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Bushwhacked

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It'd been three days since Astrid last ate a bite of food.

In between the painful delirium and numbing bouts of unconsciousness, she was seriously beginning to feel it, though the excruciating stomach pains and acute episodes of panic had long subsided. She could feel the acid churning, though.

Countless attempts she'd made to reach the main compartment of her backpack, but to no avail thanks to her awkward position. The thing had saved her life initially when the landslide hit, though. Sheltering her back from being crushed under heavy rocks, it managed to create just enough of a space for her to breathe as she laid mostly on her stomach.

She'd mostly been able to keep motility in her arms, and thank god some cuts and bruises were the worst of their injuries. That and a couple scorpion stings the previous night. The young woman was thankful for every hour that she didn't hear the call of a coyote or see one pausing to look her over from a safe distance. One had gotten too close and she'd managed to bust its head with a well-aimed rock, sending it skittering and yowling away. But that was yesterday, and her weakness was worsening by the minute.

Was she really going to die? Alone and lost somewhere in the remote northeastern area of California? Her friends probably reported her missing maybe the day before-she was due to show up at their campsite already, hoping to spend the rest of the week with them-which meant that search and rescue teams were already combing the mountains from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite. It was a hopeless search; the square miles for them to cover were just too many, and she was far from the trail now.

Astrid once again found herself fighting unconsciousness. The struggle to free herself from the dirt and debris was over: human 0, wilderness 1. As much as she would have liked to just fall asleep and die, she'd read Deathwatch in school; she knew very well that her last moments would be agonizing. All she could do now was accept it and prepare.

Another long day passed, littered with bouts of something like sleep. It was impossible to keep the time. Tonight might be her last sunset; she'd try and rest up so that she could enjoy it. Rest up...

Somewhere off in the distance she could make out, through the undulations of her own failing body, the rasping of her own dry and ragged breaths, the sound of a helicopter. It took a too many minutes for her brain to register it, but before long she was able to comprehend the situation enough to lift her head and wave her stronger arm.

"Please see me..."

Her voice was not her own. It belonged to an old woman with dust for spit; she sounded like two crumbling stones rubbing together. Just that simple exertion of energy seemed to deplete what stores she had, and Astrid let her head fall back down again, eyelids heavy. The backpacker was able to discern a noise to her right that sounded much like a car, but she felt too weak to pay it much attention. It wouldn't have been her first auditory hallucination yet either. But something about the surge of the powerful engine, the branches snapping and more rocks tumbling down the hillside, made her wonder if, perhaps, it might be real after all...

She closed her eyes then and rested her head. A strange sound greeted her ears and she heard heavy footfalls despite the helicopter drawing nearer. Astrid distantly felt weight being lifted from her back and legs, and what might have been many hands -or perhaps two large ones?- grasp her firmly and yank her out of the debris.

A very strange voice wove through the buzzing in her ears and the slow, cracked breaths filling her lungs, and everything else faded into the distance.

"Let's... get you out of..."

But that was all as she finally allowed herself to fall into blackness.

Finally, she could get some sleep.


Astrid was able to hear her own wheezing breaths, slow and steady, as she woke up. Her vision was blurry, but she recognized the face of a doctor hovering about, a clipboard in hand. The light was natural; it filtered through a window behind her.

"Astrid!" A muffled shout from her left caused her to turn her head, a pain shooting down her neck.

The woman was in her mid-fifties, shoulder-length salt and pepper hair in a haggard ponytail. There were bags under her eyes, which were filling with tears. Thin lips pursed into a painful smile, and now her cheeks were wet as she reached out for the younger woman's hand. Astrid smiled weakly.

"Mom..."

"Oh my god, you're finally awake." She jumped up, restless, but clearly exhausted. "Just... just relax, ok? Everything's going to be ok."

"Congratulations," said the doctor, biting back a very genuine grin as he looked her over. "You made it."

Astrid adjusted herself in the hospital bed, attempting to sit up, but a pain and stiffness in her legs prevented it. "What... happened?"

