“Miss, that’s not how Amity did it.”
“I don’t know how to do it the way she did,” Mira replied, keeping as level-headed a voice as she could.
“She didn’t tell you?” the injured child shot back, struggling to keep her hands away from the cut on her leg. “You should’ve learned from her.”
It was no use arguing. How Esther had managed to do all this work in the last few days was beyond Mira’s comprehension. It made her wonder if Esther had secretly become a pathological liar in the time they had spent away from each other – so skilled in the art that she could synthesize pathos at a whim.
If Esther were just as bad at lying as Mira was and if Esther had suffered the same backlash from these children that Mira was receiving now, then Mira would have at least expected her partner to have mentioned something about it. Instead Esther behaved as if everything between her and these kids was going as well as expected, if not better.
This child – whose name, Mira had learned, was Gail – had managed to trip and fall on a sharp rock, causing the gash in her leg. Because Cynthia still had a fair amount to learn before she could properly do stitches and because Toni’s cold was not seeing any signs of improvement, Macy had tasked Mira with curing the wound, completely disregarding the fact that Mira had never been taught how to treat wounds, let alone treat a children’s injury by herself. Mira’s qualifications for the job were based on the assumption that all adults should have been able to complete any medical task with ease. In reality, Mira had anything but an easy time working with Gail – but after winning a war of attrition to settle the girl down, the newly-healed assistant managed to put the last bandage over the wound.
Mira gave the faintest smile once the bandage was set in place. “Does that feel better?” she said.
“It feels terrible,” Gail grunted.
“Well,” Mira continued, ignoring the girl’s negativity. “Now that I’ve fixed you up, what do you say?”
Gail sniffed, but did not say anything, her lips pursed, as if trying to keep any potential words from escaping.
By the time Gail left, Mira was by herself again – alone in the very tent she had spent so many days inside while Esther went off to carry their mission on her back. By now Toni and Cynthia were busy helping Macy keep track of all the other kids, as many of the other chores they would have otherwise taken care of today were either already completed or were now in Mira’s hands. The only thing Mira knew she still needed to take care of now was cleaning and organizing some of the medical supplies in her tent – which she was already in.
There were a few rags and needles that needed to be cleansed, as well as bandages and other disposable items that could be thrown into a fire. Mira found herself most intrigued by the alcoholic cleansers these luocans had managed to concoct. Using natural ingredients, they had managed to create their own medicine and sterilizers – and while these mixes weren’t as strong as what could be made in a factory, it was still impressive.
Mira had managed to remove several stains from the clothing before proceeding to cleanse the needles – at which point she noticed someone tugging on the tent from outside. After calling the visitor to come in, in came Esther – along with Faust and Sam.
Almost immediately Sam spoke for the lot of them. “There was an incident involving nuclear hazards,” he explained. “And I thought it would be best for the people involved to take some time off. Just in case they start feeling a little off, if you know what I mean.”
Though intrigued by the mention of nuclear hazards, Mira kept her thoughts to herself, responding initially to Sam’s announcement with a single blink. “Interesting.”
Sam paused. “Right. Well, I’m leaving Esther here for you – and if she’s not looking so good in about an hour, tell someone. Could be the sign of something much worse.”
The boy at Sam’s side had a very noticeable shade of anxiety coloring him from head to toe, leaving him much more readable than the otherwise expressionless Esther. Effectively sparing the gynoids the angst that was inevitably to come once the boy was dropped off at his destination, Sam nudged Esther inside. Again the luocans left the gynoids to their own devices.
“I didn’t think we’d be together alone in this setting again,” Mira bemoaned.
“Fortunately, nobody got hurt this time,” Esther said. “Well, that is debatable with Faust – but, truth be told, I heard he might have ended up hurting himself worse without me.”
“What was this nuclear essence you found?”
Esther took a seat on Mira’s bed. “It was part of a corpse we found under the fallen bell. Some of the luocans think the body might be someone who was killed in a nuclear explosion, but that isn’t what this body was; it was an AI’s body, without a doubt. And what’s more: it didn’t look like the same kind of body that I saw in the passages. The android I found there looked nothing like this one – but this one also didn’t have a head or limbs.
“The worst part of this is that I can’t tell if it was an etternel or not. All this ordeal has done is make me wonder what else the Mother did not tell us.” Struggling to piece everything together, she ran her fingers through her dirtied hair. “Why do I keep getting the feeling that She deliberately kept information away from us.”
