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The Defect

by shukyou (主教)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/337866.html)

I stared down as the milk swirled little clouds into my tea. “I don’t do that for your people anymore,” I told him.

David frowned at me from across the table; I didn’t have to look up to see the disappointment and frustration on his face. Boy, was he in the wrong line of work. “They’re well-placed,” he said. “His bioengineering research would be useful, and she broke our unbreakable ciphers.”

I didn’t need him to tell me we were in trouble. Five Western ships downed in the last month, sunk by subs that had no business knowing where they’d be. Whatever he had, it was just a cherry on the top. She was the real deal.

“Come on, Duska,” David said. “Do it for the blue and gold, eh?”

I finally looked up at him, with an expression that hopefully told him he wasn’t going to appeal to my better, more patriotic angels. “Thirty thousand,” I said, highballing ridiculously in the hopes that he’d go away.

“Done,” he said without blinking.

I’ve been in this business a long time, but it took a heroic effort to keep my face fixed at that. “Plus expenses,” I added.

David nodded. “Save your receipts.”

“Cute.” I snorted.

Unfortunately, before I could tell him to stuff it, I didn’t mean it, even thirty thousand plus whatever other costs I concocted wasn’t worth it, he reached down into his bag and pulled out a library-bound copy of some classic I’d managed to get out of school without reading. He handed it over and I thumbed through just enough of the pages to convince anyone watching that it was a real book. “You need anything else, you know where to find me.” He tipped the brim of his hat downward toward me.

I closed the book and slid it into my satchel. “You better not be kidding about the thirty thousand,” I warned him. I didn’t even have to raise my voice to make the threat good and clear.

David bumped his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I told my superiors they’re paying for the best. Don’t make me a liar.”

I sipped my tea meaningfully until he got the hint and went away, then I set about actually drinking it. I wished I had something stronger to toss in there. I’d let myself get greedy, something I’d sworn time and again never to do. But that many zeros and a girl can’t exactly say no, now, can she? Not if she’s got bills and not a lot of other marketable skills. That described me to a T.

When the server came by again, I ordered up a few sandwiches and a large tea to go, then told her just to bill it to the man who’d been seated across from me. Those expenses could start now.

~*~

My first real memory is of crossing the Wall, my hand inside my older brother’s as we held our breath and tried not to make a sound in the dead of a moonless, starless night.

It isn’t even a wall, not the way you’re thinking of one, like guards a castle or holds up the roof of a house. There are guardposts in places that stretch along a couple meters, and a few places here and there have rubble piled in a barricade-like fashion. There’s barbed wire strung along in places, too, and razor wire, and sometimes even electrified wire at the places near enough to civilization to pick up a charge. Part of it even has a riverbed that cuts through it, though the river itself got dammed up when one side started poisoning the fish in it, I don’t remember which. But mostly it’s just a field’s length of space where nobody goes. It’s meant to keep the West out and the East in. And most of the time, it does a damn good job.

The rest of the time, there’s me.

There are some who are notorious for crossing the Wall, flashy risk-takers with their names on Most Wanted posters, whose pictures circulate at every guard station. The most experienced of the bunch have about a dozen crossings, back and forth, to their names. One of them even wrote a book about it, the dumbass, that got all the holes along the whole north sector plugged up. He’s not even sorry; he’ll never have to go back, not with those royalties. Smug bastard.

My picture’s not anywhere. Nobody in the East knows I’ve been there except the people I’ve gone to see. Forty-five crossings East to West, forty-four West to East, never in the same place twice, never caught, never shot. It’s like a dance, only your partner doesn’t know you’re even there. The night after I spoke to David, I was there, ready for the song to begin.

What nobody knows is that we all move in predictable patterns. Any time humans can settle into a routine, we do. And guard duty is more routine than most, considering how desolate the Wall really is. On a good night, a watchful young soldier might see a rabbit, or a deer. Otherwise, it’s a lot of nothing. I sat in that tree for over an hour and watched. Spotlight sweep, every two minutes. One guard in the Eastern tower who barely stirred, his rifle at rest against the edge. Half-moon tonight, but I only knew that from my calendar; the clouds blotted out all light from above, but reflected back the oily orange city light from below. From the Western half of below, anyway; the East was dim at night, if not fully dark. They had trouble keeping the power on anywhere but the capital, and their infrastructure was failing left and right. Conventional wisdom gave it a year, maybe two, before their leaders finally came crawling back to the state they’d seceded from years before I was born. Of course, conventional wisdom had also been saying that since years before I was born, so I’d learned to tune most political prognosticators out.

I watched until I got the rhythm of it, the slow pattern of young men from both sides who’d rather be anywhere than where they were, the lazy swing of spotlight eyes. I waited for the moment where all those independent cycles aligned. Then I slid down from the tree and walked across.

Okay, maybe it’s not as simple as that. Maybe it involves knowing where the manufactured razor wire places two blades just slightly farther apart than the rest. Maybe it’s being able to keep your mouth shut when one of the sharp edges drags across your calf and shreds your pants and skin in the same swipe. Maybe it’s having the patience to lie still against the jagged rubble so that when the spotlight makes its slow crawl by you, you look like nothing more than a shadow.

Really, though, it’s just a walk. In fact, that’s the trick: to walk. Running only ever attracts attention.

It took me ten minutes from side to side, which was about my average. I found a spot inside a bush and waited, motionless, for another full hour, just to make sure no eagle-eyed Eastern soldier had caught a glimpse of something worth investigating. Satisfied finally that no one’s curiosity had been piqued, I hefted my knapsack over my shoulder and trudged off toward the nearest town. That made it forty-five both ways now, bringing me back to where I’d started. I couldn’t wait until the numbers were mismatched again.

There was a pub on the outskirts of town, and by the time I got there I could see they were chasing the last patrons out and shutting down for the night. I waited until the windows were shuttered, then took shelter underneath a broken hay-cart heaped up against the back wall. Pubs were nice because no one would be around until midmorning at the earliest, leaving me a little peace and quiet. I pillowed my jacket on the ground, tossed its empty sleeve over my eyes, and got a little sleep.

~*~

Here’s the other reason I’m good at this: Ugly girls are invisible.

No one gave me a second look as I walked down the main street in broad daylight, even though it was a small town and not one of them had ever seen me before. They saw me, but their eyes slid right off my plain features, my unpainted face, my flat chest, my wide hips. I had a long false braid pinned to the back of my otherwise short hair, secured in place by a cap, and if anything, more of them paid attention to its swinging motion than to a single aspect of my body.

At the station, I waited until a radiant young woman appeared, rose-cheeked and hourglass-shaped, and I got in line behind her. The ticket-seller barely looked at my papers, much less at me, before issuing me a ticket to the capital, his eyes still darting back over my shoulder to the fresh-faced beauty who had answered all his questions about where she was going and how long she’d be there visiting her auntie and when she could be expected to return. I could have asked him for timetables to the Moon and all the ration cards in his wallet for all he cared about what I had to say.

I’d once gone to the cinema to see a spy fiction movie about a secret agent who was played by a very handsome man, based on one of those famous Wall-crosser accounts, and I’d laughed so hard they’d almost asked me to leave. Apparently not everyone there read it as satire.

On the train I found a seat next to an old man who began snoring even before we pulled out of the station, so I stole his newspaper. The conductor passed by us without comment, possibly thinking I was the old man’s daughter or even granddaughter, more likely thinking nothing at all. Three hours later, I left the old man to his dreaming and disembarked.

I didn’t look around as I stepped out; looking around was for tourists, those obviously out of place, and I was not that. This was my birthplace, after all.

I didn’t check street signs or pull out a map, either. I had done that work and more long before, until I was certain I could, if necessary, have found my way to any destination in the city while blindfolded. That would have been an attention-attracting trick, though, so I chose not to challenge myself. Wearing now the drab, well-worn dress and coat that might as well have been the mandated uniform of women of the East, I kept my head down and walked without distraction to a small apartment building a mile or so from the station.

The guard at the front desk looked up as I came in; made sense, considering who else probably lived here. “Help you?” he asked, sounding not helpful in the least.

“Hi there,” I said, shifting my speech to a more rural accent. I could see his estimation of my intelligence fall in just those few syllables. Good. “I’m here to see my cousin Hanni, Hanni Batrop. I think she said she was in…” I frowned a little, as though there might be any doubt in my mind about the apartment number. “302. Or was it 303? No, 302, I’m sure.”

The guard gnawed on a toothpick as he looked at me, but mostly through me. “Cousins?” he asked, skepticism audible.

“By marriage,” I told him, as though that explained everything.

“She didn’t say you were coming.”

“I caught an early train,” I said, still giving him that blank, pleasant smile that was as forgettable as the rest of me. “May I please go up and see her? I’ve had a long journey and I’m very tired.”

That moment of deliberation passed across his face, and I started spinning out a story in my head, creating the skeleton on which it would be built. I prefer simple, as the more complicated a lie becomes, the more elements it has for contradiction. I could have smiled wider and given him the whole family tree then, though, if he’d asked, with birthdates and marriages and which one was mad at which other for what stolen recipe or unwritten thank-you note. It’s a talent, and a very effective one, to be able to bury someone under too-precious bullshit. But on the whole, I prefer simple.

As it turned out, so did he. “302,” he confirmed, jerking his thumb in the direction of the stairs behind him. There was an elevator behind him too, but in a city plagued by power outages, only the truly desperate took that option.

“Many thanks,” I said sweetly, then hiked up my long skirts and started the climb.

Three floors later, I was more than a bit winded. The capital’s elevation was considerably higher than what I’d grown used to, especially since I’d gotten all but out of this line of business I’d found myself back in. I straightened my spine, took a deep breath, and gave the door to 302 a few good raps. “Hello!” I called brightly; the walls in these places were paper-thin anyway, so it was worth heading off nosy neighbors at the pass. “Hanni, darling? It’s your cousin, Duska!”

There was a long pause from the other side, during which I considered setting aside my general atheism and praying to one god or another that these intelligent, educated people weren’t too dumb to get what was going on. Then the door pushed open a crack and I was met with two dark brown eyes. “Duska?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

“Marnie’s wife!” I chirped. “I know it’s been so long since the wedding….”

