The thing about fucking off to the woods is that unless you are a very particular, very rare sort of person, it does not take long to understand why people left said woods in the first place. Houses were invented for excellent reasons, as were shoes, plumbing, pillows, heaters, washing machines, paint, lamps, soap, refrigeration, and all the other countless trappings humans struggle to imagine life without. It had been important—vitally important—for Sibling Dex to see their world as it was without such constructs, to understand on a visceral level that there was infinitely more to life than what happened between walls, that every person was indeed just an animal in clothing, subject to the laws of nature and the whims of chance like everything else that had ever lived and died in the universe. But the moment they pedaled their wagon out of the wilderness and onto the highway, Dex felt the indescribable relief of switching back to the flip side of that equation—the side in which humans had made existence as comfortable as technology would sustainably allow. The wheels of Dex’s ox-bike no longer caught on the broken crags of old oil road. Their heavily laden double-decker wagon no longer shuddered as they willed it across chaotic surfaces rent by the march of roots and the meandering of soil. There were no creeping branches catching their clothing, no fallen trees posing problems, no unlabeled forks that made them stop and stare with dread. Instead, there was cream-colored paving, smooth as butter and just as warm, lined with signs people made to let other people know which way to go if they wanted to rest and eat and not be alone.
Not that Sibling Dex was alone, of course. Mosscap walked alongside them, its tireless mechanical legs easily keeping pace with the bike. “It’s so … manicured,” the robot said with wonder as it studied the seam between road and forest. “I knew it would be, but I’ve never seen it for myself.”
Dex glanced at the dense ferns and web-laced wildflowers spilling over the edge of the road, barely held back by the highway’s border. If this was what passed as manicured, they couldn’t imagine what Mosscap was going to make of, say, a rose garden, or a public park.
“Oh, and look at this!” Mosscap hurried ahead of the ox-bike, clanking with every step. It stopped before a road sign, placing its hinged hands on its matte-silver hips as it read the text to itself. “I’ve never seen a sign this legible before,” it called back. “And it’s so glossy.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not in a ruin,” Dex said, panting lightly as they crested the last of a mild incline. They wondered if Mosscap was going to be like this with every human-made object it encountered. But then again, perhaps it was a good thing for someone to appreciate the craftsmanship of a backroads highway or a quick-printed road sign. The creation of such objects took just as much work and thought as anything else, yet garnered little praise from those who saw them every day. Maybe giving such things credit where credit was due was the perfect job for someone who wasn’t a person at all.
Mosscap turned to Dex with as big a smile as its boxy metal face would allow. “This is very nice,” it said, pointing a finger at the text reading STUMP—20 MILES. “Wonderfully neat. Though a little prescriptive, don’t you think?”
“Well, there’s no spontaneity in your journey, then, is there? If you’re focused on moving from sign to sign, there’s no opportunity for happy accidents. But I suppose I’ve rarely had clear destinations in mind before now. In the wilds, I simply go places.”
“Most folks don’t wander between towns without a concrete reason for doing so.”
“Why not?” Mosscap asked.
Dex had never really thought about this before. They steered the bike in the direction the sign indicated, and Mosscap fell into step alongside. “If you have everything you need around you,” Dex said, “there’s no reason to leave. It takes a lot of time and effort to go someplace else.”
Mosscap nodded at the wagon trailing dutifully behind Dex’s ox-bike. “Would you say this carries everything you need?”
The phrasing of this was not lost on Dex. What do humans need? was the impossible question that had driven Mosscap to wander out of the wilderness on behalf of robot-kind, and Dex had no idea how Mosscap was ever going to find a satisfactory answer. They knew they’d be hearing the question endlessly during however long it took them both to travel together through Panga’s human territories, but apparently, Mosscap was starting now.
“Materially, yeah, pretty much,” Dex answered, in regards to the wagon. “At least, in an everyday sense.”
The robot craned its head, looking at the storage crates tied to the roof of the vehicle that rattled with the internal shifting of yet more things. “I suppose I might not want to travel much if it required taking all of this with me.”
“You can get by with less, but you gotta know where you’re going,” Dex said. “You need to know there’s food and shelter where you’re headed. Which is exactly why we make signs.” They gave Mosscap a knowing glance. “Otherwise, you end up spending the night in a cave.”
Mosscap gave Dex a sympathetic nod. The hard climb to Hart’s Brow was more than a week behind them, but Dex’s body was still feeling it, and they had made no secret of this. “On that note, Sibling Dex,” Mosscap said, “I can’t help but notice that the sign says it’s another twenty miles to Stump, and—”
“Yeah, day’s getting late,” Dex agreed. Twenty miles wasn’t so bad, but creamy highway or not, they were still deep in forest and had yet to see anyone else on the road. There was no reason beyond impatience to continue pressing on in the dark, and though Dex was looking forward to being in a proper town again, stillness and rest sounded preferable in the moment.
