He tried to put thoughts of vengeance out of his mind when he paid the visit to his mother.  She always made an effort to be his friend and tried not to pass judgement on his decisions.  Rahelle realized that every interaction between them had a context that she had forgotten, and it was too easy to wound him unintentionally.

Yarec went to talk to his mother shortly before noon.  He walked down to the weather station—not along the beach this time, but following the paved base road.  There was a large placard over the building’s double door, stating the building’s function and its code number, “ME023.”  The doors were unguarded, which meant they were kept locked, so Yarec pressed the call bell located in the center of the right-hand door.  He thought he could hear a mechanical buzzing coming from inside the building, but it might have been his imagination or a truck engine off in the distance.  Nearly a minute passed, and nothing had happened, so Yarec touched the bell panel again.  His sweaty skin scraped against the worn metal square, and moments later, he heard a pair of heavy clicks.  The door swung inward, and Yarec saw his mother’s worn face peering anxiously around it.

“Oh, Yarec!” she cried enthusiastically.  Rahelle opened the door the rest of the way and stepped out to greet him.  She raised her arms to give him a hug, then stopped, unsure whether to proceed.  However, it seemed like a complete natural gesture to Yarec; one of the facets of his mother’s personality that seemed to have partially survived was her body language, including her eager affection.  Rahelle embraced easily when she was among close friends.  Yarec was not sure how close he and his mother really were now, but she seemed to have no doubt that they were still family.

“Hi, mom,” he said, stepping forward to return the proffered hug.  The embrace was quick; she felt small and frail in his freshly muscled arms.

“C’mon back, son,” Rahelle said.  She motioned Yarec inside and led the way back to the weather officers’ tiny canteen.  They talked a little on the way.

“Oh, how are you?” she asked.  “You look very handsome this time.  I love the way they did-ah your hair.”

“Thanks, mom.”

“I haven’t gotten used to you looking different every time I see you,” she told him.  “I asked the medical officers to send me a picture of you each time you change.”

“R-really?” Yarec stammered.  It seemed like a rather odd thing to do, although he could not quite say why.

“Oh yes.  I’ve made an album,” she beamed.  “Do you want to see?”

At this point, they had reached the dining area, without seeing anyone else.  The only sound other than the pair’s voices and footsteps was the soft hum of the air conditioning system, which the meteorologists were very particular about keeping at the right temperature.

Yarec paused at the door and asked, “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, they’re gone,” she told him.  “The whole corps was deployed to the Central Pacific.  Downstream development models indicated the possibility of another super-storm.  So Garth decided to send everyone out to monitor the weather conditions”

“Ah,” Yarec murmurred.

“The data should tell us a lot about large storm system mergers,” Rahelle went on.  “It’ll help us prepare for the flooding when another one occurs near the mainland.”

“Slick,” Yarec said with a nod.

“Oh, sorry son,” she said.  “I shouldn’t bore you.  Sit down.  I  made-ah some tea.”

She ushered him into the lunchroom, and they sat down in red wireframe chairs beside a small round table.  The plastic mesh that formed the chairs’ seats and their angled backs was supposed to be flexible, but age and salty air had rendered the webwork stiff and crunchy.  There was a medium-sized ceramic pitcher on the table, in which Rahelle had dissolved some dehydrated beverage crystals in almost-boiling water.  The crystals had come from a half-empty plastic sack, which was resting beside the pitcher, with the top folded over to keep the powdered flavoring from spilling out.  Yarec picked the sack up and read the label, while his mother located a pair of pitted mugs and poured out drinks for both of them.  The tea was supposed to be “an energetic blend of jasmine and Copper’s Black,” plus “other flavors” written in very small type.  Yarec took a sip and decided it wasn’t bad, but he only managed to finish about half his serving.

“So, really, how are you?” Rahelle asked, after she had taken a couple of sips herself.

“I’m in a weird situation, mom,” he said, setting his mug down.

“Do-ah you… uh… want to tell me about it?”