Those brown eyes narrowed, then relaxed. The door shut, there was the sound of a chain slipping by, and a second later, the door swung wide. The hall had collected a few onlookers since my arrival, so before taking stock of anything, I threw myself into the arms of the woman on the other side of the door. “Darling cousin!” I exclaimed. “I’ve missed you so much!”

To her credit, a split second into the hug, I was being embraced in kind. “Hello, dear,” she said, her voice artificially kind. I didn’t worry, though; polite society is predicated on the fact that most people can’t tell when another person’s emotions are fake. “How was your journey? You must be so tired. Come inside.”

“I will, thank you!” I said, and I did just that. As the door shut behind us, I turned and at last got a good look.

The photograph I’d been given, a clipping from a newspaper nearly a decade old, hadn’t done her justice. She was stunning, made even more beautiful for how fine lines had settled in around her eyes and strands of silver threaded through her dark plaited hair. She was a bit above my height, tall for a woman, and slender, with delicate features. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from falling in love. It didn’t work.

Even so, there was business to be done. “You know who I am,” I said, setting down my bag on a nearby table. The entire apartment was small, so nearby was relative, but I could literally reach this table without taking an extra step.

“Duska,” said Hanni again. “Is that your real name?”

“Real enough,” I said, which was true. “When does the guard shift at the desk change?”

Hanni frowned, confusion clear on her face. “I-I don’t know. The evening?”

Civilians never notice anything. “Then I’ll leave after dark,” I told her. I took off my coat and hat and hung them on the rack by the door; if I was going to stay awhile, I wasn’t going to be overwarm for the duration. The braid was annoying me, so I took it out and tossed it over another hook. “Might be best if you can walk me out. Where’s Pietro?”

“At work,” said Hanni, screwing up her apron in her hands. “But he won’t be home until late, and — that is, we haven’t even begun getting ready!”

“You’re fine,” I told her. I reached into my bag and pulled out two maps, a one-time pad, a radio with the frequency dials soldered in place, and a microphone that could be hooked into anything with broadcasting capabilities. “The map with the red markings has the drop spots. The map in blue has pickup locations and notes on how to know if something’s waiting. Memorize those and destroy these.” I drummed my fingers against the think paper of the city maps. They were quite accurate; I knew because I’d made them myself. “Once you turn this radio on, leave it on as long as even one of you can hear it. It’ll sound like nonsense, but I’ll show you what to listen for. It may be a week before a relevant signal comes through, but–”

“A week?” Hanni said, clutching the back of one of the chairs pushed in around the table. I noticed none of them matched and wondered how intentional that was.

I shrugged, trying not to give her the eyeroll that said amateur. “The signal goes out to everyone. There’s plenty of ears listening to it. When the time to get a message to you comes, they’ll hear things that don’t make sense to them either.”

Hanni’s grip tightened around the wood of the chair back. Her skin was noticeably dark; I wondered where her grandparents had come from, or maybe her parents themselves. When she spoke, she sounded like a native of the capital, but that could mean any one of a number of things. “But we’re leaving tonight,” she said.

I was sure I’d misheard her. “Yes, I’m leaving tonight.”

She fixed those dark, piercing eyes on me. “And Pietro and I with you,” she said, slow and clear, as though she were explaining it to a child.

This was the part where I realized just how bad David had fucked me.

“No, no,” I said, gently as I could; I always hated to crush a pretty woman’s hopes and dreams. “I don’t do extraction.”

“But they said–”

“I don’t know what they said, or who said it, but I don’t.” I shook my head. “I’m a courier. That’s why someone hires me, to get information across the Wall. Not people.”

“Please!” Hanni reached for my hands, and before I could pull them away, she grabbed them in her delicate, icy fingers. “They know!”

My face fell. I reached for the microphone and shoved it back in my bag. The maps and the pad could be burned. The radio could be explained. I’d probably have to destroy the microphone, and that hurt me, considering how much it could go for on the black market over here — but if they were onto any of this, I couldn’t risk trying to make a sale to a buyer who turned out to be Eastern intelligence. Then again, if I was going to have to stay over for a while, I’d need the cash. Plans started spinning out through my head: ideas, traps, contingencies, negotiations. I was owed a few favors; it might be time to call them in.

Hanni’s hands were still around mine, though, and she wasn’t letting go. “You must take us with you,” she pleaded.

“No!” I told her as firmly as I could without raising my voice. “Extraction is someone else’s business. A lot of someone elses.” I was lying; I didn’t know how many there were. People in my line of work try hard not to know each other any more than we have to.

Please!” Tears were forming at the corners of her eyes, and dammit, I’ve always been a sucker for a crying woman.

I shut my eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out to the count of five. “Look,” I said, calm as I could be, “I didn’t come to get you out. Okay? I’m sorry, but I didn’t. I took this job to make a delivery, and that’s it. I am not prepared, I have no paperwork for anyone but me, and–” My voice caught as I saw those tears spill over and roll down her cheeks. Dammit. I turned my hands so they were clutching hers as much as hers were clutching mine, hoping that would make some kind of calming exchange. “I will go back, I swear, I can cross tonight if I start now, and I will get the people I know to start your extraction process.”

“How long?” asked Hanni, her voice shaky.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Maybe three, four months–”

Hanni broke down at that, her knees giving way. She crumbled to the ground, landing in a pile of her shabby, patched skirts, sobbing like someone had just cut her heart out. Instead of bringing her hands to her face, though, like most people weeping will tend to do, she hugged them around her stomach, tucking her knees tight.

A few terrible dots connected.

“Oh shit,” I said softly, kneeling down beside her. I’m not heartless. “How far along?”

“Twelve weeks,” she managed through sobs.

I made a mental note to kill David, then the people who brought him intelligence, then everyone else in the world, just in case.

I’d spent most of my life keeping things well out of my uterus, to say nothing of the associated parts, but I still knew enough to do some damn math. Twelve weeks was just starting to show. Twelve weeks plus twelve more weeks, minimum, was trying to smuggle a heavily pregnant woman out of hostile territory. And twelve more weeks on top of that would be trying to smuggle out an infant too, and I knew from grim hearsay that that never went anywhere good.

I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes and counted to five again. Hanni was still crying, though she’d stopped her great gushing wailing; now it was just down to intermittent whimpering breaths while tears rolled down her face. I had never seen another human being so helpless in all my life. It awakened something in me, something I thought I’d managed to drown years ago in a vat of self-preservation. It was … pity.

So instead of doing the smart thing — namely, standing up, grabbing the microphone, tossing the papers in the cookstove, and getting the hell out of that mess before bad got worse — I reached down and put my hand against her cheek. That seemed to soothe her a bit, so I left it there, stroking the sharp line of her cheekbone a bit with the ball of my thumb. After a few minutes of this, she calmed down, and after another minute of calm, I decided there were better places for a pregnant lady to be than curled up on the floor of a dingy, ill-heated apartment. I got my arms up under her and helped her sit up, then stood with her and took her over to the sofa. I sat down next to her, and she put her head on my shoulder, her arm draped across my middle. I didn’t know what else to do, so I stroked her back.

“Okay,” I said to the air. “Okay.” When ‘okay’ was the last thing anything was right then.

~*~

My first impression of Pietro was that he wasn’t much — some reedy, bespectacled man bundled up against the evening chill more than the temperature itself warranted. I watched him walk in the door, saw him notice my coat and hat hanging nearby, and then sat as he turned to me with all the slow calm of a deer that doesn’t want the hunter to know it knows he’s there.

“Pietro,” said Hanni, her expression soft, “you remember my cousin Duska, don’t you? You met her at the wedding.”

Bless him, he didn’t take long to get on board. “Of course,” he said, lifting the corners of his mouth in a smile. “So wonderful of you to come and visit.” And with that affirmation of my cover spoken loudly enough that anyone in the hallway could have heard it, he turned and shut the front door behind him.

The second the deadbolt latched, Hanni bolted from the couch and threw her arms around his neck. He dropped what he was carrying and wrapped his arms around her with equal intensity. Little droplets of water fell from his messy chestnut hair as he clung to her. The weather must have turned with nightfall; snow or rain, either was equally likely at this altitude. They were almost the same height, though where she was dark he was pale, and where she was curves he was straight lines. Despite the chill he obviously felt, he didn’t wear a beard, which spoke more of local fashion than of any lack of sense on his part.

As last, I saw Hanni’s grip relax, and Pietro let her loose in turn. She took his hand and helped him out of his coat, revealing how lean he really was beneath his outerwear. He put an arm protectively around Hanni’s waist and turned to me. “When do we leave?”

Hanni turned in the half-embrace and put her hand against Pietro’s chest. “We need to discuss something first,” she told him in a voice clearly meant to be pacifying. She was already on the right track to being a great mother.

Cheeks still flushed from the cold, Pietro took off his damp glasses and wiped them on his untucked shirt-tail. “What’s to discuss?” he asked. “Have you packed? We can go tonight.”

“No,” I told him, “we can’t.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, still eyeing me like one might regard a suspicious water stain on the ceiling, wondering how much disaster it portended.

Hanni patted his chest, then took his arm and led him over to the couch. “She didn’t come ready to get us out,” she told them as they took their seats. “But she understands now that it’s what needs to happen.”

Though she was looking still at her husband, that last line was pointed straight at me, and I felt it hit. I took the time to drink the last of the tea she’d poured for me, then set the cup on the saucer and leaned forward, bracing my forearms on my knees. “I need a week,” I said.

“A week?!” he squawked, leading Hanni to shush him.

“A week,” I repeated, my voice even. “Look, I came here to set you up as assets on this side. I was told to give you the resources you’d need to get information out to our intelligence office. You can look in my bag, right there; there’s four changes of clothes my size and a false bottom with two IDs, both made for me. That’s not an extraction kit. If I tried to take you out now, especially if they’re already looking for you, we’d be caught and shot before the train to the border even left the station. Do you understand?”

