11 min read

Walk in the Woods

Walk in the Woods

Transfer Orbit Fiction

My phone pings, rousing me out of my light sleep. I sigh and pick myself up from where I was lying in the driver’s seat of my battered pickup truck. The sun hasn’t appeared over the eastern mountains just yet, but the overcast sky has begun to shift from black to a deep blue. I pull the device off of its charger and begin skimming through the passenger reservations that came in for the day.

The device displays a list of profile pictures and general background info into the air before me. There’s the usual mix of people: a handful of vaguely-recognizable celebrities, selfies of Silicon Valley tech bros, and a couple of generic silhouettes.

I sort the list by payment, and chop out the first third that are offering exorbitant rates for today’s hike. I’ve learned that that money comes with significant demands. Powerful CEO or Climate hedge fund-types that are used to micromanaging their employees don’t leave those habits behind when they step into a haptic rig, and I don’t really feel like spending the next five hours being told where to step as I walk. The money looks good, but the cost-benefit ratio isn’t worth it to me right now. Maybe at the end of the month if there are unexpected bills.

I skip over a handful of poorly-rated profiles, and jump down to the silhouettes who clearly just opened up their Hikr accounts. They’re usually the easiest to manage: people who’ve never been outside in nature, locked away in air-conditioned buildings in waterlogged cities. They usually get awed by the surroundings, and tip nicely. You run the risk of getting a sockpuppet account from a banned user, but that doesn’t happen often, and I can always drop their ass if that turns out to be the case. I settle on a woman listed as Laurette B., because she filled out her profile completely, and pledged a decent wage.

I confirm the reservation and stretch. The service will ping her in ten minutes, and we’ll get going. I do the calculation in my head. If we make a good pace, I’ll be able to take her up and back in four and a half hours, which would give me plenty of time to grab lunch and pick up a mid-afternoon passenger.

I push open the door and go around to the back of the truck. A handful of cars have already begun to fill up the parking lot at the trailhead — early in-person risers who are looking to beat the rush and the day’s projected heat. It’s only May, and temperatures are forecasted to climb into the 90s by early afternoon. I open up the hatch of the truck and pull out one of the drawers.

My exo lies in its slot, looking like a weird, disembodied skeleton. Its carbon fiber legs are battered with scratches and wear and tear, but I keep them in good shape. The screen at the bottom shows that its batteries are fully charged, thanks to the solar panels mounted on the top of the cap. I pull out the suit and swap in the fresh cells, running my hands over the limbs and cords, checking for any fresh issues. Nothing’s changed from last night, but it’s always good to double-check. I tape down a stray wire, and knock some dirt out of the suit’s clawed feet. Satisfied, I turn it on, and it stands up on its own, unfolding like a piece of origami.

I pull out my pack and strap it to the back, stringing the water sack’s drinking tube through its right shoulder. The ice crinkles as I move it around. The backpack is for the essentials: I throw a pair of spare cells in, and make sure that my tool roll is in there. A chest rig contains the extras that I’ll need: snacks, a whistle, a bright-red emergency flare, and bear mace, which I began carrying after seeing a report about migratory grizzly / polar bear hybrids being spotted in the state’s northern forests.

I step into the rig, and begin strapping in: legs first, then hips, then snug the shoulder straps tight. I close everything up and lock the truck, then take a breath and pull my headset on over my head, and hit the virtual “READY” button hovering in my sight.

I don’t have to wait long. Laurette dials in after a minute. “Hello?”

“Good morning, Laurette!” I say, trying to inject a bit of enthusiasm into my voice. Shit, I forgot to grab coffee before I suited up. “I’m Alex, and I’ll be your Guide this morning.’ I run down through the list that I’ve memorized: a reminder to have read the terms and conditions, conduct expectations, and estimated hiking time.

“I know you’ve seen the tutorials on how this works,” I tell her, “but let me run through it quickly with you and how I do things. I’ll be bringing you up the mountain at a steady pace. You’ve got the option to turn on haptics to experience this yourself if you wish. You’ll be able to look around and get the full experience as I go up, and if you want to stop and look at something, just let me know. Any questions?”