Yarec picked the tea up again, then laid it down again without taking another drink.  “Yeah, I do,” he said.  “That’s why I came.”  Rahelle’s face brightened a little, as he tried to fill her in on what had happened.  “I’ve gotten myself into a really slick pickle,” he began.

Yarec’s story went on for a long time.  Rahelle just poured herself more tea and listened.  She didn’t ask any questions, but Yarec knew that she understood.  Her face was full of concern, like a mother’s face should be, and when Yarec’s story ended—rather abruptly, it felt—she did not say anything for quite a while.  Yarec stared down at the remainder of his lukewarm tea, and his mother watched him, deep in consideration, until eventually she spoke.

“Listen, son,” Rahelle said softly.  “You have an opportunity I never got.  I can barely remember your father.  I’ve got-ah pictures of him all around, and I still dream about him sometimes.”  She sighed, then continued, “But I don’t remember what he was really like.”

“I’m sorry, mom,” Yarec said and patted her hand.  “I miss him too.”

“I wish I could miss him,” she said.  Two little tears ran down from her right eye.  “I kept all his things for a while.  I hoped they would remind me of him, somehow—like one of his antique cocktail rings would catch my eye, and it would bring back a memory of him wearing it.”

“I know, mom,” Yarec said.  He reached to brush away the twin teardrops.  “I wish you could remember him too.  He was a good father.  I wish I’d had more time with him, at least to say ‘bye.’”

Rahelle shook her head side to side, as if to throw off the remaining moisture of her tears.  It was a movement Yarec recognized—his mother’s old way of getting herself to stop crying.  He smiled a little, grateful for the memory.

“Oh, Yarec,” she said, no longer crying.  “You have a chance that I didn’t get.  I had a whole life with Hyman, but I forgot it all.  You forgot all about your wife, Mrissa—but then you got it all back!  Oh, I would kill to get my husband back, son.”  After a moment of hesitation she added.  “I don’t meant kill you, of course.  It’s just a figure of speech.”

“I know, mom,” Yarec said with a laugh, although behind the smile, he wondered who he might end up having to kill if he was going to get Mrissa back.

“I’m jealous, son,” Rahelle said.  “That sounds so petty, but it’s true.”

“No, mom, I get it.  You’ve had it a lot worse than me.”

She made an artificially composed face and said, in a jokingly prissy voice, “That is no excuse for being jealous of my own offspring.”  She broke character and giggled, then said, “I really want you to be happy, and so I hope you find your wife.  And from what I’ve heard about you, son, that shouldn’t be too hard.  They say you can do pretty much anything.”

“Thanks, mom,” he whispered.  Yarec didn’t say anything else.  He just laid his hand on his mother’s shoulder.  She patted his forearm with her left hand and sipped the rest of her tea with the right.

In the search for Mrissa, the mining site in the radiation zone was probably a dead end.  However, the most immediate clue to Mrissa’s whereabouts was her recent presence at Maldanko’s fortress.  So far, little was known about her circumstances there.  The underground base had been hastily evacuated after the colonel’s death.  A few hours after Yarec’s departure, it had come under rocket fire.  Missiles, launched from a ship just out of sight offshore, crashed down the beach, striking the walls of the blockhouse and the rocky ground around it.  Then, when the bombardment paused at nightfall, most of the garrison had fled.  Mrissa must have been among them, but where she had gone next was unknown.

The structure had immediately been occupied by marines.  They shot their way in, capturing or eliminating the small contingent of enemies who had not abandoned their posts.  The fortification would be of limited strategic value by itself, but the operation had dislodged a hostile foothold on the North Pacific coast.  There would also be a wealth of new intelligence.  The first round of interrogations had revealed that Mrissa had been Colonel Maldanko’s third in command, although she had been a fairly recent arrival at the fort.  She was there to help the colonel prepare for an upcoming operation, but none of the prisoners knew much more than that.  Information about the operation was kept tightly controlled, and it remained to be seen how much more detail the cryptologists would be able to ferret out from the captured electronics.  Properly encrypted files were virtually impossible to decode, except through the brute force of prime factorization algorithms, and only the absolutely most valuable documents could be afforded that much computing power.  However, humans were lazy, and they always tended to leave some amount of information more or less out in the open—encrypted insecurely or not at all.  Yarec hoped that among the data recovered after Maldanko’s death, there would be something more about Mrissa; but it would still take time to find it, and it was a very low priority.