Maybe I was a little harsh about it, but it was that or a literal slap in the face, and I was fairly sure which one Hanni would appreciate more from her houseguest. Pietro slumped back against the cushions. “I don’t … I don’t know if we can hold out another week,” he said to Hanni, putting a hand protectively over her belly.

Hanni sighed and kissed him on his wide, freckled forehead. “Yes, we can,” she told him. “We made it every day until now, and we’ll make it as long as we have to. All right?”

After a moment, Pietro nodded. She put her arm around him and let him cradle his head against her shoulder. I knew right then she’d never fallen apart in front of him like she had in front of me. She was his strength, and he was her reason to be strong. I knew right then, too, that the half-formulated plan I’d had about taking her and coming back for him would never fly. No, we were all three of us in this together now, whether any of us liked it or not. I made a mental note to quadruple my price when I spoke next to David — provided, of course, that that conversation happened in the living world and not in the form of my ghost haunting him into an early grave for sending me in so unprepared.

“I’ll stay here,” I told them, patting the couch. “So far as anyone knows, I’m your country cousin, come down for a week in the big city. Who knows about your condition?”

Pietro looked at Hanni, who shook her head. “I haven’t told anyone, but I think some suspect,” she said.

“Good, let them. It makes more sense that I’m here if you’re expecting.” I had no idea if that was strictly true, but it made more sense to me personally, so I was ready to go with it. “Woman things, delicate time, family support, et cetera. We’ll take a few walks together to places where we can buy things for the baby. You’ll both keep appearing at work as expected, though of course any time you take off will be to entertain your out-of-town guest. Everything will be normal.”

“Until…?” asked Pietro.

“Until I can get you papers. And figure out how on earth we’re going to get back.”

“And how long will that take?”

“A week,” I said, even though I had no idea if that was true or not. I already knew I was going to have to lean on every good grace I’d ever earned, and then some. But at least being a disreputable person meant I knew a whole lot of other disreputable people, and that was the kind of help I needed if we were going to make it out of this alive. “And I hate to put it this way, but if you don’t like it, too bad, because I’m it. Nobody else is coming for you. They’re not sending someone to get you over to the other side, at least not anytime soon, or they wouldn’t have sent me. Clear?”

Hanni, who’d had a little longer to come to terms with the idea, nodded, but Pietro still looked unsure. I suppose I couldn’t blame him. He had no reason to trust me, and if I were in his shoes, I’d probably be giving me the same look. This was a lot of stock to put in an otherwise-stranger’s ability to save not just his life, but the lives of his wife and unborn child.

So I decided to do something I never did, at least not to someone I’d just met: I told the truth. “I’m from here,” I said, pointing toward the apartment’s south wall. “Compound C, Block 3. That’s where I was born. My father and his brothers were taken by the State Police before my first birthday. I crossed over to the West when I was three, with my brother. He was five. My mother got us as near to the Wall as she could, then made a shitty job of trying to cross herself on the other side of the guard tower. While they were gunning her down, we got through.” I wanted to be more moved by the memory, but really, it was so long ago that I remembered it more from the stories my brother told than actually being there. Maybe that was for the best; I didn’t know. “So trust me when I say I don’t want to be here a minute longer than I have to.”

While I spoke, Hanni reached for Pietro’s hand, twining their fingers together. I could see both of their wedding bands. They weren’t desperate yet if they hadn’t hawked those. “Compound C?” asked Hanni. “You’re a Jeravite?”

With a sigh, I reached for the collar of my dress and pulled it down just low enough where they could see the dark lines that branched out starting just above my heart. I let them get a good look before I tugged my clothing back into its previous modest position. I’d never been a believer, but some things were more important than simple faith.

“Fair?” I asked once I was settled, the distinctive winding tattooed pattern hidden once more.

Pietro looked at Hanni, ready to follow her lead in this, as I supposed he was in many things. Hanni nodded. Whatever had been left to convince her of my good intentions before, that took care of it. “We should eat,” she said, standing and heading for the kitchen. I don’t think ten more words were spoken all evening, save ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘goodnight’. Whatever planning I’d need to do would have to wait until morning; with my belly full and the room warm, as soon as my head hit the pillow on the couch, I was out like a light.

~*~

“So how did you two meet?” I asked as we walked together down the otherwise empty street, about the only place I felt sure we could be safe from prying ears.

With her hands hooked around my belt elbow, Hanni smiled. “Curious circumstances,” she said. “A few years ago, at the President’s palace, there was a gathering of international leaders, so the President though it would be a good idea to bring out the ‘best and brightest’, as he said, to show the world that we’re not an isolationist dictatorship, or whatever it was that the World Council called us. So he gathered up his most impressive scientists, some artists, a few of the poets he hasn’t thrown in prison yet, and he brought them all to a large banquet.”

I recalled hearing something about that at the time, but hadn’t paid much mind to it. “So why’d he parade out his intelligence community?” I asked.

“He didn’t,” Hanni said. “I was to go and to observe, a bit of counter-intelligence among the suits. I told my superiors at the time, I’m not trained for counter-intelligence, I’m only a cryptographer. But I was the only woman in my division, so they insisted on sending me anyway. And the only man from the science division who did not have a wife, or mistress, or some other woman already on his arm…”

“Was Pietro,” I finished for her.

“The man too busy for a girlfriend,” she said with a laugh. “Until suddenly the state gave him one for an entire evening. And he didn’t know what to do, and he looked so lost trying to be a proper gentleman to me while I, of course, was watching everything around me for cyphers, codes, patterns, anything that might clue me into a foreign intelligence officer. The poor dear, I couldn’t help it. I had to pull him aside halfway through and blow my cover to him, just so he wouldn’t think he was a complete failure at women.”

I cackled loud enough at that to catch the attention of two sullen old men feeding the pigeons, and remembered I was trying not to attract attention. “And what did he say?”

“He said, oh, thank goodness, I was so afraid, I thought you were a prostitute and I didn’t know how to politely say ‘no thank you’!”

I barely managed to catch that laugh in my sleeve. I’d known scientists before, of course — in my line of work, it was hard to go too long without meeting a few — but Pietro seemed like the pure distillation of the stereotype itself. “And why would he say no thank you to you? You’re much prettier than a lot of prostitutes I’ve met!” In my line of work, it’s hard to go too long without meeting a few of those, either.

Hanni buried her smile in the high collar of her coat, but I could see it shine through nonetheless. “Pietro hadn’t any proper romantic experience at that point, is all.”

Something about the way she phrased that caught my attention. “Any experience, period, or just… any with women?” I asked.

Hanni smiled, caught but not embarrassed. “Don’t tell him I told you.”

“Don’t worry,” I promised, tracing an X over my heart with my free hand. “If we’re going to get through this, we’re going to have to start thinking about secrets as things for other people, not for one another. What you don’t know can hurt you, and worse, it can hurt me. And in the grand scheme of things, knowing that your husband’s a soft touch? Not so big to me.”

“That’s because you’re from the West,” Hanni said. “Over here, it’s not….” She sighed and cleared her throat. “Let me simply say that my mother-in-law was so shocked to hear her youngest boy was getting married — and to a real, flesh-and-blood woman — I think she cried with joy for five days straight.”

“Well, obviously you make it work,” I said, looking pointedly down at Hanni’s midsection. Even without the heavy coat she was wearing now, she wasn’t quite showing, but unlike most everyone else, I knew what I was looking for.

“We do,” Hanni agreed, her grin turned sly up at the corners. For not the first time since encountering this particular marriage, I found myself envious of how I was stuck on its outside.

The shop tucked half below street level still said Antiques on the wooden sign swinging above its door, though heaven only knew how long it had been since someone had come in looking for an object for its historical and not practical value. It was a pawn shop now at best, the kind of business that should have dried up decades ago if not for its real trade. I held the door open for Hanni, then stepped in behind her.

The place was empty, except for the old man behind the counter. He squinted at me through wire-rimmed spectacles, as if he couldn’t see without those things, as if he hadn’t known me from the moment I walked through the door. “Can I help you ladies find anything in particular today?” he asked, his voice a tuberculotic rasp. That, at least, I didn’t think was faked.

Hanni looked to me, and I led her to the front. “My cousin’s looking for a crib,” I told him. “Something small and light, not too shabby if you can.”

The old man nodded thoughtfully. “My grandson is refinishing a piece in the workshop in the back that might fit your needs. Would you care to come back and see?”

“Of course,” I said.

The old man rang the bell four times, and shortly after, a teenaged boy appeared. He had that lanky, underfed look to him, and the work shirt he’d thrown on over his undershirt didn’t quite disguise the dark lines over the left side of his chest. He’d have to be more careful about that, but of course there was no telling the young anything. That was a lesson he’d have to learn for himself. “Yes, grandfather?” he asked, sweetly polite.

The old man patted the boy on the shoulder. “Would you watch the store for a moment while I show these ladies what’s waiting in the workshop?”

“Of course, grandfather,” said the boy with a smile. He looked over at me, and I gave the right side of my own coat a tug, like I was his mirror. He frowned at me, then glanced down at his own chest and saw what had come exposed. In seconds he buttoned up, then gave me a grateful nod as I followed the shopkeeper and Hanni into the back.

As soon as we were in the windowless, lamplit vault of his workshop, the man turned and embraced me, and I did the same. “Since when have you had children, much less grandchildren, Chesa?” I asked, giving his wild white hair a playful rub.

He smacked me in the arm for my cheek, and we both laughed. “We are all family connected by the Divine Web of Being, and thus, he is as much my grandson as you are,” Chesa said, blessing me with another affectionate blow. “What are you really looking for today?”

“The crib is half the truth. Here’s the other.” I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a small parcel wrapped in butcher paper. In it was the microphone, a solid gold bracelet that had belonged to Hanni’s aunt, and two grainy photographs. “I need to get two people out. Her and her husband.”

Chesa took the microphone and bracelet first, examining them with his sharp, knowing eye before putting them in a toolbox on the workbench. I could have gotten a lot of money for them through another black-market opportunity, but Chesa didn’t deal in cash. He studied the pictures, his tongue sticking out through the corner of his mouth, then shook his head. “For anyone else — anyone, Duskiya — I would do this with no hesitation. But for you, I won’t.”

