Wishing he hadn’t left his blaster on the wall, Avril stopped beneath the window, grateful the music covered the sound he’d made shuffling along the floor.
The bondsan still shouted, but the music prevented Avril from hearing the words. He closed his eyes and reached out with his senses to search for nearby electrical networks.
Constellations of golden light appeared in the darkness of his mind. He identified two clusters as belonging to items the bondsan carried. Avril recognized the electrical signatures of AI and blasters. Both of the bondsan had another device at head height with an electrical signature he didn’t recognize, but he decided it was just comms gear and heads-up displays embedded in their helmets.
He moved his attention to the vultures and focused on the dune buggy. The vehicle was electric, and Avril found what he was looking for almost straight away. He cut the power, and the angry, roaring music died, and the tires stopped screeching.
Music still played in the distance, and Avril was relieved it wasn’t closer. He risked peeking over the windowsill. Outside, the bondsan exchanged a quick look.
Are they communicating telepathically? Avril wondered. Can they do that?
He’d heard some cadres could.
Both of the vultures looked despondently at the now silent vehicle. Losing their destructive joy seemed to consume them, and they were no longer even aware of the bondsan watching them. Their eyes were unnaturally wide, and Avril wondered, What are they on?
The bondsan advanced, and one of them demanded of the man still standing in the buggy, “Name?”
The man didn’t respond, but the woman in the tattered evening gown turned toward the bondsan and asked, “What are your names?”
“We’ll ask the questions,” one of the bondsan said.
“Yes, we will,” the woman in the tattered gown agreed. “What are your names? We haven’t seen you before, have we?” She looked down at the ground and seemed to forget she’d asked a question.
The bondsan stepped closer to the man on the buggy and ignored the woman. “Hello. Anybody home?”
The man looked up for the first time and grinned at the bondsan. He looked at his companion and announced, “Double!”
“What’s your name?” one of the bondsan demanded and stepped forward, raising his blaster.
The blue-haired man grinned and said, “Baram.” He swung his gaze left to the second bondsan and repeated, “Baram.”
He turned to his companion and tried to repeat his name again but giggled and didn’t make it past the first syllable.
The woman stopped studying the ground and asked, “What are your names?”
The bondsan ignored her, and one of them asked, “How old are you, Baram?”
Still giggling, Baram looked at the bondsan and asked, “How…”
“Old?” the other bondsan snapped.
“How old are you?” the woman asked.
One of the bondsan stepped over the mangled fence toward the woman. She jutted her chin forward and frowned at the man, demanding, “What’s your name?”
Baram was still looking at the bondsan who’d asked for his age. His lips moved, but his gaze drifted.
“When were you born?” the remaining bondsan demanded.
Baram’s gaze came back, and his mouth spread into a smile. “I was there, but I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.”
Avril couldn’t tell if Baram was being obstinate or was just so lost in his drug twisted reality that the question genuinely confused him.
The bondsan raised a hand toward Baram and said, “Come on, why don’t I help you down?”
Baram nodded and accepted the bondsan’s help.
“Can you tell me how old you are, Baram?”
Baram shrugged with a happy smile on his face.
The other bondsan was attempting to lead the woman away, but she was stronger than she looked and resisted his efforts.
“I bet you’re in your early twenties, right?” the bondsan asked Baram.
Baram’s smile didn’t slip, and he put a friendly hand on the bondsan’s shoulder.
Avril ducked down below the windowsill as the bondsan turned to lead Baram along the street. Something about the way he asked his question made Avril think, Are they looking for people of a certain age?
Avril was twenty-two.
“Good enough,” the bondsan said. “Baram, you’re coming for a ride with us.”
Avril peeked over the windowsill and saw the second bondsan join his companion and Baram. Now he could see both bondsan’s faces, he thought, Identical, and there’s nine more of them.
The woman scurried after them. She shouted, “You leave him alone.”
Baram looked her way, and a surprised expression broke out on his face as if he were pleased to see her but hadn’t expected her.
“I said leave him alone,” the woman screamed.
“We’re taking him to visit Lord Mikkel,” one of the bondsan said.
“Lord Mikkel,” the woman sneered.
Both bondsan stopped to regard her, and a chill crept across Avril’s shoulders.
The woman continued, “Lord Mikkel’s got no right.”
“He is the lord of this land,” one of the bondsan said.
“Pfft,” the woman scoffed. “There hasn’t been a lord of this land for decades. He’s the lord of nothing. The Cleansing ended any claim the chosen had. This land isn’t his. Lord Mikkel’s deluded, but he’s bound to a god, so that’s not surprising, but what about you two? You can’t really think he’s the lord of shit, can—”
The sudden hard sound of a weapon firing echoed off the buildings and cut off whatever else the vulture might have said. She fell sideways to the ground, dead before she landed.
Staying low to the floor, Avril crept toward the bar. He glanced back to make sure the bondsan hadn’t discovered him, but when he looked forward again, the twin orbs in the tomyton’s plastic face lit up and before Avril could silence the device, it asked in a loud voice, “Can I get you a drink, sir?”
Avril looked back at the window again and saw the bondsan peering in at him.