The drive to the location listed on Milo’s contact info took twenty minutes. The car left the highway and drove in the opposite direction from Avril’s destination, taking him deeper into Damar, but he reasoned it was worth the risk if he could find somewhere safe to leave Zin and offload the processors.
Zin didn’t stir from her sleep, and Avril used the time to prepare, arming himself with a handheld blaster and checking the assault vehicle’s laser-cannons.
As they approached the destination, he told the AI, “I want all systems available and ready to respond if there’s a threat.”
The AI constantly performed diagnostics and ran maintenance on the assault vehicle’s software systems to keep everything running smoothly, and occasionally that meant silently taking systems temporarily offline. Avril had learned long ago not to leave things to chance when he entered potentially dangerous situations.
He carefully removed the common-reality-engine processors from the smuggler’s hole and positioned the powered tray that held them by the loading doors at the back of the vehicle. The processors were fragile and moving them was risky, but Avril checked they were still stable by visualizing their electrical networks. Traders often lowered the price if even one of the processors in a batch had degraded, taking it as a sign they hadn’t been handled with enough care and the others would soon degrade too. Avril always checked before a trade and removed any processors that looked iffy.
As the car approached the destination, he instructed the AI, “Let her know we’re here.”
From the driver’s console, Avril scanned the area.
They’d driven to what had once been an industrial complex packed with factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. The street they drove along was quiet and boxed in on both sides between two windowless buildings with high walls.
Avril would have preferred an open approach, but he understood the precautions traders took to keep themselves and their stock safe. Those precautions also meant Avril was less likely to walk into an ambush.
After a moment, Avril asked the AI, “Any response?”
“Shit.” He hoped this side trip wasn’t a waste of time. “Try again.”
When the AI stayed silent, Avril knew that meant there was still no response.
He studied the map of the local area that was displayed on the windscreen. At the end of the narrow street they followed, there was a truck-stop where drivers had likely rested and grabbed a bite to eat on runs before the Cleansing.
Past the truck-stop was a maze of roads that led to different buildings through the industrial complex.
“Come on, come on,” Avril said and tapped the dashboard.
There was a reason he stuck to a handful of traders who were easy to work with and had established protocols.
A lot could have happened in the nine years since the last contact with Milo. He glanced at Zin and said, “Maybe the old lady got too old.”
The assault vehicle stopped at the end of the street, and Avril looked out at the dark truck-stop. A long hover-truck lay on its side across the expanse of lined concrete, but there were no other vehicles, and Avril couldn’t see anybody.
“Scan for people,” Avril said.
“There are no life-signs,” the AI informed him.
Including the ones to either side of him, there were six large buildings that all looked like they’d been distribution centers or factories before the Cleansing, and Avril thought Milo could be in any one of them or none of them.
He waited for a moment, then instructed the car, “Send up a drone. Let’s take a look around. Make sure nobody is trying to sneak up on us.”
A drone clicked and detached itself from the roof. The view from its camera appeared on the windscreen, showing the truck-stop from a slightly higher angle.
The image wobbled, then stopped moving.
“Report,” Avril said.
“Anti-drone tech is present,” the AI said in its soft feminine voice.
Avril considered this. Certain kinds of projections could trick drones into seeing physical barriers that didn’t exist to prevent automated drones from wandering into places people didn’t want them to go.
“Transmit a handshake request,” Avril told the AI.
Milo was in the database, which meant Ethan and Avril had worked with her before, even though Avril couldn’t remember her. It stood to reason they’d exchanged credentials to facilitate future transactions.
The handshake symbol pulsed red on the windscreen.
“This was a bad idea. I should have kept going,” Avril muttered.
The handshake symbol turned orange.
“Finally,” Avril said, wishing he’d forgone the stress of working with an unfamiliar trader.
The symbol turned red with a horizontal line cut through the center, indicating the request had been rejected.
Avril blew out an exasperated breath and said, “Fuck it. This was a mistake. Let’s get back on the road and out of Damar. Override the drone and show me the streets from above.”
The feed from the drone started moving up and forward again, and Avril studied the image of the truck-stop, but he couldn’t see anything out of place.
A flash of red cut across Avril’s vision ahead and to the right, and an instant later, the smoking drone crashed onto the concrete ahead of the assault vehicle.
Avril had barely finished issuing the command to the AI to activate the laser-cannons when they whirred and clunked into position on the roof.
Zin didn’t stir in the passenger seat.
“Report?” Avril demanded.
“An automated system shot down the drone,” the AI said.
Faint white noise sounded from the car’s speakers and Avril waited, knowing that meant they were receiving a transmission.
A gravelly female voice announced, “We are a peaceful community. We do not want trouble. We offer shelter to anybody who needs it. To accept the shelter and safety of our community, disarm your weapons, leave any electronics in your vehicle, and step away from the vehicle.”