His attachment suit kept Yarec’s body pressed firmly in position, but he was jolted and jarred as the truck stopped and restarted, drove over potholes and vibrating steel bridges.  They were supposed to cross seven bridges before reaching the destination, including the fortified span controlled by the factory guards.  Yarec tried to keep track of how many they had crossed.  However, the last few bridges were smooth and paved with soft asphalt, and he found he could not distinguish them by the feel of the ride alone.  He could have peeked out to get a view of his environs, but Yarec decided that would be an unnecessary risk.  He was best off just waiting.

Meanwhile, he knew, Mrissa should be speeding back to retrieve her motorcycle—a quicker and more agile vehicle than the car.  While Yarec sneaked into the factory, she was supposed to position herself on a nearby promontory.  From there, she could keep watch on the factory exterior, and if Yarec needed assistance, she might be able to provide some.  She had a cache of long-range weapons and a two-person speedboat hidden by the water’s edge, but there was relatively little she could do while her partner was inside.

Eventually, Yarec recognized that he had reached the final bridge.  The truck stopped, and Yarec heard voices.  The storm was growing, and the crash of the raindrops made it difficult to interpret the words.  However, the guards did not seem overly concerned about security arrangements.  The weather situation may have been a more serious consideration for them; they knew that the strongest storm of the year was blowing in.

A detector for radio frequency radiation whistled in his ear.  Something nearby was being scanned.  This was probably the moment when his risk of discovery was the greatest.  Yarec tensed, ready to spring away from the undercarriage the moment he was exposed.  However, seconds passed, and then the detector alarm cut off.  The truck started moving again, toward the bridge’s second checkpoint, and the knots in Yarec’s arms began to loosen.

The truck passed through the final security stop.  Then the huge metal doors opened wide, and the vehicle rolled inside.  The driver brought it around slowly, finally coming to a stop next to building two.  Yarec heard the driver’s door slam down behind him; then the only sound was the tinny rumble of the storm against the high arched roof.  No one was going to unload the cargo that day; they had other business, fortifying against the torrent.

He peeked out, but it was too early to move.  Yarec wanted to strike when the full brunt of the storm was almost upon them.  I’ll slip out, cause some mayhem, and then disappear under the curtains of rain, Yarec thought.  But now I need to wait.  And I hate waiting.

People passed nearby, attending to duties around the entrance.  Another box truck arrived and parked itself next to Yarec’s.  It provided a bit more cover, so Yarec loosened his enclosure enough to temporarily detach an arm and cram a protein bar into his mouth.  His trunk was not ideally positioned for digestion, but it felt good to have something substantial in his belly.

Yarec let most of the afternoon roll past, reading a novella off his eyelid.  He knew his time had arrived when the thunderclaps outside were coming seemingly without pause.  Before one peal was done rumbling the outer walls, the next one sounded and set everything rattling afresh.  Workers were still scurrying around, elevating objects off the floor, in case a surge of seawater flooded through the place.

Yarec gave his left leg a gentle twist, rotating the sticky surface away from the metal.  His foil tent retracted, and Yarec swung his foot down onto the concrete floor.  His foot tingled a little as he put weight on it, so he stamped quietly and flexed his toes.  Securely braced, Yarec twisted his other leg free, then his torso and arms.  Unfastening a few snaps, he slipped out of the attachment suit, and after making sure there was no one in the immediate vicinity, he emerged from underneath the truck wearing the scavenged blue uniform.

The general bustle concealed his presence, as he walked purposefully toward building seven—the closest structure where he knew high-level bacteriological weapons work was going on.  The crates beside the building had been straightened up since he last saw them.  They had been raised off the floor and restacked in even rows.  Yarec stopped to double check the positioning, watching out of the corner of his eye for the building doors to crack open.

