“Damn, I have to go!” Mrissa said suddenly.

“How come?” Yarec asked, surprised.  “Aren’t you off the clock?”

“Yeah, but there’s an important meeting that I really shouldn’t miss,” she said as she looked hurriedly about for some notes she had taken earlier.  “It’s about—Never mind, I shouldn’t tell you.”  She found the scrawled sheets and headed for the door.  “It might be a while, unfortunately—maybe a few hours.”

Yarec nodded.  “Have you got anything to read?” he asked as she headed for the door.

Mrissa let the question hold her there a little longer.  She stopped by the door and thought, then said, “I’ve got some stuff on my hand device.”  She gestured toward a palm-sized unit tucked under the foot end of the bed.  Yarec bent down to pull it out and wiped the flexible screen clean of mattress dust with his bare arm.  As the screen lit up, Mrissa added,”There’s a bunch of random genre fiction on there.  There should be an adventure story or something you’d like.”

“Thanks,” Yarec said.  He started flicking through the device’s controls with his middle finger.  Then, remembering Mrissa was about to go, he hopped up and walked over to give her a kiss.  He pressed his lips softly against hers.  Then she ducked under his attempted embrace.

“Got to go,” Mrissa reminded him.  Then she was out the door and gone.

Yarec closed his eyes and checked the time—as it seemed it had become his habit to do whenever he was left alone.  Once again, just like at Station Westerly, he had almost a whole day to spend cooped up in a small windowless bedroom, while Mrissa was out and around, working.  At least I know who she is this time, Yarec told himself.  Back at Westerly, he had not even had the comfort of knowing his wife was there.

He sat back down on the bed and punched up the lamina’s library of reading material.  He opened the first story he found in one of the sub-menus and started reading.  It turned out to be an old-fashioned historical romance, set in a classical resort on the Mediterranean Sea.  The plot was populated with standard character archetypes—a noble poet, a lazy gamester who made his living gambling off his friends, and a sinister Egyptian foreigner.  Yarec read for a while and found he was getting bored.  The story seemed to be missing something—as if it were supposed to have illustrations, but there were not there.

Yarec yawned.  He had been stretched out on Mrissa’s bed, head propped up on one elbow as he read.  Now he tucked the device under the pillow and let his head dip down on top of it.  He yawned again, then sneezed.  Something around here—South American pollen, or mining fumes, or maybe even just the dust in Mrissa’s quarters—was irritating his sinuses.  He pushed the heel of his palm against the tip of his nose and wiggled it around, trying to dislodge the mucus collecting in his nostrils.  Then he closed his eyes, and before he even had a chance to read the time, he was asleep again.

Mrissa found him asleep and settled down beside him.  She did not sleep herself but merely watched him breathe, the far traveller returned to her side.  When Yarec finally woke up, the light was getting dim.  There were no windows in Mrissa’s little room, of course, but the overhead fixtures were programmed to bring the light levels down slowly as dusk approached.

Yarec rubbed his achy eyes, and Mrissa got him a drink of water.  She took one gulp from the cup herself, then handed it off to him and sat down again on the end of the bed.  Yarec drank what was left, but neither of them really felt hungry.  Mrissa patted her thighs, and Yarec, like an obedient housecat, rested his head in her lap.

The convoy had taken her down to a small armed compound.  A steel rail fence draped with razor wire surrounded a few low-slung prefabricated structures.  The largest building was in the shape of a plus, with two spartan corridors crossing in the center.  The uniformed women who opened the truck door as soon as it rolled to a halt in the yard hustled Mrissa out and into the building.  There, over the next hours and days, Mrissa was subjected to a much more careful interrogation.

The room they used for questioning was simple.  There was a new plastic table, but it had been pushed out of the way, up against the wall, which was thin and flimsy but had been laminated to look like stone.  Left behind in the center of the room, underneath a cluster of cameras and sensor antennas, were four simple chairs.  The edges of the plastic seats were roughly cut; an occupant wearing shorts could have cut themselves if they were careless and wiggled the wrong way.

Most of the time, there were two interrogators.  They seated themselves across from Mrissa, while she sipped a drink or a cup of instant soup they had offered her.  Occasionally, the leader from the truck came by to join the questioning, although he did not have much to say and most of the time just seemed to be taking notes.

The first time he joined into the interrogation, Mrissa learned his name:  Bernard Buspost.  The two guards who had brought Mrissa inside and begun asking the first general questions rose as he entered.  Mrissa remained seated, while one of the guards introduced him.

“Hello again,” she said with a nod.  He returned the gesture and took the remaining seat.

They found out soon enough who Mrissa actually was, and they pulled up a partial dossier of her recent activities.  Fortunately, there was no evidence of her involvement in the factory attack and nothing else in their records that connected her directly to Yarec.  Yarec’s cousin, Marshall Kubiak, had not yet logged their marriage in any publicly readable database.  It seemed unlikely that that was a simple oversight; Kubiak was a resourceful and intelligent man, and if he had thought it a good idea to have knowledge of the couple’s wedding in the public record, the marriage would have recorded without delay.

