Leaning against the loading door and peering through the small window at Taral, Avril took a deep breath to calm himself. An image of Damarian cadres pursuing him popped into his mind, and he banged the loading door with his clenched fist and swore. Despite the Cleansing and the murder of almost three-hundred million people, the gods’ chosen still ruled Rasa and commanded vast resources. By comparison, Avril was a tech salvager with no more resources than those he could reach out and touch. If Lord Mikkel pursued Avril for the murder of his bondsan, Avril didn’t think there was much he could do except keep running, and even then, he couldn’t run forever.
He swore, shouting his frustration.
“I am detecting elevated blood pressure and heart rate,” the car’s AI said.
“No shit,” Avril said, but the AI was right.
He took a deep breath and went to the galley to search his store of nutri-vials. When he found what he wanted, he sat on the couch in the living space and undid the zipper over his right thigh and the nutri-port implant embedded in his leg. The vial locked in the implant contained liquid that was almost black. Avril squeezed the release pins, and the vial popped out. He pushed the new vial, its contents as clear as water, into place until it clicked. A rush of nutrients entered his bloodstream.
Nutri-vials weren’t as satisfying as food, but they did the job, and real food was rare. Most people survived on packaged food and nutri-vials that were produced before the Cleansing.
Avril’s heart slowed, and his breathing felt easier as the sedative included in this vial took effect. Before he got too relaxed, he returned to the galley and found a vial loaded with stimulants and pocketed it for easy access.
He poured himself a drink and splashed water over his face. As he dried himself on a towel, he closed his eyes and reached out to sense the electrical networks in the salvage he took from Taral, and before that, Blade and Nordan.
The salvage was hidden in the smuggler’s hole in the galley. In the darkness of his mind, he saw two dozen clusters of golden lights burning like candles. Each cluster was a processor he’d removed from a common-reality-engine. The processors were difficult to extract, and they degraded without a consistent power supply. Most salvagers couldn’t perform the tricky operation, but they didn’t have Avril’s talent.
Satisfied the processors were stable, he moved to the driver’s console and sat down to watch the road. The processors would last for a couple of days before they needed to be moved to a permanent power supply. There were tech fences in Rhyne who’d take them off his hands and always paid a fair price.
“Scan ahead as far as you can. Tell me if you see anybody,” Avril told the AI.
A drone on the roof next to the laser-cannons clicked as it disconnected. A square appeared on the windscreen with the feed from the drone’s camera. Avril watched as the drone sped ahead. The empty road passed hypnotically through the feed.
Avril relaxed into the soft leather of the driver’s seat.
He reached toward the dashboard to start a call to Ethan, but hesitated. I already know what you’ll say, Avril thought. You’ll start by asking what I did. You won’t mean to, but you’ll ask. Then you’ll tell me to get some distance, prepare an ambush, fight, and repeat.
They’d been through enough together over the years that Avril understood how Ethan operated.
Zig and zag, Avril thought.
He let his hand drop into his lap without making the call. He already knew what he had to do.
Get the fuck out of Damar.
The sister suns set as he drove south, and he let his attention drift as the desert shifted beneath his gaze. Cities passed by, some on the other side of the horizon, some closer. Out here in the Damarian desert, those other cities were just like Taral. Each had been home to tens of thousands of people before the Cleansing but were deserted now.
He’d visited hundreds like them, and almost every time, he wondered what it would be like to spend his entire life in a city like that, surrounded by people, familiar faces, and set routines day after day after day.
Never alone, never more than shouting distance from friends and strangers alike.
Too many people, he thought.
He didn’t know how anybody lived like that, and yet, the megacities on the coast dwarfed these desert cities.
Watching the tops of a cluster of buildings in some unknown city slide by on the other side of the horizon, he wondered, Why would anybody stay in one place, and if they chose just one place, why that one?
He supposed the people who’d lived in those cities would find his life just as puzzling.
The square displaying the drone’s feed flashed, drawing Avril’s attention.
Two assault vehicles were coming toward him. They were far enough away that unless they’d dispatched their own drones, they wouldn’t have seen him yet. Avril zoomed in and saw the Lord of Damar’s winged spear sigil on the lead car.
Another cadre? he wondered. He asked his car’s AI, “How many passengers?”
The AI replied, “Both vehicles are empty.”
The cadre probably requested them, Avril thought and wondered, Should I blast them off the road?
He decided it was too risky. He’d only help them pinpoint his location, and the assault vehicles probably had battle-ready AI.
Avril scanned the road and the surrounding desert for somewhere to pull up and wait for them to pass, so he didn’t show up on their feed. Just ahead, there was an ancient rest-stop with sun-bleached umbrellas, brittle plastic furniture, and a building that had once housed a small shop.
Avril told the AI, “Park behind that building.”