The doctor set his clipboard under his arm, clicking the ballpoint pen in his hand a few times. "Your tibia and fibula of your right leg have suffered from spiral fractures," he began. That's not exactly what she was asking, but it would do. "And your right ankle was nearly shattered. Your left kneecap has a hairline fracture, and your right hip got a pretty good bruising." He sighed. "You were severely dehydrated, too, and practically on the brink of starvation." He fumbled around with his files a bit, and pulled out a big white envelope. "MRI results were as expected... we'll throw these up on the wall for you later."

She looked down at her leg casts. Lo and behold, the right leg was in a full cast, slightly bent at the knee. The left was in a heavy brace.

"When can I go?"

"Astrid!" her mother exclaimed.

The doctor chuckled. "We put 8 pins in you yesterday. What do you think?"

She sighed. "I think I'm going to be here for a few days."

"And you'd be thinking right." He put her folder back at the foot of the bed and leaned in. "Look: this is a big deal. It's all over the news... you almost died out there. Try to be patient with yourself. Your body needs time to heal."

Astrid's mother, Tracy, nodded in grim agreement.

He pulled a syringe out of his front coat pocket, flicked it once, and injected it into the IV line. Astrid watched him. "Morphine?" she asked, smiling weakly.

The doctor chuckled. "Enough to take the edge off. Now, if you'll excuse me, a nurse will be in to check on you in an hour."

Astrid nodded, feeling herself suddenly filled with a bright, tingling warmth, followed by a subtle floating sensation. The doctor was about to leave the room when she stopped him before she no longer had the wherewithal to put words together. "Wait, one more question." He halted mid-step. "Who brought me to the hospital?" She knew the obvious answer would have been the search and rescue team that found her, but some strange, vague memory kept her from believing it.

"Well... I wasn't there, but... I heard from a guy down in ER that there was some civilian SUV following the ambulance. I guess they were with WSAR? I don't know. " The doctor shrugged, then smiled. "Why, you know them?"

Astrid shook her head. "No, that's what I was hoping to find out."

"I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," said the doc as he turned to leave. "Now do us all a favor and get some rest, would you?"

The two of them were left alone together, and Tracy reached out to hold her hand again, stroking it with her thumb while avoiding touching the IV needle.

"Where's dad?" Astrid asked, feeling the painkillers working their magic. It'd be a matter of minutes before she was out again.

"In Connecticut. The flights were just too expensive on such short notice... he's so sorry."

She nodded, and her eyelids started to grow very heavy.

"Let's call him... when I'm up..."

Astrid wasn't actually thinking about her father, though. Rather, the last few images in her mind before drifting off into blissful, silent, sleep, were what she may or may not have remembered from being pulled out of the debris.

Meanwhile, Tracy was busy getting her husband on the phone anyway.


About two weeks had gone by since Astrid was released from hospital custody. She was on sick leave from her job as a guide at Adventures Inc. indefinitely, and against the wishes of her parents and sister, returned home to her little rented house on the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe instead of staying with family in Sacramento. Her mother, however, took off a week from work to stay with her, but had to go back home the previous sunday and leave her daughter to her own devices. It took a lot of convincing to get her to believe that one of Astrid's friends in town would be by every other day to help, and otherwise just a phone call away.

The strangest thing was that the day she was released, she started to get calls from journalists and news people for interviews about her story, and (complying, for once, with the wishes of her parents and sister) did a single phone interview for the town paper.

What began to eat away at her though, was the fact that she never was able to thank the people that saved her, or even see their face. She tried doing some internet research in her now copious amounts of spare time, but nothing more turned up except for a few stories of other hikers lost in the California wilderness who also mention a civilian SUV involved in their rescue, only confirming what little she already knew. Just when she thought to give up and focus on recovering from her injuries, she received an email one day from someone using Jolly Green Giant as a pseudonym:

Hey there Astrid,

You don't know who I am, but I just wanted to follow up with you and make sure that you're all right.

