Avril woke, gasping for breath. A chemical he couldn’t identify filled his nostrils, and he snorted to clear it before it choked him.
It was hot, and his clothes and skin were wet with sweat and gritty with sand.
He rolled away from the smell and tried to stand, but something held his hands behind his back, and he fell onto his side before he could stop himself. Somebody crouched in front of him, and Avril kicked with his legs to gain purchase on the ground and get away from them, but his ankles were also bound, and his feet slid through sand.
The figure said, “That’s enough of that, young man.”
Avril kicked again, and something struck his right leg hard below the knee.
“I said enough.”
Avril stopped struggling and squinted, the figure had their back to the suns, but as they stood, with one half of a broken glass vial in each hand, Avril recognized first their silhouette and then their features.
He looked at the broken vial and demanded, “What’s that?”
Beads collected the two halves in one hand and tossed them aside. “Just something to bring sleepyheads around. I have no idea what it is, just that it works.” Beads shrugged, then said, “Sit up, you might as well be comfortable.”
“Why are you doing this?” Avril asked.
Beads smiled. “Sorry, the game is over. There’s no point pretending anymore. I’ll have you back where you belong soon enough.”
“Belong?” Avril wriggled into a sitting position with his back against the grith skull.
“Please. There is no point pretending.”
“What are you talking about?” Avril demanded.
Beads ambled a few steps then sat down in the sand. “I don’t suppose I can blame you, given your circumstances, I’d likely play ignorant too. Well, you needn’t bother, I’m taking you home and claiming the bounty. Perhaps then I can get out from under this damn debt.”
Avril glanced down at his ankles, hoping to see electronic restraints he could jam and break loose from, but instead, he saw a thin plastic cord pulled tight against his legs.
He pulled against the restraints on his wrists, but they were secure, and when he tried to sense an electrical signature, there was nothing there.
“Comfortable?” Beads asked.
“Let me go,” Avril said.
“After the trouble I went to finding you? No, I’m afraid not.” Beads chuckled. “This job used to be easier, back when people were always online. You’d get a spec sheet to pick somebody up, search for them online, and they’d practically hand themselves over. It’s much more difficult now that people don’t do that so much.”
“Spec sheet? What are you talking about?” Avril demanded and pulled against his restraints again.
“Oh, stop that. I’ve been doing this for longer than you’ve been alive. I know how to secure the goods.”
“Goods? Let me go.” Avril continued to struggle.
“By the Abyss. I only woke you up for a chat, but if you’re going to be difficult, I can put you back under.”
Avril stopped struggling. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew he couldn’t escape if he were unconscious. “Chat?”
Beads nodded and explained, “It gets lonely out here. My line of work doesn’t lead to many acquaintances, at least, not lasting ones. You seem like a decent young man. You stopped to help a stranger. Few do now.”
“It’s the last time,” Avril said.
“Undoubtedly,” Beads agreed. “You can’t trust anybody, even when they look like me.”
“If I’m so decent, why don’t you let me go?”
“Alas, you may be a decent young man, but I am neither decent nor young. I’m flawed with a lack of concern for the well-being of others, or if I’m being honest, even the existence of others.”
“So, you’re a self-aware sociopath?” Avril asked.
The grin that spread across Beads’s face left Avril chilled.
“You said you get lonely,” Avril said.
“It passes, usually as quickly as it comes, and thank the Abyss, can you imagine being in my line of work if you were prone to such emotions?”
“Your line of work?” Avril asked.
“Hmm, I’m in pest control. Some people find other people a pest, and so they call somebody like me to get rid of the pest.”
Avril felt the blood drain from his face.
“Perhaps you are ignorant of your circumstances. You’d have to be a fool to expose yourself the way you did if you knew what was going on and who’s looking for you.”
“Who is looking for me?” Avril asked.
Beads smiled. “If you don’t know, and I tell you, that’s not good for me. Though I will say, this is an unusual assignment. The boss can be eccentric, but this job is stranger than most.”
Beads shook his head. “Oh my, this will not work at all. It was foolish to think it would. As I said, other people’s welfare doesn’t interest me, so I forget it’s the only thing that interests them.” Beads rummaged around in a pocket for something. “Never mind. I can put you back under. It was nice to meet you all the same, young man.”
“Wait, I won’t ask questions if that’s the problem,” Avril blurted. “Please, we can chat.”
Beads thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. He produced another vial from his pocket and said, “One to wake you up, another to put you under. If you give me any trouble, I’ll use this.” He brandished the vial at Avril.
Beads took a deep breath and looked around. Avril resisted the temptation to look for his car and Zin. He didn’t think she could do much to help him, and he didn’t want to put her in jeopardy too.
When Beads’s gaze came back to rest on Avril’s face, he wore a cunning expression, and Avril almost wished he was unconscious again.
“Do you have any scars?” Beads asked.