But by the time they had connected Mrissa to her proper identity though, her interrogators must have forgotten to wonder whether her story could have included any more substantial lies.  She had gone back to using an older name—for personal reasons—Mrissa told them; and Buspost excoriated her but did not press the matter much further.  Had they sent anyone back to the house for another look, it would have been too late anyway.  Yarec’s old body had already been bundled away.

Mrissa was, herself, obviously not free to go anywhere.  Months later, she came across some official paperwork, which stated that she had incurred an exorbitant debt for being rescued from the dangerous situation around Yarec’s ranch; and to pay off the debt, she was to be indentured to her rescuer.  So she—or rather her skills—were considered Buspost’s property.  For a while after he had captured her (and decided that she was a fairly useful property), he used Mrissa for small duties—things that required some decision-making intelligence, but which Buspost did not want to deal with himself.  She shuttled around from one small station to another, double-checking security arrangements or debriefing employees returning from routine travel.  Even those dull duties, however, were not really enough to fill her time.  There were many days when the only work was dreary labor cleaning and maintaining the vehicles, air fans, and kitchens.  And it gave her too much time to think and too much time to drink.

Eventually, Buspost decided Mrissa was not worth keeping for himself.  There was too little going on in the sector he controlled, and her increasingly surly and insubordinate disposition began to wear on Buspost’s own morale.  So he sold her on.  Mrissa never knew what Bospost had gotten in exchange.  She was just loaded onto a small convoy along with the rest of the outgoing cargo—although of all the packages, she definitely got the best seat.  They dropped her off the next day at a cozy little company town, with its tan rows of small ranch houses surrounded by a triple layer of barbed wire fencing.  She had a few more days to wait there, idling through  the hot afternoons on her rough dormitory bunk, until another passing truck picked her up again and delivered her to her actual destination.

“Do you want a shower?” Mrissa asked Yarec.

Yarec wavered, unsure what exactly she was suggesting, and Mrissa noticed the hesitation.  “You must need to get cleaned up,” she said.  “The heat down here is terrible, and I know your skin never sweats right.”  She cocked her head to the side and surveyed him.  “Frankly, you look awful.”

Yarec was about to protest, but then he remembered the trio of teenaged girls he had passed on his way out of the lowland town’s market.  They had all pointed at him and tittered.  He must have looked ridiculous.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Yarec said.  He got up with a groan and followed as Mrissa led the way.

“Knowing you, you’ll need some lotion too,” she said as they headed out the door.  “I swear, you could get a sunburn from a full moon.”

The panel swung closed behind them, and Mrissa led Yarec down the hall to the communal shower facilities.  Yarec could her a deep, steady rumbling, punctuated with occasionally louder clangs, coming from somewhere far beneath them.  The thin walls quivered a bit with each crash, and Yarec wondered if the drilling would lighten up during the night, when most people were trying to sleep.

On the way to the showers, they passed a woman, wearing an oversized white hardhat and a brilliant orange shirt.  Here indoors, her green-tinted safety glasses were pushed way down, resting just on the tip of her nose and offering little to no actual protection for her eyes.  As she glided past them in the corridor, she pursed her lips and made a slight disapproving click with her tongue.  The sound was just loud enough to be recognizably audible; but conversely, it was soft enough for the woman to maintain some plausible deniability if she were called on it.

As they passed, Mrissa looked over momentarily at the other woman’s face and gave her the barest nod of acknowledgement.  “Bitch,” Mrissa whispered once they were a few paces out of earshot.

“What is it?” Yarec asked, but Mrissa shook her head and did not elaborate.

They turned a corner, and the shower cubicle was on their left.  The opaque metal door was marked “sanitary shower, occupancy 1” in several languages, and a thin trail of black mildew seemed to be leaking out from under the middle of the door.  Mrissa pointed to the door.  “Here we are,” she said.

She knocked on the portal twice, very rapidly, and did not wait long for anyone who was inside to respond; after about a second and a half, she pushed the door open.  The bathroom was indeed unoccupied.  It was dark inside initially, but as they stepped inside. the round LED bulb screwed into the ceiling gradually faded on.

The room had a black plastic toilet and a matching sink stand.  On the other side of the room was a shower.  The tiled alcove was covered with a transparent yellow curtain.  Mrissa leaned back against the door, reaching behind her to throw the deadbolt.  Then she motioned her husband toward the shower; but again, Yarec felt hesitant.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.  “I’ve seen your bare ass before.”

Yarec shrugged and began to undress.  He pulled off the cream-colored shirt he had bought at the hostel in Mancora.  As he bent forward to unzip his trousers, Mrissa stepped up behind him and played her index finger down across his right shoulder.

“This looks a lot healthier than the last time I saw it,” she muttered playfully.  First Yarec nodded; then he allowed himself to wince as she prodded a spot that was still tender from a recent bruise.

“Sorry,” Ris said, withdrawing her hand.

“It’s okay,” Yarec said.  He stretched both arms out over his head, and one of his shoulder joints popped audibly.  Then he turned his neck slowly from side to side, trying to work out some of the ache in his muscles.  Mrissa leaned back again against the heavy steel door and watched as he finished removing his pants, then pushed the yellow curtain aside and stepped through into the shower stall.

