Twenty Minutes Prior
It was dark but from here he knew the way and cycling made it much easier. Phel glided along for ten easy minutes before he saw the headlights coming toward him. It was a truck.
That’s gotta be that Tyson fellow, he thought. I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to see me out here.
He looked to the forest, but there was an embankment of stone and dirt on the side of the road that blocked his passage.
Phel stood beside his bike helplessly as the truck pulled up in front of him. In the driver’s seat he saw Tyson and beside him was Charlie.
“Phelliam,” Charlie said to him through the window, “why are you out here in the middle of the night?”
They ushered him into the truck. It did not seat three comfortably.
Phel was no liar. On the few occasions he had tried to do so his tongue would twist and he would stammer. No sense in even attempting it with two androids. They’d suss him out in seconds.
He told the truth to the best of his ability. He told them about Rashmi, the fugitive from space and how Meiki had run off with her. He was shocked when they believed him. They didn’t even bat an electronic eye at the notion of earth-born humans finally contacting Naya after all of this time.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later," said Tyson, “Odd that it would happen on the very day that we decide to bury the hatchet with Marie.”
“I didn’t agree to that," said Charlie, “I aim merely to open up relations. She and I still disagree on nearly everything. But I am willing to meet with her and see what kind of progress Newbright has made.”
Phel’s brow furrowed, “Who’s Marie?”
“She is our counterpart in Newbright,” said Tyson, “Some years ago she and Charlie had a...falling out...a difference of opinion regarding how the colonies were to be handled. Both sides had fair points and both made mistakes.”
Charlie glanced sideways at Tyson after that remark but said nothing.
“Anyway,” continued Tyson, “it’s been a long night for all of us. We will make a stop at Sagan and leave Phelliam there for the night. Dav can bring him home in the morning.
Phel’s curiosity was nowhere near as strong as his desire to locate a warm bed so he didn’t protest.
“There’s someone on the road," said Charlie.
“I see her.” Tyson concurred.
Phel’s chest pumped furiously when he saw her. A woman in a suit like Rashmi’s, except black with red circuit inlays was standing in the middle of the road. She was holding a baton in front of her- pointing it at them like a gun.
The truck’s engine suddenly stopped. Even the headlights dimmed.
“I think it is safe to assume that this woman is in league with the one you told us about, Phelliam," said Tyson as he opened the door.
“What are you doing? She don’t look like she’s on our side!”, sputtered Phel.
Charlie patted Phel on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, Phelliam. Allow us to handle this situation. Besides, whatever she is holding clearly has left the truck useless. There is no logical reason to remain inside it. We are unarmed. No one will be hurt.”
The woman blasted Tyson with a bolt from her baton knocking him back ten meters.
“Phelliam! Run into the woods! I’ll stop her!” said Charlie urgently.
Phel had already opened the door and jumped to the ground before Charlie was done speaking. He was nearly a hundred meters away before he fell to the ground, nearly exhausted.
What is going on? He thought. Is Charlie dead? And that Tyson guy? Gone? And Meiki...
He looked back but couldn’t see the road in the darkness. The all encompassing darkness of the forest made that impossible. At best he could see a few trees in front of him.
Behind him, Phel heard something move.
The sky resembled mossy stone. Here and there were thin areas where the sunlight almost broke the clouds, but mostly the slate color Meiki had always known loomed above.
She looked to her savior, a pale skinned woman of about thirty years. Her hair was a rich yellow color. Few folks from gates looked like that. Perhaps she was from Newbright.
“Did we drive all night?” her dry voice spoke weakly.
The woman smiled. “I drove all night. You slept. But yes. We’re nearly there.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“Oh, I drive this route all the time. I sleep in the day and drive mostly at night.”
Meiki took a long pull from her water bottle and offered it to the driver.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Thank you for picking me up. I probably wouldn’t have made it out there if you hadn’t.”
The driver eyed her up and down before speaking, “I’m Amara, by the way. So, Meiki...are you going to tell me what a kid your age is doing in the woods at night?”
Meiki explained as much of her story as she figured would be believable. She was travelling to Newbright with her friend when they were separated during the storm. When she tried to find him she got lost and wandered until she found the road. She decided not to mention the ghosts because it would probably bring more questions that might lead to her slipping about Rashmi and Junko. No, she thought. That’s too much for anyone to swallow.
Amara didn’t question her any further. She didn’t ask why Meiki wanted to leave Gates or what she expected to find in Newbright. Meiki found the acceptance of her life choices refreshing. They drove quietly for over an hour before it came into view.
As someone who had never seen a city before, cresting a hill to catch even a glimpse of skyline made Meiki dizzy. Man made towers seem impossibly large when the biggest thing you have ever seen is a forest. That first shot of skyscrapers for a second before they popped back beneath the treeline left her feeling as if she had imagined it. Nothing could be that huge. It was several kilometers away and yet it dominated the land. Soon the truck pulled to the top of another hill and there it was again. Majestic, awesome, monumental...Meiki’s mental thesaurus held no words to describe Newbright. Her chest was nearly bursting but she wanted to remain cool. She didn’t want Amara to know what a seed she was.
“How far is it?” her voice cracked.
Amara shot her a sideward glance and smiled. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The city?”
“I...yeah. It’s so...shiny.”
“The buildings are designed to maximize the light that breaks the cloud cover. That’s important if you want your solar cells to be effective.”
“We use min-fusion packs in most of our tech back in Gates. Why would Newbright be so keen on solar?”
“An hour or so.”
“You asked me how far it was. About an hour until we get to Newbright. But I have to drop you off before then. Sorry kid. Don’t want to get fired.”
“Oh right. You said that last night.”
“I’ll pull over in about a half an hour. You can take your bike straight down the main road and right into town. From there you’ll be able to find a rail station. Do you have family in the city?”
“No, just a friend," said Meiki, thinking of Rashmi. Not to say that she was much of a friend at all. Even if she also made it to Newbright how would Meiki know where to find her? Would she even want to? Rashmi did abandon her when the ghosts were attacking.
The remainder of the ride was silent. Amara pulled over and waited while Meiki retrieved her bike from behind the seat.
“Well...thanks for the ride, lady.”
“Wait," said Amara. She held up her linker. Meiki understood the gesture and reached into a pocket to grab her own. They held the two devices near one another and each pressed a button. With that they had each other’s contact information.
“Call me if you get into trouble, kid. Newbright is a relatively safe city, but it’s still a city.”