“Why?” asked Hanni, her voice taking on that same panicked tone I’d scared her into during our first meeting. I took her arm to calm her, but she pulled against it. “Why won’t you?”

Chesa held up his palms facing forward, hands empty except for the photographs caught between his gnarled old fingers. “Because you will die with them,” he said.

“Go on,” I told him.

Chesa took the photographs and placed them face-up on the workbench. He pointed to the one of Pietro. “You are three traveling together, one man and two women? You look like Vadrun.”

I could have knocked myself in the head with his cane for being so stupid. Even back across the border, we’d heard about recent Eastern crackdowns against the polygamist minority. It didn’t matter that our paperwork would say otherwise; arousing any suspicion would lead to a closer examination of our papers, and that was the last thing we wanted to bring down on ourselves. Worse, while I did have a second set of papers with a male name and photograph attached, that wouldn’t change the ratio and solve our inherent problem.

Frustrated, I spat on the packed dirt floor. “Well, I’m open to suggestions,” I told him.

Hanni looked at me. “Could we travel separately?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I couldn’t teach you half of everything you need to know in a week. Besides, if we got split up, there’s no guarantee I’d find you, and if we’re not together, there’s no way you’re making it over the Wall.” I looked back to Chesa. “Can you get me a foreigner’s visa? They don’t need papers if they’re listed as my staff.”

Chesa shook his head. “They changed the stamp, I know, but I haven’t seen one yet.”

“I could…” Hanni hummed thoughtfully. “I work in the Institute; I could see if I could locate one.”

“I would appreciate that tremendously,” said Chesa, “but I’m afraid it wouldn’t do you much good. Even if you found me one today, it’d take me a month to replicate the ink, cast the die, weave the paper….”

Another dead end. I waved that idea away. “At this point, I’m about ready to put them in a bottle, cast them into the White Sea, and let some beachcomber on the other side uncork them,” I said. If I’d been likely to find a bottle big enough, it might not even have been a joke.

“The White Sea?” asked Chesa. “What route were you thinking of taking?”

I pointed straight upward. “North to the cataracts, then due west. There’s not a good place to cross the Wall, but that’s about the least bad.”

“There’s an army encampment up there,” Chesa said.

“So?” I asked.

“So…” A peculiar, wicked smile curled Chesa’s wrinkled mouth.

It hit me like a brick dropped from a great height. It was a ridiculous idea, but also a brilliant one, as probably the only good way ever to deflect one kind of suspicion is to play right into another. I asked Chesa, “Would you need another photograph, or can you work with this?”

“I can work with this,” said Chesa, tapping the pictures. “I can’t guarantee easy, and I can’t guarantee particularly lovely, but I will guarantee convincing.”

“And that’s good enough for me,” I said with a grin.

Hanni frowned, seeming to have missed the revelatory impact. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What does an army camp have to do with this? What are you planning to do with the photographs?”

Chesa turned to Hanni and took one of her hands between both of his, giving it a genial pat. “Good lady, how does your husband look in a dress?”

~*~

“You’re just lucky whores aren’t especially ladylike,” I told Pietro as I applied the rouge to his cheeks. “Or that there isn’t much call for gentlewomen around an army camp. If I had to teach you to act like a proper lady, a week would hardly be enough.”

Pietro was a shockingly good sport about it, all things considered. Perhaps it was what Hanni had told me earlier about his preferences, or perhaps he just realized there was no room for complaint when their lives were at stake. Either way, he raised not a note of fuss as he and I sat alone in the apartment, trying on the scraps of cosmetics we’d scraped up at the market. I made a point never to travel without lipstick again.

At last, I sat back and eyed my creation, then turned the chair so Pietro could see himself in the mirror. “What do you think?”

The shock on his face could have been seen from space, though I couldn’t say I blamed him for it a bit; if someone had painted me up like that and spun me around to face myself, I would likely have had the same reaction. “I don’t … I’m not quite sure how to feel about this,” he said.

I patted him on the shoulder. “Well, after this, if you don’t like it, you’ll never have to do it again.” I chuckled a little. “And if you do, there’s always the privacy of your own home.”

Pietro shot me a disgruntled look, but I could tell it was hiding a smile. Two days living in his apartment, sleeping on his couch, and I could already read him like an elementary text — and I liked him. Hanni liked him, of course, and that was a large part of it, but I was starting to see now what caught her fancy. He was sweet, he was tender toward her, and he wore his heart right on his sleeve. If that didn’t get him killed over the next few days, it’d make him a great father.

“Now the corset,” I said, gesturing to him that he should stand. “Come on, don’t be shy.”

He obeyed, stripping off his shirt as he did until he was left only long underwear from his waist down. He had skin like a doll’s skin, porcelain-pale and almost translucent in places. Despite his general air of malnourishment, he had a handsome bearing to him — if one liked lean, angular men, and I wasn’t one to say that I didn’t. “Why do I need a corset?” he asked, looking down at his body. I’ve got nothing to tuck in.”

“There’s always something to tuck in,” I promised him. I wrapped it around his middle and began lacing the ribbon up the back. “And the more you squeeze in here, the more’ll pop out there and there,” I said, pointing to his chest and hips in turn.

“Can’t say I’ve ever really wanted hips,” Pietro admitted, looking over his shoulder as I ran the laces through their eyelets.

“I didn’t either,” I told him as I began to give the woven ladder tightening tugs. “But hips came to me, and breasts, and the rest, and after a while I simply learned to … deal with it.”

Pietro frowned. “What did you want?”

“To be a boy,” I said. I hadn’t said anything to that effect out loud since reaching adulthood, but I’d promised that there’d be no place for secrets, and I’d meant it. “Or something like a boy. Not a girl, at any rate.”

“Can I ask why?”

I sighed. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to give him an answer, so much as that the answer was almost too complicated to give. “I told you my brother brought me across. We found a place that took us in, gave us shelter, taught us to read. But he was sick with … I don’t know what it was. Something in his blood, in his bones. The doctors said there was nothing to do for him, and nothing that caused it. No one’s fault, just … one of the Divine Web’s weak strings. Sometimes they snap.”

“I’m sorry,” said Pietro, and I could tell he was. Men in particular tend to say they’re sorry when they’re not, but Pietro was sincere.

“Thanks.” I gave the last jerk to the corset, then spun him around to check my work. It was amazing what a little shape there did to the silhouette of a body. “Long story short, I wanted to be like him, and since I was eight when he died, it got a little mixed up in my head with being him. So I cut my hair, I got my first lines when I turned eleven, like Jeravite boys do” –I tapped at my chest beneath my shirt– “and I start finding ways to cross the Wall. I made it across ten more times by my sixteenth birthday, five across and five back. Until I found out that what was more important than becoming a man or a woman was becoming a person who could get across. How does that feel?”

Pietro shifted a little to either side, then raised his arms above his head. “A little constricting, but I gather that’s the point.”

“That’s the point indeed.” I motioned with my finger that he should spin around, and he did. I yanked the end of the ribbon, undoing the knot and freeing him. He drew in a great, noisy breath as his midsection regained its original territory, and I gave his soft, flag belly a friendly pat. “You’ll have an underdress on beneath that, but if it fits that well without, it’ll fit even better with.”

Pietro nodded as he ran his fingers through his hair, which I had combed back to see how it might be worked into a more feminine style. Thank the heavens he wasn’t particularly hairy, because I knew the task of shaving him would have fallen to me. Even so, I knew he likely would’ve sat through it with the same uncomplaining patience he’d had for everything else. Maybe it was his naturally compliant personality, or maybe it was the fact that I’d told him whiners get left behind. Either way, the effect was the same.

I’d never had much more than abstract use for men, save my brother and my adolescent inclinations toward being one, which is probably why I’d stopped trying in the first place and let my body guide me where it felt I needed to go. I felt they lacked an essential tenderness I preferred in human beings, the empathy that comes from understanding that one is not remotely the center of the world, nor meant to be. But that tenderness seemed to be the base matter from which Pietro was constructed, and it was why he gave no sign that I’d asked anything humiliating or emasculating of him. He was openly afraid and openly brave at once. I couldn’t help admiring that.

“Can I ask another question?” he asked as he began rubbing a cloth across his face, taking away the paint. Part of me had hoped he’d leave it until Hanni came home from work, but I understood the impulse to be rid of it.

I shrugged. “Shoot.”

“Why are you doing this for us?” He watched me as he dragged a long crimson stripe down the side of his face, making him look particularly debauched.

I shook my head. “Don’t ask me that.”

“Why not?”

“Because–” With a deep sigh, I slumped back in my chair. “Because we’re being honest with one another, and you don’t want the honest answer.”

A little wrinkle of concern formed between Pietro’s eyebrows; his hand went up as though to nudge his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, only he wasn’t wearing them on account of his makeover. Old habits. “Try me,” he said at last.

“It’s not noble,” I said to him. “It’s not heroic. It’s not even patriotic. It comes down to how the people who want you on their side and the people who have money are the same people. Look, do you guys over here ever get those stories from the other side, the filmreels and adventure rags about those daring Western adventurers who risk life and limb, vaulting nobly over obstacles and seducing beautiful people in their wake?” The chuckle Pietro gave at that told me he knew what I was talking about. “Well, it’s bullshit, all of it. Or nine-tenths of it. They don’t want ordinary people — mostly stupid kids with more guts than brains — trying to prove the size of their balls by making it over, so they play it up, like it’s something only these super-men can do, and they do proudly for great causes. When all you really need to get across is somebody to die for you as a distraction.”

Pietro opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and sat down on the edge of his and Hanni’s small bed, his hands folded in his lap. He looked down at his fingers, so I did too. They were soft and long, and once I’d brushed what little polish we’d been able to scare up onto his nails, they’d pass at least cursory inspection. If we could deflect surreptitious glances and even a few outright stares, we’d be ready to go.