He pressed the palm-sized plastic touch screen underneath the shower head, and it lit up.  However, before it actually activated the shower controls, the plate showed a twenty-second commercial for the shower’s manufacturer.  An androgynous voice emanated from a hidden speaker.  “Welcome to your Voda Industries shower,” it said, as the small panel displayed a corporate logo superimposed in front of streaming jets of crystal clean water.  “Your shower will begin shortly.”  The display cycled through a brief selection of units from the Voda catalog, from simple tubs to a full-body spray massage system which cost as much as a small automobile.  “Thank you for choosing a Voda Industries shower for your home or business,” the voice finished, and the touch screen finally showed him the controls for selecting water temperature and flow rate.

Yarec had been glaring, first up at the circular blue shower head, then back down at the slowly rolling advertisement.  When the commercial was over, he turned the water on as hard as it would go.  It was cold at first, and he shivered as it warmed up to the temperature he had selected.  Mrissa  reached around the curtain and handed him her bar of gray-green soap.  He rubbed it directly against his skin, feeling the little chips of pumice in the lather scouring away his dead skin cells.

Mrissa watched him.  His back was toward her, and she smiled as she saw Yarec’s gluteal muscles tense and then relax.  The curtain gave him an ugly jaundiced complexion, but she was glad to see him healthy and whole.  His body was intact, although the face was a bit different from the one he had had when they met in Sankirk.

Somewhere deep down, Mrissa could not shake the feeling that this was not the same man she had agreed to marry.  Her Yarec had died  Whatever had come after was a copy, a fake—not the same.

But she did not want to share her doubts with this Yarec, whoever he was.  He was finishing his shower, wiping the last bits of soap and grit out of his hair.  With squinting eyes, he fumbled for the shutoff button, and the flow of water dribbled to a stop.  He stepped out of the stall, dripping large, heavy drops on the bare tile floor.  Mrissa tossed him her towel.  It was old and rough, and the white terrycloth was heavily frayed at the corner where Mrissa had written her name.

Yarec wiped the water out of his eyes, then began towelling off his limbs.  His earlier self-consciousness seemed to have vanished.  “I’m kind of getting hungry,” he began.  “Do you think—”

“Why can’t they keep an extra copy of your memories when they copy you—in case you lose some of them later on?” Mrissa interrupted.

Yarec’s expression showed that his wife’s question had taken him by surprise.  He finished wiping his legs, considering.  “That’s not how it works,” Yarec said, as he moved on to his back.  “I don’t think they really understand what the neural data they’re copying means.  They do their best to duplicate the pathways of the old brain in the new one, but I don’t think they know what kinds of memories are where, except very roughly.”

“Oh,” Mrissa said.

“So I don’t think they could just save my memories in a data cluster somewhere,” Yarec continued.  “That’s too bad, really.”

“But the data from all your earlier transfers is still stored somewhere, right?” Mrissa asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Yarec said.

“So they could make another copy of you, from older data?”

“Yes,”—Yarec’s voice wavered—“but they’re not supposed to.”  He handed her back the towel, and picked up the new trousers he had bought that morning.  As he pulled them up, Mrissa could see that they were chafing a bit, since he was wearing them without underwear.  She suppressed the inclination to giggle.

“Come on,” she said.  “You wanted something to eat?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I did.”

“Come on then.  We’ll head over the dining room and see what we can scrounge up.”  Mrissa pointed out the way they would be heading.  “I can’t remember,” she said.  “Do you like seco de proteina?”

“I can’t remember either,” Yarec admitted.  “It sounds fine though.”  He finished pulling on his socks and shoes and nodded toward the door.  “Let’s go.”

Mrissa drew the bolt and led the way again, down a somewhat wider corridor.  In the cafeteria, the pair ate largely in silence.  The food was a little better than what Mrissa had dashed down in front of Yarec at Station Westerly—with crumbles of vat-grown synthetical animal protein instead of merely gruel.  However, it had very little taste, until Mrissa told Yarec to add a little bit of an earthy condiment labeled “liquid smog.”  After that, the meal was quite palatable, although Yarec’s stomach, unused to the strong flavor, was rather upset a few hours later.

Yarec wanted to hear more about how his wife had come to be working for Colonel Maldanko, but it was not something they could discuss in the cafeteria, with people constantly coming and going, even if it was not a normal mealtime.  So he ate up quickly, and they returned to her quarters.  A few people had been watching the pair as they ate—eyeing them with suspicion, Yarec thought.  As they walked back, he thought about reaching across and holding Mrissa’s hand—to keep things looking relaxed and natural.  However, she had opted instead to show off a stiff, none-of-your-business demeanor, and he was obligated to follow her lead.

Back in her room, they sat down again on her bed.  She leaned her head lightly against his shoulder, letting her red curls run carelessly down his neck.  For a while, Yarec just enjoyed smelling her skin.  Then he asked, “So… what happened after they took you away?”

When the hostile scouts had arrived at their house, Mrissa met them at the door.  She had seen them approaching through the night vision cameras Yarec had set up.  Some of them were in uniform, like the guards from the factory, but several were wearing full-body isolation suits, to protect them from whatever infection Yarec was harboring.  Mrissa stood in the doorway, watching their hesitant approach, then invited them curtly inside.

