The car rattled as it sped across the rocky Damarian desert along Taral’s western wall. Avril tightened the last of the straps securing Zin on the couch, where impossibly, she still slept.
Where are you, crazy girl? he wondered, but there wasn’t time to consider the question. Avril had flushed two more nutri-vials loaded with stimulants into her system in the hope they’d wake her before they arrived at Taral, but they’d had no visible effect and time was up.
“Maybe when she wakes up, she’ll never sleep again,” Laurill said.
She stood by the rear loading door; straps crisscrossed her chest from an assortment of weapons she’d taken from the locker. Moments earlier, she’d exclaimed like a child on her birthday at each new toy she found in the locker.
“I read once, that tens of thousands of years ago, adolescents would sleep for a month, and then never sleep again,” Laurill said and shifted her shoulders under the weight of her armaments.
“You can’t carry all of those,” Avril said.
Laurill’s grin didn’t waver. “They won’t weigh anything in the shadows.”
“You can’t free Maxian if you don’t leave the shadows,” Avril said and realized, Shit. This is fun to her.
Laurill shook her head and stooped to pick up a portable laser-cannon. “Nah, I’ll hide them one at a time on my way in, then if I need them on the way out, there’ll be there.”
“No unnecessary risks, we agreed,” Avril reminded her.
“I know,” Laurill said, and hefted the laser-cannon. “Ooh, fully charged. This could blast—”
“Laurill, I’m serious,” Avril interrupted. “We still don’t know what this is, but whatever it is, I know you enjoy taking risks. This isn’t the time. Don’t get caught.”
Laurill nodded somberly, but she couldn’t hold the expression. “Sorry. I’m just getting into the right mindset. I won’t take unnecessary risks, but we can’t be timid either. I know you wish you were going instead of me, but you’re not. Worrying won’t help me. Do what you can to draw them away, but don’t get caught, I’ll do the same.”
“Okay. Good luck,” Avril said, accepting Laurill’s assessment.
Laurill slapped the open button next to the loading door as the car slowed beneath them. “There is a nuclear option if this goes wrong.”
“Oh?” Avril asked.
“If they capture me, and you have no other choices, go to Tralit d’Arathan at Fralit Mars, and tell him who you are and what’s happening. He’ll get us free.”
“You’re not worried he might kill the messenger? The stories—”
“He won’t. He knows something about us. Maxian thinks he knows why people are looking for us. He’s been trying to get it out of him.”
“For how long?” Avril asked.
“A week. Until two weeks ago, Maxian had never even met Tralit. This is new to him.”
“So Tralit will protect us if we need him to?”
Laurill shook her head. “That’s not it. More like he’ll take us from other people for his own purposes.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Which is why we’re not going to him unless there’s no other choice.”
Laurill let the heavy laser-cannon swing from her left hand so they could clasp hands.
The car had almost stopped, and the loading ramp was parallel to the ground.
Through the exit, other vehicles were visible bumping along in the desert, kicking up sand as they circled the small desert city.
Avril had located half the vehicles he’d sent out from Taral the last time he was here, and he’d programmed them all to return with darkened windows and evade anybody who got too close. Besides those five, his car’s AI had found another twelve vehicles that were all now closing in on Taral. It had activated dozens more in the city and waited to send them into Taral’s streets to add to the confusion.
He’d used this trick to mislead pursuers intent on stealing his salvage before, but he’d never used it to hide an approach.
Should we risk Tralit? Avril wondered.
Laurill said, “This cadre is sloppy. They didn’t search either of us when they caught us. I guess having your head cut open and dying repeatedly is distracting.”
“Somebody tried to improve them, but broke them instead,” Avril said.
“All cadres are broken. People shouldn’t be bound to each other and forced into the service of a chosen or their god. What good is being alive if you’re enslaved to another’s will and can’t choose the life you want? We should all be free to fuck up our own lives,” Laurill said.
“They’re still dangerous,” Avril said.
“In and out,” Laurill said and flashed him a smile, then slid away into the shadows.
Avril scanned the desert, he thought he sensed her angling toward the wall away from the entrance, but he couldn’t see her.
He closed the door and went back to the cab, touching Zin’s shoulder with his fingertips as he passed and taking comfort from the tingling sensation.
Avril dropped into the driver’s seat and said, “The second you see a dragon take to the sky with Laurill riding it, you get us out.”
“Affirmative,” the AI’s soft feminine voice said.
Avril studied the images on the windscreen. One of his drones provided a bird’s-eye view, and he saw vehicles circling the city with more entering the edges of the feed as they approached Taral. He spotted three helmeted bondsan on road-bikes in the city and murmured, “Good. Less for Laurill.”
He scanned the eastern wall and asked, “Where’s the supply drop?”
The AI highlighted a section of wall. “It will arrive in twenty minutes.”
Avril switched his attention to the other drone’s feed, which showed a view of the main street through Taral.
The bondsan had tried to block the northern and southern entrances into the city with dozens of vehicles clustered in and around the wide archways through the wall, but Avril had silently taken control of some of those cars in the blockade.
“Loop back. It’s time,” Avril told the AI.