Infiltration Part3.2 – Cadaver

Esther had silently uttered those two words so many times that they were starting to sound like an incantation. After the talk she had had with Mira before Sam and Macy walked in, Enflamiere Mírre were the only words on her mind – and so would remain to be the case until she made it to this spot she had been assigned to clean up.

Now that Mira was about to start doing work with the girls around camp, she and Esther would need to get used to having much less time to communicate with each other. The fact that they had no way of communicating from far apart had resulted both of them to vow not to abandon each other, no matter the circumstance.

“That sounds like a universal principal we would want to follow regardless of what happens,” Esther had argued.

“You’re probably right,” Mira agreed. “But if we were to run into an emergency situation and our need for survival started to override our need to carry out the mission, one of us could easily forget about the other and decide to abandon the mission altogether. And with no direct link, there is no way for us to keep the other from retreating unless we make this vow.”

After getting trapped in the passageway’s inner workings, Esther had to admit that there were times where she would have much rather gone back to Rhobane and start over – but she realized that now more than ever, the two of them needed each other if they were to return to the Domain in one piece.

“Okay,” Esther said with a nod. “But should we maybe try to set up a schedule of some kind to meet up and go through everything we’ve found – if nothing else, to keep track of ourselves.”

For some reason, Mira seemed hesitant to comment on the matter, pausing for an unusually long amount of time. “We could, but I’m a little concerned about what some of the girls may think of us.”

“What do you mean?”

Mira stiffened where she sat. “Don’t you remember what that older girl said the other day?” she remarked. “You don’t suppose the other girls actually believed what she was saying was true, do you?”

“You mean when Amity insinuated we were both a couple?” Esther asked.

“Yes,” Mira confirmed. “Do the other girls really think that?”

Esther paused for a moment to see if she could recall any such instances, but nothing came to mind. “Even if they do think that, they don’t seem to dislike me at all for it. They shouldn’t have any problems with you, either, considering how well things have gone so far.”

“We still need to make a decision on this,” Mira protested. “So here is what I propose: if someone directly asks one of us if we’re a couple and they won’t leave us alone about it, just say that we are.”

Her partner’s demands left Esther with more questions than answers. “Is there a reason why?” she wondered.

“There will be no use arguing against it if the girls already think we’re a couple. If we just let them believe that the rumor is true, then we won’t have to try arguing against them.”

Still Esther didn’t quite understand. “What would happen if we tried arguing against something that we both know is objectively false?”

“In this case, because we’re newcomers and because they still don’t know me all that well, it would just make us look worse in the community’s eyes.”

It didn’t make a lot of sense to Esther, but she could at least understand Mira’s concerns. “Okay,” she replied. “If we really need to, we can tell them we’re a couple – only as long as it’s something that needs to be brought up.”

“Good,” Mira commented, feeling more comfortable now that Esther had quelled the worst of her fears, at least for the time being. “But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we need to do something about the machines and the generator you found down there once I’m able to go with you.”

If Mira were a stress-burdened human soldier sent on a mission to infiltrate a terrorist organization, she definitely would have had a lot to complain about when it came to their infiltration as it currently stood. So far Esther had done all of the excavation – and even though she had only been in the tunnels twice, she still had a much firmer grasp on what rested underground than Mira. Now that she thought about it, even the camp’s scouts had a better idea what this threat was than Mira did. Again: if Mira were a stress-burdened human, as conscious as she already was of her situation and as seriously as she took her work, the anxiety of failure – even so early into their mission – was sure to drive her over the edge.

“And what if the machines down there become too much of a problem for us to handle? Even before you’re fully healed?”

Mira did not hesitate. “Then we retreat.”

Retreating from these bugs didn’t sound realistic at all, given what she had already witnessed of them so far. With the ability to roll up and mobilize as they did, there was little one could do to escape them on foot. “No matter what?” she asked.

“No matter what.” Again Mira sat up, firm. “And it’s like I said earlier: until the machines become a definite threat, we stay here.”

As far as Esther was concerned: as long as those machines had a master at work to round up the slaves, the machines were a definite threat. Whoever was in charge remained to be seen, but Esther had little reason to believe that the person in charge of the bugs was one of these luocans – at least not any of the ones she had encountered so far, which was most of them in camp. These sujourne, meanwhile, looked like potential perpetrators, but still she could not be too sure.

Esther remembered the phrase again: Enflamiere Mírre. She remembered to repeat it in her head. The more she said it, the more it sounded like a prayer.

Feeling as if the words had started playing an endless loop, taking up virtual memory within her head, Esther remembered what Sam had told her about her job. She had been tasked to work with one of the sujourne to clean things up.

There were several other things Bertha would have rather done than watch a bunch of prepubescent boys scout the area for information. Part of her had hoped that the Director’s demands to have her keep watch of scouts included keeping watch of Faust, but she and Faust knew that was not the case at all, with or without Rouken there to remind them.

By now Rouken and Tarren had gone off to their own duties, leaving Faust and Bertha to cope for the time being. They took the long way around to the tower instead of going through the noise that all the nomads out here had made. Some were busy digging through the findings they had made in the passageways, some had started cooking the next meal for the rest of the camp already, but it seemed most of the nomads here – scouts or otherwise – were here to prepare this place to be the foundation of something greater.

