Hours past sunset, Elsa sits in her darkened bedroom on a hard wooden chair, toes not quite touching the floor, gazing out her window as she cleans her rifle. Moonlight lies pale upon the scenery, washing out all the greens and browns and oranges of the compound's rooftops and the hills beyond, leaving everything defined mostly in shades of gray. She doesn't notice: her world has been without color for so very long.
Her room is more barren than a prison cell: no rugs warm the plank floor, no decorations relieve the blankness of the walls; there is no furniture save the bunk bed, some hooks on the wall for her clothes – picked out for her long ago by a smiling woman at the Agency whose name Elsa can no longer recall - and the chair on which she sits. She doesn't care about anything that doesn't come to her from his hands, and he gives her nothing.
She has not left this room in two days, since her and Lauro's return from Tuscany. No one has missed her at the dining hall or the classroom or the training ground; there have been no taps at the door or concerned inquiries through its panel. She has always come and gone through this place like a ghost. If Lauro never called for her, she could sit here until she died, and no one would notice. That knowledge never bothered her before, nor does it now, but her reasoning has changed.
Until now, nothing else mattered so long as she was with Lauro. Now, nothing matters.
She glides a cloth along the barrel of her SIG 550 battle rifle, removing the last trace of excess oil from its recent cleaning. She usually cleans her weapons several times between missions, making sure they are as ready to serve him as she, but this time her duty is to the weapon itself, which, she feels, deserves to be left behind in good order. In the past, as she worked, she pretended that the cloth covering the barrel under her hand was his sleeve, feeling a ghostly sort of pleasure as she envisioned walking beside him, her hand tucked between his side and forearm. Sometimes, when she was very certain no one could see, she would caress herself, imagining the gentle hands on her to be his. All such fantasies are done now. She finishes her task and puts the rifle in its case and slides it under the bed, certain she will never use it again.
She picks up the picture in its castoff frame resting on the windowsill, and runs two fingers over its surface. Taken as a throwaway shot by Lauro through the windshield of his car, it shows a narrow slice of sky framed by three-story buildings, part of his rearview mirror, and, in its reflection, a portion of his face: just one eye and ear and a bit of forehead and cheek, but anyone would know in a heartbeat that it is he. One's eye is drawn to his, and then he dominates the composition; having seen him, it is impossible to forget he is there, no matter where else one may look. The portraiture is perfect, she thinks: it is exactly how she perceives him in life. She sets the picture back on the sill, where she can see it as she looks out the window.
Lauro is coming for her. Having called on the way, he will expect to find her waiting in the courtyard when he pulls in, whether five minutes later or an hour; he has never visited her room. No matter. He knows that, even late on a Sunday night, she is ready to be picked up on a moment's notice. All her time is spent either with him or waiting for him, as she is waiting for him now. Standing at the sill close to the wall, she can just look down the back drive to the distant gatehouse, so she will know when he arrives.
She thinks, once again, of the recent mission in Tuscany. The memory no longer brings searing pain, only resignation. She remembers the ordeal of trying not to watch Jose and Henrietta together as they set up for the hit in the clock tower. Her eyes had been drawn to them almost against her will as they gazed out the window together nearly cheek-to-cheek, Jose's palm resting on Henrietta's back, almost holding her. She remembers the strange guilt that had filled her when Lauro first caught her watching them, and her determination not to do it again; the shock and panic when Lauro caught her again at the critical part of the operation, shouting at her to pay attention, and she realized that she was neglecting her work and letting him down. Horror as Lauro ordered her away from her rifle, the end-of-the-world feeling as Jose took her shot. The contempt in Lauro's eyes afterward as he turned from her and, almost as bad, the pity in Henrietta's as she stood watching. The final hammerblow to Elsa's heart during the exfiltration, when Jose missed Henrietta after only a few steps (Lauro never looked back to see if she was following, ever) and called her to him. The long silent ride back to the Agency, so different from the typical silent rides with her handler: usually, she longed for him to speak, but this time she had sat numb with terror that he might.
Useless, he'd called her: the most damning word that could come from the mouth of a cyborg's handler, the curse of rejection. She means less than nothing to him. He is her father, her brother, her lover, and her God. And they have all turned their backs on her.
Her life is unendurable; only one recourse remains to her.
She can't let go of him.
It is soothing, the almost anesthetic calm that follows her decision, after two awful days of anguish and self-recrimination.
She reaches behind her to the holster at the small of her back. Her fingers curl around the grip of her pistol, her child's hand not quite covering it as an adult's would. Her thumb unsnaps the retaining strap, and she draws it out. She examines it in the moonlight, for the twentieth time tonight: a blue-black SIG P229 loaded with nine-millimeter hollowpoints. She might have preferred a smaller weapon for tonight's work, something with enough power to penetrate a skull but not come out the other side, in order to spare his beautiful face; but, then again, it is supremely important that it be quick and unexpected, and that he not suffer. He'll turn and walk away from her, as always without looking back, expecting her to follow. He won't notice if she's ten steps behind or two; he won't hear her stop to draw and aim. When he's with her, he usually walks hunched with his head down, as if leaning into an invisible wind; that should help. If she's careful, the bullet will enter at the base of his skull and come out above his hairline. She nods to herself. Everything is so much easier when one plans ahead.
The greater risk will come just before, she judges, when she says her goodbye. All her life, she has been waiting for him to notice, waiting for him to understand, waiting for a sign. She has to try to tell him, one last time before the end, what he means to her, but she must be very careful in her phrasing. If she thinks he suspects, she will immediately put the gun to her eye and pull the trigger. As horrifying as is the idea of going into the final dark without him, better that than to let him die afraid of her.
At the gate, headlights appear, high and far-spaced. A large passenger vehicle pauses at the guard shack. The barrier lifts, and the vehicle passes under and trundles down the drive, heading for the courtyard parking lot. She recognizes it: Lauro's Land Rover. She holsters her pistol and turns to retrieve her coat from its hook by the door. The waiting is over.