Hollowed Memories, chapter 1, part 2

April 20, 2014

A door opened behind him.  Having memorized the plans for the underground fort, he knew that the hallway behind it led right past the commander’s outer office.  So as he stood up and turned to observe the entrance, Yarec was confident he knew who would be coming through that door.  “Colonel Maldanko” he had styled himself, even though there was no record of his serving in any of the dozen or so military organizations active in this part of the world.  He was of middle height, positioned between and slightly ahead of a tall blond man on his right and a second, female bodyguard—short, with black hair and sallow skin, but bulging arm muscles—on the left.  The Colonel himself had rather dark complexion, with a weedy mustache and thinning black hair trailing back down to the nape of his neck.  His companions’ haircuts were also rather unruly, Yarec noticed; proper barbering was evidently not so readily available down here.

Maldanko wore a flat gray imitation of a traditional military uniform.  The fabric was well tailored to his frame, which was that of a man who, having finally reached success in early middle age after decades of rigorous conditioning, had begun to let himself go.  The shirt bore no insignia.  The alliance of gangsters and lordlings that Maldanko represented had no formal banner or heraldry; their leaders’ reputations were usually sufficient pressages to their coming.  The colonel’s shirt was plain, with his name stitched across the left breast and polished steel buttons that glinted even in the soft artificial light.  His matching pants hung smartly, but the disciplined effect was spoiled by his footwear.  Rather than hard military boots, he wore low, comfortable jogging shoes, an even tan in color.

Maldanko’s two bodyguards spread out on either side of him, like pincer tips waiting to close on their prey’s neck.  Although the colonel carried only a small sidearm in a black plastic holster, his agents had hefty automatic weapons slung across their backs.  They adopted casual postures of readiness.  The tall man looked Yarec over and then gave the commander a curt nod.

Maldanko stepped forward and sized Yarec up for himself.  The two men were about the same height, and Yarec found himself watching the other’s deep brown eyes.  What thoughts were concealed behind them Yarec could not discern.  Maldanko’s inspection lasted only a few tense moments, then he shot out his hand.  With a tight smile, the commander said, “Welcome to Station Westerly, Mister…?”

Yarec took the proffered hard and filled in the gap, “Racker, Tris Racker, sir.  This is a slick facility.  You clearly know your work, colonel.”  Yarec’s accent could change from operation to operation, and his alias was even more fluid.  Both of them had currently been chosen to give the impression of a vague, rootless urbanity—appropriate for a merchant of death-dealing devices.

Despite the reference to work, Colonel Maldanko was in no hurry to get down to business.  He seemed puffed up by the compliment and gestured Yarec back to his seat, with a murmured, “Mister Racker.”  Maldanko seated himself on the opposing bench, and rested his scarred hands against the tabletop.  “It’s been a big job, getting this place back into fighting trim.  There were so many things to do, and so many of them, I had to do myself.”  He gestured up at the cetaceans dangling from the ceiling.  “I put so much of myself into rebuilding this place, I had to add a few purely personal touches.”

“They are very impressive,” Yarec put in.  “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Maldanko’s smile broadened and looked quite a bit more genuine.  “I caught them myself, about five years ago.  I was running a group of speed boats then.”  Smuggling or piracy? Yarec wondered.  “A pod came up alongside us.  They looked weird.”

“Do you know what they are?” Yarec asked, out of genuine curiosity.

“Well, no,” Maldanko sighed.  Yarec sensed that he had interrupted the flow of the commander’s favorite yarn, so he held his tongue after that.  There was no sense in antagonizing this foe before the time of final reckoning.

“We had a couple of harpoon guns for ship-to-ship grappling,” Maldanko explained, returning to his story.  “I had my men try those first, but they were too hard to aim at a moving target under the water.  It was too bad, really.  With just the harpoons, we might have dragged a few of them back alive.  But the shots kept missing, so we had to use guns.”

“We hauled around and fired off the bow-mounted R fourteens.  The sound of all those bullets hitting the water was amazing; it was like the sound of the hardest rainstorm you ever heard, all compressed into one little patch of water between two boats’ hulls.  The whales jerked when they were hit.  I wouldn’t have thought something that big could jerk and shake the way they did, but they really got going.  They churned up the water until it got all frothy at the surface, but we didn’t see any blood.  Some of them dove to get away, but we killed these three beauties before they could run.  There was a fourth one that we should have got too, but it sank for some reason.  It’s a shame, really, since it looked even longer than the big one up there.”

Maldanko gestured toward the longest of the three mutated shapes.  Yarec’s eyes followed the colonel’s hand, down the oddly bulged sides that had once been packed with blubber but which now contained only hard resin and emptiness.  It was impressive, however, that the leviathan showed no signs of damage from the torrent of machine gun rounds that had ended its life.  The taxidermy was really an impressive technological achievement, although hardly a match for whatever combination of nature and artifice had produces the blueish whales in the first place.

