Just under an hour and ninety kilometres later they were winding through a deep gorge with mountains on both sides and a small river below them. During the journey several large trucks like those that visited the valley had rumbled by from the opposite direction but there was no traffic going their way.

Travis drove around another curve and saw that the road entered a tunnel directly ahead.

“There’s a tunnel ahead,” he reported to Quafor who was back in radio contact.

“Stop! Under no circumstances are you to go inside. Get out and ground waves will show a side road,” Quafor sounded scared.

“I understand,” Travis replied. The radio changed to static so he turned it off and pulled to the roadside.

When he stepped out, a small gravel road appeared to the left that was cut in the cliff face and wound up a steep incline to a sharp corner. “I can see it Jacey,” he said. “Will you come around and hold my hand through the window so I can continue to see the way.”

Jacey nodded and walked briskly around the front of the car, he climbed back in and the view disappeared. As expected, though, as soon as he held Jacey’s hand through the window everything reappeared. He let out the clutch, drove slowly forward and turned off the road. The second car followed and a hundred metres later Jacey let his hand go. The road was still in view so they must have driven through a protecting force field.

Jacey climbed back in and they continued up a narrow one-way gravel road with a sheer cliff on the left and a drop to the right. The road made a ninety-degree turn to the left followed by one to the right. Here, Travis could see the highway way below them. A military half-track vehicle was parked on the roadside and several men in military uniform were walking along the verge.

“Androids,” Jacey gasped.

“I hope they aren’t as good at tracking as the indians in our time,” Nick said as he stared out the side window. “Even if they can’t see this road and crushed grass they’ll be able to see our tyre marks where we left the highway?”

“So get going, Travis,” Jacey cried. “If they walk ahead through the force field they’ll find this road.”

*

The road was steep, windy and narrow. By the time they went around the first bend there was no way of knowing if they were being followed. However, after going around a series of s bends Travis hoped that they would come out with a view of the highway below.

They did but the view showed a section further back from the tunnel so it was impossible to see whether the half-track was still there. Ahead, was a small pull over area. He stopped and waited for the other car that had failed to keep close behind. After a few anxious minutes it arrived and pulled in.

“I had to drop back because of your dust,” Kevin explained. “Couldn’t see a damn thing. Also, this car hasn’t your power on the hills.”

“Could be,” Travis replied. “My Jag has a larger engine than Susan’s.”

“The advantage of the dust is that you can see it behind,” Susan called out as she leaned across the front seat. “I saw none behind us so I doubt if that jeep thing is following.”

“They wouldn’t need to,” Deon muttered. “If they found this road they would call in some aerial drone or satellite tracking device to find us.”

“Oh Deon,” Azaria argued. “In all the time we’ve been here, have you ever seen anything of that nature?”

Deon shrugged. “I just mean that just because nothing is following it doesn’t mean we should become complacent. Like Quafor advised, we should be careful.”

Travis nodded in agreement. “Why don’t you go in front, Kevin? In that way we won’t get ahead of you. Also, we can flash our lights if we want you to stop for any reason.”

Kevin glanced at Susan who nodded. “Sounds okay to me.”

He climbed into his car and drove slowly by them, waited ahead for a moment and headed on up another steep section. The other car was certainly slower on the steep road for Travis had to slacken off on several occasions so he didn’t get too close. A fog appeared above them but after contacting Quafor again they were told it was not any of her kind and probably just a natural occurrence. Clouds, the first he’d seen since coming to this world moved quickly across the plains below and within moments had turned an inky black.

Nick frowned as he gazed out the window. “They’re wrong,” he said. “Clouds usually build around the mountains and hills not the other way around. These ones suddenly appeared and turned from white to black within a few minutes.”

Travis glanced at his watch. “In ten minutes, Quafor should be back on the radio. We’ll ask her.”

By the time Quafor’s voice came back over the radio the whole sky behind them was covered in black clouds and the plains below had disappeared from view. A fine mist now surrounded them with the one small advantage that it stopped the dust rising from the Jaguar ahead so they could travel closer to it.

