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 Part2.2 – Queenless Bees

Mira must have been down here. Yet she wasn’t.

That robot that had died in her arms – he had to have been down here. Yet he wasn’t.

So Mírre was here – yet for some reason Esther couldn’t reach her. Suddenly Esther wished she had questioned the native robot before his untimely demise – to perhaps see what this Mother was that he had connections with. Who or whatever bore him certainly could not have been the same person or thing that bore her, yet he had insisted that such was the case.

Esther tried again to reach the Mother, but to no avail. The same Mother who had instructed her and her partner to cast themselves into the dangers beyond her walls was now denying her access to a supposed oasis beyond what she and Mira had considered home. More than anything the luocans had offered, foreign and heretical as they were, the Mother and her haven within this un-Autorian Domain gave Esther the greatest culture shock she could have anticipated.

Clearly this was not the Mother who presided here; if it were, she would have shown herself. The rudimentary robot and, she suspected, all the insectoid AI in these caverns followed the will of a false Mother, speaking in their false tongues so nobody could hear them.

Just as quickly as she had realized this, the noises in Esther’s head subsided, draining out of her until she returned to the quiet reality she had trapped herself in.

Esther looked again through the dusty door. The silence was all the noise she needed to hear.

Hoping to break the lock, the etternel pressed both hands against the door’s face. It wasn’t long before the locking mechanism snapped, making her plow through with little warning, her chest hitting the floor of the duct as she fell forward.

She could, fortunately, confirm that this place wasn’t infested with the bugs – nor was it infested with any intruding luocans. There were no blinking bright-blue lights, no chemical smell, no primitive speech synthesis. For the first time since her kidnapping, Esther felt some air of familiarity here.

Picking herself off her feet, he looked up and ahead, immediately noticing several running computers – all towers, none compatible with modern AI. She wondered if this was where the Mother’s call had come from.

The wooden floor creaked a little as she walked, making her wonder again if she was going to fall right through – or worse: be heard by someone who knew she wasn’t supposed to be here. When that didn’t happen, Esther rushed up to one of the computers – at which point the buzzing in her head returned, almost like a defense mechanism.

She flinched, looking every which way. Nightvision on, she scanned the area – yet still the bugs were nowhere to be found. She looked under a desk near where all the computers were, and still she saw nothing of the sort. Instead she noticed every one of the computers rumbled like the machines of old and were linked together, forming a supercomputer of sorts. Perhaps if these machines were capable of running a central AI, establishing their own pseudo-Mother, it was through easily-exploitable methods that the Domain had long since abandoned in its corporate days.

The buzzing continued as she turned to face a large monitor – which she proceeded to turn on. From there she noticed a lock screen which indicated to her that this daisy-chained machine was running some form of UNIX. Worst of all was the lock screen’s message: “Insert crypto key.”

If this were password-unlockable, then maybe Esther might have had a chance. Just to be sure, she attempted to look through the options available to her on the terminal lock screen – then immediately retracted once she touched the keyboard. The buzzing was even louder now than it was a moment before – as if her brain had been infested with bees and several static analog channels all going off at once.

The sound calmed once she pulled away. Then, as if the buzzing weren’t bad enough, she heard a loud squeaking noise from behind.

The noise made her whirl around immediately to the door. It was closed.

She blinked, then tilted her gaze down when she heard footsteps from the floor below her. Following this was a series of synthesized words:

You are to remain in this room until the master arrives,” said the machine from earlier. Esther almost preferred the buzzing in her head to the cacophony the insectoid machine so proudly spouted from its software-automatic-mouth. Still she continued to listen. “He will explain everything once he is back.

A distinctly human voice responded through a trembling voice, as if the speaker had been weeping. “When is he coming back?” asked Toni, completely oblivious to the etternel on the floor above her.

He will come back in due time,” the machine replied. “He always does.” Without another word, the machines that had brought Toni here left the area, locking the door behind them. Their prisoner uttered no words.

Though the machines had left, Esther kept herself still for another minute, not sure if one of them had managed to sneak behind her back, slip under her nose, get the drop on her from above. When none of the scenarios in her head played out, she headed for the door which she had expected to open a moment ago, unlocked it, and made her way to a winding metal stairway – and trapped inside the orange-lit room was Toni, who looked up at Esther wish surprise.

“Miss Esther?” she asked, her voice low. “What are you –?”

Esther hushed her. “Get over here!” she hissed, beckoning the girl over.

Without hesitation, Toni did as commanded, only speaking once they were within whisper distance of each other. “What’s going on? What are those robots? Who’s the master?”