Faust and Bertha traveled near a broken, rusty train track, which carried them around all the other workers, rather than cutting through them. It wasn’t long before Faust realized Bertha had likely chosen this method of getting to their destination as a deliberate way of keeping him as far away from post-traumatic stress as possible. Despite what he assumed were attempts on her part, Faust couldn’t refrain from commenting on the landscape ahead of them.

“There used to be a bunch of cats over there,” he said, eyeing a nondescript area among the debris. “An old lady would come out and feed them, and then go back inside for the rest of the day.”

Bertha, just by his side, cracked an empathetic smile. “You don’t say.”

He huffed at the lack of genuine interest.

“Do you think there are any cats around here still?” she offered.

“If there really were any left, they all would have been scared off by now.” Subconsciously, the boy pulled the knife out from the holster at his boot and proceeded to dangle it by the paracord thread before catching the grip in his bandaged palm and tangling the cord in his thumb, blade facing downward. “All the noise we brought here and whatever the highwaymen are doing scared them off.”

Bertha said nothing in response, likely worried she had already said way too much if she had already triggered another one of his tirades.

“No one here knows about Rina Aris, do they?”

Narrowing her eyes at the apprehensive teen, Bertha almost struggled to keep up with Faust, who had suddenly started speeding ahead. “Faust – I don’t even know who that is,” she claimed, then paused. “Wait, is that the person—?”

“Yes,” Faust interrupted. “The psycho.”

Now that he had brought her up – what was more: mentioned her by name – she knew she needed to ask further questions. Faust was more than willing to taint the present with the horrid memories of the past. “And all this time I thought you’d repressed the name from memory,” Bertha said with a chuckle.

Faust sneered. “Can’t repress the name, or the face, or the voice, or what she said before stabbing my grandparents in cold blood.”

At the risk of stirring the pot even more than she already had, Bertha spoke up again. “And what did she say?”

“You’ll laugh at it,” Faust said with a scoff, followed by a deep, unshaky breath. “Before going back into the room with the two of them, she made me stay where I was, said ‘don’t mind me,’ while she had a knife in her hand.”

“So you listened to her?”

His lips pursed. “Yes. I shouldn’t have, but yes.”

“And I didn’t know you were living with your grandparents, instead of your parents,” Bertha commented, receiving a silent stare from Faust. “I won’t ask why.”

“Of course,” he grunted, trying not to roll his eyes. “And, you know, I was a giant pushover back then.” Though he would have argued that he still was a pushover. “So I just did what she said and then…I think you know how it goes.” With those last few words, the knife in his hand trembled a bit.

In a rush, Bertha placed a hand around his wrist, slowing him from doing anything reckless with the knife, surprising him as he had nearly forgotten what it was like for someone to physically try stopping him from doing something he would regret.

“That woman is in the past,” Bertha argued. “And in spite of what you’re obviously wanting from her, she is not here. Nobody knows who she is and we are all better off leaving that fragment of the past where it belongs.”

“No records or anything?” Faust sneered. “I find it hard to believe that people would have forgotten about that killer. Like they’d just forget their history.”

Rather than Faust, it was Bertha who snapped. “Look around you! Do these people care about what came before them to lead them where they are now? No – of course not. Everyone here is living for the present so that we don’t enter a shitty future. We don’t have the convenience of prioritizing the past like you once did, and you shouldn’t be dwelling on something you can’t change anyway.

“But even then,” she said, sighing. “My point is that the odds people know about this Rina chick are pretty low, wouldn’t you think? Unless Rina destroyed a giant monument or building, there’s no reason for anyone alive today to remember someone who probably got the death penalty once they were found.”

By now Faust’s destination had come within eyeshot. The brick tower he was assigned was starting to appear less like a stump in the ground and more like an unfinished building. Near its base there was a large bell that had likely fallen from the tower – yet despite the fact that it had fallen outside the tower’s base area, the bell stood upright as if it had fallen straight down. He could only guess the top of the tower had broken off from the rest, and then the bell broke off from that, but he had no way of knowing for sure.

“Faust, listen,” Bertha continued, just barely keeping the boy’s attention. “If the person you’re talking about here was someone on the level of Al Capone, I think even I would know about her.”

It had taken the brooding teen a moment to realize his sororal friend had placed a hand on his shoulder – to realize she had also taken the knife out of his hand.

His eyes dilated, unable to comprehend how she had just swiped the knife away from him so effortlessly. He could barely see the whites of her teeth behind her curling, smiling lip as she held the knife arm’s-length away from him.

“You really do black out quite a lot, don’t you?” Bertha commented.

Faust grabbed the knife right back, the soft edges of his fingers caressing the flat end of the blade. “Do not do that again!”

Her mouth flattened in a straight line and she raised both eyebrows. “Don’t black out, then.

“Still – you get what I mean?” she continued. “The bitch wasn’t any sort of crime lord by any means, so there’s no reason for anyone to remember. If they really have records on her, it beats the hell out of me where you’d find them! Maybe you’ll get lucky and find the docs in the passage, or maybe you’ll get so lucky that they fall out of someone’s ass, but the odds of anyone actually knowing about Rina are slim to none for you. And that’s the truth.

