Avril and Beads were silent for a moment, and Avril used the time to examine the engine. The problem was obvious. One of the four power connections was disconnected. Avril guessed it was the one that controlled acceleration, and he suspected the impact with the thug in Edge had knocked it loose. If Beads hadn’t stopped to look at the grith skull and he’d let the car maintain a consistent speed, he would have made it to his destination, but once he stopped, the car wouldn’t go again.
“I think you have an advantage,” Beads said into the silence. At Avril’s confused expression, he explained, “You were born into this world, so this is all you’ve ever known, but old people like me, we remember how it was. We’re conditioned to how it was. If somebody had tried to take my car back then, and I hit them with it, I would face consequences.”
Avril reached into the car and reconnected the cable, glad he’d stopped to help Beads.
“There are still consequences,” Avril said.
“True, true,” Beads said.
Avril glanced back down the road the way he’d come. The beacon had startled him from sleep, and somehow he’d forgotten about the cadre in Taral.
They’re not following me, he told himself. They’re too busy looking after their wounded and their dead, and I’ll be out of Damar by the time they recover.
He remembered the dragon and the unseen shooters who’d killed the bondsan, and it occurred to him, Whoever they were, and whether or not they were acquainted, they had an existing beef with that cadre, I was just unlucky to get caught in the middle. The cadre isn’t coming for me. They weren’t looking for me.
Considering what he’d just said to Beads about everybody having to protect themselves, Avril thought, The trick is knowing when you need to. If things were that bad, I wouldn’t have stopped, and I wouldn’t help him get going again.
Avril glanced back at his car where Zin still slept. Suspecting everybody just casts everybody in the role of dangerous stranger trying to take what’s mine.
Avril lowered the hood into place.
“Have you fixed it?” Beads asked.
Avril nodded. “For what it’s worth, you seem to have adapted. If I sounded rude when I asked if you missed how the world was, I didn’t mean it.”
“I know, I know, but it’s hard, young man. The world isn’t what it was. I miss the people I lost, and I can’t seem to settle with anybody else. I was married for twenty years, and it’s been longer than that since…” Beads looked around, and his gaze landed on Avril’s car. “Are you alone? Do you have someone? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? Both?”
“No. Neither,” Avril said and forced himself not to give away the lie by looking at his car. He already regretted the deception, but it was the way of the wastelands, you didn’t tell people things they didn’t need to know, and you kept a careful eye on people who asked.
Beads limped alongside the car and retrieved something from behind the driver’s seat. “Payment,” he said and held up a red tin.
“No, it was nothing. I’m happy to help,” Avril said.
Beads used his fingernails to open the tin, and a sweet smell drifted on the breeze.
Avril stepped closer. “What is that?”
“Mermaid’s Confectionary,” Beads said. “Why are they called Mermaid’s, do you think?”
Avril grunted. “Dunno. I had them as a kid. There’s no way they’re still good.”
“I’ll soon find out,” Beads said and limped back toward the road-shield and the grith skull. Over his shoulder, he said, “You’re welcome to join me. Consider it a token of my gratitude, if not payment for your assistance.”
Avril watched the round man trudge across the highway toward the grith skull.
He glanced at his car and checked the AI in his pocket. There was still no sign of Zin, and he regretted lying to Beads about being alone, but with the words spoken, he wouldn’t expose his lie.
Avril whispered into his AI, “Are you awake in there?”
When there was no answer, he thought, Zin will be fine. With another look back down the road he added, Nobody is coming.
Beads had taken a seat on the sand with his back against the grith skull. Avril followed him.
As Avril walked across the sand, Beads said, “Welcome. Sit. Pleasure is always better when it’s shared.”
Avril sat next to him, and together they peered into the tin and enjoyed the aroma.
“They’ve probably turned to dust inside those wrappers,” Avril said.
“Even if they have, save your disappointment for the moment of truth. There’s no point ruining the anticipation,” Beads said.
“You’re very wise,” Avril said.
“Young man, I can rescind the offer if you’re going to be sarcastic,” Beads said, but his tone conveyed the joke in the words. “You said you had these as a child?”
“What was it like growing up in the world as it is now?” Beads asked.
Avril shrugged. “I have nothing to compare it to. I was raised on discipline and hard work out here in the wastelands, but the man who raised me always found Mermaid’s Confectionary. Sometimes I thought he had a hidden supply, but if he did, I never found it.”
“It sounds like he prepared you well for the world.”
“Maybe,” Avril conceded and wondered, Where are you now, Ethan?
“What’s your pleasure?” Beads asked.
“The toffee was my favorite,” Avril said and pointed at a gold and red wrapper in the tin. “You?”
“I’m partial to the fizzles,” Beads said.
“Which ones are they?” Avril leaned in over to see, but something dug into his side and sparked. Avril felt a jolt of pain as his body stiffened, and then the bright desert light faded.
As he slipped into darkness, he thought, Right, fizzles.