She led them around the house and fed them her story.  It was convincing enough to distract them, which was really the most important thing.  Then, since Yarec was not present in any of the obvious living areas, the searchers headed back outside, bringing Mrissa with them.

Out in the yard, they bound her hands.  The flexible metal straps bit into her wrists, leaving red weals on her freckled skin.  She shuffled along complaisantly, towards the convoy of vehicles the intruders had left hidden around a bend in the drive, idling behind a stand of wiry thorn trees.  Someone coughed an order at her from behind a hazardous materials mask, and the butt of a rifle prodded her shoulder.  She walked a little more quickly, even as the armed figures around her tightened their ring.

As she approached the three low-riding trucks, the door of the middle one swung open, and a wan blue light stole out into the night.  Mrissa shielded her eyes and instinctively slowed her pace; but another jab from the back end of a weapon reminded her to keep moving.

They advanced a few more steps.  “Hold on,” came a clear male voice, apparently from inside the vehicle, and then everyone did stop.  The voice had a rich, businesslike warmth—which, out here amidst all the dark and dust, made it all the more frightening.  “Who the hell is she?”

“Don’t know,” said one of the men standing behind her.  “She says she’s a bounty hunter.”

“Bounty hunter?”  The voice from the truck sounded dubious.

“Yes, sir—” Mrissa started, but the unseen man cut her off.

“Shut up,” he said, loudly and slowly.  “We’ll hear what you have to say in a minute.”  Then his voice slipped back into its genteel calm.  “Now, was there any sign of our guy?”

“The sniffer is all lit up,” someone said, “but we didn’t find anyone in the house.”

“Well, search outside.  If he’s that infected, he can’t have gotten far.”  The orders were clear, but no one moved.   The only sounds were the whistling breezes among the thorn branches and the electrical hum of the idling trucks.  “Are you afraid of dark?” the voice asked, its sarcastic edge having returned.  “If he’s here, he won’t be in any condition to ambush you.”  The man directly in front of Mrissa was fidgeting anxiously.  “And if he’s not in that bad shape, he’s probably long gone from here.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he left,” Mrissa said suddenly.

No one responded to what Mrissa had said, but the armed men dispersed into the darkness.  Just three were left behind, standing guard over her.  One of them was rubbing the wrists of his itchy uniform and scratching unhappily at the backs of his hands.

“Un-cuff her,” said the voice inside the personnel carrier.  “I’ll speak to her now.”  Someone complied; there was the snick of a tiny metal key, and Mrissa jerked her hands free as soon as she felt the pressure on her wrists lightening.

“Thank you,” she mumbled.  “I know you have to take precautions, but—” her voice trailed away, as if she was unsure what else to say.

A hand emerged from the open door.  Mrissa saw pale skin and carefully shaped nails.  For a moment, there was a striking gleam of faceted ruby brilliance, as the long fingers beckoned her inside.

She stepped up into the truck, not waiting to be pushed.  The interior was bathed in a pale light that flickered occasionally, indicating an intermittent problem with the circuit.  Seated on a rich mahogany-colored seat was the man.  He was bald and clean shaven, and in the unnatural light his smooth skin gave him the appearance of agelessness.  Mrissa could see, though, that he was old.  Vanity and money had kept his face mostly free of wrinkles, but she was not fooled.  The way he smiled—so deliberately; young men did not smile that way.  He squinted at her, and few of the crinkles he had fought so hard to keep away from his eyes reappeared for just a moment, but then smoothed themselves away again as his face relaxed.  Mrissa realized, appreciatively, that Yarec had never looked old like that, regardless of his actual age.  Then she set that moment of romantic indulgence behind her and sat down where the bald man indicated, on the seat across from his own.

“Who are you, really?” he asked.  His face was featureless, and his voice as genial as ever.

“Paula O’lette,” Mrissa said, doing her best to make it sound like she was trying not to sound sheepish.  O’lette was a real alias she had used, early in her career, when her eyes and hair and nose had been different.  They should be able to track the name back to an inexperienced female bounty hunter, but they would not—Mrissa hoped—be able to connect it to her more recent activities.

There was a flexible new computing lamina sitting on the seat beside him, but the man did not reach for it.  He was not interested in checking her story yet—although for all Mrissa knew, somebody else was punching up her records out of sight in the front seat.  The bald man said nothing, leaving Mrissa to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“I’m a bounty hunter,” she said.

“Yes, so you claimed,” the man said, not quite interrupting.  “But there’s no bounty on the owner of this house, is there?”

Mrissa doubted that this was actually true—unless Yarec had somehow bought off everyone who had ever wanted to kill him.  However, true or not, it made no difference.  An old price on her husband’s hide would not do to explain what she was doing there at the house exactly then.

“I heard that people with deep pockets were angry at the guy who lives here—ban Silfien,” Mrissa said.

“Where’d you hear that?”  The man let an edge of anger trickle back into his voice.

“It was just yesterday—or the day before, I guess,” Mrissa said, looking back out through the open door at the late-night blackness.  “I heard people were likely to be looking for him.  I was pretty close by, so I thought I’d try to get to him first.”

Where did you hear we were looking for him?” the man repeated.