“Anyway,” Bertha said, stopping. “We’re here. Don’t spend too much time on one spot or you’ll never get it done, alright?”

As she let him be, Faust could only contort his face into a frayed knot. He took another look at his hand just to see that no, Bertha had not taken the knife away from him again. Inhaling sharply, he placed it back into its holster, then exhaled with the same intensity. “Piss off,” he mumbled, his words nowhere near loud enough to hear from where she now was, walking further and further away. It wasn’t often that Bertha had managed to get on his bad side.

Whether or not this town had any records of Rina Aris, that didn’t change the fact that somebody here had to have known about her. Perhaps an elderly person or someone in charge of the nomads around here would have had an idea what had happened to the woman or if she was even still alive at all. Perhaps she continued her psychopathic tirade to this day, going so far underground that she never even had a chance to become the next Capone. The possibilities, to him, really were limitless as to what this woman could have accomplished when he was out of commission.

It was only after spending nearly ten minutes to his thoughts, aimlessly picking up debris and gathering it up into a pile, when Faust realized he had nothing to put it in. At the same time he realized he had been set to work a considerable distance from the closest people to him – what looked to be three or four blocks, at least from what he could tell based on the cracked streets and his memories of the place. With all the hills, Faust needed to rush up to the top of the nearest incline to get a good view at the rest of the activity in the area.

Most other people were in a group of some kind and each group was equipped with a pickaxe, sledgehammer, wagon – anything to help with the task. He was practically naked compared to them.

Scouring the land in front of him, it took a moment for the teen to refind Bertha among all the noise. It was only just after spotting her once again when he noticed an unfamiliar figure was heading his way. The woman had a pickaxe and a sledgehammer in one hand; she used the other to wave overhead at the teen.

“I heard you’re the man I’m supposed to work with!” she said with a somewhat tired smile. “My name is Esther – and you’re Faust?”

Faust blinked and rubbed his eye as if he had just broken out of sleep. “Yeah,” he replied.

Esther set the tools on top of the small pile of bricks that Faust had amassed. “I’ve been told to work with you today – so here I am!” As if taking pity on him, she took a close look down at the pile, no doubt amused by how puny it appeared next to the mostly-collapsed tower before them. Granted, the base of the tower contained hardly enough of an area to hold four people, two-by-two, shoulder-to-shoulder, but the heights it reached – even in its damaged state – was somewhat intimidating. It was just short enough for her to scale and feel comfortable enough falling from, but she dared not attempt such a feat in front of so many potential bystanders.

“I’ll let you choose first,” she offered, gesturing to the tools at her feet. At the same time, she tilted her head up to further examine the structure in front of her. “Are they expecting us to destroy and clean this thing without blowing it up first?”

“Blowing it up?” Faust asked, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t think these people have any dynamite on them.” He paused. “You’re new here, too?”

Esther let out a fake chuckle. “You got me!”

He grinned, slightly less vexed than he was before she had arrived. “I was starting to wonder if I’d be given a partner or not,” he admitted. “It looks like everyone else has one, but the girl who brought me here said nothing about that.”

“Did they not tell you that you were supposed to get a partner?” Esther wondered. “Because I would’ve assumed you would have already been made aware of that.”

“Either they did tell me that and I forgot because I’m a dumbass, or they didn’t tell me because I’m a dumbass.”

Esther hesitated to speak again. “Right. Still – the tool offer is still open.”

Having nearly forgotten, he shook his head and blinked a few times before choosing the pickaxe, slinging it over his shoulder as Esther went to pick up the hammer.

“Good,” Esther said, satisfied. Then, nonchalant, she recalled the comment he had just made. “‘They’ didn’t tell you? Who is ‘they?’” She paused for a second – still a second too long for Faust to make a proper reply. “Oh, wait – aren’t you with the sujourne?”

The boy could not see through her falsified naivete. “Yes,” he mumbled. “That’s why I stick out so much.”

“You don’t stick out that much,” Esther argued, sensing some rising angst behind the boy’s tongue. “I only knew you were sujourne from word of mouth. Plus, anyway, you asked me earlier if I was new here, ‘too,’ implying you’re also new.”

He bit his lip. “Right.” Wanting to get his work done and over with, the sujourne boy made his way to the tower – where he proceeded to start swinging at the tower’s base, smashing the structure away chunk by chunk. Quickly he realized he didn’t even need to throw his back into the swings, as several pieces of brick practically disintegrated upon impact.

Again Esther looked up ahead, tilting her nose in the air. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to destroy the base of this structure?” she wondered.

“It will be like chopping down a tree,” he protested. “Just wait for it to go timber, and it will.”

Esther cast a concerned glance. She was really starting to see why Sam wanted somebody to look after this boy. “I guess I’ll help you with that,” she said, slinging the hammer over her shoulder as she walked to the other corner of the tower from the same side as where Faust now was. “I am just giving you fair warning.”

“It’s fine,” he insisted.

