Tracks drew straight lines in the sand to the shrunken, charred body where it had been left against the interior of the skull. Footprints followed a path alongside the tracks back to the eye socket where they stopped.
Wind from a dragon’s wings would blow the sand around and erase the tracks outside, Avril thought.
The body was smaller than the man Avril remembered, but he imagined being burned from head to toe by dragon-fire would do that. This close to the body, the smell was overpowering, and Avril held his breath and pinched his nose. A formation like melted wax was gathered around the body’s neck and chest, and Avril thought of the beaded necklaces the man had worn.
So it is you, Avril thought and almost turned to leave, but the red light that had attracted his attention flashed again.
The AI casting the light was a small rectangular piece of glass that had been left standing in the sand next to the body. It flashed again, and the image on the display changed. A young woman’s face occupied the top half of the display, and there was text on the bottom half. The words locate and retrieve flashed in red across the screen.
Avril recognized the woman, but when he tried to recall her name he couldn’t, and that made him think of Zin. He examined her face, certain he’d seen her before. She looked about his age and had platinum hair and blue eyes.
Do I know you? Avril thought, but if he did, he couldn’t remember how.
He picked up the AI and turned to leave. At the eye socket, he stopped to look at the shriveled black corpse one last time.
Who sent you?
Something occurred to him, and he decided it was time to leave.
Maybe the bondsan were looking for me. Maybe I didn’t get caught in a random sweep of the wastelands, and they were looking for me, and the dragon knew. But why would they want me? And why would a dragon protect me? It doesn’t make any sense.
He left the grith skull and glanced across the desert.
Zin stood at the edge of the silica crusted sand, her breath came in short gasps, and she held her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were wide, and she trembled. Avril had time to wonder how she got out of the car before she turned to look at him. Her eyes grew even wider, and she tried backing away but fell in the sand.
“It’s okay. You’re safe. Let’s get back in the car,” Avril said, approaching to help her up, but she scrambled away from him, gasping as if trying to speak past her fear.
“Zin, it’s okay,” Avril said.
She stopped and squinted at him. “Who are you?”
“What? I’m Avril. Come on. We should leave.”
Zin tilted her head and asked, “How do you know my name?”
“You told me last night.” Avril pushed the AI he’d found in the grith skull into a pocket and held out a hand to help Zin up.
She glanced at the hand and stood on her own. “Avril?” she said with a note of familiarity. “Why did you do this?” She gestured toward the silhouette on the side of the grith skull.
“I didn’t. We need to go.”
Zin scrutinized him for a moment without moving. Her eyes moved to the grith skull, but they came back to Avril’s face, and she asked, “Is this real? Am I real?”
Avril nodded. “You’re real.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“I only talk to real people,” Avril said, but he remembered Beads asking how he knew his memories were real, and he wondered, Am I the crazy one for believing what I can see and touch and remember?
Zin’s eyes narrowed, and Avril thought she was giving the comment far more scrutiny than it deserved.
“How do you know they’re real?” Zin asked.
“You’re real. This is real,” Avril said. “We have to take some things on faith, if we question everything, we’ll go mad.”
He gestured toward the car with an open hand, and Zin scrutinized him for a moment longer, then nodded and let him lead her to the car.
Confident she was following him, Avril told the car, “Let us in.”
After he issued the command he realized he didn’t need to; Zin must have unlocked the care to get out, but he heard the locking bolts clunk as they moved.
He turned to ask Zin how she got out of the car, but she said, “I had bad dreams. I was in a place full of machines. The machines were connected to me and reaching inside me. There were other people there, but not you, and I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.” With a frown, she said, “There are too many realities to know which one is which. You’re certain this is real?”
“Certain.” Avril nodded.
“It doesn’t feel like a good reality,” Zin said.
Unsure how to respond, Avril shrugged and finally agreed, “No, it doesn’t.”
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m spinning, and I have to take a breath to slow down, or I’ll spin faster and faster, and parts of me will break off one particle at a time until all that’s left is spinning dust.”
“Breathe. This is real,” Avril insisted.
Zin returned his confident gaze and approached the car. When she drew level with him, she stopped and said, “You’re Avril Ethanson.”
“Yes, let’s go.”
Zin’s frown disappeared, and she climbed up into the car and went straight to the spot where she’d slept most of the previous night and the day just gone. She crossed her legs beneath her and watched Avril.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I stopped to help somebody. He knocked me out.” Avril omitted the strange conversation with Beads about memories and experiments, worried how Zin would take those ideas. He continued, “and when I woke up…” Avril gestured toward the grith skull.
They sat in silence for long minutes. Avril’s hands trembled, and he told the car, “Drive.”