“I don’t even know what I did,” Avril answered, shocked by what had just happened.
The road-bikes’ taillights faded into the distance, and Avril watched them go. He’d only wanted to disconnect the bondsan from the rest of the cadre in the hope they’d leave to reestablish communication, and he could avoid violence. That he’d caused them pain didn’t make any sense.
“Well, whatever you did, we might need you to do it again.”
Avril nodded. “I jammed equipment in their helmets. I thought it was just comms gear and maybe a heads up display, but…” Avril trailed off as he realized the voice questioning him, as familiar as it was, wasn’t Zin’s.
He sat up from the rock where he laid and turned toward the speaker. Part of him already knew who he’d see, and he wasn’t surprised by the woman whose hair shone white in the starlight.
“Laurill fi’Simil,” Avril said the name from her profile on the AI.
“Avril Ethanson,” Laurill replied, studying him.
Avril glanced over his shoulder at the road to check the bondsan weren’t coming back. Laurill offered him a hand to help him up from the rock. Avril understood the gesture was much more than an immediate offer of help, he could stand on his own, and he doubted Laurill thought otherwise. He accepted the hand in the spirit she offered it and pulled to leverage himself up, but he stopped and stared at his and Laurill’s clasped hands.
Her skin was warmer than it should be, and the blood rushed beneath the surface of Avril’s hand, tingling in response to her touch.
Something thudded to the ground next to them, breaking their mutual fixation on their clasped hands.
Zin straightened and brushed sand from her clothes, then waved like an enthusiastic child at Laurill, and said, “Hello.”
Avril stood, and they released each other’s hands. Both he and Laurill glanced at their palms in wonder.
“Hello,” Laurill returned Zin’s greeting. “I didn’t see you up there.”
“That’s because I was dust.” Zin turned a broad told-you-so smile on Avril, then said, “but I’m back now.”
Laurill’s smile looked genuine as she said, “That’s quite a talent.”
“I dreamed about you. I told him we’d meet you soon, but he didn’t believe me. He’s a bit of a plodder, not cut out for the adventures we’ll have, at least, not yet.” Zin turned a patient smile on Avril and added, “but he has a good heart, and he’s learning.”
Avril smiled a sarcastic thank you and said, “Give me your hand.”
Zin stuck out her right hand, and Avril gripped it. Her skin was just as warm as Laurill’s, and his hand tingled in response to the touch. Zin watched him with a puzzled expression.
“Can’t you feel that?” Avril asked.
“Of course.” Zin frowned, then said, “I know we’re real. I was confused when I—”
“Not that. The tingle and the heat,” Avril said.
Zin nodded. “I noticed it as soon as we met. It’s how I knew I was right about you.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Avril asked.
Zin let go of his hand and slapped her forehead then laughed. “I didn’t know you didn’t know, but I suppose I should have.”
She quirked her eyebrows at him, and Avril wished she’d lay off the dramatics.
“How do you know my name?” Avril asked Laurill, already feeling the same comfortable familiarity he felt with Zin. He thought, It’s impossible, but we do know each other.
Laurill unstrapped a pack from her shoulders and produced an AI from inside it. She thumbed the device on and handed it to Avril.
He accepted it and saw a picture of himself and his name. The word retrieval flashed in red across the screen.
She asked, “How do you know me?”
Avril showed her the AI he’d found in the grith skull. He searched the profiles until he found Maxian’s. “This guy left this one for me.”
Laurill frowned and shook her head.
“A friend of yours?” Avril guessed.
“But you don’t think he left it?” Avril asked, then blurted, “Were you with him at the grith skull when he—”
“No,” Laurill cut him off.
“But you know what he did?” Avril asked.
Laurill caught her bottom lip between her teeth before answering. “Only that he did something, but he didn’t say what. He said…” Laurill trailed off.
The platinum-haired woman shrugged and said, “He was angry about something when he came back from checking on you. He wouldn’t say what happened, but he said you were careless.”
Avril tried to process that and guessed Maxian had said more, but Laurill was trying to spare his feelings.
Zin asked Avril, “You’ve met him?”
Unsure if Zin intended the barb in the question, Avril said, “In Taral. He helped me get away from the cadre the first time. That’s who was at the grith skull when we were unconscious.”
In a shocked whisper, Zin asked, “He burned that man?”
“Maxian was protecting you,” Laurill said, but she sounded shocked.
Avril nodded, “Yeah, but…” He struggled to finish.
“Did you shoot those bondsan in Taral?” Laurill asked Zin. “Is that any different?”
“That wasn’t us,” Avril said. “I don’t know who that was. What is this? Why are we being hunted?”
Laurill shook her head.
“Are you sure Maxian didn’t leave the AI?” Avril asked.
Laurill nodded, and Avril turned to Zin as possibilities unfolded in his mind.
Zin looked back at him and said, “It wasn’t me.”
Avril believed her, and he asked Laurill, “How did you get that one?”
“I took it from somebody who was following me.”
Avril nodded but didn’t press for details. “So it’s not just the guy at the grith skull or the cadre in Taral who are looking for us.”
“There are others,” Laurill agreed.
“So if Maxian didn’t leave this,” Avril held up the AI, “Who did?”