After a couple minutes’ wait, he noticed the doors moving.  With swift strides, Yarec reached the threshold in time to shoulder past the woman just coming out.  “Oops.  Sorry,” he said with a half-sideways glance.  His tone conveyed no real feeling of apology; it was just a formal gesture from someone on an important errand.  She might have said something indignant in reply, but the words were lost in the din of another fortuitously timed thunderclap.  Yarec hurried down the main hall, not risking a look back until he was around a corner and out of sight of the entrance.

He knew nothing about the internal layout of the building, and he surveyed his surroundings carefully as he walked.  The walls, floor, and ceiling were a hard white.  There were biochemical safety noticed posted along the walls, but they were mostly of a general nature.  The really deadly stuff was further in.

Yarec avoided the elevators.  He did not want to pack into a small box with people who might notice he did not belong.  The black bands on his sleeves were numerous enough that he could plausibly be permitted here inside building seven; however, Yarec knew nothing about the security protocols within the building.  It was also easier to ascend to a restricted area using a staircase than an elevator.  The elevator had electromechanical controls, which could seal out anyone without the right digital access code.

The staircase, in contrast, could have a heavy door—something that could be defeated simply by force.  Yarec located a stairwell that was unlocked on the first floor.  It was empty, but each landing was being monitored by a ceiling camera.  They were going to get plenty of images of his face, but Yarec hoped to be out of the whole factory before a concerted manhunt got underway.  He stomped swiftly up the steps, trying to look busy but not unduly perturbed.  The walls and ceilings were as white as in the hallways, although the steps were covered with easy-to-see blue-green traction coatings.  Yarec ascended to the third floor.  The stairs continued up one more story to the roof, but Yarec ignored that way for now.  He was busy instead with the third floor access door—a heavy black mass of steel, with multiple deadbolts and its own security camera.

Yarec located one of the gray lozenges of material that Mrissa had packaged into his underwear.  He broke it in half very gingerly, then wedged the pieces into the cracks around the door.  The material’s explosive matrix was full of microscopic capsules.  When opened, they would trigger a powerful explosion.  By deforming the block, Yarec had initiated a slow chemical reaction in the walls of the capsules.  It would give him enough time to take cover before the detonator compound was released.

With the charges in place, Yarec retreated to a landing between the first and second floors.  He only knew roughly how long it would be before the blast, but he started counting off the expected number of heartbeats.  The explosion came just a little early.  It shook the whole structure, as if a lightning bolt had smashed down right on top of them.  Rubble and shrapnel tumbled through the air, and the lights at the top of the stairs were obliterated.  The rumble of the falling debris was immediately drowned out by the crazy shriek of a high-pitched alarm.  It sounded incredibly loud, even in the midst of the thunderstorm.  The sound came in quick pulses, like the screams of millions of furious rodents.

Yarec gritted his teeth and ran back up the stairs.  There were only a few hunks of concrete to get around, then at the top, the massive door still hanging awkwardly from its upper hinge.  Although the stairwell was dark, the LED lighting was still functional on the other side.  With a warped metal plate, Yarec pried the bent door open enough to squirm past it.

The wide hallway beyond was in confusion.  There were people dressed in white coveralls.  Some were nursing minor injuries, and nearly all were yelling.  They were trying to be heard over the keening of the alarm, trying to find out what was going on.  There were many doors along the hall, and more men and women were rushing out of them, desperate to know whether they were in danger.

“Get out!”  Yarec shouted, and some of the people heard him.  Many were already heading toward the exits.  “Evacuate!  Evacuate!” he called.  He jogged down the hallway, avoiding the pieces of idle equipment that were being stored there.  Through the windows on many of the doors, he saw chemical tanks, incubators, and cryogenics.  In one room, they were apparently growing pathogens on human arms and feet, sealed up inside thick glass boxes.  In another, Yarec thought he recognized the equipment for dragging individual bacteria around their tanks using lasers.  He even saw what might have been whole human cadavers, although whatever germs they had been exposed must have totally demolished their skin and hair.  They were just humanoid gray masses lying in cylindrical bottles, surrounded by ultraviolet monitoring equipment.