His own research had turned up nothing that looked particularly promising, so Yarec decided to make a deal.  “Send me on another mission,” he told Dotchki.  “I’ll do it for free, and when I get back, you tell me whatever you’ve found out about my wife.”  Time in the field would give Yarec something else to think about, leaving the research for more able eyes than his own.  If Yarec was away for a month or two, they might have time to turn up something useful.  And if they don’t, Yarec told himself, I’ll go out again, and maybe they’ll do better the next time.

Dotchki seemed hesitant.  The two of them were in small office, one of several the General-Admiral used for personnel matters.  He looked at Yarec intently, his bland blue eyes narrowing under bushy gray eyebrows.  “I can’t send you out when you’re under this much mental strain, ban Silfien,” he said.  “If you’re rattled, you’re likely to screw up.”

“I’m very good at compartmentalizing, sir,” Yarec said.

“Compartmentalizing?” Dotchki echoed, obviously dubious.

Yarec tried to look modest and unemotional.  “If I’ve got something hot to work on, I won’t have time to think about my marriage situation.”  Dotchki’s concerned expression did not change.  Yarec went on, “This will actually be best for both of us.  I’ll have my mind off this stuff for a while, and I’ll be out of your hair while I’m getting something useful done.”

The pale blue eyes widened a bit.  It was as close as Dotchki ever came to showing amusement when he was dealing with military matters.  “I’ll consider it, captain, but I make no promises,” Dotchki said softly.  In friendlier company, Yarec would have grinned, but here he merely mirrored Dotchki’s expression—brow relaxed and eyes opened to their widest extent.

Dotchki nodded vaguely and dismissed Yarec.  The admiral referred the matter to his aides, and they eventually found a job that did not look particularly risky—especially for an agent of Yarec’s caliber—but still might require a significant degree of finesse.  Dotchki decided that it was suitable, and Yarec found himself slated to depart in seven days.

Most of the preparations for the mission were fairly routine, but before he left, Yarec also stopped by to see his mother.  He did not like talking to her, normally.  For one thing, she sounded wrong; she had a island accent now, quite unlike the desert plains drawl Yarec remembered from his childhood.  However, he had to tell her about Mrissa.  It was the kind of thing that a mother had a right to know, and she in particular ought to be able to sympathize with her son’s predicament.

When Yarec was young—truly young, with the original body that had been assembled in his mother’s uterus not even fully grown—his parents had taken a trip down to the coast.  It was partially for business—negotiating new terms for the family’s mineral interests—and partially a vacation.  Yarec stayed behind, while his father and mother checked into a surfside hotel.  The weather was unusually chilly, so the hotel guests spent a lot of time indoors, watching the heavy wind blowing in across the ocean and tossing the few majestic gulls that were soaring over the waves.

On the couple’s third day there, terrorists had spiked the hotel’s basement water tank with a virulent strain of toxic fungus.  It swept through the pipes to every drain and faucet, where the fungus took up residence, feeding on the detritus of human occupation.  Then the spores spread into the air, inside the walls and through the heating system.  Guests began to complain of headaches, then nausea and difficulty breathing.  Within a few days, the mold deposited by the Airam Liberation Army was everywhere, filling the entire hotel with neurotoxins.

Yarec’s parents had chosen an economical room near the water heaters and the sauna.  Each night, as they slept, spores poured in through the air vents.  It was later discovered that some of the wall panels in their room were so damp, their rear sides were covered with dusty purple-gray fuzz.  When the number of people showing symptoms grew so large that the hotel owner’s protests that there was just a mild strain of influenza going around were no longer plausible, the local sheriff ordered the whole structure evacuated.  However, Yarec’s mother and father remained behind in their room, unconscious, until a search team with breathing masks discovered them and carried them out.

