She met with a succession of minor functionaries.  Most of them were from the military wing of the FAF, but one young woman was from the organization’s quasi-governmental division, which mostly dealt with taxes and business regulation in the territory they controlled.  The woman, whose emerald green eyes contrasted remarkably with her deep umber skin, confided in Mrissa that even she was only filling in for one of the military payroll officers, who was suffering from an unpleasant bout of neo-typhus.

There was plenty of repetition, as they gave Mrissa her assignment and explained the terms of her service contract.  They had a lot more information for her to look over later, and they reminded her that the company she would be going up against would not be an easy target.  Intelligence gathering and careful planning would undoubtedly be necessary.  However, nobody told her how to prepare.  If Yarec took the job, he was going to be in charge.  For now, her job was just to convince him to sign on, and when he did, she was to keep an eye on him.  Of course, the Field Army Faction did not really trust Mrissa any better than Yarec, and they would both be informing on each other.

Yarec did not seem, from the demeanor described in his dossier, like the type to backstab his employer.  There were a few odd incidents in his record, but over the course of a lengthy career in espionage in assassination, some unfortunate incidents were basically inevitable,  Six years earlier, Yarec had ended up drowning his employer in a tank full of decorative coral.  Yarec said that the man had pulled a pistol out of his coat, and there had been a tussle.  From clues in the text, Mrissa inferred that the next part of Yarec’s report as missing; there was more to the story, although there was no overt indication of a redaction.  It was a little thing—probably not even really Yarec’s fault—but it did raise uncomfortable doubts in Mrissa’s mind.

“It’s funny that I’ve been waiting so long for you to coming back,” Mrissa told Yarec, “since at first, I didn’t even want to have to work with you.”  She trailed off there, then caught herself and began to explain.  “That wasn’t personal.  I decided I didn’t want to work with you before we even met.  You had too much of a reputation for getting people killed.  People working alongside you did not fare very well.  They tended to get shot, or blown to smithereens, or captured and executed.  Obviously, those were not things I was looking forward to.”

“Now though, I think the real reason that so many people working with you have died is that you’re too damn good.  I mean, they bring you in for the  toughest jobs, and you end up in some really, really nasty situations.  You always manage to make it out, but somebody else might not have your skill or your luck; and so they end up bleeding to death while you escape.”

“But I didn’t know that before we met up in Sankirk.  I just wanted to make sure I did not end up bleeding to death on the germ factory floor, and so I was not looking forward to working with you, especially not as your subordinate.”

Most of what what she had found recorded in Yarec’s dossier pointed to a highly reliable agent.  Of course, his missions were not always successful.  There were notes on a couple of encounters that must have gone spectacularly wrong.  However, there was no indication that he had ever accepted an inducement to trade sides.  Even so, Mrissa knew she would need to keep a very keen eye on his behavior.  He was also a neuro-job, a head jumper, his consciousness copied on from brain to brain.  There was no way to know when his character might change abruptly—with a new body, a new persona.

“Were you worried about that?” Yarec asked.

“Of course,” Mrissa said.  She got up off the bed and paced across the room.  There were no windows in her room, but there was a large industrially-produced landscape print bracketed to the opposite wall.  It showed a bucolic grassland, with scattered trees and an old brown house in the distance.  She gazed out at the scene for a little while, then said, “They may not say anything to your face, but a lot of people don’t really like you.  They’re afraid you’re going to go nuts.  They don’t trust the consciousness transfers—and  frankly, neither should you.”

She turned around and looked at him.  He was sitting up with his eyes open, watching her with a look she did not recognize.  Maybe nobody had ever opened up to him about this kind of thing before.  She returned to the pallet, and he scooted over to give her more room as she laid back down beside him.

It was simpler, in Mrissa’s view, to evaluate a person’s character from a dossier than it was in person.  She was not someone who thought she could read a man’s true intentions by looking straight into his eyes.  Human beings—especially those trained in subterfuge—were cyphers.  Body language and tone of voice could be powerful indicators, but they could also be faked.  Back in Sankirk, Ris had almost wished that she could work with Yarec without ever meeting him face-to-face—with all their negotiations and planning conducted via digital messaging.  But of course, that was obviously impossible.  He probably would not even take the job without a real personal contact; and even then he might refuse, although Mrissa did not think so.  As an emissary, she was quite skilled, and her arguments were seductively convincing.

“He’s arriving on the Forces nail ferry,” one of the FAF officers had told her.  The man’s uniform was stylized, with an indigo pattern like an old-fashioned set of famer’s overalls embroidered on top of the one-piece military bodysuit.  “According to his history, ban Silfien has never worked around here.  He doesn’t have anything lined up and probably doesn’t know the city.  So go easy on him when you find him.”  The man snickered, but Mrissa rolled her eyes.

