“You’ll have to go without me,” Jared called to his girlfriend. Paula already rode her mountain bike two meters ahead of him, and the hammer blows kept coming.
They stopped on the side of the crumbly road. Jared checked the cracks under his foot this time for wasp nests. Paula’s backpack had half their bathroom stuffed inside it, but no aspirin. The weight threatened to tilt her small frame right off her seat as she leaned. But the screwups never happened to her. The screwups all ran in Jared’s family.
“We should just vow to wear jogging pants instead of shorts next time,” Paula said.
Jared smirked. It kept his grimace down to something smaller.
He stared at their destination, the stacks of car-sized blocks some ways ahead on the dry plains. The stony monuments seemed to lean differently now. One little tower had vanished. A hill must have showed itself in the last kilometer or so, probably while he stared at the pavement and vowed to wear jogging pants.
Paula also squinted until her whole face gave up. The workers on the horizon wore their unmistakable power exoskeletons. The pipe frames glinted even in the approaching dusk. The machines cradled every vague limb and moved them like robotic arms in a car factory. The suits’ metal backpacks jutted twice as far as Paula’s. With stunning teamwork, the blurry figures hoisted two-tonne blocks and stacked them.
“If you could just ride a little closer,” Jared said, “you can see if my bother lives among them. Then we can camp here until daybreak.”
Paula looked at Jared’s swollen ankle still strapped to one pedal. She cringed.
“Imagine what Collin feels with his whole body strapped in,” Jared said.
“Jared, I don’t know if I can outrace that big of a tech cult. I wouldn’t have even come here without the bikes.”
“They don’t own the road,” Jared said, “just the land up there. They’ve become too productive to even notice us anyway. If they see you and approach, just bike back to me.”
Paula looked at the dimming sky.
“Alright,” she said. “You said he has blond hair like you, right?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. My brother would never hurt anyone.”
Paula saw the lie in his face and tilted her own.
“…except himself,” Jared added.
Paula inhaled enough air for a breath-holding contest.
“Have your phone ready,” she said. “Out here, 911 means you.”
Paula unslung her backpack and handed it to Jared. She sped down the road and became a blur like the men encaged in their exoskeletons.
Jared watched her shrink into a wobbly silhouette. He studied the smaller, robotic figures ahead of her. His brother probably still toiled among them. Collin didn’t belong in that cage, strapped in to that automated pipework. He didn’t belong tethered to some fledgling tech cult either.
“I hope they fail,” Jared muttered.
He scanned repeatedly for his brother. The dusk made it impossible, but he tried. If Collin could just see Paula and him together, the ambitious geek would return to normalcy. He would realize that normal life and love offered more power than some engine in a box on his back. Jared watched and inhaled the cooling air through his teeth until they hurt a little.
But he mostly watched Paula.
Her little form stopped, and Jared breathed properly again. She stayed on the faded yellow line, knowing he would want her centered there so he could see her better. Unlike the tech cultists, she looked framed in freedom.
She called. Jared pressed his cellphone to his ear.
“Jared?” Paula asked.
Her estrous voice relieved him. Jared could finally look away from her and check the stone monuments again. A staircase tower several blocks high blew over in the wind. Jared winced, but smiled afterward. Over 20 spry figures congregated around the fallen stones and commenced reconstruction. Collin would not clean up their messes forever.
“Jared?” Paula asked again.
“Sorry,” Jared said. “What do you see?”
“Umm. Look, these isolationists scare me. We need to forget about watching this group or that group and get on with our lives.”
“Do you see any blond guys?”
“No.” She said it too fast. “Collin would have called if he wanted you to track him down all these years.”
“I thought you didn’t mind helping me search a bit.”
“I don’t mind. These guys…just scare me, though.”
Jared and Paula leaned in the dusk air for a while, their bikes still and slanted. They listened to the subtle buzz of their cellphones. Not far away, a new tower climbed toward the clouds, the blocks stacked and nudged to perfection.
“Paula,” Jared said. She waited through the long pause that followed. “Please, just tell me what you see in those exoskeletons.”
They both waited for one another to back down. Neither of them did.
“Skeletons,” she said.
BIO: Nicholas Stillman (stillmanscifi.com) writes science fiction with medical themes. His work has appeared in The Colored Lens, Helios Quarterly Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Not One of Us, Silver Blade Magazine, Aurora Wolf, and the Wavelengths anthology.