Avril followed Gabe to the top of the ramp and felt the desert heat against his skin as it displaced the cool air inside the car. He didn’t think Gabe would attack or try to take the assault vehicle, but Avril reached into a pocket and held onto the car’s remote just in case, and he was reassured when Laurill joined him with a blaster holstered at her right hip.
He hadn’t expected to need the blaster to protect them from Gabe, but he was glad he’d told her where to find the weapon.
“Back to the shadows, huh?” Laurill asked Gabe.
Considering Laurill’s talent, Avril thought that was a strange thing to say, but a flash of insight suggested it made perfect sense. Laurill’s talent gave her the choice to live literally in the shadows, but she used the shadows and her talent as a tool without letting them define her.
“That’s right, sweetheart, but surviving in the shadows is better than dying in the light,” Gabe said.
Laurill went to the bondsan. Avril joined her, and together they half carried half dragged the woman down the ramp after Gabe.
“You’re really leaving me here? If you leave her too, the rest of the cadre will know exactly where I am,” Gabe said.
“They already do,” Avril told him.
“You must have had transport to catch up with us earlier. You’ll figure something out,” Laurill said.
Avril crouched in front of the bondsan. “We don’t have to keep doing this. I have done nothing to you that wasn’t necessary to get away from you. Let our friend go, and we can go our separate ways. We’ll even cut your bonds and give you a ride.”
The bondsan looked sideways at Gabe, grimaced, and shook her head.
“Is your bond to Lord Mikkel that strong?” Avril asked. It was futile, but he continued, “Thorn, after what Mikkel did to your cadre, why serve him?”
The bondsan scowled, and Avril saw nothing he said would change her mind or Thorn’s.
“Life’s not the fairytale you think it is,” Gabe said, his features covered once again.
Avril studied the bondsan. She had to know what Gabe would do next. That she chose that over breaking faith with Lord Mikkel didn’t make any sense.
Avril and Laurill retreated to the car, and Avril watched Gabe as they pulled away, wondering what was different about him. Why didn’t he feel connected to them or a desire to help?
“Don’t worry about him. Gabe is an asshole,” Laurill said as if answering Avril’s unspoken question.
A gunshot rang out, and Gabe walked into the desert away from the bondsan he’d just executed.
Avril moved to the couch where Zin still slept.
“We don’t need him,” Laurill said from the cab. “Did you have any luck with the implant?”
“I didn’t get much of a look.” There’d been nothing special about the network he’d sensed. “I think I can shut them down.”
The painkiller he’d taken had done its job, and pain wouldn’t hinder him the next time he needed his jamming abilities.
Avril kneeled by the couch and touched Zin’s forehead with the back of his hand, her skin was warm, and the blood rushed beneath his skin. He realized it was impossible for him to take her temperature.
Avril pitched his voice for the car’s AI and said, “What’s Zin’s condition?”
“She is stable,” the AI said.
“Is it safe to wake her?”
Avril retrieved a nutri-vial with a stimulant from his stash in the galley. Zin wore a loose dress, and he lifted the hem over her right thigh to access her nutri-port. The implant was empty, so he clicked the vial into place.
Zin stirred, rolling onto her side away from Avril. He waited for a few minutes, hoping she’d wake up soon. When she didn’t, he went to the cab and took the seat next to Laurill.
“Where are they holding Maxian?”
Laurill flashed the bondsan’s AI at him so he could see the map on the screen. “A small bar on Taral’s main street.”
Avril grunted with surprise.
“You’ve been there?” Laurill asked.
“I hid there when they questioned two vultures. They took one into custody for being in his early twenties and killed another for insulting Lord Mikkel.”
Laurill nodded and nibbled on her lower lip. She studied the AI, and her eyes lit up. “They just ordered a supply drop.”
“What have they asked for?”
Laurill scanned the screen. “Mostly just gear to help them catch us.”
“Shit,” Avril said. “What is it you do? You seem comfortable with all this. Hiding laser-scalpels, hacking systems, and planning rescue missions.”
“I figure things out. The world looks empty, but there are still plenty of secrets. People pay me to find them.”
“Shadow-walking must help.”
“I was born for it.”
“It sounds dangerous,” Avril said.
“So does salvaging tech.” Before Avril could answer, Laurill continued, “The supply drop might help. The drop-off point is outside the city. If even just two of them go to collect it, that’s two less guarding Max.”
“Does that thing say how many of them are in Taral?”
“No, but there are four behind us, maybe more. So at most, there are seven of them in Taral.”
“Pfft, easy,” Avril said with forced confidence. Despite the odds, he knew neither of them would back out, and with that option unavailable, he focused on how they’d free Maxian. “Even if we time it right, there still might be five of them guarding him.”
“Or less,” Laurill said. “All I need is a chance to set Maxian free. They must have him restrained. As long as he’s conscious, I just need to get close enough to release him, and he’ll do the rest. You’ve seen what he’s capable of.”
“So has the cadre,” Avril said.
“If I can’t get to him, we’ll try something else,” Laurill said.
“We could try lowering the odds,” Avril said.
“I know a salvaging trick we can use.”