t be in any mood to talk after that.”

“I hear they’re in that mood right now!” the Director argued. He gave Sam that condescending smile: the same one he cast down whenever he referred to Sam as a boy, despite the mere seven years between the two of them. It was that same look which suggested the Director was transmitting an unheard message to the person in his line of sight – and if that message was not properly deciphered within the next hour, the position of deputy was about to become that much less desirable.

Sam took a moment to respond with a silent message of his own, gaze unblinking and lips forming a straight line as if he were a wildcat stalking a rabbit. For a moment he almost felt as if he might actually pounce, but returned to reality when he blinked again.

The Director was no stranger to compromises – and, feeling the need to push his luck, Sam made an offer. “How about I just bring Esther?” he finally said. “Mira is in much too poor a condition after that accident she had with my trap, but Esther hardly seemed sick at all yesterday and I’ve already told them you wanted to see them soon.”

“No Mira?” the Director prodded. “I’d think someone with a lucky name like Mira would keep away from traps – but I suppose if the woman is hurting, then far be it from me to put her through more pain by walking her over!” With that, he lowered his seat a little, slightly reducing the strain on Sam’s neck. “Go bring Esther, then; I don’t believe I’ll be busy by the time you return.”

“Wait – there’s one other thing,” Sam ejaculated, then paused as if realizing he had just spoken out of turn.

Caught a little off-guard, the Director paused, sitting back in his chair. “And what would that one other thing be?”

Still Sam hesitated. “It’s about a message I found on Shafer’s MDA.”

“Still snooping through people’s devices?” Persson couldn’t help sneering. “Go on.”

The man gave a deep breath before explaining everything from Rouken to the highwaymen. “He told me Rouken might be coming back soon, so that’s why I went through the MDA. But now that I’ve read this stuff about highwaymen and how Shafer was apparently planning on going through the passageway before I told him not to do that yet, I feel like there’s something I’m not being told.”

Another smile crossed the Director’s face – this one much less condescending than the last, yet still enough to slightly bother Sam. “That’s because there is,” the Director confessed, lowering himself again. “Sorry if it disappoints you, but yes – Rouken likely will be coming back soon. By that point, you will hear everything you need to about those highwaymen from his mouth. He will know more than I.”

Sam may as well have not asked the question at all. With nothing left to say, he nodded. After further discussion on the general state of the camp, Sam left the Director to his work – whatever work that was. The deputy rubbed his forehead as he stepped out.

Looking around him, this camp of theirs felt like a miracle. The fact that they had found the ruins of a once-prosperous town and were now on their way to rebuilding it was nothing short of a work of God. Yet with these successes, the Director sought little more than to continually expand upon every single opportunity thrown at him – not for the betterment of the camp, but for the change to achieve further recognition or further pleasure. Perhaps it was his childhood upbringing in the Domain which had planted this greedy seed in his belly – a seed that had sprouted into a parasitic beanstalk that now drove his actions. It would explain the erratic thought patterns.

Compared to the Director, who was Sam Jacquard? The camp’s second-best: a worn-out, yet still shining figure who overachieved for the good of his people – in the hope that they would all one day live a life without the Domain’s fingers digging into every wild orifice it could find. The Domain served to spread its genes through what remained of the United States until everything was just as homogenized and inbred as artificially possible – and hearing the way Persson talked about the newcomers and thinking about how little he had helped since everyone had moved to Kortrick, Sam couldn’t help drawing parallels.

As he walked, Sam shook his head. He couldn’t go to Esther with these thoughts in mind.


Discord is open for all!

Infiltration Part1.6 – Unfortunate Origins

With the evening closing in, it was time to pick up some rations. A few of Macy’s kids – including her apprentices – lined up to take bits of what the men had gathered through the course of the day. All they had for now was stale bread and rabbit soup; if one was lucky, they might actually find a chunk of rabbit swimming around all the little vegetables.

Being such a new settlement, their camp still had a long way to go before any crops they had planted would become viable – especially when winter was set to come within a few months. The scavenging they did now was the best they could do; Macy could only bite her tongue for the children who whined about wanting more food – especially those among them who were going through growth spurts. The girls liked to claim that the boys probably snuck food out for themselves while hunting. Nobody ever challenged such claims – but at the same time, almost no one took such claims seriously; the boys sure didn’t, at least.

Along with some other girls, Amity, a small crate in her hands, was tasked with bringing eight cans of the soup and some bread slices back to the other girls. Of all people, she was also assigned to give one of the cans to the new visitors. This insistence that she be the one to carry out such a task led her to believe that Macy was either testing her patience or had come to despise her in her late adolescence.