Shaking her head, Esther took the hammer from her shoulder and swung the head down to shin-height, where she proceeded to smash a massive hole in the corner. Compared to Faust, who still barely needed to try to break this structure apart, her more-than-necessary effort left her feeling that if she were to utilize her strength to its fullest potential, this building would have fallen over in ten swings, maybe eleven at most. This in mind, she made a mental note to not swing so hard.

“Have you been with those other sujourne for very long?” she began.

He cast her a sidelong glance. “A few months.”

“I see,” she replied. “And what exactly are you doing when you travel out there? And aren’t you worried about the Domain finding and jailing you?”

“The Chief says our group is one of the several sujourne groups who travels to abandoned places specifically so that other nomads around the area don’t get caught by the Domain.” He sighed. “I don’t really get it, but apparently the Domain has a huge problem with people living outside the borders of its cities. But they rarely send any military forces out to invade and take care of anything they deem a threat.”

In response, Esther could only nod. It relieved her to hear such ignorance first-hand.

“And honestly?” Faust continued. “Whether the Domain catches me or not, I don’t really care.” He scoffed. “I guess that’s why the Chief had me come along: I wasn’t afraid of getting caught, stuffed in a bag, dragged and processed, and forced to work for some robot factory for the rest of my life.” After speaking, he let out a long sigh. “Sorry. I’ll shut up.”

“No, it’s fine!” Esther insisted. “I was the one who asked, anyway.” This in mind, she followed up: “So you’re aware of the generator and the robotic bugs underground?”

“God – I think so?” he replied. “I’ve had a lot of information dumped on me in the last few hours by that Director, but I’m pretty sure he mentioned generators and bugs. Probably something having to do with the highwaymen we’ve been looking for lately.”

“Highwaymen?”

Faust halted in the middle of his swinging. He cast the chatty woman a glance, lips pursed as he realized he had almost definitely said too much by now. The heat rose to the top of his head, making him sweat slightly before he eventually snapped. “Just shut up and help me take this damn thing down!”

His slight explosion didn’t catch Esther too off-guard, though she was disappointed that she couldn’t squeeze just the slightest bit more information out of him. Still, the amount she had received was plenty for now – but perhaps there would be somebody else who knew more about the operations around here. Surely the Director would have known, considering he had apparently told Faust a lot of top-secret information already.

“Okay, then,” Esther said, her tone dry. It was then when she realized she may as well have blown up her corner of the building with a stick of dynamite, as that seemed to have been the effect of her smashing the building over the last few minutes.

“I’m going to go to the other side,” she said, picking up her hammer. “Just be aware: I don’t know how much more this tower can take.”

Faust responded with little more than a simple “Okay” before Esther escaped his line of sight. Only once she made it to the other side did she realize how damaged this side really was. It seemed like there was once a unique top to this structure that had since been blown off – and, taking a look behind her, Esther could guess that the now-separated part of the tower had everything to do with the bell that stood behind her.

Suddenly she remembered: she and Mira had walked by this building before. There was no mistaking that this bell was the same one she had seen days ago – and for all the noise that surrounded them in this abandoned city, the presence of the broken, chimeless bell captivated her more than anything else.

Perhaps now was a good time to see if there as anything inside the structure – but without a door or steps, she would be forced to scale it. “I’m going to try climbing up this tower,” she called from the other side.

In response, she heard nothing – and with little hesitation, Esther dropped her hammer and took a large leap up to grab onto a ridge among the structure’s many aging bricks. It didn’t take long for her to get her footing – at which point she attempted to reach for an opening in what used to be the tower’s roof. Before she could get far, though, she was interrupted when she heard Faust stepping around the corner.

“Don’t do that!” he demanded.

She looked down at him from her vantage point, needing to peer under her forearm to see his face. “I already told you I was going to climb this thing!” she argued. “Why didn’t you say someth—”

Just when Esther attempted scaling even higher, a loud cracking sound emanated from the tower’s base – and almost immediately thereafter, the structure started to tip over, bringing Esther with it. In a panic, Faust stepped back, nearly tripping on his feet, and Esther jumped off the wall, falling backward and downward until she hit the bell. Almost right after she crashed in a move that likely would have ruptured most people’s spines, the tower hit the ground with an ear-shattering crash.

After the tower fell, the noise and air around Esther and Faust seemed to sizzle into silence.

“Are you okay?” Faust asked.

Unable to see him, Esther attempted to pick herself off the bell, only to realize that she had tipped it over, as well. She rolled over in an attempt to gain footing once more, but was interrupted when Faust gasped.

“Was that under the bell?” he shouted.

By now a small audience had gathered from other parts of the ruined town – but by the time Esther got back up, they were all fixated on whatever it was that she had unearthed.

There where the bell had once been was a skeleton – but unlike any human remains she had ever heard of, this one was radioactive, as she realized when her inner sensors picked up the unstable particles rising from the body like steam from a geyser.

Unable to reveal her ability to detect such an anomaly, Esther remained quiet, but backed away, letting the other luocans investigate.

Infiltration Part3.1 – Post-Traumatic

This meeting could have been going better if the Director didn’t speak a thousand words a minute. At the very least Sam could have been given a better way to track down his demands than through a basic MDA. Still he didn’t complain; he never complained.

