Have you ever heard a little voice in your head wherever you go, only to dismiss it as a sign you're losing your mind? You're not -- you just aren't quite state-of-the-art.
It was that band of pale flesh on her finger, you know. That thin ring she wore once; probably melted it down and sold the lump of gold that it became. That white line started all this.
She was at the bar. You weren't even supposed to be anywhere near a bar, but you were, and that's just one more thing I'll have to tell them when they ask. Blonde hair, long, and nice legs too. I can remember your eyes lingering there. Good body, tanned, but her eyes looking so lost, far away, her hand around a rum Collins and the other laying on the bar with its band, white against her tan, calling your eyes like a beacon through the smoke.
You got up and I knew -- maybe even before you did -- that you were going to her.
Do you remember that time last year, down in the NilePlex? It was early autumn, but that didn't matter -- in the Complex, all seasons are pretty much the same, hot and dry. You were down there on a jaunt in the Cairo end for the Ketselweitsch Group. You probably don't remember that. Company would've wiped the salient information, like client name and drop address, but they never let me forget. You picked up a hooker, light-haired chick in a bar on one of those dusty little side streets.
The Boulevard Hasyut, it was. Club Kyroh.
Dark bar, heavy music. She was dancing all alone until you went out onto the dance floor to join her, laser show in the smoke above your heads. When she sat on a stool you followed her, bought her a drink. She must've seen it in your eyes, because she told you how much. And in American cashdollars -- you never looked particularly American to me, more Spanish, but she knew.
You really should stay out of bars, you know. If you get another chance, after all I tell them -- and understand, I don't want to tell them, but I have no choice in the matter -- you should stay out of bars.
And out on the dusty Boulevard Hasyut, the sun setting as you came out of the bar, dark turning to red-tinged light, your arm around the soft warm curve of her waist, your hand splayed on warm denim over her hip, you traded lies. She told you she was Shelly, and you told her you were David -- and then you went to your cheap hotel room on another dusty little street you probably don't remember (Mulshavah Street, named for a hero of the Arab Zone War, or so the guidebook said), and you fucked.
I watched. That's why they've got me. To watch you.
At all times.
You sat down on the ancient barstool beside the blonde and you said, "Do you want to talk about it?" Interesting line, that. I don't know if I'd have tried it, myself, given the chance. But then you always did have a certain talent with women, knowing just what to say. Her eyes -- they were blue, but I doubt you noticed that -- came back from infinity and focused on you, on your face. She said, "Excuse me?" Slight British lilt to the voice.
You said, "I do hope I'm not intruding, but I noticed you looked very sad, and I find when I'm sad it helps me to talk to someone about it. Anyone at all."
For a second her face hardened, but then she seemed to melt, and she smiled, just a little. I knew you were in.
And in the night, in Cairo, you woke, sweating, from some nightmare I wasn't privy to, and "Shelly" was kneeling on the floor by the overnight bag. She had the payload case on the floor and was working on it with a tiny palmtop she must've had squirreled away in her black false-leather purse, a thin ribbon of wire linking the computer to the case's lock. Her back to you.
You moved and she froze, half lit by a shaft of light from the open curtains, sky-orange. The palmtop's cursor blinking like a tiny pale eye. She knew.
You said, "Sorry, Shelly."
She didn't turn around. "It's Yuko."
"You don't look Japanese."
"Surgery." Green eyes, I remembered, and blonde. Everywhere.
"Who you working for?"
"Oh, right," she said, and that was when you shot her, once, in the back of the head, with the folding blowgun hidden in the hollow telephone book you always carry with you on jaunts.
Nerve toxin, a fast one; Yuko landed on her palmtop, crunching sound, twitched and drooled for about a minute and then she was still. You cut the mattress open and stuffed her in, still warm, and then you left the hotel on Mulshavah Street and so far you haven't gone back to the NilePlex.
Except this time it was different. She must've been rigged with radio or something, the blonde ex-wife, or else she had a watcher too, with radio. They won't give me radio, those cheap-ass bastards at the company. Maybe it would've gone our way. After all, we had backup. Just no way to contact them, at the crunch.
"David," you said, and she said, "I'm Meredith." And right then was probably when she -- or whoever -- was radioing.
Sex. That's your Achilles' heel, your weak point. Everyone's got one. Takes digging, maybe, to find it, but it's there. Yours was easy to find.
But you're one of the company's best: no questions, no loyalty except to the company and to whomever they've hired you out to. Expedient. Unafraid to kill to protect the payload. Good qualities in a courier. They promoted you, you know, after the Shelly/Yuko thing, because I told them how calm you were with the blowgun.
It was actually in the hotel that they did it, which was ballsy. Getting on the elevator, there were two women already standing there -- in hindsight, Meredith-or-whoever must've radioed them -- a brunette and one with black hair. The doors closed and I realized suddenly, just as Meredith pressed B for Basement, that I'd seen both these other women in the bar.
"What the fu--" you began, and then the black-haired one hit you, hard, stiff-fingered blow to a certain nerve cluster, and you lost all feeling in your legs. Meredith and the brunette and the black-haired one, they'd all been sitting in different spots in the bar, all three alone. You'd go to one of them. It didn't matter which one.
They knew your Achilles' heel.
They took you out into an alley behind the hotel, a little narrow street with laundry hanging out in the cool New Los Angeles night air to dry, the lines of damp sweaters and jeans twenty feet above your head. The blonde, Meredith, she took your hotel key and your wallet and the key to the payload case, a thin piece of iron magnetized a certain way. She kissed you once, and then said, "Sorry, David." She peeled the money and credit cards out of your wallet and tossed the leather in the gutter, and then the brunette shot you twice in the stomach with a tiny silenced pistol.
You sat down and I could feel the cold concrete through your jeans.
You've gone and closed your eyes, so I can't see anymore. Thanks a bunch.
I don't know why I'm telling you all this. You can't hear me; I use your sensorium, but I don't -- can't -- read your mind. You probably don't even know I exist, though I suppose anything's possible. Sitting up here, nestled in the back of your brain, piggybacked into your sense centers with microfine wires, input lines, I see what you see, hear what you hear, to an extent feel what you feel; but I don't know what you make of it.
I do know one thing: when they get here, the first thing they're going to do is field surgery, slice open the back of your head and cut through your skull and pull me out, savagely, their big brute hands not at all gentle with my biocompatible casing. They'll yank me out, snapping the input lines, and I'll go into limbo.
They'll look like cops, but they won't be cops.
And then they'll hook me up to a machine, after a strange time of blankness, no sensory input whatever -- true nothingness. They'll hook in my auditory circuitry and if they're in a good mood they'll hook in my visuals, maybe put me in a dream of cybernetic afterlife, open meadows and rustling leaves and gurgling streams.
And they'll ask me questions, with a mike if it's just my ears they give me, or with a VR rig if they give me heaven. And I'll answer. I'll tell them everything. I won't want to, but I'm not allowed to lie. It's not in my programming. A lot of things are, but lying to them isn't.
They're going to be pissed off. You're not going to get another body, not after this fiasco. That means I'll be debriefed and assigned to some other courier.
And I was getting used to you, David.
Pat Johanneson (firstname.lastname@example.org) was born in Winnipeg in the early '70s. He lived in a small town called Saint Rose, graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Brandon University, and still works as computer operator there.
InterText stories written by Pat Johanneson: "Chronicler" (v5n4), "Watching You" (v5n5), "Other Flesh" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Pat Johanneson.