Stuck in line, Amity took a moment to look around. Bailey wasn’t here. That boy was usually standing around and handing out rations along with some of the others, but today she couldn’t see him anywhere. For a moment she thought – she hoped – it was just the lighting that was making it difficult to see where he was, but once close enough to the front of the line, it became clear that he was not there. Amity huffed the bangs out of her face He must have been on guard duty or something of the like.

With an annoyed twinge, Amity took the rations she needed and headed back to her home district, not waiting for anyone else to catch up. All those who hadn’t come along to pick up rations were left unsupervised for the past ten minutes – so in a way, her being the first to return was not exactly something she took pride in; it just meant she was the first to have grabby hands going for the cans and bread when she came over. On top of that was the fact that she needed to still reserve one of the cans for the two women.

Once there, she made sure to deliberate on who received which can. As per usual, it took a minute to get everyone to stay still – but once they all did, the process of passing the rations around became that much easier. Things improved drastically once the others from the rations area arrived.

Taking a deep breath, Amity took the last can and bread slice over to the visitors’ tent. Half-expecting to see them gone, she was almost disappointed to find that they had not run away.

“Hi,” she began. “It’s dinner time, so the girls and I got you both some soup and bread to share.”

Mira gave a quizzical tilt of her head. “I guess that would explain why all the noise stopped.”

“Oh, God – ” Amity began, suddenly in a panic. “None of the girls came in here, did they?”

A little bewildered by her sudden change in tone, the visitors assured Amity that nothing of the sort had happened. “Okay – good,” she said with a sigh. “Anyway – I’ve got it right here. You’re going to have to share it and I’ve only got one spoon.” Right after saying that, she remembered Esther’s cold and hoped it had gone away or Mira was immune enough to not catch it from using the same silverware.

Amity almost wanted to tell the women to enjoy, but instead proceeded to leave the room without a word.

It was almost immediately after stepping beyond the bound of the tent when Amity froze, nearly bumping into a man she had expected to meet with soon, but not right this moment.

“Mister Deputy!” she said with a stutter. “Or, sorry – Sam! Sorry; I was just taking care of the newcomers – ”

Catching her as she was about to trail off, the man gave her a warm smile. “Don’t worry; I was actually just about to talk to them!”

Stepping away from the light of the setting sun, Amity got a better look at her deputy: a man who had stepped into his position within the last year, with this move into Kortrik being his biggest undertaking yet. Comparing his workload of the last two weeks to her own, Amity half-assumed his blonde hair would have either receded or grayed out by now.

She was stalling. “Sorry, I’ll just get out of the way.” Not wanting to draw his attention away from the task at hand, she proceeded to return her now-empty box over to the girls’ tent – and was caught by the elbow.

“Now wait a minute,” he said, pulling her back. “Before you go: I heard tomorrow is the big day – is that right?”

A little shocked to be pulled back like that, Amity slowly turned on her heel. “Well, yes – yes it is, if you’re talking about my birthday.”

“Right, right,” Sam confirmed. “So how’re you with the adult plans? Macy told me you were looking for someone to get together with.”

The fact that Macy had told anyone about that made her go a little more red than she cared to admit. “Well,” she began. “I already have a good idea who I want, but he’s…clueless.”

“I guess it should be him to ask first,” Sam acknowledged. “But if he’s clueless, what do you do?” He gave a rhetorical pause and she shrugged, eyes directed at her feet. “Well, who is it? Maybe I can make him less clueless.”

His offer made Amity’s ears grow hot. She almost started to wish she had never said anything to the deputy at all – but now that she was here, there wasn’t much she could do. Just to be safe, she took a look around them, over her shoulders and behind Sam, making sure none of the girls were listening in, when she leaned in. “It’s Bailey.”

Not surprised, Sam nodded. “He’s a bit busy with his own work under Theo these days, but yeah – I think you two could have some good chemistry!” He tapped his foot in contemplation. “I’ll tell you what: if I see him at any point today, I’ll nudge him your way.”

The mild burning on Amity’s ears grew to a searing degree. She started to stammer. “Okay—!” she said, trying to smile. “Thanks, Sam!” Thinking about these new adult priorities, she suddenly remembered that tent she still needed to finish. “Right – okay, I’m gonna get back to work. Nice talking to you!”

