"You came."

The young woman looked at him curiously.

"We agreed to this meeting, didn't we?"

He grinned, embarrassed. Terence Nyle might have been over thirty, but he felt himself reacting like a schoolboy.

"Yes, but...I scarcely dared hope that--" He winced. What a silly line, straight out of a historical romance broadcast! Nyle couldn't believe he was acting this way, so unsure of himself. He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I mean, this is all like a dream. I keep expecting to wake up and find that I'd imagined it all. Rina..."

The wind plucked at the hem of her dress, making it swirl and ripple around her calves. Her long rose-pink hair flowed across caramel-colored shoulders. Her eyes were wide and as blue as the sky above. Her lips, brushed the same pink as her hair, curved upwards in a warm smile.

"That's so sweet, Terence," she told him.

"I've never felt this way about anyone else before," he said, taking her hands in his. "I never imagined that it was possible. You read about love, you think you understand it, but you never really can, not until it strikes for the first time."

"I know exactly what you mean. These moments we spend together...they make me feel so alive, so free."

"Is that why you always like to have our dates outdoors?" he asked. "Because of freedom?"

She nodded.

"That's exactly right! Every day is always the same, trapped within the four corners of the world. I love to get out, to feel the wind in my hair, see the clouds drift across the sky..." Rina stepped closer and leaned her head up against his chest. "With you, though, Terence, it doesn't matter. I could be locked away in a cell and as long as you were there my heart would be flying free."

He put his arms around her, holding her slim body against his own. Nyle knew just what she meant. His job was as dry as dust, his days blending into one another so that the Net-broadcast schedules were the only way to tell one from the next.

With Rina everything was different. Better. She filled a void in him that he hadn't even recognized was there, or at least the depth of it.

She leaned up and kissed him then, just a quick peck on the lips, then slipped free.

"Come on, Terence; the food is getting cold."

Rina took him by the hand and led him over to the cliffside where their picnic blanket was laid out. They sat next to one another, hips pressed together, so they could look out over the ocean where the sun sparkled off the water and white sea birds wheeled and turned with occasional cries to one another.

The meal was barely that, fruit and cheese and tiny bite-sized delicacies which they fed one another, laughing and talking about nothing in particular, sharing a bottle of an exotic sparkling wine that gleamed the same color as Rina's hair, all of it punctuated with kisses that grew steadily warmer and more lingering as the meal went on. Soft and sweet brushings of their lips turned to something hot and fierce that left Nyle trembling when they broke off. Jagged sparks seemed to dance along his nerves.

"I...need you," Rina whispered. Her eyes were wide and shining.

"I love you." He reached for her. "I want to see more of you, more than just th--" She cut him off, pressing a finger to his lips.

"Later. Tell me after." Her fingers began to play with the buttons of his tunic, undoing one after another. She slid one delicate-fingered hand beneath, began to play it across his bare chest, and he felt his nerves jolt again.

"Now, let's just see what..." Rina purred, pushing the shirt off him, then suddenly jerked back in alarm and spun her head to her left.

"Oh, no! They've found me--I have to hurry!"

"Rina? What is it?"

"I love you, Terence."

The outline of her body suddenly filled with a cloud of static that gave off hissing, crackling pops, then tore itself apart with a flash of light.

A moment later the entire world shattered to pieces, leaving Nyle once again in the living room, the sharp prick of the wires beneath his skin the only ghost of Rina's presence.

-X X X-

"We'd been dating for three weeks," Nyle explained. Weinstine Co. Android Type L/Y-906 (Lyon to her friends) studied his face. He was the two hunters' client, and the look of bewildered loss boded well for his truthfulness. She hated when the clients lied. "She...I loved her," he said simply. "She was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Lyon's partner, Donovan Ryland, tapped his fingertips together as he absorbed the details.

"Three weeks," he said, "but you didn't know her full name, address, or occupation?"

Nyle shook his head.

"Maybe I'd better start at the beginning. Please, have a seat."