“Nobody’s going to die,” I said at last, warming up the silence that had settled in the room. I hoped like hell I hadn’t just told him my first lie.

~*~

It turns out that the trick to looking like a prostitute is mostly looking like you’re trying not to look like a prostitute, but mostly just can’t help it. Who knew?

After five days in their apartment, we all knew the guard rotation, I made sure of that. I’d even befriended a few of the friendlier ones with my put-on rural charms, to the point where I hoped any reports they made back to their superiors included Country Cousin Duska’s general daffy harmlessness. That there were reports being made, I was certain — from what they’d told me, I’d come down to believing that while Hanni and Pietro were indeed being watched, but that the surveillance was concentrated at work, with the occasional tail to and from. Hanni’s instincts weren’t wrong; with that level of suspicion already on them, they wouldn’t have made their first dead drop before being caught.

Leaving meant shaking all those eyes. That morning, the good Drs. Batrop went out at their usual hours, off in their customary directions, while Cousin Duska flittered out a bit later to the market and returned shortly after, all during the morning shift’s watch. When I returned with the wicker market basket full of food, I made a point to show the guard what a clever shopper I’d been, letting him inspect before he’d even thought to ask the loaves of bread and salted fish I’d use to make the evening’s meal. It never crossed his mind that the basket hadn’t been empty when I’d left.

Hanni returned near noon after that, claiming sudden illness on account of her condition. She looked so green that I feared for a moment she might actually have been struck low by nausea, but she promised it was nothing she hadn’t brought on herself with harsh coffee on an empty stomach and a few fingers down her throat. What the guard on duty in the early afternoon saw was a pair of women, one looking a bit the worse for wear, going off together to find a doctor. Given the shortage of physicians in the city, it was a surprise to no one that by the time Pietro got home around nightfall, it was to a still-empty apartment. The guard kindly told him what had happened, that it hadn’t looked serious, that his own wife had been poorly through all three of her pregnancies, that it weren’t nothing to be worried about, sir. Still with a concerned expression, Pietro nodded and announced his intention to go upstairs and wait.

Half an hour before the rotation to the evening guard’s shift, Pietro came back downstairs, his satchel in hand and his coat half-on, explaining that he couldn’t believe how foolish he’d been, he’d bought a gift for his lovely wife that day but had left it at the office. He’d just run and get it, of course, and be right back, so if his wife returned in the interim, wouldn’t the guard be so kind as to tell her he’d only be an hour or so? Of course, of course, said the guard, knowing how wives could be.

The evening guard took the shift without the knowledge that two of his tenants and their guest were anywhere but snug in their own little home. It would be morning before anyone thought to look for any of us, and I had no intention of staying around long enough to be found.

Hanni embraced Pietro warmly as he stepped into the back room of Chesa’s shop. “Were you followed?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said, and I had to trust he’d paid attention enough to my lessons to know the real answer to that.

Chesa shook Pietro’s hand by way of introduction, then handed over a book of papers for one Euphemia Marls. He’d been good on his promise: Pietro’s altered photo wasn’t particularly lovely — and I say this as someone who’s never taken a lovely photograph in her life, no alterations needed — but it was convincing, down to the seals and stamps that were what any examiner would check as marks of authenticity. “I’ve done all I can to make him a woman,” said Chesa, nodding proudly to the forged documents. “Now it’s your turn.”

“Are you ready?” I asked, holding up a petticoat.

Pietro exhaled harshly as he nodded. “I think so.”

We’d practiced the transformation enough that it was quick now, though still strange to see the magnitude of change involved. Between my false braid dyed and re-woven to match his natural color, the corset giving him more of a figure than he had before, and an arguably unsubtle amount of makeup, he looked as womanly as I did, having undergone the same treatment as I had. Only Hanni made it look good, and my estimation of her beauty was such that I believed we could have put her in a potato sack and still had her emerge as the belle of the ball.

I gave Chesa a kiss on the cheek, pointedly leaving a greasy red lip print against the soft white hairs of his beard, then shook his hand. “I hope I never see you again in this life.”

“I’ll keep the next one warm for you until you get there,” he promised. It wasn’t a traditional farewell blessing, but as in all things, we made do.

The walk from Chesa’s to the train station took only five minutes, but they were the longest I’d ever felt. Having spent so much time betting my life on my ability to be inconspicuous, I felt now as though we might have been wearing alarm bells instead of skirts. No one stared, but everyone noticed the three ladies of the night, come out just before the curfew hit everywhere but lowtown. In the ill-lit streets on a cloudless night, we were objects of revulsion and pity at once, poor girls lost, with nothing left to sell but their virtue. Pity us, sneer at us, but don’t look at us too long, or you might become one of us.

The train was waiting at the station when we arrived, hissing steam into the air. The pungent odor of burnt coal made my nose wrinkle. I tried to use that disgust to hide the fact that my heart was about to pound its way out my chest. I swore beneath my breath in at least three of the languages I knew.

Standing by the otherwise empty platform, the conductor looked bored. He was a young man in a crisp uniform, wrapped in the smugness of a son from a moderately well-off family, connected enough to get a job that allowed him to travel, but also connected enough to know he wasn’t going to be there forever. Already his dreams of where his ambitions might take him made him better than everyone around him — in his mind, at least — and he regarded the three of us as though we were the lambs he might choose from to be his supper. “Tickets and papers, ladies,” he said, leaning on the last word with some scorn.

I made a show of reaching into my padded-out blouse and producing three sets of travel documents. He looked from each of them to each of us, though every time he checked the papers, he squinted and drew them nearer to his face. Bless our luck, we’d found one of those myopic idiots whose vanity prohibited him from wearing a pair of stuffy, “intellectual” spectacles. “And where are you three headed?” he asked, as though he’d read the papers in front of him with no trouble, and just wanted to hear it from us.

“To the north,” I answered, breaking up my language as though this were not my first. “For work.”

“Work,” repeated the conductor, looking us up and down. “Well, all your papers seem to be in order, and that’s fine news. But I regret to inform you that there’s still a problem here. The price of the ticket, you understand, has increased.”

For all the things we had stashed in various pockets and sewn into the lines of skirts, cash was still a precious resource, and one I didn’t want to part with unless absolutely necessary. But the other, more obvious commodity to barter was right here in front of his eyes. I honestly couldn’t blame his train of thought for heading that way — it was, after all, the illusion we’d cultivated, so in some way it was a vindication. Besides, I reckoned, I’d had my mouth in worse places under less dire conditions.

I was about to let him know that a negotiation for a price increase could be made when I heard Hanni laugh from behind me. “That’s funny,” she said, her voice haughty.

The conductor’s face darkened. “What’s funny?”

“That the ticket prices have gone up,” she said, twirling a lock of hair in her fingers, “but not the price of stamps.”

The contempt on his young face drew his brows down over his eyes. “What are you talking about, whore?” he spat, his upper lip curling in a sneer.

Hanni’s smile remain fixed. “Only that it’s going to cost us more to ride the train now, you say, and yet it will still be the same price when I write a letter to General Avandro explaining why” –she looked pointedly at the nameplate just above his breast pocket– “a certain conductor delayed our passing.”

All the color ran out of the conductor’s cheeks.

“How long do you suppose it would take him to get it?” she asked, curling her fingers thoughtfully under her chin, as though she were counting. “A week?”

With the sneer of a man who’s just been beaten, and roundly so, he stepped aside to let the three of us on board. I let Pietro and Hanni pass by me first, then looked at the conductor and took our papers back from his hands. “The general thanks you for your service,” I said, stuffing them back down the front of my dress. And not caring a bit what he thought of me, I turned my back to him and climbed aboard.

The inside of the train car was all but still, given the late hour; I could see that only half the cabins were occupied, if that. The Eastern rails were aged, decrepit arteries, and the only reason they had any passengers at all was that after decades of neglected roads and fuel shortages, they were often the only way to get anywhere. By the time I got inside, Hanni and Pietro were almost a full car away from me, headed toward the back. With a satchel in one hand and my skirts in the other, I followed, making my way down the line until we reached the deserted dining car, then the last passenger car behind it. The whistle screamed out through the night air as I stepped inside and slid the compartment door behind me.

About five years back, there’d been a brutal and well-publicized incident on one of the railways where a high-ranking senator’s daughter, traveling alone, had been assaulted by a gang of rough soldiers who’d seen a pretty young thing and assumed their rank meant they could take what they wanted. I’ll spare the details of their punishment, but one of the few steps the railways had taken to prevent such a thing from happening again was now going to be part of our cover: a women’s sleeping car, complete with guard posted by the entrance to make sure no men, rough or otherwise, made their way in. With his square-jawed face set in a practiced mask, he did not so much as blink at us as we passed him by and found our way into an open cabin. The last one, I slipped inside as coolly as I could and flipped the lock behind us.

For a moment, none of us really knew what to do.

I looked over at Hanni, whose hands were shaking around her satchel, and I eased it from her claw-like grip. “What do we do now?” she asked as the train began to shudder. Moments later, it gave a little jerk, that first break of inertia that formed the line between moving and standing still. We were on our way.

“Now?” I tucked what little luggage we had in the rack near the top of the compartment, then shrugged. “Now we pull the bed out and get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” Pietro sounded as though I’d suggested instead that we all strip naked and turn ourselves in to the nearest authorities.

I nodded and nudged them aside until they’d made enough space that I could pull the berth down from the wall. It was a small bed, barely big enough for two, but that was all right; I wasn’t planning on getting much rest. “There’s nothing else to do. For the next day and a half, the best thing we can do is not step beyond that door more than absolutely necessary. So … go on, lie down.” I waved them both in the direction of the berth.

They both sat, accustomed as they were by now to following my lead, but they stayed sitting upright, holding each other’s hands. “Don’t you need rest too?” asked Hanni.

I waved her concern away. “I’ll take next shift. That was sharp thinking, by the way. Do generals get a lot of whores shipped to them special-delivery?”

That at least got a smile from both of them, proud of her quick thinking as they were. “One of the last messages I encoded was about troop positions,” Hanni explained, “so I knew he was up here, and I figured I could just … bluff the rest.”