From inside the tent just by Sam, the gynoids were perhaps more clueless than the boy Amity and Sam were just talking about, completely oblivious to their discussion. Rather than poke their noses where they weren’t welcome, they took their one spoon and went back and forth, handing the silverware over to the other when one of them took a mouthful of the soup for themselves.

Both gynoids sat on the floor – Mira tiring of the bed provided for her, but still bringing the blankets to cover her lower appendages – and slowly processed what they were taking in.

Whatever the luocans used for medicine probably had a better taste than this concoction they were meant to call their dinner, but they didn’t complain. It wasn’t like they had anything to compare it to. “I know some people enjoy this,” Esther began. “But are you enjoying this?”

Mira hesitated, swallowing a spoonful. Her tongue was left with a minor tang that the Domain’s supplements could never provide, but there was nothing here that could outright intrigue or captivate her. “No.”

“I think they’ll want the spoon and can back by the time we are done.”

“I’m not surprised,” Mira replied. “Do they clean the cans, too, or should we do that?”

“I don’t know.”

Esther took another mouthful of their dinner before Sam walked in completely unannounced, the open flap practically inviting him inside. Esther and Mira turned their gazes toward the deputy with an air of unfamiliarity, noticing how he stood shorter than Macy and had a necklace chain around his neck, but the pendant on the end was hidden behind his shirt. All this coincided with a young, yet firm countenance that demanded the newcomers’ attention.

When he spoke, his voice did not boom, but almost seemed to croak as if he were trying to make up for a lack of bass in his diaphragm. “Are you the two new people I’ve heard about?”

Swallowing, Esther nodded as Mira confirmed that they indeed were who he thought they were.

“Good!” he replied, eyeing Esther. “So you must be Esther – and you’re Mira.”

Seeing the bandages along Mira’s leg, Sam almost couldn’t help grimacing, but he continued. “My name is Sam and I’m the deputy around here under Director Persson.” Turning to face Mira, he cast a guilty look. “I should probably apologize to you, Mira – since I’m one of the guys who set up the trap you got caught in. You’re not hurting too bad though, are you?”

Feeling like she had answered this question ten times today already, she shook her head.

“Great. And I guess now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: some basic questions. I guess first, just to start, I’ve heard a few people refer to the two of you as partners; what exactly do you both mean by that?” As he spoke, he turned his head toward Esther as if she were the only one who could answer the question.

A little confused on his motivation for asking, Esther answered accordingly. “We are partners in the sense that we were sent outside the border of one of the Domain’s cities, set to be partners out in the wilderness now that we were abandoned among the Disconnect. Then we both got in a chase with those two men on the buggy and here we are now.”

Sam immediately lit up when the Domain was mentioned. “Oh!” he stated, “Well, to follow up on that: both of you are Autorian?”

Mira could only purse her lips in agonizing silence as her partner acknowledged and confirmed this information.

“I see.” The deputy paused, clearly contemplating his next words before they passed his lips. “Well, I want you both to know that having two people like you come into camp is not unprecedented, as a lot of people around here either used to be Autorian or have family who was or still is Autorian. Among those people, some of them were kicked out of the Domain, but it’s more likely that left of their own volition.”

Even with that said, the man felt the need to sigh, preparing to set a heavy burden on the two women. “But now that we know for sure that you’re both Autorian, we’re likely going to keep you here in the medicine and education district for a bit longer under Macy’s watchful eye. We’re also gonna have some guys watch over you for the time being. This is just to make sure we can trust you.”

At this point, Sam normally would have expected some form of protest, but the women did no such thing. Were it not for the talk they had with Amity after the girl had patched up Mira’s leg, they might have inquired further as to what Sam really meant by keeping them in this district.

“I hope that all makes sense and I hope you all understand,” said Sam, to which he received a unified nod from the ladies. “Great. I’m gonna have to come back to bring you each to the Director when he has time.”

For a moment the man paused as if there was something he had forgotten. “I also remember hearing something about a passageway that one of you found? Something just east of camp?”

“That was me,” Esther claimed. From there, she explained to him everything that she had told Mira about the passage – from the robot to the generator to the fact that a suspicious number of lights were still activated. The only thing she didn’t mention was the data she had retrieved from the robot – as fragmented and incomplete as it was.

By the time she finished speaking, Sam stood by in silence, looking off in the distance, once again caught in a veil of contemplation. “And how deep do you think this thing goes? Was there an elevator or anything that you found like that?”