“I don’t know,” Esther answered for each one. “They kidnapped me, too. I don’t know what these bugs are or who’s controlling them, but they must not be very good at holding prisoners if we’ve already managed to find each other.”

Wiping the small traces of tears still left in her eyes, Toni sniffed and nodded. “That’s true. But…” She faltered, then inhaled sharply. “Never mind; I’m sorry. Just…God. Let’s go.”

As she lead Toni back into the terminal room from where she had come, Esther sighed. “I don’t know a way out, either – but there has to be something. I just got in this room before I heard you being dragged down there.”

“They didn’t drag me in there!” Toni retorted. “One of them literally ate me, rolled around a bunch, then spit me out so I could puke, and THEN they dragged me into that room like I was in time-out!”

“Be quiet!” Esther commanded, keeping her voice barely above a whisper. “We can’t let them catch us, so just stay quiet.”

Just like that, Toni calmed down. “I’m sorry…I’ll stay quiet.”

“Okay.” Both of them looked toward the monitor. “I want to see if we can get into this computer somehow. It’s missing some kind of key and it doesn’t seem to accept a password.”

Toni hesitated to reply. “Why do you care about that?”

“Because someone is clearly controlling these robots and I want to get to the bottom of it,” Esther said. “I was brought down to the tunnels to help investigate – and I’m going to do it even if I was never supposed to be down here in the first place. And if nothing else, this computer should at least have a map of this place so we can leave.”

But thinking on what she had just said for a moment, Esther realized she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the amount of data she wanted. The moment she laid her hands on the keyboard, the computer was going to overwhelm her with that same chaotic melody.

Still Toni did not see any need to argue against Esther’s claims. “I guess that makes sense.” But even with that in mind, she didn’t see the point of finding information beyond a simple escape route. Her concerns were unfounded on Esther, who pivoted toward the computer’s desk in an attempt to hack it, hoping she might find some kind of key somewhere here.

“Can you help me?” she asked. “I need some kind of key that will go into the computer so we can get past this lock screen.”

Toni agreed to help out, though she knew she wouldn’t be anywhere as useful as Esther was hoping. “Can we turn a light on first?” she asked.

“Not when those machines might think we’re their master,” Esther insisted. “Just pick up any drives you can find – whether they’re in desk drawers, on the floor, or wherever you’re looking. Just take them and give the ones to me with a flat, rectangular head.”

Without further question, Toni started rummaging through the area, as did Esther, trying to find anything that might have given them a way into the computer. Toni handed Esther the flat-headed USB devices whenever she happened upon them, but the rest she kept in her pockets. The girl came to realize how some of these devices could be used as weapons in the wrong hands, as her own hands had been punctured several times from grabbing a drive the wrong way or mistaking a pin for a drive.

“I think I found it!” Esther exclaimed, still keeping her voice down as she stuck the drive into the monitor’s USB port. Rather than immediately hang or tell her that the device was invalid, this time the lock screen showed some sort of loading icon. It took seconds for it to disappear and reveal the rest of the system. “Okay.” She looked back at Toni. “Let me look up some diagnostics for this place; we should find a way out in just a minute.”

Again she put her hands on the keyboard. Again she cringed as the buzzing grew to agonizing levels, yet completely passing under Toni’s radar as if attempting to dogwhistle Esther away from the desk.

As the woman scanned through the documents, Toni kept an eye on the door through which they had come, stilled her breath to listen to the slightest stirring, pointless as it was when the terminal behind her continued to stir.

Right in the home drive was a document with all the schematics of the place laid out in front of her. Esther went through every page, the images burning in her memory as they appeared. “Got it!” And right as Esther spoke, the buzzing seemed to slightly subside for a moment. From the relative silence came two barely-decipherable words: “Suspicious activity…” Esther practically leapt from her chair, ready to leave.

Reacting to the woman’s surprisingly energetic state, Toni flipped around to see Esther coming her way. Toni had barely a moment to ask what had happened as Esther grabbed her wrist and rushed them both out of the room. From there they walked through another door to a room they had not yet seen – and from then on they began their escape.

Much as she had when following behind Amity and Bailey earlier that night, Toni nearly tripped as she was dragged out, the drives in her pockets jostling, reminding her that she had not disposed of them. “What are we running for?” she asked.

It occurred to Esther she never explained herself. “I saw a message,” she said. That was true, though Esther’s implication was that the message had come from the terminal when it simply had not. “Sorry – I was probably getting worked up over nothing. We just need to get through a few rooms until we get to a ladder, then we’ll end up in the same kind of sewer area that I took to get to where the scouts are now.”

“And then what?” Toni wondered.

Esther paused. “And then we swim for it.” More than anything, she hoped this wouldn’t just result in her getting sick again.