“Do you have a picture of him?” Mrissa pressed.

“No, not yet,” the man confessed.  “His appearance might not be finalized yet.”  Mrissa rolled her eyes again, but she smothered her dissatisfied grunt by swallowing the whole mug of whatever it was they had given her to drink in one gulp.

Mrissa had been hired by the Field Army Faction.  It seemed like neither she nor Yarec had been the first choice for the job, but hiring contract saboteurs was difficult, even for quasi-governmental militias like the FAF.  In the lobby of their headquarters building, past two walls of bullet-proof glass, the FAF had huge portraits of their founder and other prominent martyrs.  The pictures had been stylistically defocused, to give the impression of antiquity and gravity.  They showed men with long mustaches and women wearing broad-brimmed yellow hats.  They were traditional farmers, who had risen up against the absentee plantation owners.  They had occupied whole farms, patrolling the fields with rifles and holing up in the plantation house basements when the owners sent helicopter commandos to squeeze them out.  The FAF took their slogan, “Everyone who will defend the people, follow us!” from two ancient heroes of land reform, the Gracchus brothers.  Over the course of a couple months, the occupation movement had become a full-blown insurrection, and there was fighting up and down the fertile mountain slopes.

However, most of that bloodshed was far in the past.  After years of on-and-off fighting, the FAF and the old authorities in Sankirk had reached an agreement.  The worst abuses were eliminated, and several of the larger estates were broken up among their long-time tenants.  The Field Army Faction still viewed itself as a group of agricultural revolutionaries, but now they collected taxes and jailed troublemakers themselves.

However, they still had their disagreements with the corporatist government in Sankirk.  Capital purchased control over the city’s policies, and sometimes the FAF had to counter those adverse influences with force.  That was where experts like Mrissa entered the calculus.

When she got there, the big yearly festival was going on in Sankirk, and that meant that it was festival time in the country too.  The party built up over a full thirty-two day month, until the climactic week of street music and outdoor revelry in the city center.  Mrissa was in peak condition when she was dropped off in the area, and she was ready to get to work at once; but just before she arrived, she got a message that the job was delayed.

Mrissa would have to wait a long time.  Yarec was busy on another job—not the assassination of Colonel Maldanko, but blowing up a diplomatic meeting.  Then he was resting in the floating hospital and settling into his new body with a new face.  His appearance varied from body to body, but Mrissa thought each new one looked like the previous versions’ cousin.

“I didn’t even get a picture of you until just before I went in to find you,” she told him.  “They must still have been tweaking your cheekbones.”

In the meantime, Ris was part of the party.  There was a lot of plain old drinking, in all the little taverns in the little towns, but many of the events managed to retain a more distinctive country character.  Every night, starting at sunset, there was a parade of women from one town center to the next.  The participants came from every social stratum.  They wore garlands in their hair, made from leafy vines and whatever flowers were handy.  The women gathered at sundown and danced across the fields to the next town.

They had plenty of music.  Among their group, there were always some with hand drums hanging from their necks.  They beat a syncopated rhythm, and other women sang along.  Sometimes, the whole crowd sang in unison, old refrains that everyone knew.  At other times, it was just individual singers improvising nonce lyrics, scat style.  A few women played flutes too, but except at very close range, their soft piping was drowned out by the bawdy voices.

When the noisy crowd reached a new village, it dispersed.  The revelers hopped on flatbed trailers or were picked up by boyfriends on motorcycles.  They rode home, slept in, and then got on with their regular work.  Until, at sunset, a new crowd appeared where the old one had left off.  Some of the women partied every night.  They finished every leg of the journey, from the town of Lucia in the northeast to Badford way to the south.  Most, though, only made bits and pieces of the trip.  They attended the events closest to home, or just those they had free time for.

Mrissa joined the procession as it passed through the town of Pimento, where the Field Army Faction was headquartered.  The daytime festivities were based around farm products and alcohol.  The food was interesting at first, but eating nothing but the local rice specialties did become monotonous.  So she jumped into the nighttime procession; it was something unique—an aspect of local color she would never get to experience anywhere else.

Mrissa was among the first to arrive, as the women assembled on the Pimento village green.  The village was far too new to have an authentic old common green, where yeomen could have freely grazed their sheep, but the first town planners had laid out a perfect square of green turf.  It had originally been surrounded by a white rail fence, but as buildings had encroached on the boundary of the green, the fencing had been torn down, leaving a ragged asphalt edge around the gray, overexposed grass.

