Hollowed Memories, chapter 1, part 1

April 13, 2014

Chapter 1: Blockhouse by the Sea

As he headed down towards the enemy’s fastness, Yarec wondered what strange history of pain and vengeance had brought him to this barren seashore. The rocks underfoot were smooth. They had begun as jagged boulders, sharp and pitted wherever they had been snapped away from the bedrock. But they had been swallowed up by the continual movement of the cold ocean, until they were disgorged here along the beach, worn free of all individuality.

The smells of salt and moss were strong in Yarec’s nostrils. In the distance, he heard the sound of helicopter blades slapping the air. The aircraft might have belonged to Yarec’s allies, having been dispatched here to monitor his arrival. If the backers were keeping an eye on Yarec, he had not been informed, but they never did tell him everything.

There was no road leading out to the fortress. There had been, once–a broad cement avenue laid down across the shingle. The blockhouse had been part of a long string of coastal fortifications, built back in a peaceful era when strong nation-states could afford such things–and precisely when they were not needed. In those days, the road had been busy with supply trucks and crawlers full of fresh troops. But in today’s times, when the nearest neighbor might be an enemy, the road had become a hazard, a way for hostile forces to drive right up to the main blockhouse door. So the road had not been maintained, and it had rotted away, undercut by the salty slapping of the sea.

Yarec looked down at the heavy black case he was carrying. Although this part of the world had descended into a neo-feudal system of lords and fealty, the medieval rules of hospitality had not been renewed. No one would get into this castle without an invitation to do business, and the case was Yarec’s invitation. He was here posing as a weapons courier and dealer, delivering something that the keeper of the fortress had ordered. Yarec did not know whether the arms deal had been arranged from the start by his own allies, as a ruse to get an agent like himself inside; or whether the real courier had been intercepted and Yarec inserted into his place. The details were irrelevant to the job Yarec needed to complete, and he preferred not to be burdened with such unnecessary information.

Coming around the end of a rocky cape, he came in sight of his goal. A poet might have said the structure was nestled between the arms of the coastal mountains, but to Yarec, it just looked like the dull rectangular box had been crammed into the crook between two promontories. There were guards moving on the roof, pacing and fingering their weapons. Behind them, a cliff face rose up toward the eastern sky, which was pure blue, like an inverted azure pond.

Angling his way across the stony beach, Yarec waved a small brown flag back and forth over his head–once, twice, three times, according to the agreed-upon signal. The two guards, waiting for him on the blockhouse roof, appeared to confer briefly. Then they must have sent word below, that an expected visitor was about to arrive. The above-ground fortifications were small, but there was a much larger structure underground–excavated out of the earth and hardened with military concrete. Yarec’s mission would be carried out down there, deep among the basaltic roots of the coastal range.

There was a huge pair of double doors opening on the seaward side of the structure. Yarec walked solemnly up to the heavy steel portals, keeping his gaze locked on the small glass disc located just above the entrance, so that his face would be clearly visible to the camera situated behind it. He adhered strictly to protocol in situations like this. It was only prudent; and the stubby machine gun that one of the guards on the roof had trained on him was an effective reminder to remain on his best behavior–for now.

A high-pitched voice spoke to him through a speaker mounted next to the metal doors. It was pitched like a soprano, but something about the timbre told Yarec that the voice actually belonged to a man. It had been ramped up in frequency to make it carry better outdoors. At the moment, when there were few sounds other than the lethargic lapping of waves and the scrape of the shingle stones under Yarec’s booted feet, the retuning seemed unnecessary. However, it would have been useful during squalls, when wind and water became a din.

“State your business here, plainsman,“ the voice said. It used a rather antiquated term of address for a traveller, and it seemed doubly odd when uttered in such squeaky, unnatural tones

“I represent The Vanbaw Company,” Yarec answered. “I have an appointment to arrive here today, to deliver a merchandise sample.”

“Wait, please. I need to confirm that.” The voice paused, although Yarec could hear from the slight hiss of background noise, distorted like the voice itself, that the intercom link was still open. After about a minute, there was the sound of a shuffle, and the speaker plate announced: “Set down your belongings, and you will be escorted inside.”

Yarec complied, and the moment that he had rested both his sample case and his pack of personal effects on the ground, the twin doors began to swing open. These modern castle gates seemed to grunt in discomfort as the vast gearworks behind them started turning, before the noise settled down to a more reassuring hum. The doors’ outer surfaces were softly polished, so they glinted in the light of the westering sun. However, Yarec could see bits of brown rust crusted along the sides, where salt had worked its way around the edges of the sealed portals and slowly begun to corrode them.