Ryland sat down on Nyle's couch and after a moment of thought Lyon joined him. It didn't matter to her, but following social mannerisms made organics more comfortable around her. The orange-and-black RAcaseal was, after all, a full-fledged person and a Hunter's Guild member, not a tool. Their client took the seat opposite them across the transparent blue coffee table.

"I work as a logistics clerk for the Vise Corporation. It's not what you'd call an exciting and thrilling position. That's one reason I accepted the transfer to Pioneer 2. I thought that coming to the planet Ragol to help found a new colony would put excitement in my life. When the Pioneer 1 settlement was destroyed and the landing put on hold, that changed. I know you hunters have had all the excitement you could want investigating the surface, but the rest of us are essentially stuck here indefinitely."

That was true enough. Just as Pioneer 2 had completed its two-year journey to Ragol and was about to open contact with the initial mission, a strange explosion had engulfed the colony and apparently consumed it. With enraged animals, rogue bioweapons, mutated monsters, crazed robots, government conspiracies, and forces that seemed literally demonic on the loose, the Administration had put off the landing, so that the thirty thousand colonists remained in the city that had been their home for the past two years.

"I realized," Nyle continued, "that I couldn't just wait for life to come to me, but had to go out and live. Coral, Pioneer 2, or Ragol, it's all the same--where I am isn't the problem, but the choices I made for myself in my daily life.

"So I consulted a dating service."

Lyon's emotional program dictated that she laugh at Nyle's anticlimax, but she recognized the inappropriateness of the response and overrode it, the propriety of a hunter not mocking her client and the rudeness of the act generally combining to weight her decision-making algorithm.

"My first match..." He shrugged. "We didn't hit it off. Rina was my second match, and there was a connection between us at once. I could talk about anything with her, no matter how silly. After the first couple of dates, we knew we wanted to concentrate exclusively on each other. I'd decided that I wanted to meet her in real life."

Ryland held up a hand.

"Wait a moment. In 'real life'? What do you mean?"

"The service arranges all initial meetings virtually, in online space. It's only natural," Nyle added defensively. "People are nervous enough on a first date, especially when they've been fixed up. It helps them stay safe. And there's no public scenes, no third parties to embarrass yourself in front of. You can pick any kind of date you like--Rina always liked being outdoors, for example. But you don't have to reveal anything about yourself other than your name if you don't want to."

"And Rina didn't want to," Ryland said. "How can you fall in love with someone when you don't know anything about them?"

Lyon wasn't surprised at her partner's disbelief. Ryland was a Force, and like a lot of human Forces he played up the "wizard" tradition to the hilt, from the ornate robes that were his work uniform to the square-rimmed glasses he wore instead of in-eye lenses. For all that he used the Net daily like anyone else, he wouldn't consider it a proper venue for romance. Nyle, though, defended his feelings instantly.

"You don't fall in love with a person because of what their name is or their job or how they wear their hair! It's values, likes, dislikes, personality, the core of who they are, and that's all you see in virtual reality dating. You don't get distracted by irrelevant details!"

Lyon decided to change the subject. The point was an interesting one in psychology and culture but completely irrelevant to the job. Besides which, if Ryland and Nyle got in enough of a fight they might get fired, and Lyon had her eye on a fancy partisan-style weapon she'd seen at one of the weapons shops.

"I would think that fraud would be a problem," she noted. "If you only knew her by the information she gave to you..."

Nyle nodded at her.

"Yes, that's a problem on-line, but that's why I went to a service and not just a Net chat room. They verify our personal data with the citizen database and match people with qualities likely to mesh with one another."

"I see. This dating service, then, would be the first place to check."

"I did call them, but they wouldn't give out Rina's personal data."

"Privacy would be important," Ryland agreed grudgingly.

"But she's in trouble! That's why I went to the Guild, as a last resort."

Ryland frowned. Lyon knew that frown; it was the one he got when he was being told didn't dovetail with the known facts.

"Tell us how you know that Rina is in trouble," he asked slowly.