The others arrived, on foot or by car, and when there were enough women present, someone struck up a song.  The song was a humorous take on the traditional genre of story songs.  It began, “Sing of the wrath of Achilles the ankylosaurus.”  Mrissa had never heard it before, but after the first one or two verses, she had mastered the chorus.  She just hummed along during the verses describing various incidents among angry dinosaurs.

“Hey, I know that song!” Yarec said, and Mrissa laughed.

After the first tune was finished, there was a burst of drumming, and the group set off as the sun was setting.  For a few nights, she was just another anonymous traveller.  She talked with the others, ate with them, drank with them, but she never formed a fixed group of friends and never said much about herself.  The others could tell that she was not a local, since she did not bother to adjust her accent, but no one seemed to care where she had come from.  No one asked prying questions, and conversely, no one else ever offered up more personal information than she wanted to hear.  It was freeing to be with a set of spirited women, in an environment that was so utterly unlike her work.  For a while, she imagined she did not really want to go back to being a secret operative.

However, she felt compelled to intervene when there was a murder along the trip.  Mrissa had a lot of experience working corporate security.  It was stable work and typically rather tedious.  Most of the problems she had encountered involved either petty thievery or intramural disagreements.  Working eleven hour shifts in a factory or mine could make the men and women surly and belligerent.  Workers got into shoving matches in the cafeteria lines or traded punches on the shop floor, and Mrissa was called in to break things up.

The fights were usually over by the time she reached the scene, but she sometimes needed to talk the combatants down.  When that did not work, she could execute a chop to the neck, whip a fighter’s arm behind his back, and march him back to the security office.  One of the companies Mrissa had worked for had an eye hook right there in the office, screwed into the wall, to which troublemakers could be handcuffed overnight.  And five times during Mrissas career, employee violence had culminated in homicides.

Whenever there was actually a killing inside the company, an investigation was required.  Most reasonably sized businesses payed the local government a fee—buying the authority to run their own criminal justice systems.  If the companies did not pay up front, they would have the local gendarmes breathing down their butts—interfering, demanding bribes—whenever there was any rumor of criminal activity.  It just made sound financial sense to pay the cops to stay away.

Except in the most lawless regions, however, the local police had to be involved when there was the possibility that someone had been murdered.  Sometimes, a killing could be covered up, made to look like an accident.The proverbial example was saying a worker had fallen into a boiling vat of leaf lard.  Of course, nobody actually claimed it was lard any more.  Mrissa was vaguely aware that leaf lard was some kind of rendered animal fat, which had long ago disappeared from ordinary people’s diets.  However, the ironic expression, He fell into a vat of lard, lived on, used to describe situations where companies actually claimed that their employees had been bludgeoned to death by unshielded camshafts or slashed to pieces by razor-edged gears.

However, Ris generally disapproved of that kind of subterfuge.  If somebody died on the job, the company owed their survivors an adequate explanation.  So Mrissa had a bit of experience looking into murders, and when one of the travelling revelers was found with the back of her head caved in, she volunteered to investigate.

The party had broken for a midnight luncheon, halfway between two towns.  The folk separated into smaller groups and scattered across the nearby hills, to find comfortable places to sit and eat.  When it was time to move again, one woman—Byron, somebody thought her name was—seemed to be missing.  That was not, on its own, unusual.  People fell asleep and missed the horn call; or sometimes they just wandered off and left the dark procession.  Still, they had time to make a quick search.  Lantern beams bobbed across the terrain, and it did not take long to locate her.  Her corpse was lying facedown below a hawthorn tree.  There was no question what had killed her; a bloody rock the size of two fists lay less than a meter from her shattered skull.  Nobody admitted having seen her since the group split up, and she had no relatives or close companions who she usually ate with.

The travellers had a schedule to keep and another village to reach by morning.  They notified the district police station by radio.  Then it was time to set off.  Mrissa, having deputized herself to handle things until the official authorities took over, circulated among the throng, probing the revelers with questions.

It did not take long to get the gist of what might have happened.  A number of women had seen Byron flirting with another member of the group the previous night.  However, the friendship had evidently fizzled by morning, and several people had witnessed the pair bickering.  The second woman involved was still with the group; one of the witnesses pointed her out to Mrissa.  Her appearance was unremarkable; she had very pale blond hair but much darker skin, glinting with spritzes of sweat in the flickering lamplight.  She was moderately good looking, but looked scruffy after many nights of travel.

Mrissa sidled near to the suspect.  The woman’s hands were clean—freshly scrubbed with dry cleanser—but even with just a flashlight to see by, Mrissa thought she spotted a few flecks of fresh red among the brown spots around the cuffs of her sleeves.