The doors opened about halfway, then shuddered to a halt with a steely whine. Four guards emerged and surrounded the visitor. Two kept their weapons trained on Yarec’s chest, while the others picked up the articles that Yarec had set down on the shingle. Then the squeaking voice told him, “Step inside please, plainsman.” Yarec passed through the squared entrance gate, moving at the center of a human quadrangle. Beyond the entrance lay a low-roofed room, where Yarec expected to be imaged and prodded before being allowed deeper into the enemy fortress.

The antechamber was crammed with scanning and surveillance equipment. The guards dropped Yarec’s belongings into a chute, which fed the baggage onto a belt that kicked into motion and conveyed them into a battered gray metal housing. Good scanners, with programming that was capable of identifying unusual threats, were expensive. This one looked like it had been salvaged from somewhere else, perhaps taken as spoils in conquest. The box reacted angrily to the heavy black case, with a loud beep and echoed unpleasantly off the hard walls. But the guards reacted professionally, and the case was whisked away. However, his rucksack was returned to him, as he and two of the guards exchanged banal pleasantries. The inhabitants of the fortress were used to armed couriers delivering weapons, and they were glad for a few words about recent regional news and views of the latest military technology.

Another scanning device, mounted on ceiling tracks, detached from its housing at the rear of the room and swept over Yarec’s head. It was a long black bar with a few dangling wires. It moved over him, probing with various frequencies of radiation. It rolled back and passed over again, and then again a third time. Eventually, its electronic brain satisfied that he was not manifestly dangerous, it recorded a report in the main operations database and silently withdrew.

“This way,” one of the guards muttered, gesturing toward the reinforced double doors on the opposite side of the chamber. Yarec followed the man around a rack of laser ranging guns, toward the inner portals. As they approached, the left-hand door swung back to admit them. Then it snapped shut with a clang as soon as they had passed. “This way,” the guard repeated, and motioned Yarec toward a broad staircase that descended into the cavernous excavation beneath coastal hills.

Eventually, he was ushered into a largish cafeteria–what would have been the great hall in a medieval castle. A couple of long plastic tables ploughed across the center of the floor. The tabletops had originally been decorated with colorful abstract patterns, but decades of cleaning and buffing had left them faded to patchwork shades of gray. Their folding under-frames also supported attached benches on either side, worn in places with visible ass prints. The guard gestured for Yarec to have a seat, which he did, near the end a bench. Yarec rested his left elbow on the corner of the table, and his right hand made a loose fist atop his knee, clenching and unclenching.

Yarec glanced around, casually observing the exits from the chamber. There were several nondescript double doors, as well as an open doorway leading into the kitchen area. Food could also be passed out of the kitchen across a scuffed and cratered counter that was fitted into an opening in the wall. At the moment, a single lonely ecru bowl sat perched on that speckled gray countertop, lingering behind after the last meal’s other dishes had all been swept away. Off to the side were a pair of wheeled metal carts, pushed haphazardly up against the wall to keep them out of the way.

Studying the functional features of the chamber was a professional necessity. If fighting broke out here, Yarec wanted to know where each of his exits was positioned and hopefully what lay beyond them. He glanced about jerkily, looking even more nervous than he felt, as he mentally connected each of the gray portals to a spot on the floor plan committed to his memory. Then, once he felt he had adequately ascertained the geography, Yarec let his gaze rise back toward the three long, lumpy shapes that hung from the whitewashed concrete ceiling. Their presence dominated the room, and Yarec had been struck by them from the moment he had entered. They were obviously intended to impress, although the low ceiling left them too close to floorbound viewers, somewhat undercutting their majestic appearance.

They were embalmed whales, of a species unlike anything Yarec had ever seen in video. Their hollow skins had been impregnated with a rigid preservative polymer, which had made the thick hides solid enough to hang from twisted metal ropes. They ranged from twenty to thirty feet in length, with blue-tinged grayish skin and weirdly elongated flukes and flippers. A mutant strain, Yarec concluded, or something bioengineered for some lost purpose. Their heads had almost bearlike snouts, and their bodies bulged in lateral lines, as if long tubules of blubber were running down from head to tail flukes. They were marvellous to see, and in friendlier company, Yarec would have produced a low, appreciative whistle. Here however, he had a particular image he wanted to project, so he simply stared up at the three elongated bodies, now and then shaking his head in wonder.

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