He banged on the walls, and squished more pats of explosive in place.  Then he got out into an undamaged stairwell.  While most of the people were going down, Yared headed straight to the roof.  The door at the head of the stairs was unlocked from this side; he pushed it open and ran outside.  Three floors off the ground, he was much closer now to the outer roof, and he could see the corrugated metal vibrating under the storm’s onslaught.

He dashed to the edge, following one of the massive pipes that grew up out of the rooftop.  Grabbing the tube, he then lowered himself over the brink and rode the piping down to the floor.  The alarm was blaring out here too, although not as loudly as inside the building.  People were fleeing toward the main factory entrance, and Yarec moved to join them.  However, he had only gone a few steps when the first of his explosions went off.  The sounds of the blasts, coming one close after another, echoed off the factory walls.  He hazarded a look back and saw plumes of dust and debris rising from the roof of building seven.  His charges must have pierced some of the pressurized containers he had seen, and they were now spewing their contents out into the air.  Everyone nearby was getting splattered with condensation (and who-knows-what else, Yarec thought grimly).

He turned back toward the exit and sprinted.  Someone had got the door open, and the workers swarmed out into the gray-lit afternoon.  Yarec was among them.  The rain was coming down so hard that it was difficult to make out details only five or ten meters away, but he thought he could see heavily armed guards blocking the bridge.  They were trying to enforce some order and prevent any possible saboteurs from leaving the island.

However, Yarec had planned a different way off the eyot.  As he emerged from the factory, he transmitted a signal to Mrissa.  A moment later, he saw a bright streak moving near the horizon.  The rocket’s fiery trail carried it forward toward the island.  Then it crashed against the line of composite mesh fencing that ringed the place.  It blasted a five-meter hole in the barrier, and Yarec ran for the gap.  He was not alone; other people were also trying to get out that way.  Behind them, there were flames inside the factory, but the hard rain had kept the rocket from igniting any fires outdoors.  Yarec dashed through the hole in the fence, then across the cracked asphalt to the murky water’s edge.  He splashed straight in, put his head under, and began to swim, with the muffled cracks of the thunder still resonating in his ears.

They ate silently, as Yarec took a final inventory of his gear.  Then she helped him dress.  He had to fit on three complete outfits, and when the appropriate times came, he needed to be able to shed the outer layers quickly.  His undergarments were lined with specialized equipment, packed in vacuum sealed metamaterial pouches to make them harder to detect.  Mrissa helped Yarec wriggle the underclothes on, making sure they were properly seated at his shoulders and around his waist.  Then they added three more layers:  an enemy uniform, an attachment suit, and finally a set of street clothes.

The uniform was authentic, stolen from the factory by the agent who had already infiltrated the janitorial staff.  It must have been salvaged from a trash bin, Yarec thought.  The color was fading around the cuffs of the pants, and the synthetic fibers had begun to fray at the collar and elbows.  However, the most obvious wear had been repaired, hastily, and looked like it would be an adequate disguise if Yarec did not otherwise arouse suspicion.

Mrissa only had one suit of clothing to don, and she did it quickly, while Yarec started loading up the two-seat car they would be using.  They had plenty of time to reach their first rendezvous, which would be with another cargo truck headed for the factory.  With their gear stowed in the trunk compartment, the pair squeezed into the small, fuel-efficient car.  Mrissa drove, while Yarec sat in the passenger seat, with a tiny handgun resting awkwardly in his lap.  He didn’t expect to need the weapon, but it would be useful if they had any undesirable encounters while in transit.

The sky was a drab gray, and rain was already falling.  The drops came lightly; the angry torrent that Sankirk’s central weather computer had predicted was yet to arrive.  However, a heavy wall of cloud had already blocked out the brightest rays from the sun, and things would only be growing darker as the day progressed.

Raindrops scraped against the car windows as they drove.  Several major streets were still closed because of the festival, and they arrived at the intersection they wanted by a roundabout route.  A parking spot, only ten meters from the street corner, had been saved for them all night by another car.  As Mrissa brought her two-seater up, the other car slid out ahead of her and disappeared into the traffic.  She intentionally parked slightly awkwardly, and then she and Yarec just had to wait.  The cargo trucks were not especially punctual, but another one was due along this way in about an hour.