“That’s all this is, bluffing,” I said, leaning against the wall. I wanted to go run a half-marathon; I wanted to drop and do pushups until I threw up. Alternately, I could stand to drink a few bottles of the rotgut they sold as imported brandy over here, pure headache and amnesia in a bottle at once. Instead, I played it cool. The more keyed up I got, the worse off they’d be. “Go on, bed down. I’d like to tell you to slip into something a little more comfortable, but….”

Pietro shrugged and shifted his corset around until it rode a little higher on his chest. “It’s not so bad. I’m almost getting used to it.”

“Don’t get too used to it,” Hanni said, giving him another little smile. “I’m going to want it back someday.”

“You can have it back in, oh, six months or so,” Pietro said, and Hanni gave him a gentle elbow in the ribs for his cheekiness. That was good, that they could joke about it. Loose, light, almost natural. I could work with that.

Their reluctance to lie down was understandable, but I wouldn’t let it go, and presently they both stretched out along the half-hard mattress’ length, curled together with Pietro’s arm around her waist. Despite their protests, they were asleep in minutes, rocked into dreams by the engine’s rhythmic puffs and the crash following a rush of adrenaline. That was good; like that, they’d probably sleep until morning, if not even later. If I could have, I would’ve lulled them into some sort of trance, a magical coma that would have kept them under all that night, the following day, and the whole night after, until the morning our train made its stop at our destination. They deserved it.

Sleep was the last thing on my mind, though. Staring at the window at the nighttime scenery, the dark dome of the sky backing the darker silhouettes of trees and hills, I started in on the part of the plan I hadn’t let myself assess until now. Even at its weakest, most barren spots, the Wall was still the Wall, and the only way over, as ever, was through.

~*~

I was absolutely wide awake, perfectly alert, and completely ready for action when Hanni put her hand on my shoulder and only startled me a little. “Duska?” she said softly. “It’s your turn to get some rest.”

I blinked and straightened my spine. I was still standing up, just barely leaning against the wall, and who had ever heard of someone falling asleep standing up? “I’m fine,” I promised her. I’d walked up and down the length of the dining car several times between meals, when I wouldn’t disturb any of the polite passengers, and I’d choked down the cold remains of a coffee cup left half-finished. Sleep was for the weak, and I was on high alert.

I felt a pair of hands come to rest on the middle of my back, and it took me a moment to realize they couldn’t be Hanni’s; she was standing in front of me. “You said you’d get some rest,” Pietro reminded me.

“When I’m tired,” I said, fighting with all my might to keep the end of that word from melting into a yawn. It almost worked.

Hanni sighed and put her hands in the middle of my chest, then gave me a light shove backward. I toppled off-balance straight into Pietro’s waiting arms, and would likely have pitched us both right over had the train cabin not been too small to allow it. Instead, before I could get my footing again, he eased me back along the bed. I was embarrassed that I was too tired to give more than a token protest. Fine, they could get me horizontal, but they wouldn’t make me sleep.

At least, that was my general line of thinking right to the point where not only did Pietro not let me go, but Hanni lay down on the other side of me, so that she was facing me and Pietro had me from behind. If I’d thought the berth was too small for two people, it was definitely too small for three. And yet, here we were, all pressed against one another, in our shared disguises. Three lovely ladies, sharing a bed, nothing in the world wrong with that.

“Are you comfortable?” asked Pietro, his lips close enough to my ear that his words made me shiver. He had a lovely voice; I hadn’t considered it before, but it was pretty and soft, almost feminine except for its deep pitch. It was to our benefit that our ruse didn’t require him to speak, or we would have been in a bit of trouble on that front.

I swallowed, feeling myself begin to flush pink despite the otherwise cool compartment. “I — ah,” I stammered. “It’s … somewhat close quarters.”

Hanni laughed, and I felt her hand come to rest on my hip in a way that might have been wholly friendly, and then again might not. “Close quarters can be comfortable too,” she said, her voice as sweet and soft as Pietro’s had been.

It is important to note at this point in the story that prior to this moment in my life, my sexuality had been a concept handled mostly in the abstract. I fell in love easily, I knew that much about myself, but always as safely as I could — which was to say, shallowly and at a distance. Most of my theoretical paramours had never had the slightest inkling of my interest, and those few who’d been aware had responded with less-than-pleasant reactions, and as such I’d simply resigned myself to a life of not thinking about it. And that had worked for me quite well, right to the point where I was sandwiched between two lovely, warm people and quickly losing track of why I’d held out in the first place.

Hanni leaned forward so the tips of our noses nuzzled together. “We were talking about this earlier,” she said, glancing over to my shoulder to where Pietro was still curled up behind me, “and we’d like to help, if you’re having trouble sleeping.”

I’d been a bit of an insomniac all my life, it was true. “I … just wanted to stay awake and make sure everything’s okay,” I said. My voice sounded so small like that, a little puff of wind on a warm morning.

Pietro chuckled, his lips still right up against the curve of my ear. “You take such good care of us.” His hand slid down my side to join his wife’s at my hip. “We’d like to take care of you for a little while.”

“We’d like that very much,” Hanni said, leaning in to press her forehead against mine; our bare feet tangled together at the foot of the berth. “But only if it’s what you want.”

Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted. I’d never had much call to wonder, and I’d tended to avoid any opportunity for further consideration. What I did know, though, was that this felt good — not just good in the carnal way, though I could feel a growing wetness between my legs that vouched for that, but good and safe. Here were two people who weren’t going to laugh at me if I did something wrong.

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Please,” I said.

With a grin of pure delight, Hanni leaned forward and kissed me. I gasped at the sudden touch, but then all sound was gone as her mouth fit against my mouth. She took my lower lip between hers and sucked on it, then nipped at me with her sharp little teeth. When I pulled back in surprise, she laughed and came at me again. This time, I knew well enough to give in from the start.

As she kissed me, I felt her hand slide up along my front, across the layers that wrapped me tight enough to give me more of an hourglass shape than I was used to, which was to say any at all. We’d all agreed on keeping our general attire fixed as much as possible, considering what a pain it was to put back on, but there were still places to tug and shift that allowed access. She went for my blouse, unfastening the buttons that bared me down to my brassiere. I wanted to ask her how she was doing that, especially with only one hand, but I was too busy kissing her to speak, and then I was too busy kissing her to care.

Another hand began pulling up my skirts, and that was when I realized I had been so distracted by kissing Hanni that I’d all but forgotten we weren’t the only two here. Pietro was still behind me, and more than that, I could feel the way his lips curved into a smile as he kissed the back of my neck. His fingers closed around the hem of my skirt, hiking it higher until my thighs were exposed from the curve of my underwear to the tops of my stockings. I could hear him make a pleased sound as he ran his fingertips along the lacy top edge of the nylons. I’d never worn anything like them before, and I was starting to see the appeal. With a slow groan, I rolled my hips back and pressed against Pietro behind me.

There is a particular feeling of an erection poking up through several layers of petticoats that is unique to its set of circumstances, and I had not known until that moment that it was something I liked very much indeed — in part for the tactile sensation itself, but also for knowing that I was responsible for it. When I pushed back again, it was his turn to groan, and I liked that so much I didn’t stop.

Hanni moved her kisses from my mouth down the line of my jaw, then to my throat. She covered the whole line of my neck with soft kisses, down toward my collarbone. There, though, she hesitated, and I realized what had happened: She’d come to the part of my body marked for a faith I’d never even believed in, branding me a member of one of the many minority groups who’d faced extermination in the East’s quest for forced unity. I didn’t blame her for wanting to avoid that, for thinking it was weird or distasteful or just plain ugly, and I was about to tell her that it was okay, I understood.

Then I felt her mouth along that skin, down the blue-black lines that served as evidence of my difference on so many levels, and I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out. Tears watered at the corners of my eyes as she traced the swirls as far as my clothing would allow. “Is that good?” asked Pietro softly, and I could only nod. Yes, it was good, it was better than good. I didn’t have words for how good it was.

Hanni nudged down the padded cup of my brassiere and took my nipple in her mouth, and then I did cry out, barely managing to muffle the sound by turning my mouth against the thin pillow beneath my head. I heard Pietro’s soft chuckle behind me as his hand slipped forward, up over my underwear and then down inside. It was so fast I had no time to protest, to remind him that surely he didn’t want to go there, no one wanted to go there. But he did, pushing his soft, clever fingers down into my folds. I could feel another gush of wetness soak through my underwear, and almost apologized to Pietro before realizing he was rubbing his cock against me, hard as ever.

It felt almost as though they were fucking each other through me, moving against me slowly as Hanni kept her mouth on my breast and Pietro rubbed at the slick, soft skin between my legs. His fingers brushed against my clit and I whimpered in pleasure and amazement. I felt Hanni’s lips curl into a smile. “She makes beautiful sounds,” Hanni purred, her lips still pressed against my skin.

“I’d like to hear some more,” Pietro said, brushing my clit again. For all the smooth, delicate shape of his hands, his fingertips were still rough and flat enough that the friction there sent shivers from my core to my toes. I moaned openly as he caught the bud of my clit between his first two fingers and worked it back and forth with astonishing speed. It was as though I were an instrument, and the two of them together could play quite a duet on me.

Hanni smiled and blew cool air across my nipple, which made it stand erect. “I was just thinking about close quarters,” she said softly, and I could tell from her tone that she was speaking not to me, but to Pietro.

“Oh?” asked Pietro, his fingers still continuing to play at me, to tease my clit nearly to madness before dipping back and wetting his fingertips again in my juices. I would have been mad at him for being able to hold me in that kind of state and keep up a conversation, had I been capable of anger at that time.

“Mm.” Hanni brought her mouth up to kiss again at my marked skin. “When we were courting,” she said, directing her words to me now, “we agreed that this would be a marriage of minds, a relationship of equals that would not bother itself with carnal desires. We were very clear on this, so that no one would be disappointed.”

“Quite clear,” Pietro agreed. “You understand, considering what my lovely wife has told you about my … general preferences.”

