“Stay where you are,” one of the bondsan yelled.
“Go!” Avril shouted at Laurill.
Avril put himself between the bondsan and Zin, who was still unconscious on the floor.
Laurill darted forward, but she gasped and hesitated as two of the bondsan, tranquilizer guns held ready, stepped up on to the ramp into the assault vehicle.
“Stay there!” a bondsan yelled.
Avril shouted, “I jammed them. Go!”
Laurill still hesitated, and Avril advanced to draw the bondsan to him, determined that Laurill at least should get away. He recoiled when he saw the bondsan and understood Laurill’s hesitation.
Where the bondsan’s left eye should have been, there was a black and bloody hole.
Avril scanned the other bondsan and saw a man with a similar wound on his forehead. He remembered the loud gunshots that had preceded the deaths of four bondsan in Taral.
They survived, Avril thought. That’s impossible.
“You’re not going anywhere,” a bondsan with no injuries said.
Thorn? Avril wondered, but he knew it didn’t matter. They were as one.
“Just let us go,” Avril said.
The bondsan continued to advance with deactivated tranquilizer guns held ready.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Avril said, sweeping his gaze over each of the bondsan. He stepped further back, but he stopped to keep Laurill and Zin behind him.
They can’t have survived, Avril thought. He hardened his resolve and told Laurill, “Go!”
The bondsan closest to them darted forward, reaching for Laurill with his free hand. Laurill lashed out at him, swinging her right hand to fend him off.
Avril didn’t even close his eyes to visualize the electrical network in the bondsan’s implant. He pushed and watched as the bondsan stumbled to one knee and grunted in pain.
Laurill stepped back, and the kneeling bondsan clutched his bloody left hand to his chest. Two of his fingers were on the floor by his knees, and Avril realized Laurill had used the laser-scalpel on him.
Avril stopped pushing and told them, “Leave us.”
The man’s companions grimaced, and the fallen man continued to groan through clenched teeth. He collected his severed fingers and shuffled back.
They all felt that, Avril realized and focused on the bondsan he thought was Thorn.
“We don’t have to do this,” Avril said.
“We do,” another bondsan said and strode forward.
Avril pushed against the electrical network in the bondsan’s head, but this time, he didn’t stop when the bondsan fell to his knees.
“Stop,” Avril told the first-sworn.
“You’re coming with us,” Thorn said through a grimace of pain.
“No. Don’t,” Avril warned him.
Thorn stepped forward.
He’d told Avril the lines between individual members of his cadre blurred, and the way they all reacted when Laurill severed a bondsan’s fingers and Avril jammed them confirmed it was true, but Avril thought, as the first-sworn of the cadre, Thorn must be a focal point for them.
Avril stopped pushing against the bondsan on their knees and focused on Thorn.
As he disrupted the electrical network in Thorn’s implant, the other three bondsan joined their cadre-mate on their knees. Avril pushed harder, and four voices groaned.
The bondsan dropped their tranquilizers and put their hands to the sides of their heads.
Thorn scowled at Avril through the pain, and Avril met his eyes. He almost stopped jamming, but he knew the bondsan would keep coming after him and Laurill and Zin and the others unless he stopped them.
“Get out,” Avril told them, and when they didn’t move, he pushed harder.
The bondsan bent forward on their knees, and their groans of pain got louder. Avril winced at the pain he was inflicting.
At his side, Laurill said, “You can’t stop.”
Avril nodded, knowing he’d been about to give in to his sympathy for Thorn and his cadre. He clamped down on his resolve and stepped forward.
The bondsan groaned in unison and shuffled back on their knees.
Avril took another step forward and pushed harder against Thorn’s implant. The four bondsan struggled to their feet and stumbled off the ramp into the road as fast as they could.
Avril raised a hand and told them to back away as he stopped pushing so hard.
“You can’t stop us,” Thorn said in between ragged breaths. His expression pained but furious and determined.
Avril said, “How long until I destroy your implants? What happens to you when I do?”
One of the bondsan took a step toward the assault vehicle and snapped, “You fucking—”
A loud crack cut him off, and he dropped to the road.
Everybody flinched at the sound. Avril and Laurill stepped back from the now dead bondsan lying crumpled in the road, but his cadre-mates moved toward him.
Thorn glared at Avril and opened his mouth to speak, but another crack cut him off, and he fell to the road.
The two remaining cadre-mates turned toward the desert and the source of the gunfire, and two more shots put them down in quick succession.
Avril and Laurill looked at each other, and together they retreated further into the assault vehicle and away from the dead bondsan. Avril picked up a tranquilizer gun that one of the bondsan had dropped. He kept it down but ready, forgetting he’d jammed it seconds earlier.
A figure carrying a scoped rifle ran into view at the back of the assault vehicle and kneeled over a dead bondsan. Avril and Laurill stopped. The stranger wore a zipped up leather coat the color of the desert with a hood pulled over their head. Gloves covered their hands and goggles hid their eyes.
The figure turned toward Avril and Laurill.
Neither of them moved, and the figure pulled down their hood revealing reddish-brown hair. They lifted their goggles from their eyes, and Avril recognized him from his profile.
The newcomer asked, “Do you two want out of there or what?”