They arrived at the local clinic comatose, and Yarec’s father never recovered.  His central nervous system had been irreparably poisoned, and he died ten days later.  However, Yarec’s mother lingered.  Someone eventually remembered to send word of what had happened to the patient’s son, and he arrived as rapidly as he could.  Her lungs were heavily damaged, and she remained attached to an artificial ventilator for weeks.  However, with several surgeries—funded by selling most of the family’s property to speculators—she eventually was able to breathe again unassisted.  Yarec was sitting beside his mother’s bed when she finally woke up, and she did not recognize him.

Rahelle Middelrash-ban Silfien did not recognize anything when she woke up from her coma.  Her eyes were full of animalistic terror from the first moment they opened.  She could not speak and had no grasp of where she was.  It was an appalling sight, especially for her teenaged son.  After a few minutes of her hoarse, incoherent screeching, the medical practitioners sedated her again and then conferred about how to proceed with her treatment.

Ultimately, nearly all her memories were gone.  Her mind had been hollowed out like Maldanko’s whales.  Some language skills eventually returned, and Yarec sometimes thought that she could recognize people’s faces, but all the knowledge of her life before had been stolen away.  She went through years of skeletomuscular and neurological rehabilitation, but most of the process Yarec could not bear to watch.  Rahelle was taught that Yarec was her son, but she would never remember carrying him or playing with him.  They had become strangers, and the memories of his old mother that Yarec retained were now tinged with a sense of unreality.  He asked himself:  If I’m the only person who can ever remember these events, did they really even happen?

In spite of the extensive memory loss, however, Rahelle’s brain proved to be exceedingly durable.  Her progress in rehabilitation consistently outpaced expectations.  She still possessed a brilliant analytical mind.  She would not have abided sitting out the rest of her life—“like a moldy cabbage,” as she described it; she needed something meaningful to keep her busy.  So she was retrained as a meteorological officer.  It was very different from her former jobs as an agronomist and commodities accountant, but she learned quickly.  Her talent with numbers had survived, albeit imperfectly and divorced from the context and hands-on skills that had accompanied it.

Rahelle took up this commission with her son’s blessing; Yarec had himself already embarked on the first leg of the violent journey that had brought him to where he stood now.  He threw in with the forces opposing the anarchist Airam rebels.  He was young, but he understood all too well why he was enlisting.  Yarec remembered the opening words of an epic composed about the Irish high king Ui Neill, and as he considered his position, just as Ui Neill had done, Yarec told himself he was searching for justice, though he knew that was really just another word for revenge.  During his voyaging since then, Yarec had witnessed many more horrendous crimes—too many to ever be avenged by a single man, however many mortal bodies he could have.  But the attack on his parents had been the first, and Yarec was still not convinced that justice for that atrocity had been fully lotted out.

Chapter 6:  In Transit

It took quite a while before Yarec got another real assignment.  He spent weeks hanging around the base and the ship.  During the day, he stayed mostly indoors, but long after dark, he would trudge up and down the island moodily.  That was the only time he could roam around without the feeling that people were watching him.  Meanwhile, we was being charged for his meals and lodging.  Yarec was not technically on the rolls of the States United Armed Forces, and so his sustenance did not come for free.  Still, he was not in any danger of exhausting his savings.  The really costly things—medical matters—were covered under his standard work contract.  Any injuries he incurred working as a spy, saboteur, or assassin were given the best treatment possible—up to the provision of a new body.  It was a good arrangement both for Yarec and his employers; it was in every party’s interest to keep him in the best possible shape.  Of course, there must have been situations where it was not so clear precisely who was responsible for a particular treatment, when multiple employers were involved.  For example, on his mission in Sankirk, Yarec had been hired by an independent allied faction; he had contracted an engineered disease in the course of his bombing mission; then he had gone off duty; and when he became gravely ill, he had been picked up by States United agents.  However, Yarec had stopped bothering with the question of who financed each specific surgery long ago.  His account balances kept rising, and if he got stuck now and then with a dental bill that really should have been someone else’s responsibility, it was not going to bankrupt him.  (His bodies never lasted long enough to develop regular cavities, but sometimes the teeth were not quite right when they came out of extended cryogenic storage.)

