Chapter 18

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The cycles glided across the asphalt in their quiet, electric drone. Mo knew from experience that discerning the exact location of the vehicles, especially when taken off-road, in dense tree coverage, could be extremely difficult. It was something about the frequency of the sound; a low thrum when moving slowly, and a higher-pitched whir when accelerating, the latter of which was a pitch not all organisms responded to. Dogs however, always heard them coming and here on the open road, he felt vulnerable.

A few packs of dogs, three to five in number, had been seen trotting near the road through open fields. Some looked as if they'd been bred with different animals, thereby producing strange hybrids that Mo was thankful had been glimpsed in the quick flash of the headlights and not in the full light of day. They passed one that had been sitting amongst a patch of vegetation and it had been unclear if the dog and the vegetation had been one and the same creature.

Once Watley thought he saw a humanoid near the edge of a row of pine trees but dismissed it as his imagination. In fact, they hadn't seen a person since the encounter with the thing by the stream. Finding them was proving to be a struggle. The accuracy of the cycle's embedded instruments had been compromised due to interference of what appeared to be electrical in nature. Sometimes a ping would illuminate, then abruptly vanish. There was no sign, however, of any storm.

Mo weaved in and out of a few scattered vehicles, then accelerated down the two-lane road. Dark grayish-green walls of pine trees zipped past on either side. On occasion a gap appeared, revealing a sandy track leading farther into the forested region. These were likely campgrounds, and excellent hideouts, but there was no way Mo was going to investigate those areas in the dead of night. They had also passed what appeared to be an old, overgrown airport which would need to be investigated in the morning. Now, they needed to rendezvous with the Machine and seek shelter.

Mo glanced in his mirror. Watley had fallen back after zig-zagging through the vehicles but had since caught up. He had grown increasingly fatigued throughout the day, at times appearing exhausted. At one point, Mo had caught him staring off, almost in a trance which he only snapped out of after being called twice. He'd assured Mo however, that he was only daydreaming and was in good health.

A green dot illuminated on the cycle's console, indicating they were approaching the Machine. It was about four hundred yards ahead. When Mo returned his attention to the road, he slammed on the brakes as something huge lumbered across the road.

Momentum brought Mo out of his seat, nearly pitching over the handlebars. Watley swerved to avoid Mo and lost control, his cycle slamming into the asphalt. He skidded to a halt on his side, crying out.

"Christ!"

Mo snagged his weapon from the cycle's compartment and brought it up to firing position, aiming into the pitch-black spaces between the dark branches behind and to his left. A few of the pines were still gently swaying from the passage of the thing that had nearly hit them. He noted that not only were the lower branches moving, but so too were boughs ten feet from the ground. He shuddered.

"You alright?" he asked, without looking at his partner.

Watley sluggishly rose to his feet. "Yeah...I'm good." He brushed himself off. "What the hell was that thing! It was enormous!"

"I have no idea, but it cleared the road in one step. Get back on your cycle, we're leaving now!" Mo didn't want to turn his back on the forest for a split second, but to stand here frozen was to welcome an attack, if not from that thing, from something else. Once Watley had picked up his cycle and was mounted, Mo stowed the weapon and sped away.

The thing had darted from the trees to the right of the road, stepped once onto the asphalt, then barreled into the trees to the left, covering a span of at least thirty feet. How was that possible?

After a minute of driving, a red light penetrated Mo's visor and he saw the Machine in the headlight. It had assumed an aggressive posture and he knew its weapons had targeted them. The red beam scanned them north to south and when it finished, the Machine stood fully upright and its guns were withdrawn.

They dismounted and approached, allowing it to read their retinas. Words appeared inside the dark globe.

Encounters?

"One encounter," said Mo.

Humanoid?

"Yes."

Alex Dash?

Mo thought about the thing he had shot earlier in the day by the stream. He remembered burning it. "Unclear."

There was a pause and then the globe turned slowly toward Watley. Its eyeless gaze remained fixed on him and Watley shot Mo a nervous glance. He swallowed hard when new words appeared.

Sustained injury?

The red light emitted from the Machine once again and Mo followed the narrow beam as it descended from Watley's face and paused on his left leg. Mo frowned as he saw the duct tape around the lower limb for the first time.

"Uh," Watley stammered. "I fell off the cycle when something crossed the road a little ways back," he said, pointing behind them.

The Machine's gaze remained concentrated on his leg. The red light disappeared, the head raised, and a new inquiry materialized.

Suit breached?

Mo wondered why the Machine didn't just speak. It had the capability. He wondered if speech drained more of its energy reserves, but decided that seemed ridiculous. Then he pondered if it was actually capable of theatrics, deeming visual words more fear-invoking that speech and thereby intimidating its subjects.

Watley's hesitation prompted the words within the globe to vanish, then reappear in a larger font, giving the impression that the Machine was yelling. Mo watched the blinking question mark and likened it to someone tapping their finger on a table, pissed off and demanding an answer.

"Respond, damnit," said Mo.

Watley looked at Mo, then the Machine. "Y-Yes. A small tear."

The Machine held its position, the globe staring relentlessly at Watley. Mo's eyes darted from the Machine to his parnter, back to the Machine and his adrenaline spiked. His gut told him that something bad was about to happen and he braced himself for Watley's demise. But instead, a voice projected from the black sphere.

"Medical attention required?"

Watley appeared shaken. He shook his head. "N-No. I'm fine."

The Machine's deep male, but artificially-tinged voice gave the impression that it was not pleased. But then again, it always sounded that way. Mo silently wished it would resume verbal communication.

The Machine rose to its full height. At eight feet tall, it towered over Mo and Watley. It spoke. "I have sent coordinates to the instruments on the cycles. They will take you to a suitable shelter which I have verified is uninhabited. I will continue through the night. You will resume at dawn."

A small wheel emerged from each of the Machine's four limbs. It lowered itself to the road and departed, making even less sound than the cycles. Mo and Watley mounted their vehicles and rode toward the highlighted destination on the instrument. In his mirror, Mo witnessed Watley's arm descend from the handlebars and grip his taped leg.


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