Hollowed Memories, chapter 1, part 3

April 27, 2014

He spent nearly a whole calendar day cooped up around that room.  It was boring and dreary, but Yarec felt content to wait.  He ventured out a couple of times, to drink some water and to relieve himself in the cramped little privy on the opposite side of the landing.  As he waited and paced, he glimpsed a few more of the fort’s inhabitants.  He brushed by a couple of workers at the foot of the staircase, and another fellow brought him three different kinds of porridge over the course of the day.  The supper course was again supplemented with some gray cheese, of a sort that had never been milk.  The cheese was produced directly now, in tanks of bacterial protoplasm, and Yarec mused that the bioengineers who developed the process had probably made themselves very rich.

Yarec marked the passage of time by the tiny clock chip embedded in this inside of his left eyelid.  It lit up very faintly whenever he winked, displaying the date and time, in a visual format that he could adjust with an appropriate sequence of rapid flutters.  The scanner at the front gate had noticed it when he arrived and had correctly calculated it to be harmless.  Such timepieces were quite popular at present, especially among individuals who travelled a lot—like armament couriers.

It must have already been dark up on the surface when Yarec was reunited with his black case, in the small shooting range that Maldanko had installed near the very bottom of the fortress.  The case was resting on a battered metal table, closed and bolted, although Yarec had already surrendered the key.   Maldanko and his two bodyguards were waiting there as well.  The colonel gestured toward the armored case.  “Show us the xaser,” he grunted, pronouncing the word with a z sound.  He sounded tired and ill-tempered, and the garrulous warmth was gone from his voice.  Good, Yarec thought.  That will make it easier for me.

Yarec glided over to the table and scooped up the metal-semiconductor keying device.  He slid it into the automatic lock and casually flipped back the lid.  The case fell open, revealing an emerald green interior lined with synthetic velvet fibers.  In a molded depression rested the device Maldanko had contracted to purchase.  It was a squat black cylinder nearly a foot across and not much longer, with a tiny acrylic lens on the front.  To hold it, there was a padded grip on the bottom and a folding shoulder stock.  The cylinder was unadorned and unmarked except for a string of minuscule characters that wrapped halfway around one circumference.  Yarec hefted the weapon by its stock, trying to make the movement look effortless.  He was strong enough, but the exertion sent pangs through his unnaturally cramped arm muscles.

“This is Lehbram’s rho aleph sixty-six x-ray laser—or ‘xaser.’”  Yarec’s slick salesman persona had taken over, but he could not resist choosing a different pronunciation from Maldanko’s, so the name sounded like “ksaser.”  He raised the weighty mass to his shoulder and pointed it at the block of high carbon steel positioned down the range.  “The rho aleph sixty-six produces a pulsed beam of coherent x-rays, which can cut through just about anything.”

He offered the weapon to Maldanko.  “Here, colonel.  Give it a try.”  The colonel reached for it, then nearly dropped the barrel before awkwardly recovering it.  Yarec grinned apologetically and said, “Sorry, I should have warned you.  It’s heavier than it looks.”  The colonel lifted the piece back to shoulder height, and Yarec continued:  “There needs to be a lot of heavy radiation shielding inside the casing.  The actual xaser mechanism is pretty small, but only a small fraction of the x-rays produced can be focused and collimated into the beam.  X-rays are hard to work with, you know.  They’re so energetic, they can cut through just about anything, but that also means that they will melt ordinary lens materials while they’re passing through.”

“Yes, and that’s why I’m interested in this kind of gun.”  Maldanko was squinting down the sight—a second, much smaller, black cylinder fused to the top of the weapon’s main body.  “What’s the range on this thing?”

“The beam isn’t very tight, but it will cut metal easily out to one hundred yards.  Here, let’s give it a try.”  Yarec sidled up beside the colonel and pointed out the key controls.  “This is the trigger, obviously, and this controls the length of the burst.”  He tapped a small knob, labeled in ten microsecond increments.  “The maximum length of a single pulse is ten to the minus four seconds.”

“Is that all?”  Maldanko sounded disappointed.

“Trust me,” said Yarec.  “It’s enough.  You really can’t do any better with a handheld weapon like the sixty-six.  All those stray x-rays that are stopped by the shielding would heat it up too much if you let the beam keep running.  The sixty-six has an automatic cooldown after each shot, and the cooldown time depends on the length of the burst.  If you select a longer burst, you’ll need to wait longer between shots.”