“My instruments show the cloud bank,” Quafor replied after Travis questioned her about the conditions.” Air pressure has dropped and the storm approaching you will intensify. Historical records of the weather on this planet are not available so drive carefully.  One good point is that we have you on radar and can see no evidence of any vehicles behind you. There is a build-up on the highway near the tunnel though.”

“Where does that tunnel go?” Lisa asked. “I mean, what’s on the other side of the mountain it goes under?”

“There is no exit,” Quafor replied. “We assume it goes through a wormhole to an android world.”

“But you don’t know?” Lisa continued.

“No, Lisa, I don’t but I wasn’t prepared to gamble your lives on the chance it would take you back to the valley, for example. The wormhole we have waiting for you is under our control and safe.”

Lisa muttered thanks but looked unconvinced as she cuddled her baby and scratched the dog’s ears. After Quafor went off air she looked at Travis in the mirror. “At least Mac appears relaxed. I think I trust his sense of danger more than Quafor.”

*

The gravel road curved up to a saddle, down the other side into a valley and up a second hill. At the top, the mountains ahead looked huge with snow covering the peaks and fog hovering across the lower slopes. There was still another valley and across it a view of the road cut into the hill. If anything, it looked steeper than the section they had travelled over. At sunset Questa came back on the radio but her voice was difficult to hear though the static.

“It’s just the mountains,” she reassured. “Once it is completely dark the signal will become clear again. You are beyond the second base but the androids would know by now that you aren’t arriving.”

“What about the half-track we saw?” Travis asked.

Questa hesitated. “I’ll check but doubt if they would find your side road. They’ll see where you pulled off onto the grass verge and assume you left and went on onto the tunnel.”

“But they came from that direction,” Lisa cut in.

“The tunnel isn’t lit. Your headlights could easily be confused with one of the trucks.”

“Okay,” Travis said. “What happens now?”

“You reach another saddle and travel down into a valley. Fifty kilometres further on a straight road there is a sharp turn to the left and up a narrow gorge. Our wormhole is at the end.  You should be there by mid-morning if you drive throughout night.”

After a promise to make contact before midnight the radio went silent.

“That’s a relief about the half-track,” Jacey said.

“Is it?” Lisa whispered.

Travis glanced at Lisa’s worried face in the mirror. “What’s wrong, Lisa? This is the second time you seem to doubt Questa’s intentions.”

Lisa caught his eyes in the mirror. “I think Quafor’s intentions are honest but she is not telling us everything.”

“Like what?” Travis asked.

“In our world we never had sophisticated things to help us. If someone got the fever and it hadn’t broken within a day or two, it would probably be fatal. We all knew that but our doctor always told us as long as we kept the patient warm, all would be fine.” Lisa sighed. “It never was.”

“You think Quafor is keeping information from us because she doesn’t want us to worry?” Travis asked.

“Yes. I trust her intentions but feel she treats us like we would treat children in a bad situation. If we were about to be killed in a storm, would we tell our children that or make up a story so they wouldn’t be terrified.” She lapsed into silence. “Just be careful; that’s all I ask.”

*

An hour later they still had not reached the last saddle but Travis flashed his lights to stop the other car. There was no pull off area but it came to a halt on a straight section before another sharp turn ahead. Everyone got out to stretch, have something to eat and to refuel both cars. Behind them everything was black with the cliffside on the left disappearing in the darkness while the left looked like a massive void without any sign of stars or any lights at all.

“It’s good in one way,” Jacey said. “If we were being followed by that half-track we would see their lights. There’s nothing there.”

“Okay but we’d better keep going,” Travis said. “Once we reach the top we should be right.”

“I’ll drive,” Jacey said after they returned to the car. “You look exhausted and I had short nap earlier.”

“Right.” Travis slipped into the passenger seat and watched the red taillights of the Jaguar ahead as it drove off. He was determined to stay awake to keep Jacey company but after a few moments he conceded that her driving was every bit as good as his own so relaxed and felt his eyelids become heavy.

*

Intense white light, followed by a gigantic clap of thunder, jerked him awake.  The whole sky to the right was lit up by forked lightning. It faded, everything except the cars’ headlights turned black before second, third and fourth streaks of lightning cut across the sky. The thunder was now a constant rumble with the noise and light becoming instantaneous.