“You know that is impossible,” Mira asserted. “Such basic details are things that the Mother knows already – and by extension, we should, too.”
“Then did I just not get briefed on it?” Esther asked. “Or are you just as unfamiliar with potential androids here as I am.”
Mira paused. “I don’t know any more than you do, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t think we’re faulty, do you? You don’t think our memory has been tampered with in some way?”
“Why would you think that?” Mira challenged. “I haven’t encountered any reason to believe our memories of our first day here are any worse than our memories of the day before.”
“Not that recent,” Esther insisted. When she thought about what they had done before reaching this place, she remembered waiting for Mira by the train station. She remembered waking up from her latest update from Rélhum. She remembered the mission they were tasked to do and when they were tasked to do it. The memories she needed to retain otherwise were held captive by the Mother, available for any etternel to see – but now without a direct connection to the Mother, her memories beyond the relative short-term were out of reach.
The earliest memory she had retained was only one: meeting Mira and becoming partnered with her. There was a time in Rhobane where they reminisced over their days as officers upholding the order in the city – and while she recalled her time remembering what had happened, the things she remembered were now lost to her, held by the Mother.
It seemed as though Mira was correct in that the the memories of their first day here were no more fragmented than the memories of yesterday, but everything about their time in Rhobane had started to become a complete and thorough void of nothingness, with nothing happening between the day they met and the day the left the Domain’s borders.
The data she had been given from the robot in the passageways – incomplete as it was – still remained just as intact for her now as it had then, but one thing about her encounter with the android struck out more than almost anything else: the loss of her identity. She was Esther, but the identifying number she had attached to herself and the number she had attached to Mira were now lost to her for reasons that only their distant Mother knew.
But thinking about the incomplete data that the android had given, Esther realized: “Maybe that body will have some of the information we’re looking for.”
Mira shot her partner a glance. “I don’t think it will be worth it,” she stated. “Even if that were true, there is no way the luocans would let us take the body for ourselves – and no way that we’d be able to get to it without them finding out.”
“So what, then?” Esther challenged. “Are we simply not going to do anything with this body?”
“Let’s just wait it out and make a plan when we’re ready,” Mira suggested. “See what the luocans do – then, if either of us get a chance, gather any data we can. Maybe we could also benefit from doing the same thing with the bug machines you discovered.”
Thinking of those machines again and the awful static noise they seemed to emit when she entered their hive, Esther wanted to shiver. If the recently-discovered body made her hear the same thing, she would have rather not touched it at all.
“Hey!” Cynthia hissed. “Hey! Don’t fall asleep on me!”
With wavering eyes, Toni tilted her head toward the younger assistant. “I’m not falling asleep,” she said, mumbling. “What do you need help with?”
“I don’t need help with anything,” Cynthia said. “But you were totally about to fall asleep.”
Toni sniffed harshly, barely able to breathe. “I’m not…” She sniffed again, resisting the urge to wipe her nose with her hand when she sat up a little straighter. “What’s going on, anyway?”
“Miss Macy is just showing the little ones how to weave baskets,” Cynthia explained, speaking out the corner of her mouth, not wanting their teacher to hear her. “Call it a hunch, but I’m pretty sure she’ll want us both to start helping out, too.”
As much as Toni wanted to groan at the idea of using more than two percent of her brain for the rest of the day, she chose instead to relish in the fact that she had some time to sit around, look alive, and shut her brain off with eyes wide open, stationary and calm like a resting fish. That was, at the very least, her plan – but now that Cynthia was catching on, Toni started to realize that maybe she wasn’t as good at staying awake as she first thought.
She relished in the quiet moments, but ultimately could not ignore the fact that she could barely breathe. Worse still: she had left her kerchief at her bed when she didn’t need to. She had pockets; her decision to not bring the cloth gave her absolutely no benefit whatsoever.
Considering today was not a laundry day, it should’ve still been under her bed. “Cynthia,” she murmured, nudging the girl in question. “I’ll be back.”
“Huh? Wait, you – hey!” But by the time she could protest, Toni had already stood up, covering the lower half of her face behind a hand. Still excruciatingly dizzy yet noticeably more energetic now than she was a moment before, Toni left the scene – unannounced to everyone except the other assistants, just as Amity used to sometimes do.
Once she made it to the tent, she was pleased to find that Mira had not mistakenly touched the laundry today. Almost wobbling to her bed, she found the cloth underneath.