Hanni laughed quietly, bringing her hand down to join her husband’s between my legs. “A marriage of minds! Very sophisticated, very modern. But money was tight when we got married, and we were given a bed as a wedding present, which — well, you saw it.”

I had, thought it was difficult to concentrate on that memory at the moment, or really on anything that wasn’t the feeling of being pressed between them. I’m sure I looked a fright, with my skirts pulled up and my breasts spilling out, but I didn’t care, so long as they kept touching me.

Pietro kissed just behind my ear, a spot I hadn’t even known was that sensitive before his touch made me gasp. “I think we held out … two weeks?”

“If that,” Hanni said. “Until one night I rolled over and he didn’t, and before we knew it, I was on top of him and he was inside of me, general preferences and pompous intellectualism both be damned. And he was good, he was so good, with his fingers and his mouth and his cock, at making me come….”

The thought of her on top of him, of her taking him, riding him … that, with everything else, was just too much. I wasn’t even aware how much I’d been holding on until I let go, gasping as my orgasm took me. I shuddered forward and found Hanni kissing me again, steadying me with her hand and mouth alike as Pietro held me from behind. I cried out, but she swallowed the sound. I shook, but they held me until the shaking subsided. I felt as though I’d been an bowstring, pulled taut for so long that it had forgotten it could live any other way. Released, I melted between them.

I was afraid for a moment they might leave me there, but they only closed ranks around me, tucking me between them as though I’d been the missing piece all along. I tried to say something — maybe something profound, or more likely just a simple thank-you — but it came out as a muttered mess.

They both chuckled at that. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Pietro quipped.

“Nor I,” Hanni agreed. “Now get some rest.”

There was no point in arguing, nor any point left to argue from. I closed my eyes and let the train rock me to sleep between them, snug and safe at last.

~*~

There is a flaw in every plan. Sometimes it’s a surprise, a little hitch you didn’t even know to look for, the single fallen domino that takes down the whole carefully constructed stack. Sometimes, though, it’s a vital part of the plan itself, written right into its very fabric. And at that point, I don’t know if the plan is the flaw, or the planner is.

From the station, we slipped off the train all but unnoticed, given the early hour and the frost in the air. From there, we turned due west to the woods, which at this time of the morning were still thick with icy fog. Whatever we must have looked like, three painted ladies wandering off among the trees, we didn’t look like that for long; one quick change of clothes later and we all became rural foragers, out for whatever bounty we could gather. I had enough of a cover spun there that we could have deflected most inquiries, but mostly I was hoping we wouldn’t have to explain ourselves at all.

The woods are lovely up there, but dense, and even an experienced outdoorsman could get turned around without the proper clues. The canopy was too dense in all but the patchiest places to let the sun through, so I kept my eye on the mossy sides of trees. For a time, the cataracts that led into the White Sea were just barely audible, even at this great distance, and I kept them in my right ear to orient us as long as I their roar made its way to me.

We stopped around noon to eat and rest. Hanni was managing without complaint, but I could see this was starting to take its toll on her. I wanted to ease up our pace, to take a leisurely lunch, but we needed the daylight to travel, and we had so little of it anyway.

We didn’t say much, but there wasn’t much to say. I wanted to think it was a companionable sort of silence, but really, it was dread. We knew that every step we took brought us a little farther from the safe and the settled, a little more toward the gap between the known and the unknown.

I didn’t bring it up, but I would have bet my life that the attitude in the halls of power right then was sheer panic. The good doctors had now been marked missing for over a day. Their apartment had been broken into, showing no signs of foul play, a pantry fully stocked, a small jewelry box of valuables right where it ought to be. Theories had been proposed: abduction, sudden illness, catastrophic injury. Only after all the hospital wards had been checked for anonymous patients would they look harder at the apartment, and when they did, they would notice things in the apartment were not as untouched as they appeared. Where was the photograph of his mother that had watched over the room from the mantlepiece? Why were the stones in the jewelry box made of paste, and the pearls of lacquered chalk? Why was everything left something that could be replaced?

That put us now exactly a day ahead of the search, I figured. When they realized the Batrops were no longer in the capital, they’d start to trace ways they might have gotten out. They would check the logs of trains that left yesterday noon, then yesterday morning, then finally the night before, and when they did, one set of papers would appear amiss, a set of late-purchased tickets on a northbound train. Then they would know which way we’d gone, and the Wall would double its guard and bare its teeth for leagues in either direction. The only hope we had was to move faster that suspicion.

As luck would have it, we saw no one on our westward journey, and no tracks of humanity other than a score of trees cut down and dragged off into the distance maybe a week ago, judging by how dirt and leaves had gathered atop the stumps. I said a small prayer as we passed that whoever’d taken them had taken enough for their purposes, and wouldn’t be coming back for more.

I thought back to what I’d been doing a week ago — or, really, what I’d thought I would’ve been doing a week ago. Rolling back across the Wall, finding a place to get a good meal, perhaps grabbing a bed at an inn before marching back to the rendezvous with David and demanding good pay for good work. I wondered what he’d thought when I hadn’t shown up. Wouldn’t he be surprised to find out I was just the more mundane kind of late. Maybe a little disappointed, too, but that served him right.

Just as I was starting to doubt my ability to see my hand in front of my face, I heard a distant bugle and stopped in my tracks. “What was that?” whispered Pietro from behind me.

I reached back and took her hand. “Listen,” I said.

Moments later, we heard the same pattern, only this time a little closer. It happened twice again, the second time so close the player could have been standing in clear sight of us. The next blast continued on down some invisible line, repeating the pattern until the sound was too faint to hear. And then there was nothing.

“Dusk call,” I explained. “Starts at the farthest northern point and continues down along the whole Wall. On a rainy night, you can barely hear the next tower over. When it’s clear, like tonight, the sound carries better.”

“It’s–” Hanni strained as though to listen, but the chain had taken the sound now far away. “It’s beautiful, in a way.”

“It is,” I agreed. “But to us right now, it’s useful.”

“What do you mean?” asked Pietro.

I pointed ahead in the same direction we’d been traveling, then angled my hand a few degrees to the left. “That’s the nearest tower, and now we won’t stumble out of the woods right onto it. We’ll have better luck swinging north of it. This is the point, though, that from here on out, you’re going to have to trust me.”

Pietro put his hand on my shoulder. “Of course we trust you. You’ve brought us this far, haven’t you?”

I was grateful that the darkness covered my expression, because I couldn’t manage a comforting smile, not now. “I mean, really trust me. No arguments, no thinking you know better than me. Get out the watches.”

Hanni reached into the pocket of her jacket and produced two wristwatches I’d gotten from Chesa’s. They were old, beaten things, but they still kept track of the seconds with precision. I wound them up and set them both to midnight, so there could be no confusion; I didn’t care how accurate they were so long as they matched one another. I gave one to Pietro, then fixed the other one around my own wrist. “Can you see the hands well enough?” I asked.

Pietro nodded. “Just barely, but I can.”

“Then here’s what we’re going to do,” I said. I took a deep breath and glanced over my shoulder, then brought them both close to me. “I’m going to take you to the spot where you’re going to cross. You’re going to wait there, and when the hour gets to three, you head across. If I’m there, I’ll go with you, but if I’m not there, you go without me.”

“I don’t understand,” whispered Hanni, reaching for me. “Why would we go without you?”

“It’s okay,” I promised, trying my best reassuring tone. “I have something else I need to do to make sure we’re safe to go. But if I’m not back, you have to promise me you’ll go without me.” Hanni started to say something, but I shushed her and shook my head. “I don’t care if you don’t understand. This is not about understanding. This is about getting you — all three of you — safely to the other side. You can argue with me about a lot of things, but you can’t argue with me about that, okay?”

They didn’t like it, that much was clear, but to their credit, they kept their mouths shut. I didn’t know if that would make it easier or harder on them later, but damn it, our list of options had worn pretty thin.

“Okay,” I said at last, nodding. “At three, you begin. The only thing you wait for is the lights. As soon as they’re done with their sweep, you go. You don’t stop, no matter what you hear. Your only job is to get to the other side. If one of you goes down, the other keeps going. And when you get to the Western border, you tell them who you are and why you’ve come, and then it’s their turn to be the ones you trust implicitly. Do you hear me?”

They nodded together, barely moving their heads. Good, they were afraid. Fear meant speed. Speed was the only thing that mattered.

I took another deep breath and brought them both to me, wrapping an arm around each of them. They folded me into the same embrace, and for a moment I wished I could stop everything and remain in that exact moment of warmth and safety. I tried to remember everything I could, down to the way their hair smelled. And that’s when I knew it was enough.

With only the greatest possible reluctance, I broke the embrace and took a step backward. “From this point on, we don’t say a thing,” I told them. “Not to anyone, not for any reason. Understand?”

No, they didn’t understand, and I couldn’t blame them. They accepted it, though. That was all I needed to get the job done.

I took their hands in mine and led them through the forest, making as little noise as I could until we reached the clearing surrounding this side of the Wall. Still holding on, they followed me behind the treeline, just slow enough that we made no more noise than the night wind did. At last, when we’d reached something near the halfway point between the towers, I settled them down beneath the cover of a thick shrub. I tapped my watch, tapped the wall, and gave them a thumbs-up just for extra confidence. Even in the dim light, I saw two thumbs right back at me.

Approaching the Wall felt strangely comforting, in a twisted way, like approaching an old friend. I pulled a pair of wire cutters from my boot and proceeded to snip as much of a gap as I could manage into the wires. I could tell that most of the razor wire was a relatively new addition; here were more consequences of that hotshot’s bragging. He’d better hope I never met him. For the most part, though, he wasn’t wrong — stretches along the wilderness were, by and large, far less well-guarded than the points nearer to towns, and some of the wires were so rusted through already that I barely had to budge them before they fell free. Hooray for making my job easier.

Between dodging sweeps of the scanning lights and trying not to set off any noisy vibrations down the wire coils, it took me nearly an hour to cut out a space for Pietro and Hanni to fit through, one by one. That done, instead of returning to the hiding place at the tree line, I set off down toward the south. I wouldn’t be back.