Mrissa coughed twice and pulled her disarrayed hair back from her brow.  “People were talking about it on JobLinkz.  I go on there occasionally to hear the rumors.  A couple users were talking about ban Silfien—that he’d made some powerful enemies.”  She waved loosely at her surroundings.  The truck was a custom refit, with expensive seats and a light coat of armor.  And in the shadows behind the man’s bare, wax-like head, Mrissa could see an expensive-looking copper-plated pistol, holstered to the neck rest.  “Looks like they were right,” she added.

“JobLinkz, huh?”  The man’s smooth voice gave no indication whether he might believe her or not.  JobLinkz was a digital site where people found questionable employment.  It was almost entirely anonymous, and for people who cared to use the site correctly, their connections were supposed to be untraceable.  All postings were purged from the system within eighteen hours, so there was probably no way to confirm Mrissa’s story.

As Mrissa recounted this part of her story, Yarec was trying not to laugh.  She glared over at him, but that only made it harder to suppress his cackling.  “Oh?” she said testily.  “You finding this funny?”

“No, uh.”  Yarec was trying to hedge, before he was finally overcome with laughter.  “No, really,” he said, after swallowing hard, “I just can’t imagine somebody who hangs out on JobLinkz catching me.  Can you?  I mean, they’re not the most elite bunch on there, are they?”

“No, probably not,” Mrissa said.  She did not think much of JobLinkz either, but she had poked around there more than once, when she was having real trouble finding work.  “They believed it though,” she reminded him.  “They wouldn’t have been convinced that you were gone if I hadn’t been there to sell it.”

And the searchers really were convinced.  There was no sign of Yarec in the backcountry, and they missed the secret infirmary in his house.  Mrissa kept up a patter of misdirection—about how she had been through the house and only found the signs of a hasty exit; how she had been hoping to tail Yarec through the backcountry; and which direction she guessed he might have gone.

“I think there’s a path downhill across the rocks over there—to the, uh, west.”

To Mrissa herself, her efforts felt incredibly feeble.  Yet they worked well enough.  The searchers were sloppy enough to overlook the vault where Yarec’s wasting body was hidden away.  Outside, they tried to find a trail, but there was nothing—no stumbling footsteps, no bacterial spoor.  Eventually, after an hour or so, they gave up.  Mrissa was still sitting in the compartment with the crew’s leader, and she listened as he dealt with the increasingly disappointing status reports.  Eventually, he gave a laconic order to abandon the search.  The searchers, their uniforms now dusted with pale dull sand, returned to the trucks.  They loaded up their exquisitely sensitive equipment, then piled onto the bench seats.

Two more fellows squeezed in beside Mrissa.  One of the them eyed her free hands suspiciously, but there was no move to cuff her again.  The door finally slammed shut, and after a few more jolts and clangs, Mrissa felt the engine starting up.  The three trucks made a looping U-turn and started back down the long, bumpy driveway.

Chapter 10:  Up to the Present

Yarec’s eyes had been closed for a long time.  He was barely moving; there was just the slow rising and falling of his chest, and Mrissa thought that he might have fallen asleep.  He looked younger now than when she had known him before, and that made him seem strangely childlike—his boyish face peacefully serene.

But at this point in her his eyes opened, and he turned his head to look over at her.  “What happened after we got married?” he said, very softly.  “I don’t remember much of anything, and for once, I don’t think that’s the fault of a bad consciousness transfer.”

Mrissa looked away, then back at Yarec.  “People came looking for you, but I told them you were gone.”

“I think I remember,” Yarec said.  “I saw you talking to them.”

“Yeah, I convinced them that I had been hunting for you too,” Mrissa explained.  “They hadn’t gotten any usable pictures of me during the attack, so they didn’t recognize me.  They would have recognized you though, if they’d found you.”

“Thanks,” Yarec said softly.  She must have given a lot to protect him.

“Oh, yeah,” Mrissa said, “and I took your watch.  Sorry.”

“Took my watch?”

“I guess you didn’t notice,” she said with a little laugh.  “I had to go with them, and I think I just wanted a keepsake, something to help me remember.”  She paused, then said rather excitedly, “Actually, I’ve still got it.”  Mrissa got up off the bed and pushed open the sliding door of her wardrobe.  “Let me see,” she said, half whispering, as she started fumbling through her tidily folded stacks of clothes.  It did not take her long to find what she was looking for, resting pillowed upon a set of her chocolatey brown undergarments.

She pulled the watch out and showed it to Yarec.  It was beautiful.  The frame and wristband were elegantly crafted in glittering purple metal.  Yarec recognized the alloy instantly—a mixture of aluminum and gold—but he had no memory of ever having owned the watch.  Mrissa laid it gently in his hand, and he turned it over and over between his fingers, marveling at the rich color and the minute decoration.  The face was octagonal, surrounded by a fluted metal frame.  The band was constructed from small interlocking plates.  Yarec definitely had to admire the way it looked, but it did not seem like the type of item he would ever have owned.  It’s only functions were lighting up, telling time, and functioning as a magnetic compass.  With so many general-purpose information devices available, the only real reason to have such a simplistic piece of technology was as an eye-catching fashion accessory.