-The Jolly Green Giant

The message, though friendly, seemed cryptic. Who the hell was this person? She pondered for the entire day whether or not to reply, but curiosity got the best of her, and she finally, cautiously, began to write back. It had to have been either somebody at the hospital that somehow got hold of her email address, or one of the WSAR people, somehow. If it were the latter, then this wasn't a chance that she was going to let go to waste.

JGG-

I am doing better now. Able to putter around a bit, at least. Thanks for asking.

How do you know me? Who are you?

- A. Schneider

She had planned on going to bed after sending the email, but a reply came fast. Eerily fast. In fact, according to the time logs, she received another message from The Jolly Green Giant 38 seconds later.

Astrid,

I'm very glad to hear it! They say you'd have been deactivated in less than 24 hours, but... better late than never, right?

Oh! Well, since you asked, I suppose I should tell you. Name's Hound. You probably don't remember, but I pulled you out of the debris. And about finding out your email, well... wonderful thing the internet is, right?

At any rate, I'm happy to hear you're doing much better. Good luck on any future trips you might take!

-Hound

Astrid couldn't tell if she was relieved, or creeped out even more. She asked for his name, and he gave her another alias. She asked how he knew her, and he claimed to be part of the search and rescue team. Was this "Hound" with the press? Was he a stalker? He wasn't asking for any personal information, or digging for more story material, though. After spending some time puzzling over the situation, she decided to sleep on it.

She had to admit, sleeping was a pain in the ass when you had a cast on. And god forbid she needed to use the restroom in the middle of the night, seeing as how it took so long to get in and out of her wheelchair. But aside from that, the emails kept her up even with the Oxycontin she took before bed. When Astrid couldn't take much more staring at the ceiling, she scrambled into her chair and wheeled over to the desk. She reread over his last email, and was thrown a bit by his choice of wording... deactivated? Astrid didn't really know what to make of it, but began to reply anyways.

Hound,

So... what you're trying to say is that my rescue more or less hinged on you finding me and digging me out?
If that was you, why don't you tell me your real name?

-Astrid

She wheeled away to make a cup of coffee, returning to her computer about five minutes later with a hot mug full of fresh brew with a little cream. Decaf- she was already buzzing with curiosity and anticipation of figuring out this little puzzle.

And again, there was already a brief reply.

Well... yes... it was me. And I did tell you! My name is Hound.

Astrid blinked. That couldn't possibly be his real name.

Well Hound, thank you for saving me. I owe you my life. Honestly.

Not twenty seconds after she hit the send button was there a reply. Was this guy just sitting in front of his computer waiting for her to email him? It was like he was sending her messages faster than he could type them.

No, there's no reason to thank me. Just doing my duty.

Astrid started to type again.

There must be something I can do. I would feel horribly guilty if I went without repaying you somehow, especially now that I know who you are, sort of. How about lunch on me? I'll meet you somewhere. You can order whatever you want.

And 9 seconds later:

That's totally unnecessary! Promise. I'm not in it for the reward. Helping humans is payment enough for me.

The woman blinked, and reread the message as though it would help her make more sense of it somehow. Yet again, his choice of words was puzzling, to say the least. Part of her became really curious about this character, and just how he became to be part of a No Cal WSAR unit. And so 6 minutes and 20 seconds later:

Nonsense. I'll meet you at Delmonico's. Wine, steak, lobster, whatever you want, on me. Sunday at 1? If... you're in the area, that is. If not, how about a gift card?

She couldn't help but feel strange... it was as if she were doing something she wasn't supposed to, like this were a breaking some sort of social contract. One some level it felt wrong to face her savior in such a blunt way, but... it almost felt just as wrong to let him go off into the world without telling him how she felt. It was a burden on her, in a way.

It was several minutes before a reply came.

Well, alright. I'll stop by there.

Astrid really wanted to know who this was that had saved her. So far, the pieces didn't quite add up. Well, what few small pieces she had to work with at least. And despite the constant calls from her family to check up on her, she elected not to tell them what she had planned in two days.

And due to her being house-bound, those two days passed painfully slow; without another word from her strange, anonymous correspondent. Astrid convinced her friend, Eli, to drive her to the restaurant that day.