Around her, the other women were singing—something slow and repetitive, with lyrics that Ris tuned out completely—but the blonde’s lips were barely moving.  If she made any sound, it was a breathy half whisper, not to be heard among the other’s raised voices and stamping feet.  Every now and then, her face twitched jerkily to the side, and Mrissa saw the wide glistening of her eyes.

After trailing the stranger for a while—never quite the closest person to her, but always within a few loping paces—Mrissa finally closed in.  A new song was starting, accompanied by loud, syncopated clapping.  Mrissa took a long step forward with each beat.  She danced with leaping strides, until she was posed just behind the suspect’s left shoulder.

“Excuse me, miss,” Ris began.  The other woman’s head snapped around.  She heaved in a short breath, breaking the tempo of the music.  “I wanted to ask you about what happened to Byron, back—”

“That bitch!” the woman screamed.  Her lips parted in a snarl, and she swung a lumpy fist at Mrissa’s jaw.  Mrissa skipped back a step, and the overextended blow flapped through empty air.

“You bitch,” the woman repeated.  Suddenly, everyone’s light was focused on her face.  She seemed unsure whether to throw another punch or to flee in panic.  She opted for the punch.  Mrissa stepped forward and deflected it.  She gripped the blonde’s arm, and flipped her lightly to the ground.  The torso hit with a nasty sounding crunch.  Mrissa had not thrown her very hard, but it was dark, and she must have landed on a protruding rock.  The killer—no doubt now that she’s the killer, Mrissa thought—did not try to get up again.  Mrissa bound the blond woman’s wrists behind her back and left her lying there, moaning and cursing.  Three other women volunteered to stand guard over her while the rest of the party moved on.  Mrissa did not look back as she departed with the others, but she could not bring herself to sing, not even the slow sad song that the chant leader had chosen.

Ris tried to keep enjoying the festival procession, but the murder had soured her.  The procession was supposed to be a carefree bit of local color—something she could lose herself in before her actually work started.  But tackling a killer was too much like real work.  It shattered the illusion.  Around her, she no longer saw a band of free-spirited revelers getting back to some kind of pagan spiritual roots.  Now they were loose-willed drunkards, reenacting this weird ritual because they were too jaded to enjoy ordinary activities.  Even dim and flickering torchlight could not disguise the blackness behind their hollow features.

She dropped out after one more day.  She could have just placed a call, and someone would have sent a car; but she was still questing for a little more time to think.  So she caught a ride on a cargo truck.  It skidded to a halt beside Mrissa when she waved.  There were very few female hitchhikers walking along that rugged stretch of highway.  The driver had huge shoulders and arms, which suggested the power steering had gone out on his rig and never been repaired.  He motioned Mrissa up with one of his gigantic hands, then waved her toward the tiny bench seat in the back of the cab.

The engine burped a wicked diesel smell, and the truck accelerated back onto the road.  Mrissa made herself as comfortable as she could, then put the remaining crampedness of her situation out of her mind.  The driver and the bodyguard riding in the shotgun seat kept peeping back over their shoulders and leering at Mrissa, but she feigned naivete and pretended not to notice.

The truck dropped her at the outskirts of Sankirk.  She hopped down, landing in a smelly puddle, which the truck’s huge rubberine wheels stirred up and sprayed on her as they rolled away.  A man across the street was drumming on a set of plastic and metal buckets.  The bucket in the very front was sitting right-side up, with a few metal chits on the bottom and instructions for locals who wanted to leave him a tip with their wireless bank cards.  Mrissa had a little bronze-colored card the FAF had sent her for incidental expenses.  She tapped it against the digital register taped to the front of the bucket, then entered the nominal amount she had decided to donate.  The drummer grinned, showing off a glittering row of steel dentures, then accelerated the tempo of his riff.

Mrissa knew where to find the Field Army Faction.  Her commission required her to report there by a certain date, and she still had ample time to spare, but it seemed like there was little to do in the meantime.  She walked about eight kilometers back out into the hinterlands, to a compact suburban burg where the FAF had offices.  Most of her necessary belongings had been shipped ahead, and all she had on her back was a floppy red-brown knapsack, loaded with simple foodstuffs, extra clothes, and whatever she needed to keep herself hygienic if she ever ended up sleeping outdoors.  She briefly considered changing clothes before reporting to the office but decided against it.  They could take as she was, spattered with muck and carrying a faintly feminine smell of sweat.

The FAF facilty was not labeled in any way, but the group’s lantern emblem was visible on the inside of the frosted glass windows over the entryway.  Heavy concrete barriers were lined up across the front walkway, so that a lone suicidal enemy could not steer an automobile through the main doors.  Mrissa picked her way around the obstacles, and confronted the security camera at the front.  The staff admitted her after a few minutes of dithering, whereupon she was weighed, scanned, and finally escorted to an office to wait.