If nothing else, the deputy was glad to at least be in the same meeting as the sujourne. For as meager as that sounded and as little to do with them that this actual meeting had, there was at least now that feeling that Persson trusted Sam to some greater extent than he did before.

“I may even put James on the case,” Persson tutted. “By now he has probably gotten tired of being my personal bodyguard, anyway.”

Giving a painstaking one-line-at-a-time scroll through his list of instructions, Sam struggled to make a proper response. “Sir? That’s already a lot of people ‘on the case’ – whatever that means. What would happen if those robots manage to make it to this part of camp while everyone who normally helps around this area is ‘on the case?’”

Persson leaned back in his chair. “I guess you are right. Never mind, then!”

For once a grunt came not from Sam, but from Faust. The noise was loud enough to direct everyone’s heads toward him, except for Sam’s. Quickly realizing he had just made that noise out loud, he promptly apologized; meanwhile Sam took another look through his list of demands.

  • Look over cleanup
  • keep track of findings; report to dir
  • accom for damages
  • lookat bluprints + confirm them
  • put these people ‘on the case’:

Even with an additional ten demands to follow, the list seemed small, considering everything the Director had been saying – but assuming Sam hadn’t just stopped listening to his demands at one point, this should have covered everything. One omitted factor made Sam scratch his head.

“Where do the sujourne fit into this?” he asked.

To his surprise, Bertha spoke up. “I was wondering the same thing, Director. It sounds like you just want us to do the same work as everyone else.”

“More or less,” Persson admitted.

Sam wasn’t sure, but he thought he could see Rouken’s fist tighten when the Director said that. Hoping to avoid a conflict, Sam cut back in. “So what exactly are each of them going to do?” As he asked, he began to worry that not even the sujourne knew what they were meant to do here.

The Director paused, then pointed to each one of them. “The girl can keep an eye on the scouts, the little boy can make a map of this place while we’re setting things up, and the other boy can help clean up.” With a nod, he added: “Rouken knows what he’s going to do.”

Even if the sujourne’s chief did know, he didn’t look entirely pleased with the way Persson was operating things around here.

“Okay, then,” Sam said. “Is there anything else?”

“Not that I can think of right now!” Persson replied. “But now that you have everything you need, you know what to do.”

Some part of Sam felt like he still didn’t know what to do, but seeing everyone else getting out of their seats and heading toward the tent exit, he decided to get up, as well. He caught a glimpse at Faust, noticing the way he sneered at the Director on his way out – as likely all the sujourne would have done if they all had that same lack of restraint.

With all the new changes of plans, the area just outside the Director’s tent was more bustling than ever before – almost as if everyone in camp had come here for lunch despite lunch already being served that day.

Just to make sure everything was in order, Sam looked down at his list of demands from the Director once again. He couldn’t think of much else to add, unless checking in with Faust was among one of the things he could have added to his list. Before he could do such a thing, he noticed Faust in a conversation with the other sujourne, who had huddled up away from the tent. Though he couldn’t tell what the conversation was, the looks on everyone’s faces painted a near-perfect picture of what Sam felt about this meeting, as well.

When their conversation was finished, Faust turned his head and shot a glance at Sam. There was definitely a flickering fire in those eyes, and Sam hardly needed to imagine why. As the sujourne started heading in the direction of the town ruins, Faust broke off from the rest of the group to head toward Sam. Sam almost had to choke back laughter from the pouty look on the boy’s face.

It felt like forever before Faust stopped and sighed. “Is that always how he assigns jobs to people around here?”

Sam felt like he needed to take a look and see if there was anyone else listening in on their conversation before he made any sort of response. “More or less,” he replied. “Your chief didn’t look too pleased about it, either.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Faust said, shaking his head. “He was pissed off. I’m not going to say the reason why because I don’t really know either, but he was pissed off.”

Sam thought the reason why was obvious, but he refrained from asking any further. “Don’t worry too much about it,” he said. “With any luck, once we get Kortrik running again, we’ll have someone else as mayor.”

Faust couldn’t help chuckle at that. “I don’t know if this place even had a mayor back when it was still working. Going from Director of a camp to a mayor of some place that’s barely put together doesn’t sound like an upgrade. And I don’t think your Director is smart enough to know that.”

Though he refused to make any direct reaction to the boy’s last comment, Sam couldn’t help but smirk.“I promise not to ask him about his future plans, then.” Quips aside, he remembered one more thing: “Do you have any idea where you’re going to be cleaning up?”

“No,” Faust grunted.

Sam rolled his eyes. “I guess he expected I would take care of that, too,” he muttered. “Okay, well: there should be a spot to the southeast of the ruins. There’s a bunch of bricks laying around near the base of a broken tower. I don’t know if anyone’s there right now, but that’ll be a good place to start .”

“A tower with lots of bricks. Got it.” By now Faust had started walking on his way over to the ruins. “Still sounds pretty boring.”

To that, Sam could only shrug. “Sorry, man; it’s the best I’ve got.”

Looking like he might fall asleep right there, Faust sighed. “Whatever. I’ll do it.” Without another word, he left the deputy to his business.

It was only after the sujourne had started making their way out when Sam remembered the women at Macy’s tent. As far as he was concerned, Macy only needed one of them.