Mac growled and the baby cried. Lisa tried to pacify the little fellow while Nick patted the dog. Both looked scared.

“It’s close,” Jacey gasped as she changed gear and the back wheels spun. The car lurched, hit hard surface and almost collided with the inside cliff as Jacey fought the steering.

“It’s aimed at us,” Lisa screamed. ” I knew it!”

Travis turned. “Knew what, Lisa?”

“It’s alive and is helping the androids.”

 

Another flash of lightning lit up everything and two cracks of sound interrupted their conversation. An earthquake shook the road, the cliff behind them erupted in an explosion of cascading rocks and the thunder boomed.

“Travis!” Jacey screamed as she braked too hard and the back wheels skidded. She managed to stop the movement just as a second streak of lightning hit the ground where the car just been.

The front car had also gone into a skid but Kevin managed to correct it at the corner and disappeared around it. Jacey changed down and actually accelerated a little, the back wheels spun out but she knew what she was doing. The car was now into the corner, the red taillights ahead showed the way ahead and she was safely around.

Lightning flashed from around the bend behind them and the thunder took slightly longer to reach his ears.

“How’s everyone?” Jacey screamed.

“Fine!” Travis yelled. “You concentrate on your driving.”

The front car went around another sharp left bend and they followed. Ahead and lit up in the headlight beams was a long curved section with the next bend out of sight; that was before the next flash of lightning lit up the area to show a right turn ahead and what looked like a headland further ahead on.

“The lightning’s looking for us,” Lisa cried out. “It needs to line up before a bolt is sent out!”

“Signal Kevin to brake!” Ned said in a loud but amazingly calm voice.

Jacey never hesitated. She flicked the lights three times in the prearranged signal. The black Jaguar’s brake lights went on while Jacey also braked and brought the car to a halt in an abrupt but well controlled movement. Lightning stuck the cliff mere metres ahead. Travis felt his whole body shake and a chill went up his back. If they had not braked!

“Thanks Lisa,” he cried. “You are right!”

He swung around and reached out to squeeze her hand. It was clammy and trembled in his but he eyes were determined.

Meanwhile Jacey drove forward. They reached the bend, almost bounced around and, a few moments later reached the headland where there was an almost complete three hundred and sixty degree turn and a dip down the far side. They had reached the top!

*

“Look behind!” Lisa shouted.

Travis did. The whole sky was lit with yet another streak of lightning. This one was, however, different. It seemed to flash across the sky rather than towards land. Above it, all was white. A fog had gathered and before his eyes, dropped like a curtain onto the lightning, which flickered and buckled before moving around in a spiral. He had never seen lightning act like this before. The fog, also behaved strangely. It stopped, retreated like a giant wave after it had broken, seemed to gather density before it plunged back into the spiral of lightning. There was a sort of hissing scream rather than thunder and the lightning shattered into a million sparks that dropped over the valley below.

The sky turned a foggy grey.

On impulse, Travis turned on the radio. An exhausted voice filled the car.

“You were right, Lisa,” Questa gasped, “I should not have treated you like children. Yes, there was more. Like humankind, my species have their terrorists and traitors. Some are working for the androids.” There was a lapse in the conversation and Travis was sure that Questa was trying to control her emotions. “I’ve never killed anyone before,” she sobbed. “I always thought our kind was too advanced to behave in that primitive way but it was necessary, my friends. If I had not acted you would have all been killed by the lightning.”

“Thank you,” Travis whispered. “But are you hurt?”

“Only my dignity,” Questa replied. “I have seen how you care and love each other and I envy you. Our kind have attempted to eliminate all extremes of emotion but this includes love, I am afraid.”

“We love you, Questa,” Lisa sobbed. “We all love you and everything you have done for us. Without love, life is valueless.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she cuddled Bertie, squeezed Nick’s hand and rubbed a knee against Mac lying beneath her legs.

 

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About Ross

Ross Richdale is a New Zealand author of over 40 novels, both science fiction and contemporary that are sold as ebooks at all the major outlets.

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