Maldanko went on.  “We got harpoon cables wrapped around those three, and then we towed them slowly back to shore.  I didn’t really know what to do with the whales, frankly.  I didn’t know anything about whaling back then.  Of course, since then, I’ve became a lot more interested in the subject.  Did you know that in the old days, when there was a real industry in whaling, they would butcher the whole carcasses at sea?”  Yarec adopted an expression of appropriately appreciative surprise.  His ignorance of whaling was genuine, although his continuing interest in the topic was purely feigned.

“They would boil all the fat to make oil,” Maldanko explained, “and cut off whatever meat they wanted to keep.  Most of that protein just went to waste.”  There was a tinge of disgust in his voice now.  Whatever other vicious traits he might possess, Maldanko was never profligate with a resource like meat.

“We towed these three to shore, and at the same time, I was calling around to find somebody who knew what to do with them.  Now,  I had a lot of contacts in shipping and fishing, but it seemed like nobody knew what to do with a whale carcass.  Eventually, I found a factory ship berthed nearby, and I persuaded them to help out.  They normally dealt with smaller things—a lot of kelp, and fin fish when they were available.  We managed to get the smallest whale hauled up out of the water onto a makeshift boom using a crane.  They cut it open and managed to carve out some of the flesh, but it was dirty work.”

“I hadn’t seen any blood when I was operating the R fourteen machine gun,” Maldanko explained, “but now it seemed to come in buckets.  Sometimes it would just spurt out when they cut in with the vibration saw.  And not just blood—there were other fluids too, from around the head and the innards.  The blood was red or purple, but the oils and spermaceti were white and gray and greenish.  The flesh, when they got it cleaned of ichor and sea scum, was surprisingly pale—just pink.”

“Did you get to taste it?” Yarec asked, unsure whether he really wanted to know the answer.

“Oh, yes!” Maldanko beamed.  “As I say, it was dirty work, and we only managed to get edible meat off one of the animals.  It just went bad too quickly, out there in the water.  But we did manage to harvest some great hunks of animal protein.  The flavor was good, but it turned out to be very tough.  We had to chop it down into little nuggets and boil them.”  Maldanko displayed the size of the whale meat chunks with his fingers, and Yarec nodded understandingly.

“The protein lasted us a good while, but the real prize—as you can see—was those hides.  After I let the factory vessel leave port, we towed the bodies further down the coast and had them preserved at Sankirk.”  Sankirk was a real city, built across the mouth of one of the old man-made rivers.  In places like that, one could still find artisans trained in even some of the most unusual pursuits.  A cosmopolitan character like Tris Racker ought to be familiar with a city like Sankirk, so Yarec allowed a sly, knowing smile to flicker across his lips when the colonel spoke the place’s name.  Maldanko himself chuckled silently for a moment.  Then he continued, “It was amazing work.  Of course, you can see that.  It was really amazing work, and to fit the trophies in here, once they had been preserved and hardened with poly-whatever, they had to be cut into slices.  Yet they fit together without any visible seam.  It’s remarkable.”  Maldanko chuckled again, this time aloud.  “If you ever need a whale stuffed yourself, I’d be happy to give the name of the company that did mine.  It was amazing work they did.”  Yarec looked sly again, but he figured he could get away with not laughing aloud at his host’s joke if it was as feeble.as this one.

“Well,” the colonel said after a pause, “I hope you enjoy the way they brighten up the view here.”

“Certainly, colonel.  Certainly.”  Yarec gazed up at the long stiff bodies, wondering again about their extended fins, which looked almost like long, nail-less fingers.  Staring at the immense corpses too long was disconcerting, but Yarec now wanted to wait for the colonel to make the next move.

The female bodyguard had disappeared, ducking out into one of the adjoining corridors while Yarec had feigned rapt interest in the colonel’s whaling story.  He had seen her depart out of the corner of his eye, but he did not want to betray too much interest in such mundane comings and goings, lest he offend his raconteur host.  Yarec’s greatest fear was that Maldanko’s security apparatus had already caught onto him, and that she would return with a troop of soldiers behind her, either to arrest him or to shoot him on the spot.  It was more likely that her commander had simply passed a silent signal that her presence was no longer necessary, meaning that Yarec had already worked himself into the colonel’s confidence.  That scenario was better, certainly, but it was also problematic in its own way.  It was too soon for Maldanko to trust Tris Racker.  It was irrational, and Yarec did not like irrational enemies, because their responses could be erratic and difficult to anticipate.