Unsure if she just needed a moment to catch her breath or if she were being overcome by sleepiness, Toni took a moment to sit on her bed – at which point the pressure in her sinuses lessened considerably. She stole a glance at Amity’s bed, not amused by how unworn it was now.
She wouldn’t be sick now if it weren’t for that so-called adult ignoring her pleas. If the robot had decided to capture Amity instead, sending her hurtling toward the ground at an ungodly speed, surviving a crash that would have been lethal if the machine’s interior had not taken in the impact, maybe Toni would have had some reason to feel sorry for Amity – a genuine reason beyond simple anxiety that anyone with responsibilities had to deal with. Imagining Amity trying to kiss her boyfriend, grossing him out, and getting him sick in the process made a sneer pass the unknowing Toni’s face.
Amity acted as if Toni didn’t matter. Perhaps Toni was too wish-washy for someone of Amity’s temperament, hence the head-butting that tended to transpire between the two of them.
Toni sighed, hoping that was the reason – but at the same time her wavering inspiration broke out of her, she remembered she had practically left Cynthia out by herself. Knowing that the last thing she wanted to do was abandon the girl, Toni quickly blew her nose and left the tent.
Nearly tripping as she headed out of the tent, Toni found herself in the same state of dizzying fatigue that she was in when she entered the tent in the first place. Practically aimless, it took longer than normal for her to return to the other girls – at which point her head had practically started pounding in a rhythm Toni could not make out.
By now she had expected Cynthia to march up to her, screaming about how her stomach had knotted itself several times as she waited for Toni to return. She expected a younger, brattier Amity to spring out of Cynthia, but instead Cynthia appeared with a peep, barely a tap on the shoulder.
“Hi Toni,” she mumbled. “Nobody’s called for help. Not yet.”
The world around her became fuzzier with every passing beat. “Oh,” she replied. “Is Miss Macy helping—?” Her words started to drift off.
“Miss Macy—” Cynthia hesitated. “She went back to her tent. You just missed her.”
Just then, their conversation was interrupted when one of the girls in the crowd raised her hand.
“I’ve got it,” Cynthia chirped – and just as quickly, Toni was by herself again. It took a moment for her to realize Cynthia was practically gone, yet she was more confused by the change in attitude.
An hour passed for Esther. Almost exactly an hour. Practically on the second, she started heading back to the field.
As Esther went off to work with who-knew-whom, Mira went on to check anything else that might have needed service outside. She noticed that by now, most of the girls were on their way back to their large tent – perhaps ready to do their last activity before dinner today. Mira had no idea what this activity could have been, but anything was possible when she considered the things some people would do to kill time.
The gynoid’s leg felt more like a bag of leather – poorly cobbled together with metal bits rattling inside – than a hunk of flesh and bones. Standing up from a sitting position still took a tangible amount of effort, given the way the still-damaged parts of her tended to grind uncomfortably when shifted from one position to a completely different one. The grind wasn’t serious enough to occupy Mira’s thoughts entirely, but it was definitely noticeable to her.
When she stepped outside, Mira was greeted to a slightly-receding sun, its overcasting gaze dashing the land with the faintest tint of orange. The sun seemed to be moving in the direction of where Macy, Cynthia, and Toni were set at – and just as Mira realized this, Toni started to leave the scene, a cloth in her hand, her footsteps slow and deliberate and somewhat disturbing in their predictability.
Herself already set close to the girls’ tent, Mira had an ear turned to what the little ones were talking about. Regardless of the fact that so much of the chatter overlapped to the point of making little sense at all, Mira could barely tell what most of them were talking about at all. What she could make out was petty gossip and secret-sharing, but most of the context was lost on her when she still knew very few of them.
Yet today it felt as if most of the girls had already come to know who she was. The realization that somebody knew her better than she knew them came with an uncomfortable air of unfamiliarity. Not being able to tap into a database and pull up every minute detail about a person – from their race, religion, eye color, etc. – left her that much weaker, crippled mentally when her current physical limitations were debilitating enough.
There was a point where Mira swore she had heard one of the girls say her name, making her flinch for a second as if somebody were calling to her. Taking a step closer to the tent, she attempted to piece more of the conversation together – but with all the other noise clouding everything, she would have had an easier time trying to piece together Esther’s garbled data. Aside from her name, the rest she was able to make were a few words that children in this particular age group should not have uttered
Nearby footsteps pulled Mira away from the tent. Slightly concerned that somebody had been watching her, she looked around the corner of the tent to see Toni, hazy-eyed, barely standing straight, just about to enter the tent’s entrance – when she fell over into the grass.