The deputy took one last look over in Faust’s direction before heading back to the Director’s tent. From what little he could make out from the now-faraway figure, Sam wondered if there was something about the boy that the Director was keeping from him. Whether that information was supplied through Rouken or some other means, it didn’t matter; any information he could get would be good.

Sam walked in to see that Persson had already stepped straight out of his chair. He a almost couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

“Something else on your mind, Sam?” he asked.

“Just a couple things,” Sam began. “What do you know about that Faust kid?”

Persson perked up. “The older boy?” To Sam’s disappointment, the Director could only shake his head. “Seems like a lost cause to me. I don’t know why Rouken keeps him around.”

After the trash-talking Sam and Faust had done behind the Director’s back just now, Sam had not expected to be doing the same to Faust. “Really now?”

The Director shrugged. “Maybe he has some special talent. But he doesn’t contribute a thing to the sujourne!”

Whether or not that was actually true, Sam couldn’t help wincing a little at the Director’s words. Sam pondered a few of his own before letting them out. “Does Rouken really speak that poorly of Faust?”

“Oh, Rouken has never said anything about the boy,” Persson confessed. “But he just has a nasty attitude and I can’t tell what his role is in the group.”

Just as those words left the Director’s mouth, Sam wanted to smash his head against that same brick tower Faust was walking toward. Instead a simple “I see,” was all he said, before taking a deep, inaudible breath and changing the topic.

“I think now may be a good time to check on Macy’s women and see if Esther is good enough to work yet.”

“Is the other one still not?”

Wondering how bad the Director’s memory and judgment could possibly be, Sam shook his head. “I really doubt Mira is good enough yet to do any serious work. I think I saw her wearing crutches still last time I saw her.”

“Unfortunate, but understandable.” The Director stroked his beard. “Yes, I like the idea of Esther going to do some work out there. I’ll let you decide.” Though immediately after speaking, he looked as if he regretted laying such a burden on Sam.

“I’ll go get her, then,” Sam assured. “Thanks.” Just as quickly as he had entered, Sam left the tent and proceeded to make his way back to the two women. Even with all the noise around him, nobody seemed to pay him any mind, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Every other place in camp was getting ready for the possibility of an invasion, explosion, or general devastation when local forces failed to apprehend these alien enemies. Almost every district around camp was more chaotic than ever before – with the only exception being the girls’ district, which had its own dramas to worry about.

For Toni, she hoped more than anything that her own dramas with Amity were over. All the other girls were outside, leaving her and Cynthia to redress and gather up everyone else’s worn-out clothes for the week.

Placing Toni’s still-soaking clothes with the rest of the girls’, Cynthia grimaced. “They still feel cold,” she mumbled.

Toni sniffed. “You think so?” she mumbled, her nose still clogged. “Because I’m cold all over.”

Most likely unsure how to take that comment, Cynthia declined to say anything further. The two of them moved from Macy’s tent back to the main tent – where, as it seemed was becoming the norm more and more every day, nobody was there but the two of them.

Before the scouts had discovered those robots in the passageway, it seemed Amity was going to be the only person to leave – her and her alone. Even then, her departure was never meant to be anything more than a minor hindrance to anyone who wanted to see her again after her birthday. With the newfound machines in the tunnels becoming the talk of the entire camp, Amity was probably off doing work for the scouts down there – and with this stake she had wedged in their relationship for seemingly no reason, Amity may as well have gone to live her life in the tunnels at this point.

The girl’s shoulders slumped as she took in a deep, shaky breath, catching the attention of Cynthia – who remained quiet still.

By now Toni had gone on for autopilot so long that she was hardly aware of the bedsheets she had gathered from the other girls’ beds. “Do you remember Zoe?”

The youngest assistant tilted her head. “Who is that again?”

“She used to be the oldest assistant,” Toni explained. “When she left, Amity became the oldest.”

Suddenly Cynthia perked up. “Oh! The brown-haired one?” she said with a gasp.

Hearing Cynthia’s reaction gave Toni some much-needed elation. Her lips turned up in a smile. “Yes, that one!” she giggled. “She was around for years; it felt like she was one of the assistants for as long as I can remember. When I was eight, she became an adult – and a year later we never saw her again.”

“She didn’t die, did she?” Cynthia asked, her voice raised to such a level that Toni turned to look her in the eye, seeing a genuine flash of concern in her blue-eyed gaze.

Feeling a little amused by the sudden concern, Toni hesitated for a second before responding with: “No. At least, I don’t think she did. But at some point when we were all traveling through the hills and swamps and half of us went on that split, we went to Kortrik when she and everyone she traveled with went some other way.”

“I hope she’s okay,” Cynthia muttered, then groaned. “I wish you hadn’t reminded me of her; now I’m all worried!”

Now that she had said all of this out loud, Toni suddenly felt a little worried, as well. “Still, that’s not why I brought her up,” she insisted. “I brought her up because…” She blinked, unsure how to say the next part. “Because when she left, things felt different.”

“Different than what?”

“Different than when Amity left.”

“Amity didn’t really leave, though,” Cynthia corrected. “She’s still around.”