While he waited for paying work, Yarec—with the sufferance of General-Admiral Dotchki—looked for information about Mrissa’s whereabouts.  Most of the time, he had an assistant, a scrawny warrant officer named Jenison.  Jenison had agile fingers that whispered across his square meter computing lamina.  He snapped the square flat on the desk of his carrel or creased it with a 110-degree fold and propped it in his lap.  As Yarec worked on the other side of the room—ponderously slowly, it seemed by contrast—Officer Jenison’s eyes darted all around the display.  He had a long, flexible neck, like the pet ostrich Yarec had seen in a rich private employer’s indoor menagerie; and the white pockets on Jenison’s dark uniform only enhanced the effect.

Yarec was paying for this assistance, at the standard rate for allied groups that needed limited access to confidential information.  Whenever there was more important intelligence research to be done, like compiling background dossiers on various skirmishing local groups, Jenison would be pulled off Yarec’s special project.  It could happen abruptly; Yarec had once come back from a quick breakfast to find that his assistant had vanished.  There was a message on Yarec’s computing device, which stated that Jenison had been indefinitely reassigned to a top secret project.  He had taken his computing lamina and scurried off to an even more tightly secured area, where he and the other intelligence analysts might be poring over reports of fresh troops movements in the southern hemisphere.  When Jenison came back, three days later, he looked haggard, but he immediately set back to work.  There was no possible discussion of where he had been, just another slow day of searching.

The computers did the rote searching for them.  Told to turn up intelligence about Mrissa, a processor scanned the primary information in Yarec’s file and then delved into its library to find more.  The algorithm turned up plenty of hits, and it did a fairly good job of picking out the most relevant information.  Whenever “Mrissa Roonbeck” turned up in public records, they were flagged for review; and the database also had access to many private documents, obtained by various forthright or surreptitious means.  Once all the unambiguous references to Yarec’s wife had been found, the program began to make educated guesses about matters that might be connected to her, and at this stage, some human input was necessary.  A machine could tease out a lot of information from the files, but when confronted with a long block of prose, it tended to lose the plot.  It was advisable for human interlocutor to check the machine analysis and correct any erroneous impressions that the program had happened to record.  And ultimately, any decision about what to do with all the collected information was obviously going to be left to Yarec as well.

There was information about Mrissa’s numerous movements, but none of it looked especially promising.  If she had a fixed home base, Yarec found no indication of it.  Her longest gig had been along the Isthmus of Panama, where she had worked as chief of countersecurity for a mining installation.  In close to two years on the job, she must have gotten to know people.  Yarec would have jetted down there to interview her coworkers, but the region was a dead zone.  Right around the time Mrissa left, somebody had set off a dirty bomb—blocks of improvised high explosive, laced with radioactive material.  The nuclides had been salvaged from a long-abandoned nuclear waste dump, and they were dispersed through the air first by the blast, then by wind currents.  (The bombers had purportedly been caught and executed, but according to secret reports, unofficially there was disagreement about whether more conspirators—including the possible mastermind—had been missed.)  The landscape around the mine had been poisoned, so the miners packed up their gear and left.  Any people Mrissa might have grown close to had dispersed to new projects all around the Americas.  Yarec ordered up some information about the current whereabouts of a couple of coworkers who sounded like possible confidants, but the approach was definitely a long shot.