They pulled off the road at a simple clearing built for that exact purpose, and together, Dex and Mosscap made camp. The two of them had fallen into an unspoken rhythm with this in recent days. Dex locked down everything with wheels, Mosscap unfolded the kitchen on the wagon’s exterior, Dex fetched chairs, Mosscap started the fire. There was no discussion around it anymore.
As Mosscap fussed with connecting the biogas tank to the fire drum, Dex pulled out their pocket computer and opened their mailbox. “Whoa,” they said.
“What is it?” Mosscap asked as it secured the metal hose to the gas tank’s valve.
Dex flicked through message after message after message. Never in their life had they gotten this much mail. “A lot of people want to meet you,” they said. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. The moment Dex had regained satellite signal after climbing back down the mountain, they’d sent messages to the village councils, the Wildguard, the monastic network, and every other contact they could think of. The first robot to reach out to humans since the Awakening wasn’t something to be kept secret or left a surprise, Dex felt. Mosscap had come to meet humanity as a whole; that was who Dex had informed.
It made sense, Dex supposed, that everyone had written back.
“We’ve got a lot of invites from the City,” Dex said. They leaned against the wagon’s outer wall as they skimmed through. “Um … the University, obviously, and the City History Museum, and—oh, shit.” They raised their eyebrows.
Mosscap pulled its chair up beside the unlit fire drum and sat down. “What?”
“They want to do a convergence,” Dex said.
“Uh, it’s a formal gathering where all the monks come together at the All-Six for a few days for a…” Dex gestured vaguely. “You know, there’s a ceremony, and talks, and … it’s a big deal.” They scratched their ear as they read over the gushing message. “We don’t do those very often.”
“I see,” Mosscap said, but its voice was distracted, and it wasn’t looking their way at all. “Not that I don’t care, Sibling Dex, but—”
“Yep,” Dex said with a nod, knowing what was coming next. “Do your thing.”
Mosscap leaned in toward the fire drum, as close as was safe, its glowing eyes fixed on the apparatus within. It flicked the switch on the side of the drum, and with a soft whoosh, the fire leapt to life. “Ha!” Mosscap said delightedly. “Oh, it’s wonderful, it really is.” It sat back in its chair, folding its hands in its lap as it watched the flames dance. “I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this.”
The arrival of warmth and light was the casual signal that the campsite was finally in order, and Dex decided the messages could wait. They put their computer away and, at long last, did what they’d spent hours longing to do. They shed their dirty, sweat-soaked, forest-flecked clothes, set up the camp shower, turned the water on, and stepped into the spray.
“Gods around,” they moaned. Dried salt and accumulated trail dust veritably peeled from their skin, running in grubby spirals into the greywater catch. The clean water stung as it hit scrapes still healing, and soothed the constellations of insect bites Dex had been scratching despite their best efforts. The water pressure was nothing more than decent, and the temperature was only as hot as the wagon’s solar coating could coax from deep-forest sunlight, but even so, it felt to Dex like the finest luxury in the world. They leaned their head back, letting the water run through their hair as they stared at the sky above the trees. Stars were breaking through the pinkish-blue, and Motan’s curved stripes hung high, smiling reassuringly down at the moon Dex called home.
Mosscap stuck its head around the corner of the wagon. “Would you like me to make food while you bathe?” it asked.
“You really don’t have to,” Dex said. They were still warring with their personal discomfort over letting the robot do tasks of this sort, despite the fact that Mosscap loved few things more than learning how to use stuff.
“Of course I don’t have to,” Mosscap scoffed, clearly finding Dex’s reluctance on this front ridiculous. It held up a dehydrated pack of three-bean stew. “Would this be a good meal?” it asked.
“That…” Dex relented. “That would be perfect,” they said. “Thanks.”
Mosscap got the stove going, and Sibling Dex prayed silently to the god they’d devoted themself to. Praise Allalae for showers. Praise Allalae for sweet mint soap that lathered up thick as meringue. Praise Allalae for the tube of anti-itch cream they were going to slather themself with once they’d dried off. Praise Allalae for—
They pursed their lips, realizing they’d forgotten to fetch their towel before getting in the shower. They threw an eye toward the hook on the side of the wagon where it should have been hanging. To their surprise, the towel was there, right where it should be. Mosscap must’ve brought it, they thought, when it went to search the pantry.
Dex gave a small, grateful smile.
Praise Allalae for the company.
