Lying on the ground where he’d fallen, the stranger peered over his sand covered spectacles at the assault vehicle as it stopped nose-to-nose with the red, two-seater sports car. He stood up and stumbled down the sandy slope toward the road. The sand covering his face parted and made his grin a comical caricature.
Completely guileless, or is thirty-six hours stranded away from his comfortable home enough to make him abandon all caution? Avril thought.
He’d seen people like this before, well-fed city dwellers who ventured inland from the safety of the megacities to explore the wastelands but were ill-prepared to deal with the harsh realities of life out here.
“Are you going to wake up?” Avril asked Zin, who snored softly in the passenger seat. After a moment, he added, “Stay here, and stay down, do you hear me, crazy girl?”
Zin woke up long enough to murmur, “Safe now, resting.”
Avril watched as she moved her head from side to side and went back to sleep.
He stepped down onto the road from the cab and blinked as the sizzling desert heat evaporated the moisture around his eyes. He keyed a security code into a remote to lock the car and pocketed the device.
The road-shield fizzled as the round man limped through it.
Avril wasn’t carrying a blaster or a blade, but his car could do more damage than any handheld weapon, and the remote gave him full control over the car’s systems.
As he strolled toward the sports car, Avril watched the approaching man and thought, This guy is harmless. See what he needs and send him back to his safe home on the coast.
“Thank you, thank you,” the stranger called.
His smile was impossibly wide, and he held his hands out to his sides as if he were offering Avril a hug even though there were three lanes of highway between them. The flaccid plastic bladder hung from his left hand, flapping in the breeze. “Sir, you are a hero. A hero, I tell you. I thought I was done for out here. I stopped for a look at this magnificent chap,” he gestured toward the grith skull. “Didn’t suppose he could hurt me now, but then my car wouldn’t go, and I thought he might claim me as his final victim from beyond the Abyss.”
Avril opened his mouth to ask about the man’s car trouble, but the stranger turned back to the grith and asked, “Have you ever seen such a thing?”
Avril tried to speak again, but the man spoke right over him. “Back before the Cleansing, I lived in apartments smaller than the inside of this fellow’s skull.”
Avril tried again, but the stranger continued, “I suppose you’re too young to remember life before the Cleansing.”
This time Avril didn’t even try to respond, and the stranger peered at him as he limped across the dividing strip of greenery in the center of the highway. “Are you mute, boy? I knew a mute once, a big chap. We’d talk for hours, well, I’d talk, and he’d listen. It worked surprisingly well. He was always a hit with the ladies, which I never understood. He was handsome enough, but, well, I suppose they enjoyed having somebody listen to them without interrupting all the time. Never fear, just nod or shake your head, I’m sure we’ll understand each other. They say most communication is nonverbal.”
“I’m not mute,” Avril said, speaking into the stream of words as soon as he saw a pause coming.
“Oh, you’re not?” The stranger sounded disappointed then offended. “Why ever didn’t you say so? Letting me waffle on like a fool?”
Avril contained an astonished laugh so as not to offend this man and said, “I was thinking about what you said.”
“Which bit? I’ve already said so much.” Some of the offense left his tone.
“That you’ve lived in apartments smaller than the grith skull. I can’t imagine what it must have been like before the Cleansing.”
As a shy child, Avril discovered the easiest way to draw attention away from himself was to get adults talking about the good old times before the Cleansing.
“Well, it was necessary back then,” the man continued, all signs of offense gone. “There were three-hundred million of us. Sometimes I wonder if that was a made up number. I mean, how would you keep track of the real number, what with people dying and being born all the time. Don’t even get me started on changelings, how could you know which identities belonged together. If I could be a dozen different people, I’d find some interesting ways to make a living, and you can bet I wouldn’t have clued the bureaucrats into what I was up to.”
Avril nodded his understanding.
“What was I saying?” the man asked.
“Right. With all those people, there wasn’t very much space, so we got crammed into all sorts of tiny places. It came down to affordability and personal preference. That, at least, is better now. Two years ago, I moved into a castle, and it was just me and some mean rats. They drove me out in the end. I suppose I could have exterminated them, but it just seemed so very unnecessary, you understand?”
Avril nodded and gestured toward the car. “Are you having trouble with—”
“I had an amusement park all to myself for a month. Fully automated, no queues. The one down in Dart. Perhaps you know it?”
Avril shook his head and moved toward the car to see for himself.
“It wasn’t as much fun as you might think. I queued at one ride for an hour hoping for an authentic experience, but there wasn’t anybody else in the queue, and I just felt silly, so I left the next day.”
“You’re having car trouble?” Avril asked.
The stranger squinted at Avril as if he didn’t understand the question, but then his expression cleared, and he said, “Ah, yes. The car.”