“Resend the handshake request,” Avril instructed the AI.
The symbol on the windscreen lost the horizontal strike-through for a second and pulsed once, then the horizontal line came back, indicating the request had been rejected.
The voice from the speaker repeated its earlier announcement, “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…”
Avril thought he was listening to a recording and tapped a control on the dashboard. “I’m looking for Milo.”
“…in your vehicle, and step away from the vehicle.”
Avril glanced at Zin and muttered, “We should have kept going.”
Zin stirred in her sleep and mumbled something.
The downed drone sparked, and Avril pressed the transmit button on the dashboard. “That was an expensive piece of equipment you just shot down.”
Avril waited, but there was no response.
“Try the handshake again, but plot the safest way out of here, and be ready,” Avril said.
The handshake symbol pulsed red again, but it wasn’t rejected as quickly this time.
“It’s rude to snoop on people,” the voice from the recording snapped. “We value our privacy.”
Irritated, Avril cut the woman off. “We?”
He didn’t believe there was a community of people living with Milo. People in the wastelands often pretended they were part of large groups.
Avril had used the trick.
Knowing he needed Milo’s help more than she needed his, Avril tried again. “I wasn’t snooping, just being cautious, surely you can appreciate that.”
The handshake symbol turned orange.
“I can, but then I don’t turn up on people’s doorsteps unannounced and send up drones to snoop on them. That’s the sort of thing people who mean no good do.”
“I’m here to trade. If you’re interested, I have thirty common-reality-engine processors.”
The handshake symbol continued to pulse orange.
The voice from the speaker asked, “What’s the use of them? There’s no one left to share this reality, let-alone made up realities.”
“There are places with people, just not out here,” Avril said.
“Well, I don’t have any use for them,” the voice said.
“Not directly, but if you have a buyer,” Avril said. “The traders I usually work with pay a premium.”
“Then why didn’t you go to them?”
“Because I found more than I can transport in one go and I want to get back to them before somebody else finds them,” Avril lied. “You’re the closest.”
The woman on the other end of the transmission harrumphed, then said, “Thirty, you say?”
“Yep. If you’re not interested, I’ll be on my way,” Avril said, downplaying his need.
“You must be an amateur if you only have capacity for thirty. I’m not interested in processors that will fail the minute you leave.”
Avril swore slightly. He deserved that. “The other trays I have are old. I didn’t want to risk using them.”
“I could take a look at what you’ve got. Maybe give you a couple of trays in trade.”
“No. That’s fine. I’ll hold on to them. Listen, I met somebody on the road—”
“Sounds awful,” the woman cut him off.
“She needs somewhere to stay for a couple of days.”
The handshake symbol continued to pulse orange on the windscreen.
“I hear there are some fancy hotels down in Tarool. They have an online booking system, room-service, the lot.”
“You wouldn’t enjoy the company?” Avril asked and winced at how stupid the question was now that he’d asked it.
The woman barked a laugh. No longer even pretending to be part of a community, she said, “Nope. I would not. The last time I took pity on one of your lot, they made a remarkable recovery the instant they were inside. Dealing with them left an awful mess in the guest quarters. It’s still there, actually. Serves as a reminder not to fall for stupid tricks again.”
“Fine,” Avril said, knowing there was no point persisting. “Sorry to have wasted your time, Milo.”
Avril stopped transmitting and told the AI, “Let’s go.”
“You didn’t use to give up so easily, Ethan,” Milo said.
“Avril, not Ethan,” Avril replied instantly, wondering if Milo had seen him on a feed and assumed he’d stolen Ethan’s credentials and was trying to use them to get to her.
“And who might you be, Avril not Ethan?”
“Just a salvager, looking for an honest trade. I used to work with Ethan. I think I came here as a kid with him.”
“Your Ethan’s kid?”
“You know I’m not,” Avril said.
Milo chuckled, then asked, “Okay, well before you go, I’m interested. Ethan was a tough old dog, how’d you get access to his systems?”
“He gave me access. He raised me,” Avril said and instructed the AI to wait. “Do you really think anybody could take anything from Ethan against his will?”
Milo chuckled again, and the sound had the ring of reminiscence to it. “Ethan was pretty tough, but he had a peculiar soft spot. Nobody can keep their guard up forever.”
“Ethan’s fine,” Avril said.
“If that’s true, I’ll trade with him.”
“But not me?” Avril asked.
“That’s right. Don’t come back without him or try anything funny.”
Avril killed the transmission and said, “Let’s go. Nice and slow, let’s not provoke her.”
The car backed down the street.
Avril glanced at Zin and said, “Looks like you’re stuck with me for a while longer.”
Zin opened one eye and looked back at him and said, “And you with me.”
Avril smiled at her response and turned his attention to the monitors and the windscreen to watch for threats.
“You’re still too loud,” Zin said. “You make it hard to sleep.”
Avril looked down at Zin and was about to say something, but she reached up and touched his temple and said, “Not so loud. Rest.”
Avril’s head fell back against his chair and his eyes grew heavy. Before he fell asleep, he managed to ask, “What did…”