The trees the village was tucked within were deceptively young. They towered majestically over the road, taller than any building outside the City, their layered branches creating a dappled lace of sunlight. But the age of a Kesken pine was expressed not in height but width. The early years of saplings were spent exhausting every calorie sucked from both light and dirt on building themselves upward, trying to escape the shade of the lower forest for the brightness above. It was only after they’d spent years converting unfiltered sun into life-giving sugar that they began to expand horizontally, transforming into behemoths as the centuries drummed on. By their species’s standards, the trees in the place that Dex and Mosscap had entered were slim teenagers, less than two hundred years old.
There was only one reminder of the giants that had once stood in this forest (and would again, one day). Dex stopped the wagon and hopped off their bike as they approached the village’s namesake: an enormous stump, wide as a modest house, its spiring might cut clean away in the early days of the Factory Age, a time in which not much thought was given to spending twenty minutes on killing something that had taken a thousand years to grow. There was a shrine to Bosh placed before the stump, a stone pedestal with a carved sphere set on top. Small ribbons had been tied to it by countless passersby, their colors faded and fraying in the open air. Dex had ribbon in the wagon but did not fetch it. They merely capped their hand atop the mossy stone, and bowed their head in greeting and reverence.
Mosscap walked up behind them, observing. “May I ask why you do this, given that Bosh will not notice?” it asked.
“The shrine’s not for Bosh,” Sibling Dex said. “It’s for us. People, I mean. Bosh exists and does their work regardless of whether we pay attention. But if we do pay attention, we can connect to them. And when we do, we feel … well, you know. Whole.”
Mosscap nodded. “I feel that way with anything I observe in the wilds. And I suppose that’s why I don’t understand the need for this—no offense, I hope.”
“None taken,” Dex said. “But you know the feeling I mean?”
“Very much so. I feel—I connect simply by watching things move through the Cycle. I don’t need an object to facilitate that feeling.”
“Neither do we, if we remember to stop and look,” Dex said. “But that’s the point of a shrine, or an idol, or a festival. The gods don’t care. Those things remind us to stop getting lost in everyday bullshit. We have to take a sec to tap into the bigger picture. That’s easier said than done for a lot of folks—you’ll see.” They paused for a moment, reflecting. “You know, it’s funny, the way you said that.”
“The way I said what?” Mosscap asked.
“That you don’t need an object to facilitate that feeling.” Dex gave a single chuckle. “You are an object facilitating that feeling. The feeling’s coming from you, after all.”
Mosscap’s lenses shifted, and Dex could hear a small whir inside its head. “I’d never thought of it that way,” Mosscap said. It put its hands flat against its torso, falling silent and serious.
Dex watched the robot contemplate itself before the remains of the stolen tree, and likewise felt a thought take root. “You know, you might be a powerful thing for people to see.”
“It’s one thing to be told about the world as it was,” Dex said. “It’s another to see a piece of it. We have ruins, and things like this”—they nodded at the stump—“but you’re the furthest thing from a stone shrine. It’s not like I ever doubted the Awakening happened, but meeting you made it real in a way no museum ever could. I think you’ll bring a lot of perspective to the people we meet, even if all they do is see you walk by.”
Mosscap took that in. “I hadn’t thought about me providing them with perspective,” it said. “That’s what I’m seeking.”
“Sure, but exchange is what you get out of any interaction, even the smallest ones. Everything has a give-and-take.”
“Still, what you’re saying is quite a responsibility.” Mosscap folded its fingers together before its chest, and its eyes glowed intensely even within the brightness of the day. “What if I make a mess of this?”
“Don’t think of it that way,” Dex said. “You don’t have to do anything. You just have to be you. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you nervous.”
“Yes, well, you did, Sibling Dex.” The robot wrung its hands together, and the whir in its head grew louder. “I’ve never met any humans but you, and I know that doing so is rather the whole point of me being here, but now the enormity of it is hitting me, and—and—oh, I must seem so foolish.”
Dex shrugged. “Honestly, I’m just surprised it took you until we were ten minutes out to—”
“Ten minutes?!” Mosscap cried, clutching its face. “Oh, no. Oh, no.”
“Hey.” Dex laid a hand on the anxious machine’s forearm. The naked metal components were uniformly warm to the touch. “It’s gonna be fine. You’re gonna be fine. You’ll do great, in fact.”
Mosscap looked at them, its lenses expanded wide. “Do you think they’ll be afraid of me? Or … dislike me, perhaps?” It glanced down at its body. “Will they not like what I remind them of?”
“Maybe,” Dex said with gentle honesty. “But I highly doubt many of them will feel that way, and anyway, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Dex smiled reassuringly. “Because I’ll be with you the whole way.”
Copyright © 2022 by Becky Chambers