Esther didn’t remember seeing an elevator, but she wouldn’t have completely ruled that out. Still she answered honestly. “Not that I remember. But there was so much that I would be surprised if there wasn’t one somewhere.” The fact that the sednium power generator had vents that led elsewhere was enough to prove to her that this place was more complex than one or two levels.

Still looking away, Sam nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell Shafer about this.” As he spoke, he started to turn away. “Thanks for the info, Esther. And you, Mira – take it easy on that leg, okay? Until then, stay out of trouble. Was nice meeting you both!”

The women said their goodbyes, almost all tension from Esther’s claims disappearing along with him. All at once, the stress that came with listening to her partner talk about their Autorian background seemed to dissipate.

Mira shook her head. “You are so lucky.”

Dawn’s rays had just barely started shimmering through the translucent fabric that shielded him from the elements. Earlier to rise than most, Sam made his way out, leaving the camp’s capital district without a word to anyone – not even his commanding Director.

Wary of the passage Esther had told him about the day before, Sam wrote a message on his MDA to be sent to Shafer’s device. At this point the device was over by the station at Macy’s tent; hopefully by now Shafer had received Sam’s message.

This deputy position of his wasn’t as cumbersome as he had first anticipated. Part of it was guard duty and part of it was supervision where Director Persson could not take care of that task himself, but otherwise his job required very little of him – at least very little that he didn’t want to do. So far the only source of aggravation had been the Director. Perhaps he should have expected that, though.

Along his morning walk, he stopped by the bonfire near the middle of camp, not expecting anyone, but surprised to find one of the guard boys sitting by, completely unarmed and nearly nodding away. Sam made hardly a sound as he took a seat, himself, enjoying his chance to take in some warmth before heading out to the rest of the camp. Looking to his right, he noticed two deer over the nearby hill, startled and making an immediate dash into the forest the moment he glanced at them.

He himself was nearly startled when the boy at the fire mumbled something. “Deputy Sam..?” he asked through a yawn. “What are – what time is it?”

Sam couldn’t help chuckling. “Dawn time.” He took another look at the boy. “Oh, Bailey – what’re you doing here and not in your tent?”

Straightening himself into a more proper sitting position, Bailey – hardly a month away from fourteen years of age – split his jaws in another yawn, clearly struggling not to fall asleep again. “Just wanted to get a bit warm after my work tonight. And if it’s only dawn, it can’t’ve been that long since I got here.”

The boy’s deputy almost reached into the pocket in his jacket, only to remember his Mobile Documenting Agent wasn’t there to show him the exact time. “Well, as long as it’s alright with Theo, I’ll let you be.”

With that, Bailey unstraightened. “Thanks, Sam. What’re you up to right now, anyway?”

“Just the morning walk,” he replied with a shrug. “I guess you could say I came for warmth, too, but I think I’ve had enough for now.” Picking himself off the ground, Sam brushed some of the dirt off his pants. He then almost immediately sat back down, remembering a promise he had made to a girl just the day before.

“Actually – I’m wanting to know: have you made any plans for your upcoming adult life?”

A little surprised to hear the deputy asking such a question and slightly annoyed that he had to answer when his mind was still so fuzzy, Bailey almost hesitated to reply. “I have some thoughts,” he answered. “There’s nothing serious yet, since – since all I want to do is just hunt and guard things for the rest of my life.” He gave a shrug. “It might sound boring, but that’s what I wanna do and I’m already doing it.”

“I suppose that is fair,” Sam acknowledged. “But what about your family – the one you haven’t started yet?”

If Bailey were drinking something at that moment, he might have choked and coughed up whatever he had in his cup. “I,” he stammered, “I don’t know about that yet.”

“You haven’t thought about any of the girls lately?” Sam prodded, almost teasing. “You know, Amity Shafer turns fourteen today. She’s available and she’s skilled – been helping Macy since she was seven!”

Bailey pondered it for a moment. “I still don’t know about that,” he confessed. “I don’t talk to her much.”

“Then start talking to her! You already know where she lives, anyway.” At this point, the deputy almost seemed to go into a full-on uncle mode, filling the role that Bailey’s father could never fill himself.

For a moment, the only noise between Sam and Bailey was the occasional sizzling pop and crackle from the fire in front of them. It took longer than Sam kept track of for him to hear a heavy huff from Bailey.

“I’ll think about it.”

It wasn’t a confirmation, but it was at least something. Once again Sam picked himself up and cast a smile on the boy. “There you go! Just be patient with these things, alright? Anyway – let me know how things go if you ever decide to try it out with a lady around her; I’ve gotta get going.” With that small goodbye, Sam continued on his walk.