“Before I left, I called for help for you.”  Mrissa sat back down beside Yarec.  He snapped the watch around his left wrist and turned his full attention back to her.  “You’d showed me how to send out an emergency call from your home set,” she said.  “I turned it on to broadcast on two different channels the day before those guys got to our house.  A message must have reached somebody, and I guess they came and put you back together.  I didn’t find out for over a year though.  I figured you for dead, until your name popped up in connection with another job I was working on.  You’d helped break up a cell of infiltrators somewhere.”

Once Yarec was actually inside, Mrissa had to wait.  She had parked her cycle on a rough stretch of of lakeshore.  Behind her sat a low brown warehouse, with a corrugated steel roof.  Down each of the roof’s creases ran a stream of cloudy rainwater.  They reached the edge and tumbled down in a ragged, watery sheet.  The warehouse was empty, but it was no relic.  It looked only a few years old, and Mrissa could see where the latest occupants’ corporate insignia had been spraypainted over with a thin layer of gray.

She could still hear one street performer at work nearby, in spite of the rain—playing the same impromptu over and over on a synthesizer box.  Mrissa leaned against the seat of her bike.  The cowl of her rain slicker hung low over her face, hiding her features from the wandering gazes of distant security cameras.  Her only distinguishing feature was the heaped red curls protruding over her collar.  There was a significant chance that Yarec was never going to make it out; if that happened, Mrissa had decided that she was just going to disappear.  She might send in a terse report in a few weeks, once she had found a stable situation far, far away, but there would be no detailed debriefing at the FAF headquarters if Yarec’s infiltration was a failure.

She had a low resolution video feed, transmitted from Yarec’s position, but it provided a narrow shaky view.  If a security officer came up behind Yarec, she would never see the attack coming.  There would just be a sudden jerk to the floor, then stillness as Yarec lay either unconscious or dead.  Mrissa reached back into her hood and bunched the hair at the side of her neck between her muscular fingers.

For a long time, nothing had been happening.  At first, there were only occasional twitches as Yarec changed position slightly in his dim little compartment.  That showed he was alive, but nothing else.  Then Yarec was out in the light and moving, with a cautious but natural gait.  Ris tried to match up the screen’s narrow field with what she understood of the factory’s interior layout, but beyond staying alert, there was still very little for her to do.

However, when Yarec’s movement became a dogged sprint, her pose changed completely.  Mrissa became minutely attuned to everything that was going on.  She knew her assistance could be required at an instant.  On the shaky screen, she watched the chaos begin inside the facility.  It was soon mirrored in what she observed directly across the turbid gray water.  The plant rang with sirens and lit up with emergency lights.  There were shooting flames on the monitor, and a fiery blast ripped through part of the roof.  Lightning flashed, and thunderclaps mixed with the booming explosions.

Yarec, having set the disaster in motion, had now lost himself among the escaping throngs.  Outside, the security personnel, in their sky blue uniforms, were still trying to maintain a cordon, but with each blast, they were pushed further back from the conflagration.  When the panicked factory workers finally burst past the guards, Yarec broke away from their horde.  While the others rushed for the causeway road to the mainland, Yarec broke for the shoreline opposite Mrissa’s position.

It was her job to provide covering fire for his escape.  She shot off six or seven rockets, hitting the fence at the spot where Yarec hit the water, then to his left and right along the coast.  Then she was supposed to wait.  Yarec might need serious medical attention the moment he was pulled from the water.  It was her responsibility to provide it, but only if he arrived soon.  Mrissa had picked out a fairly safe location—on the grounds of another small manufacturing facility that had only recently closed down—but she had given away her position now.  Someone would be around to look for her, and probably soon.

There was no way to track Yarec once he was in the water.  His camera was waterproof, but in the wet, ragged dimness, there was nothing for it to see.  As the rain fell harder and harder, the surface of the lake became a dirty, pock-marked mess.  It was impossible to see whether Yarec was still coming up for air.

Mrissa dropped the rocket launcher.  She pushed back the hood of her parka and ran both hands up through the soggy curls stuck to her forehead.  She pushed the locks back and held them tightly against her scalp, is if they might be the only things blocking her from seeing him.

Then, like a gray dolphin breasting from the water, his head and torso were up and out.  He wheezed a horrible-sounding breath.  Then Mrissa’s arms were there for him to fall upon.

She half led, half dragged him to her motorcycle, and they rode back to a clean hotel room, where they could hole up until they decided what to do next.  She gave Yarec’s bruised body a bath.  Then he just wanted to lie down beside her, with his own skin next to hers under the blanket.  He kept shivering for a long time.  The harsh ordeal had left him cold to the core, and for a while he had very little to say.  He just lay, curled up with his arms around his knees.  Mrissa lay behind him, still half dressed in her bra and undershorts, until he finally stopped shivering and fell asleep.

When he woke up again, they talked.  The city was not safe, and she wanted to get away.  So Yarec took her northeast into the countryside, to the the little town where he was born.  Mrissa accepted the bumpy trip, but she did not like the destination.