They saw it coming at roughly the expected time.  The box truck lumbered down the roadway, puffing dark smoke.  Mrissa was waiting at the intersection, while Yarec remained in the car.  She stepped in front of the truck, waving her hands frantically.  Her bright yellow shirt and gaudy pink leggings ought to grab the truck driver’s attention, and they also marked her as an out-of-towner.  The truck slowed to a crawl, but it continued to advance, until there was barely a meter’s space between the vehicle and Mrissa.  Yet she refused to budge, and finally, with a slight squeal, the truck jolted to stop.

Mrissa immediately ran up to the cab door.  “Thanks so much for stopping!”  The driver looked down suspiciously.  Had he reacted quickly enough, the man could have just driven away, now that his obstruction had removed itself.  However, Mrissa managed to keep his attention focused on her long enough for Yarec to emerge from the car and cross in front of the truck.  By the time the driver was fumbling with the throttle, realizing he should get moving again, Yarec was leaning against the front of his vehicle, looking on over Mrissa’s shoulder as she pitched a proposal.

“We’re out of fuel,” she was explaining, in an affectedly plaintive tone.  “The tank is completely empty, and there doesn’t seem to be another fuel depot anywhere around here.”  That was true.  Motor vehicle fuel, whether it was mined directly–squeezed from the soft rocks–or reprocessed from biological waste materials, was a pricey commodity.  There were no tank facilities selling it in this part of Sankirk; the nearest commercial fuel depot was at least four miles away.  This was not a the kind of neighborhood where a long walk was a safe undertaking, and only careless fools would let their tank run dry in a spot like this.  Of course, like fools was exactly how Yarec and Mrissa wanted to seem.

Yarec’s outer layer of clothing was almost as bright as Mrissa’s.  He wore a long-sleeved knit shirt, with cream and yellow horizontal stripes.  The shirt was cinched at the waist with a white plastic belt, and below hung loose burgundy pantaloons.  However, the most important elements of this costume were the yellow wig with long, curly hair and the wide-brimmed white hat that partially obscured Yarec’s face.

Mrissa was hatless, and the raindrops trickling down her face like huge tears gave lent special pathos to her appeal.  “We were hoping you might be able to help us out,” she told the truck driver.  “With a big machine like that, you must have some fuel to spare.  Trading a little of it to a couple people in a difficult situation couldn’t cause any harm, could it?”

For the first time, the driver looked like he might be interested.  He opened the side window on his cab just a crack and said, “You mean you’ve got something to trade if I give you a little gas?”

“Oh, we have some local currency, or metals if you want to barter,” Mrissa assured him.  Sometimes it was easier to offer a bribe in platinum or palladium, which could be harder to trace than digital cash transfers.  However, the driver dismissed the suggestion of dealing in metal with a curt gesture.  Mrissa continued, “We only need enough to get us to a proper fuel depot.  Would thirteen hundred be enough money?”  Yarec and Mrissa had chosen the amount they would offer strategically.  The opening bid had to be sufficient to show they were serious, but too large a bribe would look suspicious.  They also needed to leave the mark with room to ask for more, to make him feel that he was getting the better of them in the deal.

“Fifteen hundred,” the driver whispered down to them.

“Fourteen?” suggested Mrissa, and the driver, after a few second of consideration, nodded.

When he spoke again, the driver kept his voice very low.  “It’s not I don’t trust you, but I’m just being careful,” he said.  “I’m armed, and I’m coming down with my weapon out.  Just so we’re clear.”  Mrissa nodded, and Yarec shrugged noncommittally.  Then, for a while, nothing moved, except for the other vehicles that were still passing them along the street.  Up in the cab, the driver was hesitating, although they had no way to tell if he was merely scared or was having an attack of conscience.  He sat in silence, with the window still open just a slit, for an uncomfortably long while.