Yarec had seen pictures of radiation-contaminated sites.  There were plenty of them, even though no one had ever been so foolish as to release the worldwide rain of fission bombs that peace activists and military planners had once feared.  In times of scarcening resources and a damaged atmosphere, nation-states had turned increasingly to nuclear power.  Engineers constructed ever smaller—and even portable—generating plants, which had slaked the old cities’ thirst for electricity.  When they were properly staffed and adequately maintained, the miniaturized nuclear reactors had seemed almost miraculous; they were safe, efficient, and clean—as long as they had a ready supply of new fuel and a secure disposal system for the old.  To keep the fuel cycle rolling smoothly, old radioactive waste was reprocessed.  The great states’ nuclear warheads, which could have been delivered through outer space to enemies on the opposite poles of the world, were dismantled to make more civilian fuel.  Such weapons had long since ceased to be guarantors of security.  They were too imprecise to use against the world’s newly evolving military threats.  Militias, paramilitaries, and the private armies of local warlords who made no attempts to conceal their megalomania—these were the new foes faced by the remaining cohesive armies like the States United Armed Forces, whose own industrial base was cracking and rusting away in the heat.  The new paramilitaries had first appeared in less developed regions, where political stability had never fully established itself; but they spread, until nation-states that had been bastions of cohesiveness for centuries were shredded apart by regional rivalries.

Amid the intensifying conflicts, nuclear stations fell into disrepair, and accidents followed—control rod problems, coolant leaks, and even complete fuel meltdowns.  There were also incidents of intentional contamination, like the dirty bomb in Central America.  Depending on the amount of radioactive material released, areas of a few hectares to thousands of square kilometers could be rendered uninhabitable.  The pictures of such places were eerie.  They showed human ruins, suddenly abandoned and returned to nature.  The plant growth was lush and healthy looking, in spite of what must have been millions of invisible mutations.  Long, leafy vines wound up old concrete drain pipes, and hardy oak trees grew in the courtyards of old, stately office plazas, cracking the ancient flagstones with their roots.  The famed Anatolian photographer Mehmet Constans had taken pictures of a basement storeroom in one empty town, entirely by the place’s own light.  He set up a camera there, far away from the rays of the run, and left its charge-coupled detector on for nearly a year, to pick up the sporadic glow of old isotopes.  The decaying nuclei left tiny pinpricks of light, and over time, the spots of radiation lit up the walls, floor, and the huddle of janitorial equipment left behind by the last human occupants.  It was a ghostly image of fallen civilization and perhaps the most iconic artwork of its century.

In a more serene location, the hotel’s superstructure might even have survived.  However, records indicated that there has been an undersea quake not long after the building had been abandoned, and what ancient seismologists referred to as a harbor wave had knocked the top layers off the structure.  Since then, the remains had been gradually filling with sand.  It washed in, lodged in the structure’s crevices, and could have remained there for millennia.

The planet had innumerable ruins.  They had been built with sturdy materials, and the pieces that were not looted could survive for a very long time.  Mostly, the sites were ignored—or avoided as eerily unlucky—and left as habitats for snakes.  This ruin had benefited, however, from its proximity to a sizeable garrison that often had little to do.  To pass the weeks and months, the service members had taken it upon themselves to conduct a proper archeological dig.

Slowly, the workers excavated their way through the ruins, guided by systematic thinking and old manuals, written when men were still digging up the Bronze Age.  The basic methodologies had not been lost, but there were only a handful of professional archeologists in the world, working at a scattering of sites that were deemed particularly historically important.

A handful of people were working on the hotel site that day.  Three bulky marines were sifting a barrel of beach sand.  They dumped out load after load onto a grill of rigid metal mesh, then shook the loose sand through, leaving larger material behind.  It was a mixture of shell fragments, smooth rocks, and man-made artifacts.  Bits of glass were especially plentiful.  They had been scraped up by the sand and worn slick by the power of the waves.  Some bits had washed down the coastline from other settlements, but most were shards from the hotel’s enormous windows.  They were readily recognizable, because they shared a distinctive tint.  The windows had had a rich gray-brown gleam, to block out the glare from the choppy blue ocean and the growing flux of ultraviolet photons.  The workers plucked out every piece of the hotel glass, and they tapped each one with an invisible ink stamp.  The stamp applied sequential numerical labels, which were transparent under sunlight but would fluoresce if showered with ultraviolet light.