Suddenly Toni understood why Amity tended to lash out at her and Cynthia. “No!” she clarified. “She’s not! She’s barely the same person anymore and it’s hardly been a week!” In the midst of her tirade, Toni had dropped some of the sheets in her hands. While down on her knees, she felt Cynthia’s shadow towering over her.

The younger girl looked down her nose at the clambering assistant. “Just stop worrying about her!” she shouted. “She’s a busy woman now.”

Toni got back over her feet, Cynthia’s head now at the same level as her abdomen. Beyond her intent, she started bending over the younger assistant. “She’s barely a woman – now stop arguing with me about it!”

It took Toni a moment to remember to breathe again. By the time she did, Cynthia had already walked away and returned to retrieve all the sheets Toni had not already fetched herself.

An apology started to build in the back of her tongue, but she dared not let it go free. Knowing they likely had a limited amount of time before the other girls returned, she sighed and picked up the rest of the sheets – at which point she and Cynthia started heading back to Macy’s tent, only to realize she and the other girls had gathered up in front of their usual area not far from the tents. Along with them, Sam had apparently just come along.

It looked like Macy was going to need assistance from one or both of them at any minute. As Toni and Cynthia walked by in the distance, almost trying not to be spotted, Macy continued chattering on with Sam. Toni almost flinched when Macy caught a glimpse at them, but her worries were all for nothing, as the woman proceeded to pay them no heed, as if she and Cynthia were invisible to her.

Once they were at Macy’s, Toni almost wanted to continue the conversation, but she wondered why they should even bother with that. Once one of them inevitably started yelling like the embittered brats they were, Macy or Sam was sure to come right in without a word.

Gathering some of the dirty laundry in a pile, the oldest looked up to see the MDA docking station that their mentor had left hidden away in the back – or at least as well-hidden away as such a heavy piece of machinery could be. For what felt like a few seconds but more likely had equated to a few real-world minutes, she wondered what it must have taken for Toni to gain the confidence, desire, and tenacity to ask Macy for an MDA when the only people allowed to have them were adults – and privileged adults, at that. What level of discipline must it have taken for her to be able to keep that a secret for as long as she did?

Now that Toni actually did know about that device and the fact that Amity had been writing on it this entire time, what were the odds that Toni would be granted permission to use one, as well? Moreover, did Zoe have one for herself, or was Amity such a special case in that that Macy would’ve only ever allowed her to have such devices to herself? There was only one way to find out for sure without letting Macy know that Amity – only at the very end – had managed to blow her secret, and that one way was on the other side of camp.

But maybe she could ask Macy. Amity would be the one in trouble for blowing her secret literary endeavors. Perhaps later on, Cynthia wouldn’t be allowed to have an MDA despite all the begging she might have to do – so maybe Toni would be the last lucky girl to use an MDA as Amity had.

Before she could truly begin to contemplate asking, the woman in question walked right through the tent entrance – though, surprisingly, not with Sam, but with a smile on her face nonetheless.

“Good thing I saw the two of you earlier,” the older woman said, beaming. “Sam is talking to the ladies right now. Given Mira’s recent condition, it’s possible the two of you may be working with her soon.”

Knowing Amity probably would have loudly groaned with that information if she was still here, Toni sniffed.

“Does that mean she and Miss Esther are going to be working with us at the same time?” Cynthia asked, her head tilted as she struggled to meet the old woman’s gaze.

Macy chuckled. “Most likely not. What with all the work happening in the outskirts, I think Sam may have something completely different for her to do. Speaking of…” She paused and took a look at the clothes and sheets the girls had brought with them. “I think I will be able to take care of everyone for now. You two have obviously been busy with laundry. Why don’t you go clean that all up, since you seem so eager to get it out of the way?”

Struck as if they had just been offered a lucky break, both Toni and Cynthia nodded. “Yes, Miss,” they said in unison.

Now that they had a plan for the time being, Toni and Cynthia were left alone as Macy went back to the other girls. Before Toni could even ask, Cynthia blurted: “Wanna get the water?”

Toni almost flinched when the younger assistant spoke. When she cast a glance at Cynthia, she saw a cat-like smirk on the girl’s face. She had forgotten that Amity was usually the one to suggest Cynthia fetch the water, but now that it was just two of them, Toni realized, she would need to have that same energy Amity always brought when forced to be in the same room as the two of them, lest she end up being the one who did all the menial labor.

Cynthia’s smirk wasn’t going anywhere. Realizing she had let this happen, Toni sighed and nodded. “Alright. You remember how to organize everything, though, right?”

“Of course I do!” Cynthia said with a snort. “Now go.”

Toni did as instructed, leaving Cynthia to her work. There probably would have been more work involved in the process of fetching water now that the scouts were overworked now more than ever – but it still was better than having to go fetch it from the lake.

Understanding this, Toni went to retrieve the bucket from the women’s tent. It was only when she reached their tent when she heard Sam’s voice, and realized he was still busy with the two women.

You’ll be working with one of the sujourne we brought along the other day,” he explained, Toni assumed, to Esther. “He’s going to be cleaning up.” From where she stood outside, Toni was unable to make out the words following that.

“Excuse me?” Toni called from outside. “I need a bucket.”