Of every tent he passed by, only one of them indicated consciousness – and that might have only been because somebody was talking in their sleep. He waved to the occasional guard he passed by, but otherwise the entire trek through was quiet, umbrageous – no words spoken other than the voices bouncing in his own head.

If he was correct, Shafer and the handful of scouts he supervised would be looking through the outskirts just east of camp – through what remained of Kortrik. The information Sam had received in regard to the passage was of great concern – hence he did not want anyone going down there just yet, no matter how much they thought they knew of the place. Hopefully this time they would listen.

But before he went to the outskirts, Sam needed to pay a visit to Macy’s tent. By now the woman was likely sewing up some of the children’s damaged clothes.

Beyond the medical and girls’ large tent, he made it over to Macy’s little shelter. Her silhouette perched atop the silhouette of a chair indicated to him that she was more than willing to have him come in. With that, he shook one of the tent poles before unzipped the front flap and stepping inside.

From the other side, the old woman cast a smile. “Well, hello Mister Deputy!” she said with a chuckle. “I take it you’ve come for the MDA?”

He let out a chuckle, himself. “You know it.” As he stood by, he glanced down at the pair of pants Macy held in her lap, its cotton well past its prime, with some holes puncturing through one of the legs. Near the legs, he noticed a disturbing amount of blood – as well as some patches Macy had tried sewing, though they did little to hide the bloodied clothing.

“I see you’ve taken an interest in Mira’s new-and-improved pants,” said Macy, an air of regret falling flat in her voice. “The girls really tried earlier to get these blood stains out, but it don’t look like they’re coming out now.”

“Oh,” Sam replied. “I guess if she doesn’t have any pants, that would explain why she covered herself in a blanket when I saw her.”

“Mm-hm!” Macy replied. “She and Esther are a bit weird, but it’s nothing to fret over – though Mira sure is an aloof one. Sort of reminds me of a man I used to know.” She held he gaze on Sam.

A little discomforted, Sam returned her gaze with a confused leer. “What – you mean me?”

Macy halfway rolled her eyes. “No, Sam; I said another man. Silly boy.”

Had he not known this woman all his life, he might have taken that as insult. “Cute,” he replied. “But anyway – I’ll just be taking the MDA if you’ve got it all charged up and ready.”

“Sure,” said Macy.

Without another word, Sam reached for the station where all the MDAs were stored – all twelve of them. It was the camp’s only means of communicating wirelessly with others – and the only way to do so without potential Autorian interference. Sam did find it odd that Macy was the one in charge of this tower, but that was likely not to last, as there were others who worked on the station more often than Macy did – where she was a mere host of its current dwelling.

Opening the flap at the front of the device, Sam booted the MDA on.

“By the way – when you see Shafer, could you tell him to come over when he’s done with the scouts? I need someone to watch the ladies in their tent.”

A little taken aback, Sam, eyes glued to his still-booting device, hesitated. “Watch them in their tent? Like, he’ll be watching them sleep?”

It sounded a little strange when said out loud, but Macy confirmed this. “Yes – just so we can be safe.”

He cast a look toward Macy and blinked, then shook his head and gave an amused roll of his eyes. “Well, alright then! I’ll tell him when I get there.” As he spoke those last few words, his device finally loaded beyond the boot screen.

It took a moment for him to load his messages – only to find that he had received new data from Director Persson (as to be expected) and a few others, but nothing from Shafer. Looking down the list, he didn’t receive confirmation that Shafer had even read his last message.

“Hey,” he began. “When was the last time you saw Shafer around here, anyway?”

“Oh – he’s been in the fields all night,” Macy replied, then hesitated to speak further. “I actually haven’t seen him since he first talked to the ladies.”

Sam blinked again. “Oh – oh God.” The last message he has sent was in regard to the passage. If Shafer hadn’t received the message, then – “I’ve gotta go.” In a hurry, he left the scene.

At this hour, most of Shafer’s scouts were probably still waking up. So long as Shafer wasn’t in a hurry to get things moving, Sam could stop the scouts from going down to the passage yet. The fact that Shafer wasn’t able to answer the message gave Sam more anxiety than he cared to admit. Returned message or no, he was not going to be responsible for their own men getting lost in the passage.

Going up over the hill and around the river, Sam peered here and there, trying to find any tents that the scouts had set up. It took a few minutes of running around for him to find them – and to find, to his relief, that a handful of people were awake, including Shafer.