"Give me a call when you're done, okay? I'm guessing you'll be done in two hours tops, right?"

"Sounds good to me."

"I have no idea why you're doing this, by the way. I wouldn't do it, that's for sure. Just... don't be weird, OK? Think about how this guy must feel."

She huffed. "I'm not going to be weird, I promise."

He helped her out of the van, into her chair, and she proceeded to wheel inside. The receptionist, recognizing Astrid from a photo in the newspaper, immediately ushered over the manager, who proceeded to offer her a pre fixe meal on the house. The woman awkwardly declined the offer.

"I'm actually waiting for someone," she said. "But I'll have a glass of the house wine." Wine was brought-they gave her the whole bottle-and Astrid waited.

In fact, she waited for half an hour, before sighing to herself and thinking just how crazy she was for getting herself into this situation. Maybe the cabin-fever was getting to her, and just as was her nature, Astrid was not content with sitting around doing nothing. After all... her affinity for the outdoors was what had gotten her injured to begin with, and now that she couldn't go out and do the things she loved, she had to go looking for a different kind of adventure. Astrid huffed as she picked up her phone and called Eli.

"Lunch date stood you up, huh?" Eli asked as he loaded up Astrid's wheelchair in the back of his van. "To be honest, I'm not surprised."

"Oh shut up," she laughed. "It was a long shot, but at least I tried."

"Least he could have done was say no instead of chickening out, I guess." He got into the driver's seat of the truck, closed the door, and started up the car. "Did you eat?"

She shook her head, but held up the nearly-full bottle of wine. "But I got to keep this."

He laughed. "Well, wanna do drive-through?"

"Sure."

With that, they rumbled off in the old bucket in the direction of a Burger King. As they pulled away from the curb, Astrid caught glimpse of a green vehicle parked behind them in the rear view mirror. It pulled away with them.

"You're awfully quiet," Eli prodded.

Astrid raised her eyebrow for a moment before bobbing her head from side to side. "Eh, just... tired. Didn't sleep well last night."

"Ah," he nodded as they pulled into the drive-thru. "Whaddya want?"

She only glanced at the menu as an intelligible voice rasped through the speaker. "Number nine with clear soda, thanks."

They ordered, drove up, paid, received their food, and returned to Astrid's house, where they ate their late lunch over some small talk. Eli tried to find out who she planned on having lunch with, but she refused to reveal who. He had to return to work at 3, so there was no time to stay and hang out after lunch. At twenty til, he left, but not before making sure she didn't need anything. She gave him the wine as a thank-you for being an accomplice in her bizarre adventure. "Shouldn't be mixing booze and pills anyways," she'd said.

Astrid found herself with a cuppa, looking out of the glass double doors that led to a tiny backyard, pushed up against a forested hillside. At the top of the rise was a fancy timeshare resort; she could hear the ruckus by the pool on summer weekends.

It was somewhat of a myth that California didn't have any wildlife left, but that really only counted for the counties south of Big Sur and west of Sacramento. She'd seen bears tromping around in the trees beyond the fence on one occasion, not to mention countless deer, and an assortment of other critters. Astrid sat and sipped, listening to Natty Dread playing softly in the background and wondering if it was maybe time to shell out for a Netflix account.

There was a knock at the door.

The woman set down her coffee and turned herself around for a moment before wheeling over to the door. She hoped that it wasn't a journalist. "COMING!" she shouted, maneuvering over to the nearest window and peeking out. A gasp escaped her lips and she pulled the shade closed again when she saw a Jeep parked in the driveway. The same car from earlier.

Wh-

Astrid wiped her face and ran a hand through her short hair. This was just crazy.

Dammit, it probably was a journalist or stalker that she'd been emailing! "How could I be so stupid," she hissed at herself, wondering if she should even open the door. In a way, it was too late; she'd already confirmed that someone was home. She had to open it.