The bodyguard had not been gone long, before another woman arrived—although not, it seemed, to replace her.  She appeared out of the kitchen, although Yarec had not noticed anyone in there when he arrived, and she was carrying food.  She was taller and somewhat older than the wiry little bodyguard, with red-brown hair that bounced disorganizedly past her shoulders.  Her features were not conventionally beautiful, but they were striking somehow, and when Yarec caught a glimpse of her eyes, as steely gray as the belted smock she wore, he saw a furious intensity behind them that, in more relaxed circumstances, he would have found quite captivating.  She set two bowls of yellow gruel, dusted with cheese, in front of the colonel and his guest.  Hard black synthetic spoons had been thrust haphazardly into the mush, and the handle of Yarec’s clattered unhappily against the bowl as she slapped it down.

The woman did not speak.  She simply delivered the bowls and then receded a couple steps back.  There was a bulky pistol strapped to her right hip, but she showed no interest in it.  She was not another bodyguard, Yarec provisionally concluded.  In fact, her posture suggested something else—as if she was Maldanko’s lover but was striving to conceal that fact.  She observed the men’s conversation from a few steps to the side, with an apparent mixture of interest and impatience.  Now and then she seemed moved to begin a coquettish gesture, before she caught herself and stopped.  Yarec wondered briefly what sort of  petty court politics were prompting her behavior, and he sighed inwardly.  If everything went as planned, all such maneuverings would be rendered irrelevant by the day after tomorrow.

Maldanko stirred the vat-grown cheese into his gruel and then popped a large spoonful into his mouth.  He motioned for Yarec to do the same.  “Eat up.  It’s pretty good when it isn’t burnt,” the colonel muttered with toothy grin.  “I insist on decent cooking here, now that I can afford it.  You should have seen the stuff we survived on at sea.”

“Oh, I can imagine,” Yarec murmured between bites.  Maldanko did not elaborate further on what he’d subsisted on (apart from whale meat) during his days as a pirate, for which Yarec was rather grateful.  His nerves, exacerbated by some of the more gruesome details of the whaling story, were already making it difficult for him to eat.  The colonel grunted and scraped up his yellowish porridge with enthusiasm, while Yarec ate more cautiously, not wanting to upset his quivering innards with a huge infusion of unfamiliar fare.

The colonel finished quickly and rose to depart.  “I need to attend to other matters right now, Mister Racker, but I’ll be back to show you to your room later on.”  Yarec’s mouth was too full to give an immediate reply, and Maldanko did not wait for one.

“Alert me if there are any problems,” Maldanko told the blond bodyguard, who had been standing there like a piece of furniture throughout the entire conversation and meal.  The words were clipped and metallic; all the conversational warmth dropped out of Maldanko’s voice as he returned to issuing orders.  On his way toward the door, the colonel passed the woman who had brought in the food.  He whispered something to her, she responded, and they left the cafeteria together.

While Yarec had been eating, several of Maldanko’s mercenaries and laborers had arrived for their own suppers, and even more flowed in after the colonel had left.  Each of them retrieved a bowl of gruel from the kitchen and found a place alongside one of the long tables.  No one sat near enough to Yarec to make conversation convenient, but some of the men and women paused to say hello on the way to or from the kitchen.

Yarec finished his gruel, almost—leaving enough lying in the bottom of the bowl to it make clear that he was not interested in seconds.  Then he waited.  Around him, people ate and talked, although their conversations were either strictly work related or limited to the mildest possible forms of gossip.  They spoke loudly, to show they had no secrets; for secrets and whispers were the prerogative only of the master and his inner confidants.  The inhabitants of the complex, numbering perhaps three dozen in all, arrived, ate, and went away, moving in irregular waves.

There were really only two things Yarec could do to pass the time:  listening in on the other diners’ conversations, and staring up at the plastified whales.  The whales, he quickly decided, were much more interesting.  They had been sculpted with subtle waving undulations running down their bodies, like sea serpents slithering through the imaginary water.  Whether or not that was an accurate representation of how they swam, it was a mesmerizing effect.  As they ate, Maldanko had admitted that one of the whales actually did have a well-concealed hole its hide, made by a  close cluster of automatic weapon rounds, but Yarec did not bother looking for it.  They were things of beauty, and he did not wish to be reminded of the disfiguring violence that had brought them here.

Yarec wanted to hop onto the tabletop, so he could reach up and feel one of the smooth giants.  He had never touched whale skin and had no idea what feel like.  No, no, he thought, it will probably just feel like slick plastic.  If he touched one, he would only feel the embalmer’s coating.  If he rapped on its hide, it would echo hollow.  All the living parts inside, the brain and blood and even blubber, were gone.