I’d been so honest with them that it felt like shit to have it end like this. I tried to reconcile it with myself by saying that I had left open the possibility that I wouldn’t be back in time — but no, I’d made it seem as though it had been my intention to return and cross with them, when I’d never meant to do anything of the sort. Not since that first night on the train, anyway, when I’d meant to watch the scenery but had instead wound up watching them and thinking about my mother. My brother had loved her, and I loved her for that, even if I couldn’t remember anything about her beyond the stories he’d told. I’d always wondered what it would be like to love someone that much. I guessed it was different for everybody.

Just south of the guard tower, I found a fork in a tree and hauled myself up into it. It didn’t give me much in the way of perspective, but it was a good place to sit. I looked out over the Wall and found myself wondering what it looked like from above, if I could have gotten not to tree-height but bird-height and looked down. I bet it seemed like a scar, more than anything, some deep bloody line cut through the good green earth on either side. It would come down someday, because nothing ever lasted forever, and then how long would it take to heal? If it all ended tomorrow, would anyone living now ever see green grass grow over concrete mounds, vines climbing up to blot out the windows in the guard towers? How badly do the things we break get broken? What kind of wound never heals?

I wished I had a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, but I wished I had one anyway. It seemed poetic.

At long last, the watch on my wrist said 2:55. It probably was still the early side of midnight by actual reckoning, but that didn’t matter. I hopped down from the tree and marched up to the Wall for one last pass. Good work, you ugly thing; we had a good run, didn’t we?

The flaw in the plan was always that there was no way to walk everyone out of it. It was something my mother had known, and a lesson she’d passed on down to me whether she’d meant to or not. This was the reason I’d never gotten into extraction; extraction required planning, it required paperwork, but more than that, it required a good way out. I didn’t know a good way out. I’d only ever known the Wall.

That was why, with the big hand on the twelve and the little hand on the three, I slipped through the wire and began to walk straight over.

I’m a little embarrassed at how much the shouts startled me; I’d known they were coming, of course, because that was the point. I hoped they wouldn’t scare Hanni and Pietro, but I couldn’t worry about that. I couldn’t even look in their direction, for fear of giving them away. The spotlight screeched out of its lazy automatic spin and caught me right in its bright white eye.

“Stop!” they shouted, but that wasn’t happening. Four, five times they called it. They didn’t want to shoot. They were little boys, babies brought to the edge of the world and left with toy guns. Half of them had never fired outside of a practice range; the other half had never aimed at anything more menacing than a dove or an elk. I could almost hear the guns trembling in their hands, the stocks rattling against their shoulders, their fingers chittering against the triggers. I didn’t turn to look.

The first shot was the only one that hurt. It ripped through the right side of my chest, bouncing off my rib cage before tearing its way out the front. I think I cried out, or maybe I just heard my mother’s screaming inside my head. Either way, I pitched forward just in time to take a second one in my left calf, and then to feel a third whiz by my left shoulder. Boys with toy guns, never so concerned about accuracy. I remember tumbling forward down over one of the tall piles of rubble, collapsing face-down in a heap of limestone and gravel. And there I lay, very still.

It was too dark now; all I had were my ears. There were shouts of alarm, and then three sets of legs tromping down the wooden tower steps. Little boys, forgetting all their training, forgetting to blow the bugle and let the other stations know there was a breach. But forgetting was fine by me now.

Forgetting, in fact, seemed like a good idea all over. Blood was pouring down my shirt, so warm on the cool night that it sent little trails of vapor into the air. Were the boys wheezing as they approached me, the little tin soldiers making their way into no-man’s land? No, that was me; the ball through my chest must have caught a lung on its way. I tried to hold my breath to make a little less noise, but I didn’t have that much control anymore. Panic was demanding air, heat, light, something, anything to replace what I was losing. The boys grew close above me, getting to the point where I’d pitched over. They were scared, I could hear it in the tense words exchanged between them. We were all in the same boat, which was a hell of a thing to think about three armed soldiers closing in on a wounded, unarmed woman, but there it was. More alike than different, here at the end of it.

They came close, peering over the edge. They didn’t know if they were looking for a body or confronting a downed but still dangerous enemy. They hadn’t seen a weapon on me earlier, but that didn’t mean anything; they couldn’t even agree among themselves if they were looking for a man or a woman down here. Weak little beams from their flashlights swung around, checking for any kind of movement, looking for the blood. I saw one beam find me, then the other, and finally a third come to rest where I had fallen. They’d found me, fair and square.

But if they were looking with flashlights, they weren’t holding their rifles.

Up from a crouch, I pounced, and bolted west with all the speed left in me. From behind me, I heard their shouts of surprise growing distant with every step — they’d seen me walk and they’d seen me fall, but they’d never seen me run. Run was what I did, though, past the pain in my leg that throbbed with every strike against the hard ground. If they’d been smart, they would have stayed right there, pulled their guns from over their shoulders, taken careful aim, and watched me fall again without ever breaking a sweat. But they weren’t smart. They were boys, and boys and dogs have the same instinct — if it runs, give chase!

One can only imagine what the Western guardposts saw as they looked over the wide wasteland of the Wall and saw me tearing toward them, hell-bent for leather, with three uniformed soldiers running after me, hollering at me to stop and turn back and all manner of things that I’m sure made sense to them at the time. I don’t care what they imagined, though — I cared what they did, and that was aim their own guns at the ground between the soldiers and me, pull the triggers, and fire off several warning shots. The boys stopped, and I kept going, tearing toward the Western barricade. As distractions went, I could only hope it was enough.

I don’t remember the wire, though I know it must have been there. I don’t remember the lights of the Western outpost, or the soldiers coming to me, or anything past that last push. I wasn’t there. I was somewhere high above, watching the world repair itself in slow motion, reaching in with all its healing magic until even its deepest scar tissue faded away. Then the green covered me too, and with it, I was gone.

~*~

If you can avoid dying, do. But if you have to, make sure you come back to life with a beautiful woman at your side. Two, if you can swing it.

“Lie still,” said Pietro, who still qualified in my book. He took my hand and stroked its back as best he could, given the IV taped in place there.

I’ve been a terrible listener all my life, so of course my first instinct was to try and sit up. The pain that ripped through my chest as those muscles contracted told me exactly what a shitty idea that had been, and I fell back against the pillows. I glanced around: canvas tent, kerosene lamps, glass IV bottle. Army medical tent. Western Army. I’d made it across.

“Forty-six,” I muttered, smiling as much as my achingly sore body would allow. My lips hurt. What the hell?

I felt a squeeze on my other hand and looked up at Hanni’s smiling face. Her face was smeared with dirt, except for the tracks her tears had made. I tried to tell her not to cry for me, but mostly I just coughed a little.

“There, she’s alive,” said a familiar voice. Into the circle of my vision, David’s face entered. Oh, right; I remembered now why I’d lived. I couldn’t die without punching him. “Now can we debrief you?”

Hanni and Pietro fixed fierce twin scowls on him, and despite the terrible pain, I laughed. Served him right. Served me right. I guess everybody here got what they deserved.

I floated in and out of consciousness for what I learned later was nearly two weeks, but which felt like either five minutes or eight lifetimes, depending on how I felt like counting at any given point in time. Sometimes my scenery changed; during one of my blackout periods, the tent disappeared and was replaced with the white tiles of a proper hospital ceiling. I met approximately twelve million doctors and nurses, remembered absolutely none of their names, and got very good at moving limbs and saying ah when asked.

The first time I woke after that — really woke, not just greyed in before blacking out again — a nurse was checking my blood pressure. He closed his clipboard in a hurry and rushed out into the hall, and seconds later, a pair of doctors came in, with David right behind. He was so lucky I wasn’t in fighting condition. “Welcome back to the land of the living,” David said, folding his arms as he stood at the foot of my bed.

Weakly, I lifted my middle finger in his general direction. He had the nerve to laugh.

“You’ve raised the stakes, you know,” David told me as the doctors shuffled around, doing their various doctor things. “A high-profile defection like that, that’s something the East can’t suppress news of, not well or for long. And realizing every code they’ve used in the past two decades is now vulnerable? That leads to panic. And panic leads to sloppiness.”

I frowned. “Your point?” I asked, my voice raspy with disuse.

“My point,” David said, reaching down to wiggle my bared big toe and thus increasing the likelihood that I would rise from that bed and throttle him, “is that bringing them over here has shifted the balance of power in our favor, and remarkably well. We couldn’t have planned that, not without some chance that a leak along the approval line would have thrown the whole thing into jeopardy. But by treating them like mere assets in the process of bypassing every extraction protocol we have, you managed the impossible. Well done, you.”

“Where are they?” I asked. Major geopolitical shifts were a secondary concern right now.

David’s smirk curled like a screw had tightened at the corner of his mouth. “Not far. Hard at work, in fact, though I’m sure they’ll be here whenever they’re not on the job or asleep, just like they have been every other morning and evening, and sometimes through the night.”

If he was trying to shame me for having an incredibly attractive, phenomenally brilliant couple constantly worried for my health and well-being, he was going to have to try a little harder. “You owe me,” I reminded him.

“You’ll be taken care of, no worry. Your treatment here taken care of, a stipend, a pension, the works. In fact, the Tower wants to put you up for a national commendation.”

I flipped him another middle finger to show him exactly what I thought of his intelligence supervisors’ idea, and he just smiled. Did I catch a hint of relief behind his eyes? Maybe I’d hold off on hitting him for another day.

One of the doctors took a peek at the bandages around my chest and nodded to the other. “We’d like to take you in and do another x-ray of your chest,” he told me.

“Fine, fine,” I managed. “Wasn’t doing anything else today.” But before they could wheel me out of the room, I looked back at David. “Didn’t do this for you. Or country. Or money.”

“For love?” asked David, still with that smug smirk on his face.

I snorted. “Maybe for love,” I admitted as they rolled me into the hall. I lay back against the pillow and closed my eyes. Maybe when I woke again, those beautiful women would be back at my side, holding me between them, finally safe, finally home. Then one more bit of this old, broken world would at last be made right.

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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