A deep breath, and Astrid reached for her phone, dialing 9-1-1 and carefully setting it in her lap without hitting the 'call' button. She wheeled over to the door, and with a clammy hand, clicked the latch and maneuvered the thing inward around her chair.

"Can I-" Astrid cut herself off when she saw the landing was absent of a visitor, and it also appeared that the Jeep was empty. Who had knocked? She wheeled out over the threshold, glancing about the property, suddenly very, very nervous. "Hello?"

"Hey, uh... Astrid." The woman jumped in her wheelchair when she heard the voice. It was strange- mechanized, almost, and seemed to come from the unoccupied vehicle.

Astrid's eyes darted around a few more times. "Y...yes?" She risked wheeling out a bit more onto the walkway towards the car. "Uhm, why... why are you hiding?" It occurred to her who she was talking to. "H...Hound, right?" She dragged out the 'h', feeling quite silly to be addressing anyone as such.

"Oh, I'm not hiding. Well, not really."

Astrid knitted her eyebrows, staring at the car with puzzled scrutiny, a little bit less nervous now. "Well, come out of the car, then. I can't thank you if I can't see you."

"You're looking right at me." And to prove his point, he turned the wheels of the Jeep back and forth a bit on the gravel of the driveway. Still, there was no driver as far as she could tell.

"Now you're just screwing with me. Look, you can come in for some coffee if you stop playing games." What was his problem?

"Well... alright. I can't come in, but I will come out. Just... don't freak out, ok?"

What the hell does that mean?

Astrid was expecting a man to straighten up in the cab of the Jeep, laugh to himself and step out, but that's not what happened. In fact, it's far from what happened. Astrid couldn't quite explain it, but the SUV transformed. It broke into a bunch of little pieces, and those pieces moved around each other. She stifled a gasp when she began to recognize limbs. Out of those limbs came hands and feet. And last, but certainly not least, a head ascended from inside what was now a big, blocky chest.

On that head there was a face, and on that face was a sheepish grin. "Ta-da," said the mouth. Was that... was that nervousness she heard in that voice? "See? I told you I wasn't really hiding."

Astrid's eyes were as wide as dinner plates. "You..." she stumbled, sorting through her disoriented thoughts aloud. "You're one of those Auto... bots, aren't you?"

He shrugged, and he smiled again, his white, metallic face lighting up, blue eye things gleaming. "And proud of it."

"Wow... well, that certainly explains, er, everything." She paused for a moment to look around again. "Why don't you come around back? You're sticking out like a sore thumb out here."

"Well, sure."

She watched in fascination as he turned and squeezed between the garage and the house to get to the backyard before turning on her wheels and going back inside. Pausing just as she closed the front door, Astrid took a very deep breath and cancelled the call to 911 with a shaking hand, and set the phone on the dining table.

Maneuvering about the house until she was back to where was before answering the door, mug still steaming a bit where she set it on the dining table, Astrid took a good, long sip before setting it down again and opening wide the two back doors. Hound took to sitting down on the ground.

She might've objected to that if the grass wasn't mostly comprised of patches of dirt, weeds, and Saint Augustine. He was idly picking at something at some joint in his hand when she realized that she didn't really know what she was doing, or what to say.

Quite frankly, she was surprised that she wasn't in hysterics. After all, she'd been hours from death when this... individual saved her.

"Would you... like some water? Or... uh... oil? Antifreeze? Whatever it is you guys drink?"

Hound laughed politely and raised his hand in declination. "No, no, I'm alright."

An awkward silence passed.

"Look, I... wasn't really expecting this. You. I thought you were..."

"Human?"

"Well, yeah." Astrid tapped the chrome rails on the wheels of her chair. "I'm really sorry. I know I've heard about your organization before, but I've never actually seen one of you, or ever expected to see one of you, face to face. It's like finding a, uh... a gold bar in the attic. They exist, but you've got a better chance of being struck by lightning than ever seeing one with your own eyes!" she laughs nervously and looks at the ground. "So... what brings you to California, I guess?"

