A sudden high-pitched sound jolted Avril from sleep, and for an instant, he didn’t know where he was. He flailed his arms as he tried to sit up but banged his right hand hard on the car door. As he noticed his surroundings and realized there was no danger, he asked the car’s AI, “What’s that noise?”
The AI replied, “A distress beacon.”
Avril closed his eyes and relaxed back into the comfortable seat. “Huh, can you turn it off?”
The piercing tone stopped, and shaking his right hand to relieve the pain, Avril said, “There, fixed it.”
Folding his hands behind his head, Avril took a deep breath, doubtful he’d get back to sleep again but determined to try.
The AI said, “I have muted the beacon, but the beacon is still active. We have fixed nothing.”
Avril kept his eyes closed, but after a brief pause, he asked, “How long has it been active? Maybe whoever set it is long gone. It’s probably just a phantom that was set off during the Cleansing. It’s surprising it’s been going for so long, but—”
“The beacon was activated thirty-six hours ago,” the AI said.
Still with his eyes closed, Avril said, “Not a phantom then. It’s probably a vulture’s trap. Just go around it.”
“There is no alternate route to Edge,” the AI said.
Irritated, but knowing the terrain in the Damarian desert was often impassable, he asked, “Why are we going to Edge again?”
“That is the destination you set last night,” the AI said.
Avril cursed and thought, Last night. How long have I been asleep?
He sat up, and the midday desert light blinded him.
Avril still slept on occasions, but like most adults, it happened less and less the older he got. It had been weeks since he indulged in anything longer than an afternoon nap.
With a hand held over his eyes, he asked, “What time is it?”
Turning away from the windscreen, he saw Zin curled up like a sleeping cat in the passenger seat.
The AI responded to Avril’s question, but he didn’t pay it any attention.
He touched his temple where Zin tapped him the night before.
What are you? Avril wondered before turning his focus to the now silent beacon.
He moved his seat into the upright position and typed commands into the console on the dashboard. They’d only traveled ten klicks since they’d left the industrial complex where Milo ran her operation. Avril checked the time.
“Twelve hours!” Avril blurted. “How in the Abyss did I sleep for twelve hours?”
He remembered telling the AI to take it slow the night before. He sighed and asked, “Okay, what have we got?”
Avril cut the AI off. “I know that. Who set it? Did they sign it?”
The AI displayed the beacon’s text on the windscreen. It included a timestamp, coordinates, and the words, Please help.
“That doesn’t tell me much,” Avril said. “How far away are they?”
“Five klicks,” the AI said.
“Can you pick anybody up on the scanners?”
“He is dehydrated, but otherwise, he appears healthy.”
A drone clicked as it disconnected from the roof.
While he waited for visuals, Avril glanced at Zin and wondered, Did you make me sleep? He didn’t think so, but he didn’t usually let his guard down so quickly. I guess if you wanted to do something terrible, you had your chance.
The feed from the drone’s camera appeared in a square area on the windscreen as the drone sped up ahead of them.
Avril activated the roof-mounted laser-cannons. The heavy weapons whirred and clunked into place sending vibrations through the car. He checked a monitor, and when he was satisfied the weapons were operational, he deactivated them again.
The drone’s feed picked something up ahead on the side of the road. It looked like a massive white boulder set against the red Damarian desert.
“Do a three-sixty then show me what that is,” Avril said.
The drone followed his instructions and turned through a full circle. The desert looked empty.
“Keep scanning,” Avril told the AI.
The feed zoomed in on the large white mass on the other side of the road-shield. There was an abandoned red sports car nearby. As the drone got closer to the white mass, Avril realized it was a grith skull, bleached white by years under the sister suns.
Grith were massive, upright carnivores that roamed the deserts. They had oversized heads, small arms, and powerful legs that let them cover vast distances. They were one of the predators the electromagnetic-shields kept off the roads and out of the cities. This skull was bigger than any Avril had seen before.
As the drone got closer, the feed revealed a figure standing in the skull’s left eye socket.
“Dragon balls, what…” Avril let the rhetorical question trail off.
The figure was a round man in a colorful short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts with dozens of beaded necklaces hanging around his neck. He held an empty water bladder in one hand up above his head. His curly hair was flat with sweat. The clear plastic bladder reflected light back at the drone as the man squeezed the release valve and poked his tongue in to the opening to extract whatever water it still contained.
The man flinched when his sweaty hand slipped on the release valve and the opening trapped the tip of his tongue.
“Ouch,” Avril said without any sympathy.
The colorful round man extracted his tongue from the plastic valve and threw the bladder away from himself. A second later, he ran to retrieve it but tripped and fell face first into the sand. When he looked up again, red sand stuck to his perspiration covered face and the lenses of his circular glasses.
“You don’t look dangerous, except maybe to yourself,” Avril said and instructed the AI to park next to the red car.