Above ground, the sun had set, and eventually only two other stragglers remained in the cafeteria, nursing their cheese and porridge and arguing animatedly over the best way to repair part of the desalination system.  The tall guard had barely moved through all this, and he had certainly not eaten, but his weather-beaten face betrayed no hint of dissatisfaction.  He waited impassively for the colonel’s return, when he would either be dismissed or assigned some further duty.  Maldanko did not want for loyalty among his soldiers; they either respected or feared him too much to waver in their allegiance.

When the colonel did return, he was accompanied again by his female bodyguard.  Maldanko dismissed the blond man with a curt wave and then turned to Yarec, who had risen from his seat as Maldanko approached.  “Sorry that took so long, but I hope you ate well,” he said.

Yarec replied casually, “Oh yes.  Is that a common dish around here?” he added in his best ingratiatingly salesmanlike tone.

“It is,” Maldanko said, but he did not elaborate further.  At the moment, he clearly had more serious matters on his mind.  “If you’re done then, let me show you to where you’ll be staying while you’re here.”  He gestured towards one of the double doors, directing Yarec to precede him through it.

They emerged into a passageway no wider than the doors themselves, and Maldanko directed Yarec along a few more short tunnels and down another flight of cold cement steps.  Yarec’s sense of direction did not desert him, and he was confident that he understood exactly where he was located in relation to the most important parts of the facility.

“Here,” Maldanko announced abruptly, tapping his finger on a narrow numbered door, set right beside the foot of the steps.  The bodyguard produced an electronic key, which Maldanko passed to the visitor.  Yarec fumbled with it in the lock, not wanting to appear too familiar with the precise technology in use around the fortress.  However, he did not intend to look inept either, and so after a few seconds, he activated the latch and pushed the panel open.

“Looks pretty fair,” Yarec said, as he peered into the spartan chamber.

“Sleep well then,” replied the colonel, offering Yarec his hand again.  “If there are any problems, call security on the intercom.”  Then an odd look flashed across the commander’s face.  He seemed conflicted, as if between his good sense as a paramilitary man and his duties as a host.  For an extended moment, there was silence, except for the pale whirr of the air circulators.

Then Maldanko asked suddenly, “Would you like that woman, from dinner, to come by your room tonight?” Yarec did not answer immediately, pretending to consider the offer long enough so his host would not be insulted.  “She’s very willing to, almost eager,” Maldanko added, as if trying to convince both of them that this was a good idea.

But Yarec did not like the lordling’s tone, and he shook his head.  “No thank you,” he murmured.

“Sleep well then,” Maldanko repeated, and the tone told Yarec that this time it was a dismissal.  So he stepped into the room and dropped his soft packet of personal belongings on the floor.  The door swung closed behind him, and he heard the snick of the electronic lock sealing him in overnight.

As he lay on the broad but rather uncomfortable palette, Yarec wondered whether he should have accepted the offer of a bedmate.  He was very tense, and sex would probably have helped him sleep.  No, he told himself, I don’t perform well when I’m stressed like this.  Yarec gritted his teeth, and then he wondered why he cared about his capacity to please this woman.  He had been skillful enough in the past, when it mattered, even without technological assistance.  Yet it seemed like every time he underwent a procedure, the doctors offered to give him a bigger dick, and they were continually surprised when he said no.  All the other men involved in the project must have jumped at the opportunity.  But mine is normal sized, and it works.  With each iteration, his appearance changed, but there were some things that he kept the same—his—every time through.  His penis was one of them.

Yarec glared up angrily at the ceiling.  The chamber was so dark—lit only by a pale gray-green diode on the communicator panel—that the ceiling was completely lost in blackness.  Yet he knew it was there, sagging low above his bed.  The place seemed to be closing in around him, cement walls inhaling and constricting the narrow space.  How many tons are weighing against that pocked white ceiling? Yarec wondered.  How many tons are weighing down my soul, whether I recognize them or not?  Yarec knew that he was being over-dramatic.  He had slept in much worse places than this, out among the rocks with mercenaries hunting his heat signature; yet he preferred the open outdoors to a claustrophobic oubliette like this underground fortress, with unknown dangers pressing in from every side.

Yarec balled his hands into fists—clenching the fingers together until they started to hurt, then releasing them for a few seconds before squeezing again.  He had a nervy disposition, which was not the best trait for a man in his profession.  The last sleep before a big op was always difficult.  Yet somehow, he thought tonight felt different.  Is some bit of my brain trying to warn me?  Yarec did not believe in extra-sensory abilities or anything paranormal, and if there was a coded message from his subconscious, it was not based on telepathic intuition.  He gritted his teeth.  There was nothing to be gained by worrying now, so Yarec set his unease aside and forced himself to sleep.

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