There’s a long pause on the other end, and I worry for a second that I might have lost her. “No,” she finally says. “Well, not yet.”

“Feel free to ask away when you have one!” I tell her. I tap a virtual button in front of me, connecting the cameras in my headset and exo to her rig at home. I hear a small intake of breath as the Vermont forest focuses in around her. I give her a moment to take it in the greenery that arches over us.

The handful of people already setting off on the trail look like the usual mix of hikers. It’s a decent enough day for a hike: it’s not yet oppressively hot, and my weather app says that the clouds will burn off mid-morning. A family of hikers, their kids decked out in adorable miniature backpacks and colorful exos of their own are suiting up in the parking lot. Two women who look like they’ve taken a short break from a through-hike up the Long Trail are loaded down with heavy packs. One man stares daggers at me and my equipment. I know his type right away: purists who think that exo-skeletons and digital services have ruined the outdoors. His car is even decked out in anti-camera dazzling.

“Whenever you’re ready, Laurettte,” I say. My headset is a custom job: a low-profile tactical climbing helmet that I picked out of military surplus years ago, studded with cameras in four rows across the top, along with a small array of microphones and a pair of earbuds. It’s connected to a computer system mounted just under the exo’s left shoulder, which processes the video and cleans up the sound. I found early on that enhancing the bird and animal noises went over really well with clients. On her end, Laurette would be able to look around in whatever direction she wanted, her video stabilized away from the motion of my gait, taking in the forest around her.

“I’m ready,” she says, and we set off.

The forest gloom begins to lift before we’re a quarter mile up the trail, and bird warbling fills the air. There are chipmunks and squirrels everywhere, fighting and chasing one another over food or territory. The winter was another mild one, and it looks like their population made it through comfortably.

We overtake the Purist, who’s sitting on a large boulder, taking a short break. He glares at me as I pass by, giving him as much space as I can on the narrow path. I give a small wave of my hand, which he returns with a raised middle finger. I shrug and keep moving, and he’s soon out of sight.

“Does that happen a lot?” Laurette breaks the silence. After a couple of minutes, I figured she might be the rare sort of person who would just sit back and enjoy the hike as it passed by, taking in a rare bit of nature that’s largely vanished amidst the floods and droughts that’s ravaged the country for the last couple of decades.

“What, that guy? Sorry you had to see that.”

“I’ve seen worse, believe me,” She said. “But why did he do it?”

“Some people see the forest as a bit of a … sanctuary from the modern world.” I tell her. “There aren’t many, but they’re pretty vocal around here. Most people sort of just ignore it. It isn’t anything new: I remember when I was a kid, there was a lot of admonishment about bringing phones or smart glasses with you — people would tell you to just enjoy the trail and the natural world.” I can’t say I blame him, I left unsaid.

“I can believe that,” she said. “I endured a lot of hand wringing about screens when I was a kid.”

We continued up a steady pace. The exo takes the weight of the equipment off my back, and lightens my footfall a bit. It’s deceptively quiet: I installed tough rubber foot pads and upgraded the legs with dampened servos to cut down on noise. I’ve been able to sneak up on deer before, to the delight of my passengers.

We pass others as we climb. A family decked out in well-worn hiking attire, taking a break to eat a trailside breakfast. A couple wearing masks, one small reminder of the lingering COVID-46 pandemic. I give them space.

After an hour, we reach an intersection between our path and the Long Trail. Some through-hikers are resting, clearly getting an early start to their morning. I nod to them and they wave back politely. I open my mouth to ask Laurette if she wants to take a break or look around, when there’s a sharp whistle.

The other hikers scramble to their feet, and grab their packs from where they lay on the ground, just as a blur of color bursts into the open field. It’s a dog-sized yellow robot, featuring a long, slim body and a sensor stalk where its head should be. Each of its long, slender legs end in a stubby, clawed foot. It skids to a halt when it enters the clearing, looking back and forth before leaping forward and vanishing up the trail.

“What was that?!” Laurette in a shaking, startled voice.