Past the trio of marines, Yarec found a close acquaintance removing sediment in situ.  Her blond hair was tucked back in a ponytail, and with a tiny suction tube, she was vacuuming grains of pale sand off a black metal bedstead.  Its tubular legs and rails were heavily scuffed and dented in several places.  Rusty coil springs, whole or in fragments, protruded from the sand bank underneath.  There were also tears of fabric—the least organic bits of the original mattress and foundation—dangling from the frame’s rounded corners.  The construction looked very heavy—sturdily built to support a luxuriously tall block of padding.  From what Yarec had seen on previous visits, the hotel beds, even in what appeared to be single-occupancy rooms, were huge, especially compared to the tough, narrow cots of the military base.  They had probably bounced like trampolines when they were new, and molded to every contour of a reclining visitor’s body.

Yarec’s heavy heel-toe tread crunched in the sand, and she heard him coming.  She looked up.  “Oh, I heard you were in country, Yarec,” she said.  She gave him a crooked smile.  “Word was you were in the infirmary for quite a while,” she said, and Yarec offered a noncommittal nod.  “You weren’t just hiding out from me, were you?”

She stood up fully, laying the suction device down casually, with the vacuum hose dangling over one of the bed frame rails.  The pale, rigid tube on the end nodded up and down as it came to rest.  She stretched out her lithe body, with her arms over her head.  The movement looked natural, but Yarec was well aware that every feature was completely intentional.  He looked at her unkempt coverall—crusted with sand, sleeves pushed up to the elbows—and how the vertical bands of quilting wrapped sinuously around her hips.  She had a nice body underneath, which, Yarec realized, he would not be able to enjoy again.

He also realized that she was waiting for him to say something.  “No, no,” he stammered, “I really have been under medical care the whole time since I arrived.”  He grimaced, and he wondered idly how many more rueful frowns it would take to give his new forehead a full set of wrinkles.  “I didn’t really need all the extra attention though.  It was a pain.”

“Yeah, you seemed to have settled into this body pretty well,” she said.  The expression on her face started out sweetly understanding, then morphed into something more coy.  “I like the look of this,” she added, reaching over to finger Yarec’s bicep.  “Have you come down to try out your new body?”

He parried the movement with the back of his left hand.  “I didn’t know you would be here, Booker,” he explained.  “I just came down here to work on the dig.  I wanted to think, to get some time to myself.”  The slow, monotonous work is a good distraction for an emotionally damaged individual, he added silently.

That was surely not the news Booker had wanted to hear.  Before she could look hurt, Yarec added, “I’m glad to see you’re looking very well.  Your skin looks beautiful”  He paused, thinking back to what he had seen on his walk along the beach.  Then he continued, “I wasn’t looking for you, but I saw my mom on the way down here.  She must have thought I was coming to see you, but….”  He stopped again, awkwardly, and Booker looked concerned.  Yarec tried to go on:  “But I wasn’t.  In fact, I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” she asked.  Yarec wondered which of them was actually more confused.

“I can’t fool… uh, hang around with you any more, Booker.  We’ve been good friends, but it was never that serious.  I mean, it certainly wasn’t just about sex, but I was never here very long.  I know Mom thought you and I were going to be a long-term thing, but that can’t happen now.  I’m sorry”

“You see,” Yarec said, “apparently, I’m married.”

“‘Apparently’?” she echoed.  There was no attempt to conceal her disgust.

“You know the cliche, ‘I’ve met somebody else’?  Well, I did.  It’s just that it was a long time ago—only I forgot.”

Booker looked angry now.  Her face was pink, and her ordinarily full lips were drawn tight.  “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she demanded, raising her voice as much as she could afford without disturbing the decorum of the archeological dig.  “Sure, Yarec, you and me weren’t going to be forever, but it wasn’t like I was screwing a bunch of other guys while you were away!  What you did while you were working was your business, and I didn’t pry, but I assumed you weren’t actually married!”

