“Do you know what’s wrong with it?” Avril asked, glancing at the vehicle where it hovered quietly.
The man nodded. “Yes. It won’t go.”
“Right.” Avril smiled and turned his attention to the car and said, “Let’s see if I can fix that.”
He thought, I’d better, I don’t need another passenger.
The driver’s console was still on, and there were snack wrappers and empty water bottles scattered in the passenger footwell.
Avril walked along the side of the car, looking for anything to explain the problem. It hovered on air cushions, and none of the readouts on the driver’s console reported any problems. Avril looked up when he realized the stranger had gone quiet.
He’d removed his round glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his colorful floral shirt. Small dark eyes were fixed on Avril, and Avril felt a shiver of premonition.
He reached into his pocket to reassure himself his AI was still there.
The stranger spoke again, and the premonition melted away.
“Listen, my water ran out yesterday. I hate to impose, but are you carrying extra?”
Avril pointed at the side of his car and said, “There’s a tank behind that panel.”
The man nodded his thanks and limped to the offered refreshment.
Avril watched him as he passed the driver’s door to see if he noticed Zin or tried to look inside the car, but he appeared fixated on getting to the water.
If Zin is scamming me, this is her partner, Avril thought, then discounted the idea. She’s not. Besides, the only thing of worth I have is those processors, and they’re not worth this much trouble.
He looked at the windscreen of his car, but Zin wasn’t visible. He hoped she was still asleep.
Not a scam, he told himself. But what is it? And why do I feel protective to a woman I just met?
Avril watched the man as he fumbled the panel open to get to the water tank. He slurped water from the tap behind the panel, and Avril thought, Ew, you could have filled that bladder you’re holding.
Annoyed, Avril walked to the front of the stranger’s car to examine the engine, but when he got there, he saw the metal had crumpled inward from an impact. There was a splash of dried blood on the dented metalwork.
Avril looked up as the man came back, and he wondered, Are you more dangerous than you look?
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” The round man pointed at his car. His face was dripping with water. The runoff from the tap had washed away most of the sand. He lifted his shirt to dry his face, exposing his round, hairy belly.
“You know, I never could have afforded something like this back before the Cleansing. I had a job and spent most of my waking hours sitting at a desk answering a phone. That job took most of my time and I could barely afford anything.” His sigh was at odds with his word.
“You miss it?” Avril asked, thinking the man’s pre-cleansing life sounded tedious.
“Everybody I knew and loved died. How could I not miss it?” the man said, looking at Avril like he was a fool for asking.
Avril squeezed his lips into a thin line and nodded. The question had been automatic, a convention developed over years. Old people talked about the world before the Cleansing, and with nothing of substance to contribute, Avril provided verbal nods and queues that allowed them to continue their reminiscence.
“I didn’t mean…” He let the sentiment trail off. To him, the Cleansing was something that happened years before he was even born. It shaped the world he lived in, but he’d never known the world any other way.
The man nodded. “That’s okay. I know you didn’t. Say, the name’s Beads, on account of all these.” He plucked several of the colorful necklaces around his neck. “My wife used to make them, back before the—Well, you can call me Beads.”
“Avril,” Avril said.
“Pleased to meet you, Avril, and thank you again, not everybody would have stopped.”
Avril nodded and asked, “What happened here?”
Beads limped forward to see as if he wasn’t already aware of the dent and said, “Oh, that was nothing. A minor conflict of interests that got out of hand.”
Avril raised his eyebrows and waited.
“Some unsavory characters in Edge tried to take my car. They claimed to work for Lord Mikkel of Ardel and said it was a tax. Liars. They just wanted the car.”
Beads squirmed and said, “I might have hit one of them as I drove away.”
“Might have?” Avril asked as he tried to pull the hood loose.
Beads nodded. “Yes. Might have. I might have run over him a bit.”
Avril pushed the hood down and tried to get it past the crumpled metal holding it in place. It popped up, and Avril hoped its rising covered his amused smile, but Beads caught it.
The colorful man limped around the end of the car to face Avril. He asked, “You think it’s funny?”
Avril shrugged. “No. The world is different now. Before the Cleansing, it sounds like there were a lot of rules and systems to protect and organize people and save them from each other. Now, some people claim to work for the chosen and serve their interests, but it’s all just people trying to take what they can and assert power over each other. If you ask me, you did the right thing by stopping them from taking what’s yours.”
“You really think that?” Beads asked.
Avril shrugged again. “As long as you didn’t provoke them, yeah. The thing I can never understand is why anybody ever needs to take anything from anybody else anymore. There was enough for three-hundred million people; why can’t the few million who are left manage with that? If people don’t understand that, you have to protect yourself. Nobody will do it for you.”