Then he started moving again.  He told his onboard computer to release the electronic lock on the fuel tank.  Then the cab door swung up, and he lowered himself to the ground awkwardly, thrusting a gray automatic pistol in front of him.  He motioned with the weapon, and Mrissa and Yarec preceded him around the front of the cab.  Using a mechanical key, the driver opened the second lock on the tank, while Yarec detoured to the car to retrieve a siphoning hose.

He handed the hose over to Mrissa, who was digging through her pockets for the bribe money, which the driver evidently wanted in physical chits.  Yarec stuck his head under the box truck’s rear chassis, looking over the size and position of the fuel tank.  He already had those schematics completely memorized, but right now he wanted to be seen peering under the vehicle.  If there were any secret video surveillance cameras mounted on the truck, they would catch him looking at the undercarriage, then returning to the car.  That might provide just a little extra misdirection for anyone later reviewing the sequence of events.

Ostensibly tired of standing out in the rain, Yarec walked back over to the car and shut himself in.  Yarec made sure the driver saw him.  He also cast a few uncomfortable backward glances at the driver’s hard gray automatic, making sure the man noticed those as well.  Once inside the car, Yarec adjusted the electronic window tinting to make it as dark as possible.  Then, while Mrissa transferred a few liters of fuel to a flexible plastic bottle, Yarec made a speedy switch.  While the driver’s attention was focused on the hose, Yarec whipped off his outer layer of garments.  The shirt and trousers he dropped at his feet, while the hat and wig ended up atop the similarly dressed dummy that Yarec propped up in the passenger seat.  Yarec emerged again from the vehicle, probably unrecognizable, and sauntered across to the other side of the street.

He lingered across the street for a little while, until Mrissa could direct the driver’s attention in a different direction.  While the man was looking up at the ugly black clouds in the southern sky, Yarec skipped through the modest traffic, right up to the opposite side of the truck.  Then he slid underneath and pressed himself against the undercarriage.  The dorsal surfaces of Yarec’s second suit of clothes were equipped with special patches of adhesive.  His shoulders, arms, thighs, and heels clung to the exposed metal, and in a fraction of a second Yarec was up off the ground, hanging from the vehicle’s belly.  It was not the most comfortable position, but he could remain there without any problem until it was the right time to peel free.  To hide his presence, Yarec unrolled a sheet of material, covering him from beneath.  It curled up around him like a balloon of metal foil, and the programmed microstructure formed reinforcing ribs to hold it in a hemicylinder-like shape.  The outer color was matched to the material of the undercarriage, so on a casual inspection, Yarec’s cocoon would fit right in among the other protuberances depending from the bottom of the truck body.

With her transaction completed, Mrissa returned to her car.  The truck driver resealed the snap lock on his fuel tank and clambered back into the cab.  Setting aside his weapon, he reactivated the dual electric-hydrocarbon engine and rolled off.  Yarec’s last view before he allowed the inverted metal tent to seal around him completely was of Mrissa’s legs beside the car, as she was fueling it up.

Having confirmed what they had been told about the interior layout of the factory and learned a little more about what was being made inside, the duo slipped back to the safe house where their operations were now based.  Yarec had acquired a light but fast motorcycle, and he gritted his teeth as the sooty breeze brushed past his ears.  Mrissa had her own cycle, but for this outing she had left it behind, and she was riding on the second seat behind Yarec.  Her tresses were tucked loosely under a hard domed helmet, and just her left hand was resting on his shoulder.  The touch felt so soft–not dainty, but nonchalant–as if she were completely immune to the nerves that had turned Yarec’s shoulders into hunched, corded masses, braced against the wind.

When they got back, with no sign of having been followed, Yared opened up the door of a narrow side shed and tucked the motorcycle inside.  It was a spare little device, with long dark seats, narrow rubberine tires, and twists of black metal.  He wedged it in beside Mrissa’s bulkier cycle and relocked the door.  Ris was already on her way into the house.  She moved warily, as always, alert to the possibilities of betrayal and ambush.  She eased the back door open and peered inside.  The digital display on the inward side of the door frame informed her that nobody had been in or out of the safe house while she had been away.  So Mrissa shot Yarec a leering grin and proceeded inside.