“ScoutBot,” I say, taking a step back away from the beaten path. “It’s part of a centaur team: a robot/human system. Used to be a military thing way back when, but it’s become a thing with extreme athletes in recent years.”

“Another VR rig?”

“Not quite,” I say. “Hang on, you’ll see.”

We don’t have to wait long. We hear a flurry of noise from the southern trail, and just as quickly, a pair of figures burst into the clearing. They’re tall and spindly, atop thin, carbon fiber legs. Full-face helmets cover their features, and their bright clothes are armored and covered in logos, like they’re part of a racing team. They’re battered and scratched from thousands of impacts with branches and rocks, and in an instant, they’re gone, following the robotic dog north.

“Trail runners,” I tell Laurette. “They use the dog to map out the path ahead of them, and to warn hikers that they’re coming through. The suits help them run, but they also tell them where to place their feet on the trail. They can hit speeds of 20, 30 miles an hour with the right rig. I think the record is 9 and a half hours on the Long Trail, but it’s always falling by a couple of minutes.”

“That’s… something.” She says.

The hikers across from us mutter to one another as they pack up, and I realize that Laurette is probably watching their reaction. They throw a look my way, all pretense at friendliness gone after the encounter.

“If you want the truth, they’re not wrong to be angry,” I tell her as we start the next leg up the mountain. Another half mile and we’ll be to the top. “When I was a kid, my dad took me hiking up Mansfield. Halfway to the top, I remember hearing a buzzing and look up, and see this thing lazily flying overhead. I was maybe 4 or 5 at the time, and I remember thinking how strange it was, amidst all the greenery.”

I gesture down the trail. “Those two hikers are lucky they were off the path. A year or so, I was working another trail, and came across a deer — it was horrible. I don’t think those rich assholes running the trails slowed down at all. All they cared about was hitting their trail time. I sometimes wonder why I do this — if people can’t come out and walk out here on their own, what’s the point?”

She doesn’t say anything for a while. “I’m sorry, that was unprofessional of me.”

“Maybe,” Laurette said in my ear. “But I appreciate the candor.”

We walk in silence as I clamber up a steep incline.

“Do you know why this tech exists?” She asks, breaking the silence. She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “It wasn’t a military thing, contrary to what everyone thinks — they came from warehouses and hospitals. Before they automated everything, companies found that their employees were suffering from leg and back problems from walking all day. Robotic and prosthetic limbs got better, and in the 2020s, they merged. And like anything, some rich assholes figured out that there were some other uses for the tech.”

I had a moment of revelation and stop in my tracks. “I’m not taking you up because you’re a bored tech executive, am I?”

“You are not.”

“What—?”

“Multiple sclerosis.” She sighs. “Early onset in my mid-20s. I always wanted to come out here as a kid, but I grew up in Brooklyn, and there’s not a lot of opportunities to go on a hiking trip when you’re poor. The care has improved since then, but,” she gives a resigned laugh. “You know.”

“Mountains aren’t exactly accessible.”

“Bingo. It’s a shame that those rich assholes get to be the face of this sort of thing. Technology’s always opened up the unreachable places for people like me: picture sharing, drones, exos? I get to finally do this because of what you’re wearing.”

I start walking again. The forest no longer towers over us, and after a couple of minutes, we finally break out of the treeline. The clouds have burned off, and the view extends for hundreds of miles, distant mountain ranges fading into a blue haze.

I hear an intake of breath over my headset.

“Worth it?”

“Oh yes,” she says. “It most certainly is.”


Thanks for reading — let me know what you thought about this. I’ve got some other stories that I’m working on, and one of my goals in 2021 is to spend more time writing fiction. Huge thanks to Kwame Opam, Aimee Picchi, and Rachel Becker for beta reading this one.

If you’d like to read more, I’ve uploaded a couple of other stories that I’ve written for this newsletter over the years to my account on Curious Fictions:

In the meantime, I’ve got a lengthy piece that I’m putting together about Dragonlance and a recent lawsuit against its corporate owners, Wizards of the Coast, as well as a regular roundup, which I’m scheduling for Friday.

See you then,

Andrew


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