Hound seemed to genuinely find what she had to say interesting, or at least he appeared to be as interested as a machine could be. She knew all about them, just like everyone else on the planet. The official story was simple enough: that they were experimental AI let loose about the country to interact with people, to learn, and to train for their ultimate purpose as protectors of the country, just like any other serviceman or woman. They were first announced when she was still in elementary school, but it didn't seem to be all that much of a surprise to too many folk, seeing as how advanced artificial intelligence had become by then. Coupled with even earlier hububs about SETI finally detecting very old and very distant transmissions from space (which no one could make heads or tails of, of course), the unofficial word was that the Autobots were the product of a black project putting some kind of alien engineering into practice. Or that they were just another way for the state to surveil their citizens. Or that they themselves were, somehow, alien. Or...

Frankly, the whole debate bored her to death, so she never had an opinion one way or the other about it. SETI continued to intercept old, distant, unintelligible transmissions, and the Autobots went about their business as civil servants or university aides, keeping under the radar. The public got bored and moved on.

But suddenly, Astrid was faced with needing to form an opinion. Because before her was this giant machine, with arms and legs and a face, and he - why's he a he, again? - seemed freakishly human. From where he rested his hands, to where he rested his eyes, it was all so organic. He was as fully present and embodied as anyone else she knew, but it didn't seem odd to her, she realized. In fact, it seemed quite natural after all.

Astrid decided that he was a person, then, and that she'd treat him as such.

"I was driving east from San Fransisco - heading to a new station in Yellowstone to help with a research team - and I heard on the radio that a young woman had gone missing while on a backpacking trip from Tahoe to Yosemite, so I volunteered to take a detour and help. We knew about the landslide, but thought you might have just gotten lost trying to get around it, or was maybe headed back to your starting point. When there was no sign of you along the trail, we started combing around the landslide. And that's when I picked up some life signs. They were... they were faint. But I knew you weren't gone yet." He shrugged. "I guess the rest is history."

Hm. Maybe he could tone down the humanness just a little.

Astrid said nothing when he was done. She began to imagine things from his point of view, then; images that she'd stifled until now. The trail, the landslide, the debris piled up at the bottom of that valley, and Astrid's broken body sticking out of the bottom of it next to an empty water bottle, hand desperately clutching a stick to beat back the vermin or a rock to beat back the coyotes.

She remembered the blood covering her arms and face, caked especially thick on her cheek and forearms. She remembered horror settling into her gut when she first tried to twist around and reach her bag, only to be rewarded by a shooting pain in her leg that almost made her faint.

But perhaps most distinctly she remembered the weight of the rocks on top of her. After a while it became more than just a pile of rocks, it evolved into a symbol, a metaphor. It represented the heavy burden of knowing that she was going to die a fucking terrible death. Each and every stone pressed down on her as though taunting, daring her to try and reach the other compartments of her pack buried hopelessly under their weight, the compartments of food to stave off oblivion just a little longer.

She wondered at how much she must have stunk. Days of blood, sweat and dirt caked on every inch of skin... pants that she could only keep from being soiled for so many hours.

I must have smelled like a dead possum dumped in an outhouse. Like piss and death, she thought.

A lump of the likes she'd never felt before amassed in her throat and her eyes burned with sudden tears for the first time since coming home. Just like that, the very wilderness she had so adored, had nearly taken her life. Most bushfolk knew this. But did they really?

She did now.

The silent sobs that had so suddenly taken hold of Astrid caused her to slump in her wheelchair. For a moment, the world around her, Hound included, disappeared.

"Hey there..." the voice, though inhuman, somehow managed to retain a certain warmth. A large, five-fingered, articulated hand that should have weighed almost seventy pounds rested lightly on her shoulder. The lack of any other words was cause for her to open her eyes and look at a kneeling Hound, who seemed to be unable to actually conjure up anything else to say.

After what might have very well been forever, Astrid regained her composure and wiped her eyes with a sleeve. "I'm... I'm sorry," she said groggily. "I don't really know much about you Autobots, but I'm sure that was more awkward for you than it was for me." The woman forced a smile.

