“Where you goin’ again?”
“Just getting away for a few days. I need to clear my head. The past few weeks have been rough.”
It wasn’t a lie, per se, but Lena didn’t think Zark needed the details of her expedition.
Zark cradled Nico in his arms. “And you’ll be back to pick her up on Sunday?”
“Yeah. I’ll be back later in the afternoon.” She turned for the door.
Zark stopped her, “Ok, but what’s your plan?”
She took a breath before answering.
Zark let out a burst of laughter.
“You? You’re just going out alone in the wilderness to camp?”
She stopped herself from snapping on Zark. Her hand rested on the doorknob.
“I hired a guide android. He’ll make sure I don’t die,” she said as she opened the door.
“Where are you camping?”
Lena shot him an expression of wide-eyed annoyance.
“North, up in the mountains. I’ll be fine. I just need some time. I’ll see you Sunday.”
“Wait, what if-”
She closed the door.
The road leading north of Rhod cut through the undeveloped rocky foothills of the Red Mountains. Warm air and calm wind whipped through her hair on the pleasant morning drive. The enormous slopes loomed ahead. Lena stopped for a short rest and caught a final glimpse of Rhod’s crystalline skyline. The tips of buildings silhouetted a vibrant magenta against the burning disc of the red sun.
The two-lane road began to wind along the increasingly steep hillside. The higher she rose, larger and larger conifer trees appeared, stretching to catch sparse sunlight from the southern horizon. They were so tall that they seemed to bear the sky upon their tapered heights.
After rounding a wide U-turn, Lena found herself immersed in the shadow of the mountain. The path grew darker until the only light came from patches of a deep, violet sky scattered with stars through the tops of the colossal trees.
Lena came to the first branch in the road in this darkness. Her path led to her meeting point with Shel, her guide android. The branch road was narrow, snaking through cliff-sides and pillar-like trunks of trees. She found the air in the woods carried a heavy silence, and thick in contrast to the vast expanse from earlier. The last vehicle she’d seen had been over an hour ago. The sight of another motorist here would be unsettling.
Then she saw him. A dim red light in a roadside turnout. The light glinted off the edges of a metallic android. She pulled off and dismounted her motorcycle. She greeted him with a small wave.
“Hello, Lena,” he replied. Shel kept his voice low. It was surprisingly human from a utility android.
Shel was nothing like Ellis. Although both of them androids, Shel was created without human likeness in mind. His bodily joints consisted of hydraulics guarded in places by smooth, metal covers. His head was a sleek, polished dome. The only features his face held were a few lights along the seams where metal plates converged.
“Our destination is 25.8 kilometers from this spot,” he stated. “Follow me. I have constructed our camp.”
Shel picked up one of the two wheels next to him with both hands. He straddled the other, and his lower limbs attached to the axle in a quick, mechanized motion. He lowered himself onto the wheel he was holding like a wheelbarrow. His forearms attached to it in the same manner. Within seconds, his humanoid shape had transformed into a small cycle fit for off-road travel.
She followed him for roughly an hour, venturing further into the thick wilderness. Lena completely lost her bearings. Without the sun, she was directionless, but found the overhead moons and the gas giant Exodar could be supplemented. They rode deeper into the forest, descending beyond the mountain pass into a valley. Bio-luminescent plants glowed intricate patterns upon broad leaves, creating organic geometry all around her. Overhead, the sky succumbed to a rich blue, awash with an astral starscape.
Shel turned onto an unmarked road. Lena wouldn’t have seen it. It was a single lane road, laid rough with dirt, plagued by deep potholes and wildly overgrown with vegetation. He stopped a few meters after turning onto the path. Shel smoothly stood, detaching from the wheels.
Lena shut her bike down. The air had chilled. She fumbled through her bag to retrieve a heavy cloak. It was quiet, but she could hear a distant river ahead.
“Your bike will not be able to traverse the path ahead. It is an abandoned access road. Let me take you the rest of the way.”
Lena felt uneasy. She checked her celltab. The signal was weak. If she was separated from Shel at any point, her motorcycle was her only lifeline.
“How far are we going?”
“It is about an hour’s travel,” he answered.
She disliked the thought of being separated from her motorcycle, but what were her options? She pushed her bike to the side of the road behind some foliage. Rummaging through her bag, she pulled out a pen and a piece of paper. She scrawled a note and stuck it to the dash.
Be back Sun 7/6