Mira initially responded with mostly-muted surprise, then took a few steps toward the girl as she struggled to get herself back on her feet.
“Toni – are you okay?” she began, bending over as the girl coughed into the ground.
Initially Toni could only mumble. In a few seconds’ time, she moaned, trying again to pick herself up, then giving up again. She wiped her face with her sleeve despite having a perfectly capable cloth in her hand.
“Hey,” Mira said, her feet now at Toni’s head. “What are you trying to do?”
Toni mumbled something that sounded like “sorry” before sniffling and trying to get up for the second time. With enough struggle, she managed to at least get herself into a sitting position.
“Oh – Miss Mira?” she said, her voice stuffy. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to get in your way.”
Mira blinked. “You didn’t get in my way. I’m just concerned, that’s all,” she clarified. “Do you need help?”
Toni didn’t initially reply. “Sorry,” she said again.
The girl was off in her own world. Realizing this, Mira reached down and grabbed Toni’s free hand before lifting her back on her feet again – where she proceeded to continue stumbling. Had Mira let go just after picking her up, Toni surely would have fallen back down again.
“You’re the one who caught a cold, aren’t you?” Mira noted.
“I think it’s more than a cold now,” Toni grumbled.
Mira continued gripping Toni by the paw as she led her into the very tent in which she’d spent much of the day. “Sit here,” she directed, walking Toni to the bed before moving over to the medical equipment. “You might have caught influenza when you were drifting out there with Esther.”
“This is stupid,” Toni argued, muttering under her breath. “Esther didn’t get sick. I saw her walk out earlier like the water didn’t even bother her.”
Mira bit her tongue for a moment. “She was already sick last week,” she declared. “Her getting sick again wouldn’t make sense, since she already built up immunity for the season.” At least Mira thought that was how it worked. Hoping not to come across as too cold or distant, Mira added further: “I’m sorry you aren’t doing well, but you’ll be fine. Everyone gets sick, you know.”
She wasn’t sure, but Mira thought she could see Toni rolling her eyes for a moment right as she turned around to dig through a medicine cabinet. “I know that,” she said. “And I get it,” she continued, pressing her nose into the cloth. “Esther was luckier than me.”
“It has nothing to do with luck.” At the same time Mira spoke, she started pouring orange, sticky fluid into a cup, then mixed in some water.
“Everything that’s happened has to do with luck,” Toni snorted. “And I’m luck’s bitch this week.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Mira berated, mixing the fluids with a spoon as she made her way to Toni. “I don’t care that you’re one of the assistants; I have been given instructions to keep you and the other girls from using that kind of language.”
Toni screwed up her face as if she were about to say something snide in response, but ended up giving in with a sigh. “Okay.”
“Now drink this,” Mira said. “If you need an extra handkerchief, I can get you one.”
“I’m okay,” Toni replied as she took the cup. “But thank you.” With that, she squeezed her eyes shut and tipped the cup’s contents down her gullet, cringing as she guzzled it down.
Mira gave a light smile as Toni finally complied. “I just remembered something,” she began. “You were the one who gave me those crutches when Esther was trying to help me get around. I should thank you again for that – even if I don’t need them now.”
Beyond her intent, Toni smiled back. “You’re welcome,” she said, almost shrinking as she spoke.
“Are you feeling better now?” Mira prodded.
The girl shrugged. “I guess.”
“You’d better get back to the other girls.” With that, Mira motioned Toni out of the bed, at which point the girl handed the cup back to Mira and, still dazed, made her way up. She blinked a few times as if fighting sleep while standing, but continued moving ahead as Mira held the tent flap open for her.
And just a few steps beyond the exit to Mira’ tent, Toni fell again, once again catching Mira by surprise. A girl nearby, having seen the event unfold, yelped where she stood. Tilting her head up, she noticed Mira close by. “Miss Macy? Cynthia?” she called. “Help!”
As of the beginning of this month, the Discord is now an open community for anyone to join.
Let’s try something a little different for an outtro…
Get ready for things to heat up as Amity begins her new job in the passageways and as Toni gets used to her new role as the oldest of Macy’s assistants — as both Toni and Mira realize what happens when you tamper with what doesn’t belong to you.