Avril walked cautiously down the loading ramp from the assault vehicle where he’d been held prisoner, beaten, and tortured. The corpses of the four bondsan were strewn on the blood-splattered road.
Gabe kneeled over a dead bondsan and studied the screen of an AI he held toward the bondsan’s face.
“You killed them,” Avril said.
Without looking up from the AI, Gabe said, “It slows them down more than anything else.”
Avril grimaced at the understatement and turned, expecting to see Laurill at his side, but she was back at the assault vehicle’s dashboard at the other end of the car. She’d activated the onboard AI, and her fingers tapped the screen and moved across the controls with familiarity and confidence. She seemed unaware of the exchange between Avril and Gabe.
“That’s all of them?” Avril asked.
“All of them who are here, if that’s what you mean,” Gabe said, still not looking up from his AI. He moved to another bondsan and pointed the device at them.
Avril stepped off the ramp onto the road. His eyes moved between the bodies. The man with the missing eye and two severed fingers had a new wound on the right side of his head where the bullet had struck and ended his life. The exit wound wasn’t visible, but blood pooled on the road beneath him.
Avril had seen plenty of corpses, but life’s absence and the unanimated biological matter that remained still weirded him out.
“You should have left us alone,” Avril muttered, unable to regret this outcome, but wishing it had ended differently.
He studied the body for a moment longer, then thought, Definitely dead. He located the other bondsan who’d sported what looked like a fatal wound before he’d been shot this time. Avril thought, Whatever fluke saved you two was a one-off.
He looked at Thorn’s body, then turned his attention to Gabe and the corpse he crouched over. The last body was a female bondsan. The knuckles of her right hand were raw from the beating she’d given Avril, and he wondered, Should I be happy you’re dead? Because I’m not.
“Got it,” Gabe said to himself and stood.
Avril dragged his gaze from the dead bondsan and looked at their surroundings for the first time.
They were on a road in the desert beneath a shimmering blue road-shield. A second assault vehicle was parked a short distance away. The desert could have been anywhere in Damar or even many parts of Rasa, but he noticed a pileup on the side of the road a short distance away and beyond that, a familiar rock structure in the desert.
“Can’t be,” he said.
The assault vehicle he’d been held in hadn’t moved when he was conscious, but he assumed they’d moved him when he was unconscious. Avril guessed he’d find his belongings in the second car, and he moved toward it, but he stopped and looked at Gabe.
“Thank you,” Avril said with a brisk nod, grateful for the help, but unsure how he felt about the murders.
Gabe returned the gesture, but his hood and goggles were back in place, making it impossible to read him.
Avril jogged the short distance to the second assault vehicle. The side door was open, and Avril poked his head inside. Everything looked to be in place. An equipment rack lined one side of the interior. Four seats were unfolded from the wall, and playing cards arranged in hands had been left on the seats.
An AI that looked like his remote for the car was on a shelf. Avril retrieved it and spoke into the device. “To me.”
He watched through the windscreen as his car extracted itself from the pileup further along the road and drove toward him.
The dashboard in the bondsan’s vehicle was active, and Avril disrupted the AI’s systems to prevent anybody remote accessing it to pull data or take control of the vehicle.
With the AI jammed, he went back to the road. Laurill stood away from the bodies and Gabe, arms folded, eyes fixed on the newcomer.
She doesn’t trust him, Avril thought, but he suspected that might be Laurill’s starting position for every new person she met.
Gabe stood over a dead bondsan like she wasn’t there, tapping the screen of his AI.
Avril entered the vehicle where Zin remained unconscious. He jammed the car’s AI and called out, “Laurill, help me.”
He expected to struggle with Zin, but she was light, and he lifted her easily.
Laurill’s boots clanged on the ramp as she approached.
“He helped us, give him a chance,” Avril whispered.
“Maybe.” Laurill tilted her head to one side and looked at Zin. “Do you need help?”
“I guess not,” Avril said.
Laurill’s half-smile forgave the small deception, but she whispered, “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
Avril nodded and carried Zin down the ramp. Her breathing was shallow, and there was a small puncture where the tranquilizer dart had pierced the skin of her neck, but other than her lack of consciousness, Avril didn’t see anything that concerned him.
Which reality are you in now? Avril thought, surprised by his lack of skepticism.
His car backed up to them and lowered the loading door. Avril carried Zin inside and placed her on the couch.
“Is this home?” Laurill asked as she walked up the ramp.
“It is,” Avril said.
Gabe still tapped the screen of his AI.
Avril raised his voice, “Gabe, are you coming with us?”
“I’m sure as shit not staying here,” Gabe said.
Avril thought he heard humor in the other man’s tone, but it was impossible to know with his features covered.
Avril’s tentative smile vanished when Gabe bent over the body of the female bondsan, and he dragged it by the ankles toward Avril’s car.
“What are you doing?” Laurill demanded.
“Saving your asses,” Gabe replied and pulled the body up the ramp leaving a trail of blood in his wake. He dropped the ankles, and the bondsan’s boots thudded when they hit the floor.