The mech had moved his hand a few moments before, and the sad frown that was previously upon his face was now replaced with a small, soft, smile. "I'm always learning something new about humans, but at least I know why people cry. It's going to be okay," he reassured.

She gazed down at her hands, sighing. Her eyes still felt puffy. "I would have given you a hug if either of us were fit for the job." She gestured at him and then at her legs.

"Right," he seemed to reverently reply. "Primus, that must be terrible to be stuck in a thing like that when all you've known your whole life is how to walk upright."

Astrid let out a small chuckle. "Yeah, well... if anything, it's hard on my hands, and I'll be on crutches in no time. Paraplegics can do it, why can't I? Anyways, I'll never get used to having to get around on four wheels like this... hell, how do you do it? Don't you ever find that you'd really just need your hands while you're in that car mode?"

Hound seemed to mirthfully consider this. "Sometimes. But not as often as you'd think."

"What's it like? Going from one to the other?"

"It's like... going from walking to swimming, I think."

The woman nodded, trying to conceptualize it. "I suppose. But we don't need to rearrange our bodies in order to swim, though. God, can you imagine what a triathlon would look like if we had to do that?"

"We have stuff just like that back, uh... back at the base." Her companion went from kneeling to sitting then, and his smile spread. "I'd rather not imagine humans being able to do it. It would be pretty messy, being made of meat and all!"

She laughed, picturing a cartoonish image of a person breaking their limbs off and rearranging them, blood squirting everywhere, organs falling out...

"Now that's the one thing very few of us can do, though," he said. "Swim."


The two continued to chat for some time. They flitted between the subject of Led Zeppelin, to Astrid's aching arms, to Hound's intended function as a sort of scout. The word "scout" always reminded her of someone smaller and faster than it seemed this particular robot was, but he went on to explain a few of the roles he was equipped to handle with deft precision, and everything made sense. He was equal parts tracker, imaging specialist, and infantryman: all things he'd need to get behind enemy lines, perform recon or blow something up, and get out. That sort of work wasn't on the horizon just yet, he was quick to add, but in a civilian setting, his skills made volunteering for search and rescue operations a no-brainer. He admitted that he wasn't looking forward to fighting - and something in his body language suggested that he was speaking from some sort of experience, oddly enough - and that he would be out in the woods all day, every day if he could.

Astrid compared it to her own job as a mountaineering guide: It's not work if you love what you do.

"You know," she said, studying what to her was a purely mechanical body. "I didn't think any of you could... appreciate nature. At least in the same way a human might." The woman sensed she might be treading on potentially dangerous ground, but he didn't appear to take offense.

Hound folded his arms over his chest and looked down at her. "It's very much the same as a human's capacity to appreciate technology. Or math. Or those little vacuum cleaners that people like to think of as pets."

"Roombas?"

"Yeah, like Roombas." He paused here for an second. "And isn't everything in the natural world, including yourself, a machine in a sense? You're a biological machine, just like these trees, your neighbor's dog, and the entire ecosystem of this region. This planetary system, this galaxy, are cosmic machines. We are all machines... I just happen to be an inorganic one. Everything is math. We all operate under the same laws of physics, after all."

"You like thinking about this stuff, don't you? That almost sounded rehearsed," she chuckled.

Hound averted his eyes and rubbed his fingers against the plating on the back of his head. "Well, I uh... you know... I've got lots of time to myself and all..."

Astrid laughed. "It's alright, I do the same thing. Nature is my life, and it definitely gives me time to think. I know some people don't like when they've got nothing to keep them busy but their own thoughts; makes those folks nuts. But I like it. It's constant noise that drives me up the wall."

The mech considered this. "Me too. I know of some 'bots that wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they actually had time to think." He paused for a moment, then broke out in a light chuckle. Then under his breath: "In fact, I could name a few that seem to have forgotten how to think altogether."

Astrid snorted. "Can't we all."

The two remained for a few moments in what almost felt like a contented silence between them. Her ears heard the birds then, the rustle of something in the trees behind her backyard. A woodpecker off in the distance, the windchimes hanging from her neighbor's porch. A kid yelling at the resort far up the hillside.