The deputy gave a deep sigh as he made his way over. Not wanting to waste any time, he shouted for the man’s attention. “Is anyone down in the passageways?”

“The passageways?” asked Shafer. “You’re talking about the one those two women went down, right?”

By the time Sam could reply, they were already close enough that they no longer needed to shout. “Yeah – those.”

“No, sir,” replied the scout leader. “We’re thinking of doing it today, but we don’t have to.”

“Don’t,” Sam insisted. “I tried getting a message to you yesterday, but after talking to those ladies, I think it’s best that we all make some plans before we go down. There’s some things they told me about that they found down there which are really strange – stuff that I wouldn’t suspect would be there if the place has really been untouched for as long as you’d think it’s been.”

There was a flash of disappointment on Shafer’s face, but he did not protest. “Whatever you say, mister Deputy.” The last two words came out almost condescending. Shafer was fortunate that he had held his position as the scouting head for a longer time than even the Director had held a position in power; Sam’s predecessor wouldn’t have taken kindly to being talked to in such a way.

Shrugging Shafer’s mild sarcasm away, Sam attempted to back up his position. “Once the ladies wake up, I’m fixing to take Esther to Persson so we can get a few things settled, maybe even make plans for what to do when we get down there.”

“You should probably bring her into the passage at some point,” Shafer added. “Ask her about that place she went in. See that she didn’t uncover anything that might be a detriment to us. Maybe ask what the hell she found in that room in the first place.”

“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Sam admitted. “If we’re going to put this outsider to good use, may as well take the opportunity before she starts demanding more recognition or some form of compensation from the Director.”

Now awash with relief, Sam, now smiling, let out an elated sigh. “If we can get back to business, though: is there anything else you’ve found since yesterday’s storm? Nobody else wandering outside?”

“Nope – got no one out there. Just those two ladies and that was it.”

“I see,” Sam returned. “So now that you and the scouts aren’t going to be headed to that passage, are there any top-priority tasks for you to handle today?”

“Top-priority? Not really.” he shook his head. “Why’s that?”

“Macy has another task for you.” Half-expecting a groan on Shafer’s part, Sam paused after speaking, then continued when he received no such reaction. “She wants you to go into the ladies’ tent and watch them. Not just sit outside the tent, but actually watch them inside.”

Raising an eyebrow, Shafer hesitated to reply. “She wants me to watch two women while they’re sleeping.”

Sam pursed his lips. “Yeah.”

Hardy able to contain himself, the scout head cracked a smile. “Good thing I’m not a pervert. Sure – I guess I’ll do it. I take it that means you’ll be looking after the scouts once they wake up?”

“That’s the idea,” Sam admitted. “So I’ll come back in about two hours?”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Shafer nearly let the deputy go before he realized one more thing: “Oh, but before I forget!” he exclaimed, startling Sam as he took a device out of his pocket. He took a moment to flip the lid open and dial through, making sure what he had there was in order. With a nod, he closed the lid and handed the device to Sam. “If you could, I have a message that needs delivering.”

Back to Macy’s area for Sam, it seemed. “Is it another thing for the sujourne?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “We might be getting Rouken here soon.”

With that in mind, Sam almost felt the need to treat the device with more care than he otherwise normally would have. Slipping it into the inner pocket of his jacket, he acknowledged Shafer’s concerns. “I’ll make sure it gets there.”

With that, Sam wrapped up their meeting, taking a quick look through the messages in Shafer’s MDA once the man was out of eyeshot. There he found a new message saved as a draft:

Rouken,

I don’t have much to report for this week’s letter, other than to say that we made it to the remains of Kortrik and have set up camp. There are a few things that still need to be ironed out, but otherwise, we’re doing alright for ourselves.

The suspicious thing now is that right when we got things settled here, two girls from outside managed to find us. I don’t know if they were following us from somewhere or if it was just coincidence that they appeared when they did, but we haven’t seen anything else suspicious, which leads me to believe we will be alright for now.

So far we haven’t found anything in relation to those “highwaymen” you were talking about, but we might have just found a lead. One of the girls was actually someone we found in a passageway beneath the western side of the ruins. I’m planning on taking my scouts in there today. I’ll let you know what happens when we get in.

Phil Shafer

Sam closed the message with the mildest of confusion. This was the first time he had heard of these so-called highwaymen.


Did I just release two chapters within one week? I think I just did! Round of applause, cause holy shit!

Anyway — Discord is open for all. See you next chapter!