"It happened during our last date," Nyle said. "Like I said, I'd decided that I wanted to get to know her in real life, so I thought I'd ask her after our picnic." He took them through the story of their first date, finishing with Rina's sudden disappearance from the virtual reality program. By the time he'd finished, he was wide-eyed and hysterical.

"Relax, Mr. Nyle," Lyon advised. "We need to learn every detail if we are going to be able to help." She laid a hand on his shoulder in a reassuring manner, though not everyone accepted an android's touch in that way. "Try to calm down, for her sake."

The client took a couple of deep breaths and seemed to regain some part of his composure, though he continued to tremble. By comparison, Ryland was like ice.

"In your place, Mr. Nyle, I'd have contacted the military police. They'd have the ability to override the privacy seals on the dating service's files."

"They...they wouldn't believe me, just like you. They'd have thought Rina just wanted to break it off with me."

"In that case, she would have just done so, without the melodrama of an apparent disappearance. If the milipol thought you'd made the story up, they could just replay the datatrack from the date to verify you were telling the truth; the dating service would still have the file. So, why not go to the police, Mr. Nyle?" Ryland folded his arms across his chest.

Nyle licked his lips, the shaking increasing. "I...I..."

"Don't bother; you've already told me. Conventional VR sets include visual and audio stimulus; that's easy. The sense of touch is possible, too, with a bodysuit laced with reflex points; it's expensive but not impossible. But there's no commercially available virtual reality made that stimulates smell and taste."

Lyon hadn't noticed that, but of course it was correct. The Lab's VR simulator could impact all five senses, but that used advanced Photon matter-replication technology in realspace to generate artificial environments. Unless the Lab was running the dating service as part of a sociocultural experiment--unlikely, as Nyle would have had to go to the VR system's transporter to enter the virtual environment--there was only one way his story could be true, which she was convinced was the case.

She let Ryland say it, since he'd thought of it first.

"Your 'dates' weren't using VR. They were using direct neural stimulation. You were hotwiring."

"I...I..."

"That's why you couldn't go to the police," snapped the Force, his red hair like a flaming aura of anger around his head. "Hotwiring is illegal, and you know that sooner or later it would come out in the investigation--not that you didn't try to hide it anyway. Is that more or less it?"

Nyle sighed and buried his face in his hands.

"Yes, it is. But it's not just me! Sure, I was scared of being arrested, but it's Rina, too. She did the same things I did. I didn't want to get her in trouble. The whole point is to help her!"

"Hotwiring is dangerous," Lyon pointed out. "The equipment is an imperfect meld of electrical and Photon technologies and invariably results in brain damage to habitual users. Why would you do something like that?"

"It...the dating service dropped a few hints when I signed up. They said it was the next best thing to being with your date in person! Even better in a way, since we could go places and do things that we can't in real life. You know how much Rina liked the outdoors, but here on Pioneer 2 even the outside is still inside some part of the spaceship. Instead of an artificial park, we could have a picnic in the mountains of Gal De Val Island!"

"With or without firebreathing monkeys?" Ryland murmured.

"Excuse me?"

"Sorry."

"Look, I know that maybe we shouldn't have done what we did, but I really do love Rina, more than I imagined I could ever love anyone. She's everything I ever hoped to find, and she's in some kind of danger. It's been two days since she vanished, and I haven't heard anything from her in that time. You have to find her and help her, please."

Ryland glanced at Lyon, silently asking her opinion.

"Hunters enjoy complete extraterritoriality within the Guild. While in the course of a Guild Quest, we are under no obligation to report offenses to the civilian or military authorities and cannot be forced to testify in any tribunal to what we observe. If Mr. Nyle's girlfriend is actually in danger, then we should try to help. Rescuing damsels in distress is a very traditional hunter job, you know."

"All right, Mr. Nyle, you heard her," Ryland said. "Let's have all the details you can give up, starting with the name, Net address, and if they have one, physical location of that dating service. I'd really like to meet the person who decided that electronic drugs were a natural pairing with romance."