The night air was cold against Avril’s skin, but he felt too hot and wiped sweat from his forehead with first one forearm and then the other. He’d left his assault vehicle pressed up against the pileup of vehicles outside the safety of the road-shield. The car’s blast-shields were in place and the engine powered down. The AI had throttled the cooling system to vent heat and stay hidden.
Avril was stretched out on his belly along an outcrop of rock two-hundred paces from the car, watching the road through the night-scope of a long-barreled blaster. He wore an earpiece in his right ear and listened to the sounds from the mics on both drones and the car.
The desert was quiet, and the road-shield created a false horizon that made the desert look like an enormous enclosure.
He glanced up at the sky and wondered if Maxian was there.
Zin skipped aimlessly a short distance away.
Avril checked the road again and said, “Get down. The bondsan will see us.”
Zin performed a pirouette and said, “In my dream, I remembered how to turn to dust. I rode the wind and found the others. We’ll meet them soon. I’m sure of it.”
“I didn’t know you’d forgotten how,” Avril said.
Zin made a small disapproving noise and said, “This is just one reality. I can’t keep track of every little detail.”
“Where will we meet the others?” Avril asked.
“Somewhere. Don’t shut me down with your logical questions,” Zin said and spun again, then ran across the sand and stopped a few paces from Avril. “The desert is so full of life, can’t you feel it? How can you just lie there?”
“There’s no life here. The gods killed everything when they cleansed Rasa.”
“It’s coming back,” Zin said.
“There’s nothing here except us,” Avril said.
Zin groaned. “Oh, you would say that. I thought we were making progress. You don’t have to spend hours examining everything and labeling it all to understand it. You can feel things and know they’re true.”
“Okay. As soon as these bondsan have passed, you can explain it, and we’ll figure out how to find the others.”
Zin’s face crinkled into a disapproving frown. “Don’t placate me. I could turn us to dust so they won’t see us. We could ride the wind and find the others. Then I wouldn’t need to explain anything. Even you’d understand an experience like that without labels or explanations.”
“We need to be quiet, or they’ll see us,” Avril said.
“You don’t believe I can do it,” Zin said.
Avril returned her stare. “I don’t want the bondsan to find us. That’s all.”
Zin squeezed her eyes shut and said, “They won’t.” The tight expression on her face was replaced by a smile. When she opened her eyes again, the smile disappeared. “Oh, we’re still here.”
“We need to stay out of sight,” Avril said.
“I can do it,” Zin insisted. “but I’ve forgotten, temporarily. This reality is different from the last one I dreamed about. As soon as I understand the difference, I’ll show you.”
Zin scampered up an upward thrust of rock along the outcrop where Avril was trying to hide.
Avril thought, Great. Crazy Zin turns up when I need sleepy Zin.
Zin stopped halfway up the rock and said, “I heard that.”
Avril tensed then relaxed, determined not to be caught by that trick again. Zin had met other significant pauses with claims she could hear his thoughts and admonishments for thinking too loud.
“Get down. The whole point of coming out here is to stay hidden,” Avril said.
“They won’t see me. I’m not really here,” Zin said and scrambled up the rock like a child explorer, knocking small stones and sand loose that skittered as they fell.
“Those sounds are real. Please come down, and stay out of sight,” Avril said.
Zin groaned. “You’re such a cog, Avril Ethanson.”
Avril glanced up with a reprimand on his lips, but Zin wasn’t visible, so instead, he said, “Thank you. Stay out of sight.”
The sound of engines was getting louder as the assault vehicles approached, but as far as he could tell, the people in those cars hadn’t spotted the drone that alerted him to their presence.
Best case, they keep driving, Avril thought.
Two black shadows crossed the circle of Avril’s vision through the scope, he swung the weapon through an arc and found the cars again.
They didn’t slow down as they approached the pileup and his car, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t.
A sudden gust of wind sounded in Avril’s left ear, and sand shifted somewhere in the dark. He looked up from the scope and listened. There were no more sounds, and he glanced around to be sure he and Zin were still alone in the desert.
There was nothing out there.
Just the wind.
Avril looked up, but Zin was quiet and out of sight, so he put an eye back to the scope. Only one of the cars was where he expected them to be, and he swung the weapon through a long arc looking ahead for the other in the hope it had applied a burst of speed. He relaxed when he found it further along the road.
What now? he wondered.
The bondsan had three working assault vehicles that he knew of. They’d had two in Taral, but the dragon, Maxian, had destroyed one, and two more had passed him on the road.
He didn’t want to reverse course and go back to Taral, and he didn’t want to follow the cadre to Edge.
Can we make it to Rhyne through the desert? he wondered and was about to ask the car’s AI to plot a course when he heard more engines.
Avril put an eye back to the scope. The new sounds faded as he located two road-bikes stopping near the pileup.