A bit of poking around confirmed the door computer’s story–or at least the claim that no one else was currently present.  Yarec had sent away the trio of helpers that his employers had provided.  They had gotten him the equipment he ordered, and after that they were superfluous.  They could have stayed on as guards, but if any enemies knew enough to stage an attack on the safe house, Yarec knew he was was probably doomed no matter what.  He went to relieve himself, then found Mrissa in the house’s cheap kitchen, setting out hard biscuits and synthetic coffee to soak them in.

He sat down across from her at the small square table, patterned with yellow sunbursts centered at the four corners.  He dunked his bread in a two-handled coffee mug and held it there, waiting for the starch fibers to soften.  Mrissa was already eating, and he watched a couple drops of glittering black coffee running from the corner of her mouth down to her chin.

Outside, the festival was still going on.  The house was well away from the center of activity, but they could hear a strolling balladeer somewhere not far off.  He was singing an old local folk song, and Yarec could make out some of the words.

The wild coast is lonely, the man sang.

Yarec looked down at his biscuit, which was now coming apart completely in the hot liquid.  He scooped up what was still dangling from his fingers and shoved it unceremoniously into his mouth.

“What’s the problem?” Mrissa asked.  Yarec shook his head, trying to swallow without scalding his throat.  “You seem pretty worried about going ahead with the mission,” she pressed.  “If there is a problem, I deserve to know about it.”  Her tone mixed the sounds of concern and self interest.

A large subtropical disturbance was blowing up from the Cortesian Sea.  In another day, it would be whipping the coastline, pushing floodwater up Sankirk’s man-made channels and splattering gouts of gray rain on the city roofs.  Yarec and Mrissa agreed that they should take advantage of the disorder the storm would engender.  So the infiltration and sabotage would be going forward the very next day.  That was sooner that Yarec had initially envisioned, and the accelerated schedule had been extremely demanding.

Once he had choked down enough of the biscuit to answer Mrissa’s question, Yarec said, “There’s no problem.  I just get really tight right before a mission.”  The fingers of his left hand were curled into a tight, claw-like shape, pressed against the tabletop.

Mrissa bit her lower lip, which was her particular way of looking thoughtful.  Outside, they could hear the song:  … lost his daughter to me….

“You look terrified,” Mrissa whispered.  “It’s not what I’d’ve expected.”

“I don’t do well anticipating stressful situations,” Yarec said glumly.  Mrissa’s eyes were wide, although Yarec could not say whether it was with pity or fear.  However, he did not really want either emotion.  “Look,” he said, “when I get into a tough situation, I can do fine.  It’s pretty slick.  The training and experience take over, and I don’t have time to second guess myself.  Before the action starts though, I get really on edge.”

Mrissa got up and walked around the table.  She brushed her pale hand, dotted with a few orange freckles, against his cheek.  Her skin felt cool and calming.

tighten around me

He turned and looked up at her.  She was almost crying, and her expression seemed to be of sad  adoration.  Not for the first time, he was struck by the attractiveness of her figure.  However, she had never before shown any kind of similar emotional interest when she looked across at him.  Now, gazing down, her eyes were glistening with moisture, and Yarec though of how those sad yet playful eyes might heal all his worries.

pretty red mouth

That night, they had time for some activities that were strictly personal, between the two of them, but in the morning they needed to concentrate solely on their work.  Yarec woke up before Mrissa.  He moved quietly to second bedroom across the upstairs hall and began to clean himself up, but it was not very long before his partner joined him.  She was wearing a long brown nightgown that she had probably found in one of the closets, and she had retrieved half a dozen high-protein meal bars from the kitchen.  Mrissa offered one to Yarec.  He took it and split open the flimsy packaging, then bit off a large chunk of the crunchy, sweet material.