Avo and Grace (with Jaya's consciousness at the forefront) traverse the Laramie Mountains until they reach Friend Park. Enjoy the Friend Park theme while reading this passage. The voice reflects that although Avo was assembled in Wyoming Compstate, his neural mesh originated in Kyoto Compstate.
Friend Park was a flat, level clearing between rolling hills. The grass was short and mostly dry, with patches of green where there was more shade, tawny soil and gray gravel peeking through everywhere. The column of smoke was gone, and she saw no others.
“I was sure the smoke came from here,” she said.
“It did,” said Avo. “Over there, actually.” He pointed, then dashed out to the center of the clearing.
So much for stealth. Jaya jogged up to Avo. He stood triumphantly by a recently extinguished campfire. Somebody had shoveled soil upon it, but as she stretched out her hand over the mound, she felt heat. There was a pile of gathered but unused pine branches nearby: was it a goodwill offering for the next camper, or was the camper planning to return?
“Is your infrared picking up anything in the vicinity?” asked Jaya.
“Nothing but the old campfire. Oh, and a squirrel over there,” he pointed northeast at something that she couldn’t see, “but no people.”
“That was fast of the camper.”
Avo motioned to the ground just to her left. “One person was sitting there. I can still see the residual heat.”
“One butt print?” Jaya asked. “A lone nomad seems most likely, though I don’t see evidence of much gear.” Grace twisted in her consciousness. “And compstate security personnel always patrol in pairs.”
“Why would they leave a site just before dark?” asked Avo.
Jaya frowned. “A good question.”
She removed her harness, dropping it to the ground. Squatting on her heels, she gathered up a small clump of dried pine needles and placed it in the center of the dead campfire. Then she grabbed a pine branch from the wood pile and broke off small twigs, stacking them atop the dry needles.
“What are you doing? You want us to stay here?”
Jaya smiled and ignored the question. Avo had already established there was nobody nearby. And here was a perfectly good campfire site with plenty of fuel.
She wanted to stay at Friend Park. Just one more time.
“Jaya,” she said, irritably.
She tugged a survival pouch from her harness and tore open its thin metarm membrane. Inside, with the water purification tablets, snake venom kit, and first aid supplies, was a small box of safety matches. She crouched before the mound of kindling and struck a match. It flared and she placed it at the base of the pine needles. Cupping her hands around the mound, she blew in slow puffs as the needles caught fire and the flames spread.
“Hand me some more branches,” she said, motioning to the pile of wood. “But keep an eye out.”
“I will,” he said, and handed her two large branches. He wriggled out of his backpack and set it next to hers.
She broke the branches into quarters and fed the fire one clump after another. The flames took hold, and the dry wood burned brightly, suffusing the air with sweet pine. With what already burned plus the unused pile, they’d have plenty of wood for the night.
She returned to her harness and dug deep under the spare clothing. She felt the edge of heavier fabric and pulled out a blanket without disturbing the rest of the pouch.
I said I was Jaya, but am I Grace unpacking efficiently?
She snapped the blanket open in the air and spread it on the ground. Grace put her harness in one corner, her pair of legz in another, Avonaco’s backpack in a third corner, and his legz in the fourth. Then she stretched, laid down across the blanket and stared up at the clear sky. Grace tried to think more of Tim, of Raj and Anna, of Dad and Cloister 11. But Jaya’s thoughts were strong, her love for Avonaco was strong. Soon enough, Grace was drifting away. Enough of Grace. Stars were beginning to wink and everything really was perfect.
Avo plopped alongside. “You looked like you were going to sleep.”
She shifted from the stars to his eyes and smiled. “Grace wanted to. Did. But I’m enjoying this too much. With the grafty I don’t think I need to sleep. Just like you.”
His expression changed, his gaze growing distant.
“What?” she asked.
“Well,” he began, “it is just that, since you have been gone, I have learned to sleep. To dream, in fact.”
“How?” she asked.
“I empty my thoughts one by one, and when I am left with nothing, my mind fills up the void,” he said.
“That’s wonderful!” Jaya laughed, and Grace remembered the fantastic dreams Tim had, too. Sometimes they were silly, often they were profound. But Avonaco looked worried.
“So what’s wrong?”
He looked away from her. “When I first started to dream, I dreamed about you, Jaya. But then I started to dream about other things, other people, and it felt like maybe I was growing away.” He turned back to her, eyes widened in earnestness. “I promise, I have tried everything to bring you back.”
Her heart melted. She drew him into a hug, his head resting in the crook of her arm. He held her tightly. If he cried, he made no sound. They were quiet for a while, gazing up at the stars.