“Where is he?” Avril asked the car’s AI, and before he could make the question more specific, the AI surprised him by saying, “There are no life-signs in the immediate area.”
“Huh, you’re learning,” Avril said on his way to the weapons locker at the back of the car.
He passed a monitor in the living space and noticed the grith skull displayed in orange.
Avril remembered the unexpected heat, but he ignored that strange detail for a moment as he placed his palm on the scanner next to the locker. It opened with a click, Avril chose a blaster and returned to the screen.
Looking at the orange skull, he wondered, What happened?
Sweat still beaded on his forehead even though the interior of the car was cooler than outside.
“Zin, wake up,” Avril tried again without taking his eyes from the screen, but there was no response from his sleeping companion.
The skull was the only thing on the display.
“Extend the scan,” Avril said.
A drone disengaged from the roof, and then the display flickered as it switched to the drone’s feed. More of the desert was visible on the display, but they were alone for as far as the drone’s scans reached.
“Floodlights,” he said.
The AI had already said there were no life-signs, but Avril knew of technology that could hide people from automated scans.
The display switched from infrared as the lights on the roof illuminated the skull.
“What the—” Avril leaned in to examine the display.
Part of the sun-bleached skull was now black with soot. The discoloration formed the edge of a blurry circle.
The engine started, and the blast-shields around the base of the car retracted. The car reversed and rocked beneath him as it crossed the dividing strip of greenery at the center of the highway. As other parts of the skull came into view, he saw the soot formed an almost perfect circle on the surface of the skull.
Whatever caused this must have burned hot and fast, Avril thought, remembering the heat coming off the skull.
At the center of the black circle, there was a white patch.
Avril’s stomach lurched. The patch became a horizontal line connected to a larger patch of skull that wasn’t darkened by soot.
The shape described in white at the center of the sooty patch wasn’t perfect, but it was unmistakably human. Somebody had been burned in an instant against the grith skull.
Avril took a slow breath as he studied the silhouette.
“Beads or somebody else?” he wondered and stared at the monitor for long seconds. “Victim or perpetrator?”
He continued to examine the screen for details that would tell him what had happened while he was unconscious.
“The smart thing to do is leave,” Avril told himself.
He glanced forward to where Zin incredibly still slept, and he made a decision.
I need to know.
He pulled a bandana from a draw and tied it over his face, even though he knew it would provide about as much protection from the stench of burned flesh as the dead person’s arms had from the fire, he secured it in place.
Just as they raised their arms, Avril thought.
He told the AI, “If anybody attacks me, you stop them.”
“How much force is authorized?”
“The minimum necessary,” Avril said.
“Is lethal force authorized?”
Avril disliked being asked and replied, “Yes, as a last resort.”
He retrieved his blaster and instructed the AI to turn off the floodlights that illuminated the grith skull.
Zin stirred as he opened the door, and Avril hesitated, but he decided he wanted to get this done and leave as quickly as possible. The heat struck him again when he stepped down from the car and locked it. If Zin woke up, she’d have to wait for him to return, but he wouldn’t be long.
The road-shield fizzled as he stepped through it, and he remembered Beads saying, I’m partial to the fizzles.
The night was still and quiet.
Whoever set the fire must have moved Avril far enough to protect him from the flames and the heat. He supposed they’d also removed his restraints.
He thought of the dragon who’d intervened with the bondsan on his behalf and warned him, I won’t help you again.
Avril thought, Was this you? If so, why are you following me and helping me, and why was Beads, or whatever his name is, looking for me?
Even through the bandana, the smell almost made Avril gag, and he pressed his left hand over the material.
Sand shifted beneath his booted feet as he jogged to the skull. Coral-like formations of melted silica crunched underfoot.
He didn’t know if the dragon had done this, but he guessed dragon-fire could burn hot enough to melt silica and incinerate a body and leave an outline.
He stopped to look at the place the fire must have burned the hottest, but there was nothing there. Avril skirted the area and did a quick loop around the skull. The only tracks he saw in the sand were his own. When he returned to the site of the fire, he looked up at the clear night sky, but if there was anything other than the stars up there, Avril couldn’t see it.
“Keep scanning,” Avril spoke into the remote.
He glanced around, thinking there was nothing more to see, and it was time to leave, but a small flash of red light inside the grith skull caught his attention through the nearest eye socket.
“Time to leave, dummy. There’s nothing good in there,” Avril told himself.
He stayed where he was. The red light flashed again, and then ignoring his own advice, Avril stepped through the eye socket.