She entered the apartment, stopping when she reached the edge of his rumpled bed. Serge waited for her to say something, anything about how the sheets hadn't been cleaned in a month like all the other women he brought home had said... but she didn't.

Finally he scratched his head in confusion. "Look," Serge told her, "what are you supposed to do, anyway?"

"We assist self-termination applicants with their final affairs, Mr. Karanov," she said.

"No, no," he said disgustedly. "What is it that you do?"

She folded her hands, her face expressionless with infinite patience. "We are physical agents of MORA, Mr. Karanov -- the Mankind Organization for Reposition of Actions."

"The what?" Serge asked.

"Are you aware of what happens after you die, Mr. Karanov?"

It was a strange question, but Serge had heard and answered stranger questions posed by the Force in the last seven years, and it had left him with a certain attitude regarding the unanswerable. "I don't know," he said, "and I don't care much. What does that have to do with me, anyway?"

"Karanov," a voice said.

"Karanov?" Serge asked.

"I did not say your name, Mr. Karanov," the young woman told him.

"Yes... no, I mean..." Serge said impatiently, holding up one hand. "Wait just a moment."

In the moment after the hard blink, a small window caught itself in his field of vision somewhere behind his cornea. It was lined with red, framing a man's face in the scrolling text of an emergency call.

"Karanov," the man said. "Are you there? Yes, there..."

Serge sucked in his breath, the sound feeling strange between his teeth. "Chesterfield," he said to the man in the neural-net window. "You," he told the woman in his room, "wait right there. This'll just be a moment."

Chesterfield's eyes were lined with dark patches of skin, evidence of his growing insomnia. "Karanov?" he asked. "Get your ass out here, Karanov. We've got something."

"For chrissakes, Chesterfield," Serge complained through his head, "check the shift schedules. I'm not supposed to be in this week. Hell, Friday was supposed to be my last day with the Force."

"Your tenure's been extended," Chesterfield said abruptly, without any trace of humor in his face. "Larton wants you on this. We're strung thin."

"Tell Larton to kiss my ass. I'm not supposed to be working his beat."

"It ain't his beat, Karanov. Not this one."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Look," Chesterfield said, placing one weary hand on his forehead. "You've gotta get down here, Karanov. Half the Force's swarming around the area as we speak."

"I can't right now," Serge said, glancing at the woman, who hadn't moved. "I've got... a guest."

"I don't care who you've got over there, Karanov! Larton wants you over here now!"

"Christ, Chesterfield. What's so damn important?"

Chesterfield suddenly went quiet, and for a moment Serge thought that something had gone wrong with the neural-net communication module. Then Chesterfield finally spoke, only in a voice that was now barely above a whisper.

"It's a 914, Karanov."

"914?" Serge mentally flipped through all the codes he knew, then cursed the memory upgrade that never worked. "What the hell's a 914?"

"You get over here and find out, Karanov. I've patched over the coordinates to the scene," Chesterfield said. "We'll be waiting for you."

And with that, Serge found that he was talking to nothing but static and white noise.

He stood where he was for a while. "Damn," he finally said. "Damn, damn, damn."

"Are you finished, Mr. Karanov?" the woman asked.

Serge glanced at her. She was still waiting for him. Now he was sure that she wasn't human. No man or woman alive would have had that sort of patience.

"I'll have to talk to you later," he told her. "Something's come up. I have to go to work."

"You have a week left before your self-termination takes effect, Mr. Karanov. Your briefing is required to take place this morning."

Serge observed her for a moment, wondering just what to do. There was the possibility of telling her to just bug off and drop by his place another time, yes. But he had waited a year for this -- one long year since he had first filled out the application and sent it over the neural-net -- and damned if he was going to throw it all away now.

"Then I'll have to bring you along," he said. "Just make it quick. You've been programmed to make sure everything's fast and painless, right?"

"Yes, Mr. Karanov," she said, quite simply.


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