Rather than rushing them through, Esther led Toni at a leisurely pace, peeking through each door carefully before stepping into the next room – and every time they did, they found that there was nothing to worry about. The buzzing had almost completely disappeared, leaving Esther in a serene state by the time they made it to one last door.

“The documents said this part only unlocks via a remote or from the other side of the door,” Esther explained. The wall in front of them was made of metal wires, giving her the impression that this would have been easier to pull apart than any of the barriers they had already passed.

Just to make sure she hadn’t missed something, Toni looked through her pockets of drives to see if she had managed to find anything – but to no avail.

“What are you doing?” Esther wondered. “Did you keep all those drives that you found in the other room?”

Toni blinked before answering. “Yes, I guess so. But none of these are remotes.” She hesitated. “Sorry; should I just throw them away, or something?”

Initially Esther thought that would have been the right thing to do, but she quickly second-guessed that. “Actually – hold onto them,” she replied. “We might need them once we get back to camp.”

“Do you think maybe we could pick that lock open with one of them?”

Judging by that comment, some of the drives must have been needle-like in design. Still, Esther feigned a chuckle. “I don’t think that will work. All we need to do is break the door open, which doesn’t look very hard.”

“Break it open?” Toni said, raising an eyebrow.

Though she realized she had probably said something out of line, implying herself to be something beyond normal human functionality, Esther ignored Toni’s inquisitive comment and stepped up to the wiry door. All the while Toni kept her distance, watching with interest as Esther dug her fingers through the fence’s orifices. It took a second, but with a little effort, Esther started pulling down on the infrastructure, popping the wires out one by one. All the while Toni noticed the way Esther’s struggle caused the muscles in her arms and legs to tighten beneath her clothes, almost as if they were about to rip through.

The last of the wires snapped out and Esther stepped back, needing a moment to catch herself. “There,” she said, gesturing to the hole she had just made. There were some metal bars along the frame, but the gap between them was large enough that Toni could fit through.

Realizing what Esther was gesturing about, Toni leaned down to crawl through the space. Just on the other side of the door she noticed a tall ladder; she tilted her nose in the air to look for the top, but as far as her eyes could see, there was no top. It was only when Esther spoke again when Toni snapped out of her trance.

“There should be a switch somewhere,” Esther explained. “Just a big one you need to flip to unlock the door.”

It didn’t take long for Toni to find the switch in question. Once she did, she flipped it up, causing the door in front of her to unhinge and fall on its face, as the lock was the only thing still holding it in its position. With that, Esther stepped through.

“Thanks,” she said. “Now – I think you should climb up first.”

Toni’s pupils dilated. “Me?” she asked, the color in her face draining.

“If you go up front, I’ll be able to catch you if something happens.”

The words “if something happens” did not leave Toni with the greatest confidence. “I don’t know…”

Esther sighed. “It’s either that or we don’t leave at all.”

Toni almost thought she could scream right there, but knowing what was potentially on the other side of Esther, she stayed quiet, took a deep breath, turned around, looked up again, and exhaled. Maybe there was an end to it and it was cut off by the darkness. She desperately hoped that was the reason for why she couldn’t see anything up there.

There was no further argument on Toni’s part. Both intruders started making their way up, barely saying a word to each other, barely looking anywhere than directly above them. Esther didn’t even attempt to remind Toni not to look down, knowing full-well what would happen if her reminder went ignored.

In a few minutes’ time, the two of them were almost completely submerged in darkness, making Toni want to freeze where she was, but still she continued on. Her arms and legs started to ache the slightest amount from all the work they were doing to keep her from plummeting to her death, but she said nothing, knowing that regardless of what she wanted, Esther wasn’t about to start walking back to the bottom now.

Soon the sound of rushing water accompanied the seemingly-eternal darkness that covered them. It wasn’t long before Toni started speeding up, adrenaline pushing her up with the knowledge that the sooner they left the area, the better. Esther followed suit, glad to see the girl finally picking up the pace.

Just when she felt her arms might pop out of their sockets, Toni made it to the surface, the sound of rushing water coinciding with the blood pumping through her ears. It took a moment for her to realize which sound was which.

Esther gave the girl a moment to recuperate before leading toward the ledge by the water. “Remember what I said about swimming?” Esther asked, glancing at the water at their feet, noting its otherwise calm flow, yet still nervous about dipping her toes into its body. “Time to start swimming.”

Infiltration Part2.1 – Colonists of the Hive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?” she asked, gagging.

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

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

One of Macy’s girls was down there.

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

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

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

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

Going through the drain was simply out of the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enflamiere Mírre.


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