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Michigan

“You look like an undertaker,” says Lou, skipping a rock. He looks different without his suit and hat: older, jarred, denim and oilskin.

“Undertakers don’t wear much black, actually.” Rita’s in the silk, now, so dark it stands out against shadow. She doesn’t even have her gun.

“The Cold Man’s dead,” says Lou. “Killed by the Cold Woman?”

Rita shakes her head. “He was a man, and he broke. I unbroke him: he’s a name now, a terror, a legend. I’m merely Rita, humble agent in his affairs.”

“So I work for him now.” Lou sounds tired.

“Everyone,” says Rita, “does.”

Rita

“It’s a-a-a cave,” says the Cold Man.

“How far did hough.” Rita’s still coughing up rock dust. “Did we fall? Jesus faagh.

“Oh,” he says, and pokes his head into the shaft of light. “I forg-g-got you c-can’t–”

She waves him off and tries to stand. Nothing gives yet. She spits.

“No flashlight,” she murmurs.

“I-I can sssee,” he says. “C-can you see m-m-me?” He steps back. She can, though she can’t see anything around him.

“Yes,” she says.

“Y-you shouldn’t,” he smiles. “Bu-b-but that’s g-g-g-good.”

He holds out one gloved hand, and for the second time, she takes it.

Rita

“Hey, guys!” Rita knocks on the silver door with her silver hand. “It’s me. Mary? Sandra?” She shivers a little; she’ll get used to that. Surely. “I think I figured out that tape. You’re not gonna believe–”

The blast pillows from under the door so slow that at first, she doesn’t realize she’s already grounded. The concussion rolls out like boulders. She leans back, streams it around, lets the ley take the heat.

Did it kill them? Did they set it? Does it matter? Rita grits into the bomb, eyes streaming, getting colder. Shrapnel falls sharp into orbits around her fists.

Rita

“Let’s count atheists,” Rita murmurs eventually. “One.”

“T-two,” says the Cold Man, “but it-t’s n-n-not mmmuch of a f-f-fox foxhole.”

It doesn’t have to be. Rita imagined war as tracers and shelling, or tanks painted desert tan, but Chile is quiet. They can’t afford tanks here. Bombs are passé.

“You’re not–” Rita starts, then waits as somebody’s Uzi knockoff chatters nearby. “Not cold. I mean, I can tell you have body heat.”

“It’s ab-b-b-out electromagnet-t-t-tism,” he says. “And-and per-p-perceptions.” He snaps his fingers and produces a four of diamonds. “W-w-watch this,” he grins, and then they fall through the floor.

Rita

He can’t see her when she opens the door, but he doesn’t need to.

“Y-y-you came,” he says.

“Why not Sandra?” she asks. “Why not Mary, why not–”

“You b-b-bel-beb believed in t-t-t-rust,” he whispers. “In-n s-s-acrif-f-fice. Like I d-did.”

“It costs too much.” She shakes her head. “It costs too much.”

“Then y-you’re sm-m-marter about it-t-t,” he says, “th-th-n I was.”

“Stand up,” she whispers, but he can’t, so she empties the Glock into him there on the floor.

Rita

Rita thumbs back the hammer by way of introduction.

“Your answers are as follows,” says the chubby man behind the desk, without looking up. “We are the Numismata. He was one of us, and chose to leave. When they are finished with him he will die. We will not prevent this. Firing your gun at me would be an empty exercise.”

“What will it cost?” she asks. “To do what he could do?”

He does look up, at that, and he smiles. “All the color in the world,” he says. “All its warmth.”

IN GOD WE TRUST, say his copper eyes.

Rita

“You’re sure there’s nothing else?” asks Rita.

“We checked the rest of the tape through everything we’ve got,” sighs Mary, rubbing her eyes. “Virgin white noise. No encryption, no watermark. Whoever left this wanted us to see only this fifteen seconds of… nothing.”

“Not nothing,” says Tina. “The inside of a security center where every instrument shows nothing.”

Rita watches as they rewind and play it again, until it cuts to static.

“Guys?” she says slowly. “What kind of person doesn’t show up on any instrument?”

“A dead one,” says Sandra.

“Right,” says Rita. “So who do we know that’s dead?”

Rita

The Ad Hoc catches the bullet, of course, but doesn’t seem prepared when the catch fails to stop it. The bullet careens off a thick conduit and then the concrete floor, trailing Ad Hoc, until they bury themselves in a stack of foam insulation.

Rita lowers the gun and walks up to it. She doesn’t smile, but her mouth quirks. “Hi,” she says. “Go ahead and tell your friends their pet isn’t unique anymore.”

She pries open one of the Ad Hoc’s eyes. Its pupil is clicking and fluttering, an inhuman twitch, like the wing of a beetle in a web.

Rita

In the days since they put her into the dark, Rita’s had plenty of time to wonder whether the Cold Man’s life is worth it. When she couldn’t decide, she passed the hours exploring something new inside her: something that was once warm and scattered, now tightly aligned, a cold and perfect checkerboard.

Then they open the lid, and take the heavy dollars from her eyelids.

“You are of the Numismata,” says the flat voice. “You are of the Coined.”

Rita opens her eyes at the cold touch, and everything’s etched in silver. She’ll never be warm or see color again.

Rita

The little bird defecates like clockwork, one more step in an automated dance: walk walk walk pause, inspect, walk walk, drop, leap back into flight.

The Ad Hoc catches it out of the air with a kind of mechanical gentleness: its hands are like steel, Rita knows, but she’s sure the bird isn’t bruised. Yet. It doesn’t cry out, just tries to watch its captor with one eye, then the other.

“A decision,” says the Ad Hoc flatly.

Nearby, a white moth flutters around, resembling nothing more than a paper circle caught in the wind. The Ad Hoc opens its hand.

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