Within seconds, Sam opened the tent flap. “Oh, hi Toni,” he said before turning his head to the two women. “Do you know where that is?”

“I’ll get it,” Esther said. “Is there anything else I need to know about the job I’m going be doing?”

Lowering his voice, but not enough to escape Toni’s earshot, Sam replied with: “Just be self-aware around him.”

“Got it.” With that, Esther fetched the bucket, then walked out to hand it to Toni. “You’ll be working with Mira now,” she said. “I think you’ll get along nicely!”

For some reason Toni felt like Esther was trying to cover something up – but by the time she could even think to ask that, Esther was well beyond earshot. With a sigh, Toni took her bucket and proceeded to head to the scouts’ area.

To her surprise, she didn’t have to try very hard to avoid the other girls. By now Macy had taken everyone else out to a more discreet location, each child bearing a cloth in hand. Toni assumed they were sewing and began to wonder if it was a good idea to do that outside – but then considering how still the wind had stayed throughout this day, it seemed as good a day as any to do it outside. Hopefully the scouts wouldn’t blow anything up, and thereby spook one of the girls into messing up their pattern.

With so many people occupying the ruins, there were not as many scouts in their district as usual, but – as if to make up for this fact – plenty of adults from around camp had taken their place, if only for a few minutes at a time. Toni worried for a moment that the adults had moved the water pot, as well – and gave a relieved sigh when she saw they hadn’t.

Even better: the water was just barely warm enough to be steaming. That in mind, Toni proceeded to take a scoop of the liquid for herself. It was only right after doing so when she realized someone might not have liked her doing that without asking. She looked over her shoulder to see a man watching by.

“Go ahead, miss,” he called out with a grin. “Plenty for everyone.”

It had been so long since she’d last done this simple task that she’d forgotten if she still needed to get permission from someone before just taking water. Even still, she couldn’t help letting out another sigh before heading back.

Though she struggled a little to not get herself wet, she managed just fine, returning to Cynthia without tripping or making a mess of things. It was only when she got to Macy’s tent when she struggled with getting the flap open, but that was quickly resolved once Cynthia opened it up for her.

“Did you ride a turtle to get there?” Cynthia quipped.

“Oh, stop. I wasn’t gone that long,” Toni said, rolling her eyes.

“Whatever,” the younger girl replied, sticking her tongue out. “By the way: I found something in your pockets!” Before Toni could ask what, Cynthia held up what initially looked like a key. It took a moment for her to realize it was one of the drives from that dark office room.

“What the –?” Toni blurted with a flinch. “Where did you find that?”

“In your pocket.”

“That’s impossible – or, I thought it was.” Of all the things that had happened so far these past twenty-four hours, this was the most bemusing. “I thought all of them fell out of my pockets when –!”

“This one has two parts,” Cynthia cut in, demonstrating for Toni to see. She pulled the device apart near the midsection, where a round peg went into a round hole. The part with the round hole ended with a trapezoid shape on the other side. “This part where they meet up was caught in the clothing. Plus: this thing is tiny!”

Both because of derision or her cold, Toni snorted. “Do you think it would even work, then?”

“I dunno. Does it matter, though?”

“Miss Esther might want to see that.”

“Miss Esther isn’t here now. And she might not be for awhile.”

Toni pursed her lips. “That’s right; damn it.”

Cynthia seemed a little surprised at Toni’s language, but continued nevertheless. “Maybe we can find something that can use these.”

“I doubt it,” Toni said with a huff. She then proceeded to take the drive pieces out of Cynthia’s hands and putting them back together. “I appreciate you finding this and not destroying it, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it other than give it to Esther.” Though as she looked at the drive, she couldn’t help wondering if she had seen the trapezoid-looking shape before. It clearly went into something – but what that thing was remained to be seen.

“So, what now, then?” Cynthia wondered. “Are we going to clean the sheets now or what?”

Toni had almost forgotten about that until Cynthia mentioned it. “Right. Let’s get started.”


I’m back, I’ve written a plan for the rest of the serial, and as always, Discord is open!

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 Part1.3 – Disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had to question: why not a human?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enflamiere Mírre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donadieu hā̷̻̙͒̿̃̂͛͗̏̀͛͐̀͋͑͌̚̕͠s̸̱̦͍̳͚̫̎́̿̀̀̀̇͂́͂̐͆̍̑ ̴̨̨̢̭̫̩̱͇͇̺̠̦͔̂̈́̽̎͑̆́͊͆ë̷̡̨̨̨͇͎͓̩͖͖̱̥̳͖̞́̅͛͋̓̽̅̾̏̌̆́̈͌̚̚͝

But the transmission ended before it could finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Split!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.2 – Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy moaned and shook in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” answered Jeff.

“What about luocans of any kind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am about to return my gear to the station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did somebody steal it?

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

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

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

They had a plan to set up.


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

The Discord server is open, as always.

Infiltration Part1.1 – Ignite

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

Enflamiere Mírre.

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

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

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

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

Enflamiere Mírre.

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

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

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

e4-fm4 and e4-f85,

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

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

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

You are to return when one of the following occurs:

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

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

Enflamiere Mírre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not all citizens were so well-behaved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mira felt her holster. Still occupied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Come join the official Discord server!