Maldanko looked like he was getting impatient, so Yarec cut the sales spiel short.  “Here,” he said, “why don’t you give it a try now?”  Maldanko adjusted the dial for the shortest burst and switched it into single shot mode.  He aimed the stubby barrel at the oblong steel target and fidgeted as he tried to get the stock comfortable against his shoulder.  “Can’t you feel that power?” Yarec asked in a mock whisper, and the colonel did not reply.  He simply gritted his teeth and pressed firmly on the trigger stud.

The xaser itself fired silently, but there was an immediate hiss from the target as the radiation bored a pencil-sized hole, boiling away the metal inside.  Maldanko set the weapon back on the table and walked down to inspect the damage, flexing his stiff arms as he went.  Yarec and the guards followed.  At the other end of the range, they found a hole about ten centimeters deep.  There was a smooth lip around the entrance to the hole, where the steel had been molten just a few moments before.

“That really cuts,” Maldanko said, in a tone tinged with sadistic appreciation.  Yarec should have responded with something enthusiastic but banal; however, he decided to hold his tongue.  “How many more of these does your firm have in stock?” Maldanko asked, as he returned to the firing line to take another shot.

“We have at least three more on hand right now,” Yarec replied, “assuming they haven’t been sold already.  If you want more, that could take several weeks, since the rho aleph sixty-six is in very high demand.”  He watched as Maldanko struck another hole in the thick plate with the focused radiation beam.  The colonel increased the burst time and fired again, making a shaft that was slightly wider than the first two and nearly twice as deep.

“We also deal with a number of other quality weapons,” Yarec added casually.  “I brought a few along with me, in case you’re interested.”  Yarec pointed toward the open case, which contained three other weapons besides the x-ray laser Maldanko wanted.  The first was a small pistol with a built-in silencing device.  At the moment, it was loaded with special hollow ammunition, made from molecular fibers which would tear open when they bit into flesh, releasing the neurotoxin inside.  The other two weapons were a matched pair of knives, designed for use in close-quarters combat.  Along one edge, their blades were smooth and sharp enough to slit through composite armor.  On the other side, they were serrated, with large triangular teeth and a barb near the tip.

“Sorry, not interested.”  Maldanko cut off this portion of the sales spiel, and Yarec accepted the demurral gracefully.  Maldanko beckoned to the female bodyguard. “Here, you give it a try.  Let me have your opinion.”

“Yes, sir,” the woman chirped.  She lifted the awkward cylinder and sighted along it.  There was an effortlessness to her movements, as if she would be at home with any death-dealing instrument she ever came across.

“Like this, miss,” Yarec murmured, stepping up and helping her align the xaser in the direction he wanted it to fire.  “Aim for that undamaged corner.”  For the first time, he noticed a name tag on her uniform that identified her as “Yanaka.”  It’s convenient that she’s a woman,  Yarec thought.  It made it easy to disguise his interference as bustling sexism.

“Let’s dial the pulse strength back to the minimum,” he said, easing her hand away from the controls.  She made a curt noise with her tongue while Yarec twiddled the dial briskly.  He maintained a pat smile, but behind it he was grinding his teeth.

Having completed the adjustments, he guided Yanaka’s fingers back to the trigger stud.  “A little higher, miss.  Okay… okay… go!”  Yanaka pressed down, and the steel block hissed vapors.  Yarec blinked and checked the time.  He kept his eyes pressed closed a little longer than he should have, but when he reopened them, he was rewarded with the welcome sight of the overhead bulbs flickering.

“What the hell?” hissed Maldanko under his breath, as the regular power failed.  He repeated the query into a high priority communicator hidden inside his right shirt cuff.  “What the hell is going on?” he asked the underside of his wrist.  The bodyguards turned instinctively toward the chamber door.  Yanaka discarded the valuable xaser with a metallic clunk and found a tight grip on her own projectile weapon.  The pair’s movements were practiced and professional.  In a fringe outpost like Station Westerly, there were bound to be episodes—electrical and mechanical problems like this, quarrels turned violent, perhaps even military assaults by enemy factions.  The bodyguards reacted with assurance, confident that this alarm would probably be quickly resolved, yet wary in case matters proved to be more serious.

However, they had made a miscalculation.  Maldanko and his guards had not forgotten Yarec, but their attentioned had strayed away from him.  After all, he was unarmed and, while a stranger, not suspicious.  The warm xaser lay beside Yanaka on the table, where she had laid it out of Yarec’s reach.  The room light flicked out completely, and there was blackness for a fraction of a second, before two yellow-white beams slit through the gloom.

“Sir!” came a frantic, crackling voice over the colonel’s communicator.  “One of the main control units just went out completely.