Where am I? Mrissa wondered once they were there.  She knew the geographic coordinates, but the highland seemed so alien compared to the coastal plains.  It was dry here in the summer and dry in the winter.  The landowners seemed to fancy themselves old-fashioned country squires, but there was virtually nothing to grow.  The soil, where it was not just sand, might have been quite fertile.  There was certainly volcanic activity to enrich it; just outside of town, Ris had seen two cinder cones.  They rose up thirty of forty meters—heaps of ash and black rock laced with razor-sharp edges.  Yet whatever nutrients the coughing little volcanoes had donated to the soil, there was too little water to draw them out.

In that dry countryside, for the first time Yarec seemed old.  He must have been much older than Mrissa, but she had never dared to ask his age.  In Sankirk, it had not seemed to matter.  When they were actively working, he had been a perfect professional—fit, sharp-eyed, and ingenious; and during their off time, Yarec’s behavior had always seemed uncommonly youthful, almost immature—as if some part of him had been frozen in perpetual adolescence.

However, in the country, among Yarec’s native people, his true age became an unavoidable fact.  The community was full of middle-aged men and women whom Yarec had known since they were infants.  Before Marshall Kubiak’s garden soiree, Yarec had tried telling Mrissa about the many relatives and family friends she would probably meet.  She leaned back against his chest and listened, snapping the names and the brief anecdotes associated with them into place in her mental diagram of the community.  So when she was introduced to people at the party, she remembered most of them; yet she was shocked at how old they all seemed.  Yarec, she realized, must have been one of the oldest people in town, and he was unquestionably the richest.  The affluent in these parts mostly survived by selling away the mineral resources under their feet, and that was nowhere near as lucrative as Yarec’s own very specialized line of work.  Whenever Yarec’s back was turned, Ris was aware of people’s envious glares, and she wanted to whisk him away to a safe place where he would be more appreciated.

How are they so backward, yet so smug in their own superiority?  No wonder Yarec had to get away from here.  When he collapsed on the banquet table, Mrissa was afraid for a moment that the locals, with their blanket of self assurance, had actually smothered Yarec into unconsciousness.

She drove Yarec back to his house, leading a modest convoy.  The doctor was following along to see that Yarec got suitably situated, but most of the other cars were just loaded with the curious.  A sizeable fraction of the community seemed to have come along to wish Yarec well.  They all professed to be deeply concerned about his welfare, and of course they were willing to help out in any way they could.  By the time Yarec was tucked gently under the covers of his steel-framed hospital bed, the most daring folk were beginning to congregate in the front room of the house.  Mrissa banished them all except for the Kubiaks.  A few of the visitors were hesitant to go so soon—and not entirely convinced that Ris really had such authority over Yarec’s house—but they acceded to the country custom of never overstaying one’s welcome.

After that, Mrissa watched Yarec’s body deteriorate.  His eyes were bloodshot—splotched with red where they should have been white.  His skin was puckered with sores, and any new nick or bruise became another oozing purple mess.  He was seldom awake and ever more rarely lucid.  So it took Mrissa entirely by surprise when he called her over to him and asked—in the strongest, calmest voice he could muster—to become his spouse and heir.

The question was a real effort for him, and he was asleep again before she could even answer.  Just as well, she told herself, since she was not sure what to say.  She did not feel entitled to Yarec’s largesse.  What would they have said back in Red Stick if they heard I was marrying a terminally ill older man for his money?  Imagining those catty sneers did nothing to dissuade her from accepting Yarec’s proposal though.  No, so what what if a bunch of bitches who don’t know anything about my life would think I’m a gold digger?  That was not why she was marrying him.  The infection may have sped things up, but if events had gone more smoothly, and Yarec had asked her in a year, she believed that she still would have said yes.

A current image did not actually reach her until Mrissa had already staked out Yarec’s arrival.  It arrived on her pocket lamina, which bleeped softly to alert her, but she did no more than glance at the file to make sure it was the picture she had been expecting.  Then Mrissa peered back down at the wharf.  She had perched herself—along with her high-powered scope, which was still perfectly focused, in spite of the dents and scuffs on its casing—on the roof of a three-story warehouse, just over on the mainland.  The little boat, laden with its cargo of exotic human and animal fluids, pulled up to the passenger dock.  The daylight was failing, but the occupied areas of the pier were well lit.  Under the large gray-white lamps, Mrissa could see the crewmen—and Yarec—relatively clearly.  The others looked rather anxious, but Yarec seemed impassive.  He showed neither the severity of an agent on a mission, nor the typical glee of a man on vacation.  To Mrissa, it seemed almost as if the muscles of his face were only halfway connected  to the nerves that were supposed to control them.

Yarec stepped away from the heavy lights of the pier.  Mrissa bounced down off the warehouse roof and was ready to follow him when he hit the street.  She could hear several different strains of music coming from different performers.  Their distinct rhythms competed for primacy in her mind, as she mimed a casual stroll, far behind her quarry.

He was not especially difficult to follow as he drifted toward the core of the festivities.  His gait was casual, until he ducked abruptly out of sight, and Mrissa heard a brief but noisy struggle.  Yarec swiftly disabled a pair of mesh-shirted toughs.  Then he exited the scene, and probably no one but Mrissa even noticed which way he had gone.

