Avril sat on the corner of the couch where Zin slept. He inserted a nutri-vial laced with a painkiller into his nutri-port and felt relief within seconds.
Eyes closed, he let out a long breath, and when he opened them again, Gabe and the bondsan both watched him. The former wore his goggles, and all Avril could see of his face was a condescending smile.
I get why Laurill doesn’t trust him, Avril thought.
Electrical tape still covered the bondsan’s mouth and dried blood coated one side of her face. She glared at Avril, and her eyes tightened as Gabe worked behind her.
She almost turned toward Gabe after a spasm, but she caught herself, and her scowl deepened.
He’s done this before, Avril thought, watching Gabe work.
“Did you guys decide on a secret handshake to get into the clubhouse?” Gabe asked.
“We figured a few things out,” Avril said.
The bondsan winced again.
“Have you made any progress?” Avril asked.
“I’m further along than I was.” Gabe poked the AI with his index finger.
The bondsan winced, clenched her jaw, and closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again, she glared at Avril.
“Are you doing that on purpose?” Avril asked.
“No, but why do you care?” Gabe asked.
“There’s no reason to be cruel.”
“Oh, yeah? How’s your face? It looks like you took quite a beating.”
“Stop that for a minute. I want to show you something,” Avril said.
Gabe looked at Avril, but he didn’t put down the AI.
Avril held out his hand.
Gabe’s goggles moved in an exaggerated double-take between Avril’s hand and his face. “What’s this? You think handshakes mean something?”
“There’s something between us, the people they’re looking for. Take my hand, you’ll see.”
“Nah. Sorry, man. Physical contact screws with my talent.” Gabe turned back to his AI. “We can’t afford it.”
Avril lowered his hand.
“Explain it,” Gabe said.
“I don’t have the words. It’s a sensation.” He glanced at Zin, who still slept soundly on the couch, and wished she were awake.
The bondsan shifted from side to side as she watched Avril.
“Knock it off.” Gabe flicked the woman’s back with one hand.
“When’s your birthday?” Avril asked.
A quick laugh passed Gabe’s lips, and he asked, “Are you fucking serious? Could you guys be bigger amateurs if you—”
“Answer the question,” Laurill snapped from the front of the car. “Don’t worry. Nobody wants to bake you a cake.”
Gabe waited a moment before answering. “I don’t know. The people who raised me didn’t keep great records.”
Trust but verify, they’ll both be harder than I thought, Avril thought.
Putting Gabe aside for a moment, Avril closed his eyes to visualize the electrical network in the bondsan’s implant.
In his mind’s eye, a golden cluster of tightly packed lines gathered toward the back of the bondsan’s skull and beneath the scar behind her left ear. Avril looked for familiar patterns, but the ache in his temples returned.
He opened his eyes and met the bondsan’s glare.
“Why don’t we all just walk away from whatever this is?” Avril asked her.
She scoffed at him and looked away.
“That won’t work,” Gabe said. “It’s them or us, man. You heard the lady earlier; she’s a bondsan bound to one of the sneakiest, vile chosen in Rasa. Even if she wanted to help, she couldn’t. We have no choice.”
The bondsan turned toward Gabe at the insult, and Gabe pressed his AI. She stiffened and turned away.
“Wait,” Avril said and moved closer to the prisoner as a solution formed in his mind. “Thorn cares about all of you. He is all of you, and you’re him. We can stop hurting each other and walk away. Thorn would go for that, wouldn’t he?”
Remembering what Thorn had said about experiencing things that happened to his cadre-mate, Avril was about to address the first-sworn, Wouldn’t you, Thorn?
Instead, he cursed.
“Shit! They know where we are.”
Gabe shook his head. “No. There were only four bondsan, and the other three are recovering right now. They can guess and give chase, but we’re clear for a while, at least.”
“They know because they know where she is. The rest of the cadre is here with her, experiencing this through her eyes. The first-sworn told me they’re tighter than most cadres,” Avril said.
Up in the cab, Laurill swore violently, then declared, “They’ve got Max.”
The look on the bondsan’s face confirmed it.
“Where?” Avril demanded.
“Taral. We have to get him,” Laurill said.
“No way. Are you crazy?” Gabe asked.
“What? There’s no question. We have to,” Laurill said.
“Nope,” Gabe said.
“Let’s trade,” Avril said to the bondsan, but she rolled her eyes and looked away from him.
“We’re getting him,” Laurill insisted.
“Then drop me off, sweetheart. I’ve had too many close encounters with these bastards.”
“Gabe, we need your help,” Avril said.
“I gave it. Twice, but if this cadre has taken down that dragon you were with in Taral, there’s not much we can do.”
“Fine. Get out, take your friend too,” Laurill said.
“You’re just going to leave me in the middle of the desert?” Gabe asked.
“Are you going to leave one of us with these fuckers?” Laurill demanded.
“One of us? He’s a face on an AI, there is no us,” Gabe said.
“So get out,” Laurill said.
Gabe turned to Avril. “Is she calling the shots? Really, man?”
“Really,” Avril said, irritated by Gabe’s assumption. Avril pitched his voice for the car’s AI. “Stop.”
Everybody rocked forward with the sudden change of momentum.
Avril returned Gabe’s stare when the other man raised his goggles.
When the car came to a complete halt, the loading door lowered to the road.
Avril tried one last time. “We have to help him.”
“I thought it might be mutually beneficial to help you, but I’m not risking another encounter.” Gabe turned his back on Avril and walked down the ramp.