“Well, get it working again, and find out—” Maldanko’s voice degenerated into a strangled groan as the bullet fragmented and the toxins dispersed through his body.  Yarec had snapped up the extra weapons and immediately put them to work.  The gun’s silenced report was like the hiss of a serpent spraying venom.  Then the specialized slug bored into the colonel’s abdomen, spinning and cutting and spurting gore.

The bodyguards rounded on him in a moment.  Their bold white beams traced out Yarec’s  chest and arms as he dropped toward the floor.  The blond man fired first, and Yarec threw up his arm in a callow-looking warding gesture.  Bullets rattled off the metal tabletop, and their staccato rebounded from the concrete walls—perhaps to be carried out over the colonel’s open communicator link.  Two slugs bit into the assassin’s raised forearm, and Yarec hit the floor, screeching in pain.  This was not the first time he’d been shot, but it felt different this time.

Yanaka stepped around the table, while her taller partner stood back.  The nose of her rifle was pointed down, ready to finish Yarec off if he still looked dangerous.  She glared down at him, aware that she had already failed to protect the colonel.  Maldanko’s erstwhile bodyguards would be easy casualties if there was an ensuing purge, and her uncertain future was already troubling Yanaka’s mind.

Her flashlight beam picked out Yarec’s crouching body, where she had expected to see him sprawled out on the tile floor.  There were two red punctures on his left forearm, where the bullets had bit in and then ricocheted off.  Yarec was in intense pain, but he was still essentially whole, since this body had been provided with hard resin plates under just a thin layer of skin and fat.  They protected his arms, thighs, and torso—well enough to deflect any bullet that came in at oblique angle.  However, the armor also made his muscles ache whenever he flexed them, and he hated the way they made him feel.  His limbs had been partially hollowed out and filled with hard organic polymer; he was carrying around dead stuffing, like another bioengineered mutant.

Yet despite the pain, Yarec had trained with this body.  He was used to his new limbs now, lithe and nimble.  So when Yanaka stepped around the end of the table, his own pistol was jutting upward toward her torso.  He let his overdone scream trail off as he pressed the trigger, and she buckled to the floor beside her employer.

The taller blond man, whose name Yarec had never cared to learn, backed quickly toward the exit.  Yarec could not afford to let him escape.  The fighting had to be confined to this room.  While the darkness lasted, Yarec had a chance to escape, buf if the whole fortress was alerted, his situation would be hopeless.

Yanaka’s single xaser shot had been the key to taking out the power system.  Minor modifications to the device’s control dial and safety interlock had allowed Yarec to crank up the burst duration to more than a full millisecond.  Chattering briskly, he had made sure she aimed in the direction of something vital, then he spun the duration up to its new maximum value.  The focused x-ray pulse that poured out had bored straight through the steel block, then though the concrete wall beyond and everything else in its path, until it had finally petered out somewhere outside in the bedrock.

Contriving to hit a piece of important machinery had been the most challenging part of the mission so far.  Yarec had not known where precisely he would  be conducting his weaponry demonstration, and it was actually fortunate that Maldanko had chosen to set up a range so far underground, nestled in between several key electromechanical systems.  Yarec had done his best to guide Yanaka’s test shot in the direction of the main power distribution apparatus, and evidently he had succeeded.  The stream of photons had cut through a control unit like a diamond-tipped rotary saw through plastic, and the whole complex had been swallowed up in darkness.  How long that darkness would last was a key question, but for now he needed to keep the second bodyguard from raising a general alarm.

Yarec led with a knife, tossed end over end at the fellow’s chest.  The target pulled aside and parried the hurtling blade with the side of his machine gun, knocking it out of the air with a thud.  The man retaliated with another burst of fire, but Yarec was already out of the way.  The bodyguard reached the door and knocked it open.  Desperate, Yarec feinted with his second blade, then fired his gun twice more in rapid succession.  The first shot missed, and the second grazed the fellow’s shoulder.  Even with the poison-laced bullets, it didn’t look like a dangerous wound, yet the man lost his balance and fell to his knees.  The guard unleashed another burst from his weapon, as he scrambled toward the exit.

Yarec caught up with his enemy in the doorway and was surprised to find him already dead.  The man had dropped his flashlight, and its beam ran along the hard tile floor.  It lit up half his face, where his mouth hung slack, eye halfway closed.  Yarec peeked out into the hall; it was utterly black, except for a distant-seeming spot of indistinct red.  He knocked the corpse back through the door and swung the panel noiselessly closed.

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