He checked into a hotel located next to a Austronesian-style dance club, from which twangs and rumbles tumbled out into the street.  As they walked, Mrissa had edged closer and closer to Yarec, and now, under the silver and pink neon of the hotel’s facade, she got her first clear, unaided look at his face.  He resembled many of his earlier personas.  Straight brown hair—artificially bleached, making it look as if he had lately spent a lot of time outdoors—hung down over his forehead.  His eyes were dark, and the way they were set in his face suggested something different than his otherwise largely Caucasian features.  Yet as always with a new with a new body, there were subtle differences.  The line of his jaw was softer than Mrissa had expected, and his nose was longer.  The slight changes from his default appearance made Mrissa wonder:  How much of what she saw was Yarec’s original appearance?

From across the street, Ris watched the hotel.  Yarec gave away which room he was in by adjusting the curtains in his third-floor window.  Security was evidently not his main priority right now.  Mrissa could have broken into Yarec’s room and waited for his return.  However, that would not have been the safest way to introduce herself.  If he found a stranger in his room, there was a reasonable chance that Yarec might just shoot her dead without even bothering to inquire why she was there.  If she was going to accost him in his bedroom, Mrissa would need to make it instantly clear that she was not armed.  She could be completely naked, but even that might not be sufficient.  To show that she was not about to attack him with her fists or reach for something concealed nearby, she should probably also have her hands cuffed behind her back.  However, if Yarec found Mrissa in his hotel room, hands tied and stripped naked, that could lead to an entirely different kind of misunderstanding.

So she waited until he left the hotel and then followed him along the boulevard, as it pulsated with lights and sound.  He seemed to be growing impatient, as if he was already finding the festivities tiresome.  He found the first bar that did not seem like too much of a dive—a red-lit establishment called Sloshed, Sloshed, Sloshed—and stepped inside.  Mrissa gave Yarec a little time to get situated; then she followed him in to make her pitch.

Once Yarec was on the job, Mrissa followed his lead.  She observed him at work, trying to tease out the traits that had made him so effective.  It would obviously never be possible to distill out the perfect essence of his technique, but after they had been working together for a while, Mrissa found there were two things about Yarec that really struck her.  The first—his arrogance—was not much of a surprise.  A polite way of describing it would be that he took a great deal of pride in his work.  He generally had a particular way that he wanted to do something.  When he had thought something through and come to a decision, he did not like to have it questioned.  He liked to see things done his way.

Mrissa’s second observation, however, was more subtle.  It surprised her to see how much he hated doing this kind of work—but apparently, he hated not doing the work even more.  He could conceal his distaste when he chose to, but at close quarters, Mrissa could see the constant frustration simmering inside him.

Sometimes, Yarec’s attitude really worried her.  His behavior never quite fit what she had expected.  She had to talk to somebody, about they way the job was turning out.  She was not quite sure what conversation she really wanted to have, but she had to say something.  So she signalled the FAF that she needed to communicate, in private.

A day and a half before the final assault, Ris went out to run some last-minute mundane errands.  She stopped to eat in a cramped blue-walled diner, where all the various natural and artificial foodstuffs were being seared on a single flat-top grill.  She sat down and waited, picking at the edges of a thin fried patty, until an irritating plinking noise indicated someone was trying to get in touch.  Mrissa excused herself to the ladies’ room and locked the door.  The restroom was a single unit.  The crude deadbolt, which had been affixed to the door by hand, would not keep out a determined intruder, but nobody in the diner had seemed suspicious of her in the slightest.  She knocked the lid down on the commode but did not sit on it.  Instead she stood in the center of the room, eyes of the door, and pulled a small communicator out of the side pocket of her pants.

She checked that the lamina was in an audio-only mode, then held it up near her face.  The voice was a conspiratorial purr.  “Do you need further assistance?  Is something going wrong with the ranking agent?”

“No, no,” Mrissa found herself assuring the voice briskly.  She wondered though, What would they do if I said “yes”?  “I’m just concerned that there’s going to be a lot of violence.  Are you ready for the fallout from a really big kaboom?”

“Do you mean you need more people?  ’Cause I can file a request, but I don’t think—”

“No, no” she said again—more firmly, but not loudly.  It would not do to be heard yelling in the toilet cubicle.  “There’s just going to be a lot of carnage.  As you prepared to deal with that?”  And how much carnage am I prepared to deal with?

“How many casualties are appropriate is left to the discretion of the senior on-the-ground operatives,” the voice intoned.  “However, we may review the mission outcome later, to see whether the methods used were appropriate to the situation.”

“Fine.  But are you prepared to protect the operatives on the ground—like, you know, me—when stuff gets nasty afterward?”

“Do you need additional Field Army Faction resources?” the man on the other end asked.

“Just some more money, I think,” Mrissa answered.  “And you all need to understand that I may not want to stick around after the job’s done.  If you need me afterwards, you may have to wait a while.”

“Hold on,” he said.  “How much money?”  As soon as she answered, he promptly transferred the call to someone else with more authority.  Ris dickered with the second man for a while, until they found a new number that suited both sides.

And evidently, that was all she needed right then.  After the call was over, she flushed the toilet and carefully washed her hands.

“I had told myself I was worried about your performance,” Mrissa told Yarec, “but I think I was really worried about getting close to you.”

She had exited the restaurant, with barely a glance at her uneaten food, and returned to where Yarec was waiting.  It was time to help him get in and out of the factory.