It was then that the woman noted, upon a longer, less schematic sweep of the giant robot seated on her dirt, that the two glossy panels some inches below the bright olive of his helmet, were not as she thought she remembered them from a few moments before. And without such respiratory obligations as a human, it was difficult to tell... but it seemed to her that he was "off", if that was at all possible for an creature like Hound.

The world was suddenly made of glass; she found it difficult to break the silence, but after a few moments she was able to make a sound. "Are you alright?" she ventured, almost sure the glass would break under the weight of her cumbersome ignorance. Eyes, listless as of late, roved around the sleek contours of his face.

His eyes woke up. Binocular optic sensors, previously a silky, lifeless gray, illuminated from deep within. A short look at her and Hound's faintly luminous eyes turned to the glass world around them. "Just listening to the birds."

The glass melted away, revealing trees, chainlink fence, weeds, haphazardly set pavers, garage, and house. She smiled and ran a hand through her hair. "It's why I love it up here. Couldn't stand living in Sacramento, even if it meant being close to family." A pause here, though it was not meant to last forever. "It's been real hard not being able to do anything for the past few weeks," she lamented, her voice softening, as though she'd been defeated. "And it's going to be weeks more before I can even being to plan a getaway."

Hound thought here. "How about you and I go investigate some back roads tomorrow?" Then he grinned. "I'll drive?"

She looked at him sidelong, seriously considering his offer. "Really? I thought you needed to be in Wyoming with the other guy?"

"Beachcomber? Oh, he'll be alright for a little longer. He likes being alone anyways."

It was something of an unconscious sense of relief that came over her then. Astrid was being freed from her prison. Even if she would be on somewhat of a leash, and only for a few hours.

"You... would do that for me?"

Hound knelt in a bit closer, loosely weaving his large fingers together. "I want to help you feel better in any way I can," he stated, as though it was the simplest, most obvious thing in the world. "And that includes mental health. It'll be good for your noggin to get out for a little bit, I think. Besides, we both seem to have the same appreciation for the outdoors. I'd love to go."

Either the wheelchair seemed a little unstable, or the cement slab of a back porch she was positioned on was uneven. Regardless of which, though, Astrid felt it necessary to reach for the rails on her wheels and hold them so she wouldn't lose her balance.

"Thank you very much, Hound. You have no idea how much this means to me."

The smile, though lessened at times, never fully disappeared over the past few minutes. "I think I can make a pretty good guess. What time should I pick you up?"

"I, uh... ten?" Far less than composed. "Can I bring music?"

"Of course. It'll give me a chance to try out my new CD player."

Astrid laughed dumbly, weirdly gleeful at the fact that this highly advanced piece of DARPA technology had a CD player even though most of the world was already past that and well into the age of the Bluetooth and iPod. "All right then. Ten it is?"

"Ten it is."

She watched in thinly veiled wonder as he rose up on a pair of legs taller than her, were she able to stand. He tread lightly when exiting the backyard, flashing one more benign grin before disappearing behind the house. As soon as he was out of sight, Astrid turned on her wheels and headed back into the house with the first burst of adrenaline she'd felt since getting out of that hospital bed. Dodging furniture with something just short of expert maneuverability, Astrid raced back to the forefront of her house to peek through the window by the door, just catching the tail end of Hound's transformation back into the Jeep. Without a second to spare, he'd started his engine and was carefully heading down the driveway.

Astrid turned from the pane of glass and sat in her chair. The house seemed very dark and quiet just then; not foreboding, but like it was holding its breath. The sun had almost gone down, and the world outside was growing darker as well. She would have to turn on some lights or risk being swallowed by the pitch. The young woman considered going to sleep, but she knew it would take all too long to succumb to the blissful oblivion.

And with that in mind, she wheeled over to the living room and to her music collection. Turning on a single side lamp, Astrid perused the spines of the jewel cases, plucking out one: Fragile.

Jon Anderson would help her figure out what had just happened, and hopefully help calm her down.