Yarec wanted to yell too, but he restrained himself and waited for her to give him a chance to answer.  “So what happened?” she asked bitterly,  “Did your latest near-death encounter give you a sudden attack of conscience?  Well?”

Her final, “Well?” was laced with icy venom, but he tried to respond calmly and deliberately.  “I really did forget about her, completely.  It was transfer-induced memory loss.”

“That’s absurd,” Booker retorted.  “How could you forget….”  But Yarec’s dejected shrug was too sincere, and her question trailed off.  “Wow… those operations can really crap you up,” she whispered.

Yarec felt obligated to explain further.  “I didn’t really know her that long, so there wasn’t that much to forget.  Our romance was a whirlwind, I guess.  Then we got married, because I thought I was dying.”

Booker sat down on the edge of the bed frame.  It was a clear violation of dig protocol, but that seemed a very faraway concern.  “I understand,” she said softly.  She twisted her mouth into a crooked vee.  “Actually, no, I don’t, but I get that you don’t want to see me any more.”

“We can still stay friends,” Yarec said.  “She—Mrissa, my wife—she wouldn’t hold anything that happened against you.  She’s not the type.”

“What does she think about this, anyway?”

“Ha,” Yarec said.  It was a sad little exhalation, barely audible beneath the beat of the waves and the rustle of the seaside breeze.  His fingers flexed and twitched nervously. “Who knows?” he muttered.  “I haven’t seen her since I got my memories back.”

“Is she around here?”

“Nope.  I don’t know where she is.  I ran into her on my last job though, and I guess it eventually jogged my memory.”

Booker looked incredulous.  “What the hell?  Seriously?”  Then Booker paused.  “You are really screwed up,” she said.  “Seriously, you’ve got to take better care of yourself, Yarec.  C’mere.”  She motioned for him to sit down beside her, and he did, without hesitation.  Booker pressed his head down against her shoulder.  His tender new skin rubbed against the coarse quilted fabric of her work uniform.  Yarec closed his eyes, and she kissed him on the top of his head.  In his mind’s eye, there was only blackness, but Yarec knew he was with a woman who loved him.

They rested for a while.  Then the pair worked, cleaning sediment away from the bed.  Booker was crying a little, when she thought Yarec was not watching; and when he did notice, he politely averted his eyes.  At the end of the shift Booker had signed up for on the duty roster, she invited Yarec to have a drink at her quarters.  He would have liked to go, but he knew it would get awkward.  Booker had far too much self possession to get wildly inebriated and throw herself at him.  However, her apartment had past associations that Yarec was unfortunately no longer comfortable with.  The first time she had invited him back to her room, Yarec had gone eagerly.  She had been eyeing him for weeks, at social events and the on-base bar, and he had seen it.  However, they had gotten into an argument back at her place.  It was about something political, and Yarec could be extremely thin skinned about geopolitical questions, especially if they verged on calling the propriety of his own covert work into question.  After an increasingly irritated back and forth, Booker had flounced off to the bathroom, leaving Yarec sitting on her bed, holding a graduated cylinder full of cheap ethanol.  However, when she returned a few minutes later, she had left her slashed yellow dress and any undergarments behind.  She glided around the bathroom door, totally bare.  Yarec might have preferred it if she had kept on her creamy brown boots, but he was not going to complain about any aspect of her appearance.  Booker wanted nothing to do with consciousness transfers and whole new bodies, but she paid a little extra to have her skin repaired and her breasts readjusted whenever she went in for her regular military physicals.

That memory would be too near if Yarec went down to Booker’s quarters now, so he just helped her check in her digging equipment and wished her a good night.  They separated with the awkward hug of two former lovers trying to remain on good terms.  Then Yarec trudged back to the shipboard hospital, to have more blood drawn and to get his nervous system rescanned.