The usual pre-dawn breeze swept the valley, stirring sparse plants growing in the reflected light. The street lights were on, but no cars were on the roads, and the town was near silent. I gazed up, looking for the neighbouring moons between the unnamed star clusters, unsure whether any would even be visible at this point in our orbit.
Footsteps sounded in the doorway behind me, quietly demanding attention.
Haley regarded me sleepily, “Why are you up? It’s still an hour till dawn.”
“It’s so peaceful at this time of day.”
“If you can call it that,” Haley sighed, “I’ll make coffee.”
“Thanks. What time are we heading out again?”
“The director wants us there by 7, so we can head out at 7:30.”
I leant back on the railing and returned to stargazing. “Plenty of time.”
It certainly didn’t feel like plenty of time; in a matter of hours I’d be leaving the place I’d spent the last several years — the most stable of my life up until that point — for an indeterminate amount of time. Sure, we’d arranged for the house to be maintained, but I was still perhaps irrationally worried. A younger version of me wanted to leave this town more than anything else, but it seems circumstances had changed.
I craned my neck and watched my housemate — my wife — pouring water into the kettle for coffee, and smiled.
We drove through plantations of tall trees, giving way to cane fields as we reached the bottom of the valley, scarred with covered canals, and those again giving way to green towers. The peace of farmland was slowly replaced with the growing energy of people waking up to go to work or run errands. The sun was slowly cresting the east wall of the valley, painting the western wall in yellow light.
The early-morning traffic converged on the industrial complexes on the east side of town, creating to a busy atmosphere despite the fact that most of the workers that had already arrived were standing around talking or smoking. We arrived in passable time and parked near the green-and-grey intersection of brutalism and solarpunk architecture that is the Advanced Electronics Research building, covered like an echidna in antennas and shoots, with wires stretching to the road.
As we entered the building, coil whine and the clack-clack-clack of stepper motors filled the air, providing a subdued yet intimidating soundscape. We walked between rare rows of covered machinery, not yet switched on for the day, slowly approaching the office at the far end of the factory. In the doorway stood the director; a well-built man with an evaluating look on his face.
“You two ready to head out? Got all the stuff you’ll need?”
“Yeah, just gotta load up the car.”
“Alright, well, neither of you have been to G'Kar’s Eye so I found these for ya’s.”
A look of concern flashed across his face as he pulled out maps from a drawer, but it vanished as quickly again.
He pointed to town on a map, and drew his finger towards the right edge. “There’s a road south-east that links up with the main road from OTHERTOWN, and from there it’s a straight shot to G'Kar’s Eye. It’s a two day trip and there’s not really anywhere to stop along the way, though… Agh, it’s a pain you two have to go, I’d much prefer to have my best people working on addons.”
Grimacing, he rolled up the map and handed it to Haley.
“Be careful, okay?”
We loaded several boxes into the car, identical in size and unmarked except for the AER logo on the seal. The diminutive vehicle had been largely filled with our bags and sleeping bags already, so the entire back seat was covered with gear. In one foot well were the AER-marked boxes, and in the other was a spare tank of ethanol. The map we’d been given was attached to the sunshade with a hairband.
Haley started the car, and we headed out, tacking against the rising sun. The squat green cylinders soon gave way to alpine forest and meadows of crops, a single paved road stretching off into the distance, ostensibly towards civilization.