The three of them stood in silence beneath the stars.
Zin stretched her arms up over her head and pressed her palms together. She broke the silence with a loud breath, then let it out slowly as she lowered her arms to her side.
Avril and Laurill exchanged a look, and Avril saw skepticism in Laurill’s eyes.
“We’re getting closer,” Zin announced. “Yesterday, I still didn’t know if any of this was real. Now, I’ve met both of you. We’ll find the others soon.”
“Others? Plural?” Laurill asked.
“Framan and Gabe,” Avril said the names from the profiles he’d studied.
“Gabe?” Laurill asked, but before Avril could answer, she looked at Zin and said, “I know about Framan and Avril, but who are you?”
Confused, Avril looked down at the AI Laurill had handed him, and he flicked through the profiles. First, he saw his own, then Maxian’s, Laurill’s, and Framan’s, then back to his.
He held the AI from the grith skull out to Laurill. “This one has more on it.”
Laurill accepted the device and scanned the profiles. She looked up at Zin and said, “This was updated more recently than mine.”
Avril accepted the device back when she held it out to him. He asked, “How did you meet Maxian?”
Laurill dropped her AI in her pack and swung the pack over her shoulder. “When I took this AI, I decided to find the people on it. I was close to Fralit Mars, home of Tralit d’Arathan, and that seemed like the best place to find Maxian Tralitson.”
“I’m not sure I would have started there,” Avril said.
Tralit d’Arathan’s name cast a shadow over Rasan history, and none of the stories Avril had heard painted the dualist as a friend to the Rasan people.
Laurill shrugged. “Where else?”
Avril nodded as he understood the choice she’d made. “You met Tralit d’Arathan?”
Laurill blew out a breath and said, “Yeah.”
“Where is Maxian now?”
“He’s leading part of this cadre north. We were hoping more of them would take the bait.”
“Will he be okay?” Zin asked.
“Yes,” Laurill and Avril said together.
“So, what do we know?” Laurill asked. “Why are people looking for us?”
Avril shook his head. “The man who caught me, the man Maxian stopped, said picking me up was a job. He seemed to think I was an experiment and questioned how I know my memories are my own.”
Zin surprised Avril by saying, “That’s silly.”
“Yeah. He talked about cloning and memory experiments.”
“He thought we were clones with other people’s memories?” Laurill asked.
“He didn’t say it outright, but I think so,” Avril said. “It was strange, as he talked, I realized he doubted his own memories.”
“He sounds crazy.”
“Yeah,” Avril agreed. There was a note of doubt in his tone, and he added, “Of course.”
“Even if it were true, it wouldn’t matter,” Laurill said. “I mean, it matters because it’s more information, but it doesn’t matter to us. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t change how we should think of ourselves. We’re still us. We still get to decide what we do.”
“I told you she’s clever,” Zin said and leaned into Avril as she swayed to one side.
Laurill tilted her head in a question, and Avril said, “It’s true, she did. So what are you and Maxian planning to do next?”
Laurill shrugged, which surprised Avril. In the short time they’d been talking, he’d developed a strong sense of her as somebody who always had a plan.
“Not sure.” She blew out a breath and said, “This isn’t how I expected to start the new year.”
“New Year?” Avril blurted. He’d realized the previous night was the twenty-eighth, but he hadn’t realized today was the first day of a new year. “Shit. Happy birthday,” he muttered.
“What? How do you know that? It’s not on either AI,” Laurill said.
“It’s my birthday,” Avril said.
“Mine too,” Laurill said.
“Huh. What are the odds?”
“High. Higher still that two random strangers would have the same birthday and meet for the first time on their birthday,” Laurill said.
“What about three people?” Zin asked.
“Really?” Laurill asked.
Zin smiled and nodded.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s far more likely that we’re not random strangers,” Laurill said.
“So what are—”
A bright light appeared from the darkness, blinding Avril. He squeezed his eyes shut and raised an arm to shield his eyes.
An amplified voice ordered, “Do not move!”
From behind his upraised hands, Avril saw Laurill’s eyes fix on him. An instant later, she slid sideways, her body stretched as if it were being pulled out of shape, and then she was gone.
“Do not move!” the voice bellowed again, and this time Avril recognized it as belonging to one of the bondsan.
The lights moved closer.
“Fuck!” He thought they’d run away and wouldn’t come back.
Still with his hands raised against the light, Avril turned to look at Zin, but she wasn’t there.
The lights were all around and closing in on him.
“Stay where you are. Do not move!”
Avril shut his eyes and sought the electrical networks in the lights. He found the one in front of him. He didn’t have time to jam all the networks surrounding him with precision, so he mentally pushed against the first cluster he saw.
The light filtering through his eyelids reduced as the first light went out.
Somebody screamed in pain, and Avril hesitated, knowing he caused that pain. He pushed his instincts not to harm others aside and moved his attention to the second cluster of golden light and mentally shoved it.
A second scream joined the first, and Avril gritted his teeth and strode toward the gap he’d made.
Something struck the back of his head, and he dropped to one knee. He opened his eyes and lost his mental models of the electrical networks around him.
Another blow followed the first and knocked him down to the desert. The third blow knocked him out.