Hollowed Memories, chapter 1, part 4

May 4, 2014

He was almost alone in the room now.  The guards were dead, but Maldanko still had a few minutes of life remaining.  Yarec picked up a flashlight and stood over the commander.  The man’s face was purpling like a dragon fruit, but he was still breathing.  Yarec pointed the pistol barrel at Maldanko’s head.  “You’re dead already, mister colonel,” he hissed.  “No secrets now.”  Maldanko coughed into a growing puddle of gray spittle.  “Answer my questions, and I’ll let it go easily.”

There was an impersonal plaint from Maldanko’s communicator.  Yarec tapped his toe roughly against the colonel’s side.  “Answer, Maldako,” his growled, but if the colonel still had the capacity to understand, he showed no sign.  “Answer me!”  Yarec aimed a strong kick, but he could see there was no point in continuing.  He fired one more pistol shot, at close range, into Maldanko’s temple.  Then Yarec reloaded and slipped out into the corridor.

One task was done; Yarec had felled the colonel.  However, he still had a second job to complete, although it was of lesser importance.  Yarec’s personal vendetta would end with the deaths of all Maldanko’s ilk—the leaders and key operators of their power faction.  However, the countervailing forces who employed Yarec, arranging and financing his activities, had priorities beyond bare revenge.  They wanted whatever operational data Yarec could lay his bloody hands on.

If the information were stored in digital form, it would probably be useless, unless someone else betrayed the key to its encryption.  Still, Yarec grumbled to himself, I suppose I owe an honest effort to bring back something.  So he jogged cautiously toward the lower-level control cluster—the place where Yanaka had shot up a main control unit.  The door was sealed, and the lock possessed its own internal power cell; but Yarec had an electronic key, lifted from Maldanko’s body along with the colonel’s communicator unit.  The panel swung open without complaint, and Yarec peered inside with his pistol ready.

He was surprised to find the control area unoccupied.  It had evidently been abandoned in haste, although what misapprehension about the ongoing emergency had prompted the monitor to leave his post, Yarec could hardly guess.  Hesitantly, he stepped inside and pulled the door behind him nearly shut.  He could see now where the the xaser had cut through one corner of the room and attacked a block of rather dated electronic machinery.  Around the perfectly circular incision ran drips of recently molten plastic, and he could tell from the blue flicker within the hole that a small fire was still burning deep within the dead apparatus.

He grabbed anything that looked like mobile data storage, including a hefty optical chip that might have a chance of containing something more useful than hourly power usage logs.  As he emerged back into the corridor, Yarec realized that the two blunted wounds on his forearm were still oozing blood.  A trail of occasional red circles had followed him down the hall, and though they were undetectable in the darkness, he did not want anyone to be able to trace his movements once the immediate confusion had settled down.

He had to get up six flights of stairs to reach the roof.  That was the primary escape plan, which they had worked out in advance on the ship at sea.  Yarec found it reassuring, having a plan to follow—even if he typically needed a to improvise a great deal.  So far, they day’s events had required very little original thinking, but something had to be done about the blood.

Yarec zipped back to the control cluster and unwound a section of electrical sealing tape.  It stung as he laced it over the bullet holes, and it would no doubt be even more painful getting it off—if his body survived long enough for that to matter.  Then he flashed his light up and down the empty passage and, still seeing no sign of any guards, dashed in the direction of the stairwell.

He made it up two flights; then Yarec saw lights above him.  There was the sound of booted feet, gnashing against the corrugated steps.  Yarec killed his own light and ducked out onto the landing.  The master key opened another door, into a bleak hallway.  He moved as quickly as near silence would permit, but he could hear action on the landing behind him.

He realized he was caught, almost.  Yarec bounded around a corner and hammered on a door.  There was no response, so he tried another, and this time he heard movement from the other side.  “What’s going on?” he panted.

The door opened a crack, and a flashlight beam poured out into the hallway.  Yarec mimed being blinded by the sudden burst of brilliance.  The man on the other side looked at him without recognition and asked suspiciously, “Who?”

“I’m Tris Racker, from The Vanbaw Company,” Yarec said, sounding all in a fluster.  “The power’s out, and I heard noises, so I….”  But by the time these words were out, the other man was dead.  A keen knife whipped out from its concealment behind Yarec’s back and slit through the fellow’s burly chest.  A second man, still seated and equally taken in by the infiltrator’s feigned bewilderment, fell dead from gunshot.  Then Yarec was through the room into another corridor, the doors closing behind him with no more noise than a faint snick.

The blackness continued.  I’ve been awfully lucky, Yarec told himself, or the garrison here is a lot less competent than I expected.  The limited visibility had made his escape feel uncommonly easy, but he reminded himself not to rely on that.  With every minute that passed, it became more likely that major power would be restored, and with adequate lighting and an active sensory net, the security force would be a much more substantial obstacle.

He navigated according to his mental atlas to a second, narrower staircase.  It should have been guarded, and he heard soldiers moving as he approached it, but they were headed in the wrong direction.  With another prolonged blink, Yarec checked the time.  Somehow, in spite of the fluidity of his getaway, time seemed to be passing too quickly.  There was a specific time he had planned to reach the roof, and his best hope of escaping alive was to arrive there right on the dot.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, he told himself, the unspoken syllables coming in time with his footfalls on the staircase.  Abruptly, he heard a burst of machine gun fire coming from down below.  Yarec hunched over and ran faster.

This staircase ended on the ground level.  There was only one way to the roof, and he expected to find that route well fortified.  Yarec ran down a hallway, his stolen light bobbing in the blackness and a hard tramp of feet coming on invisibly behind him.  There was another burst of fire, and he heard bullets caroming off the walls around him.  Then one struck his calf.  The armor plating deflected it, but the impact and the pain it carried nearly made him stumble.  He looked back and shot off half a clip of bullets, then sprinted around a corner.  He heard the echoes of more shooting, then unexpected silence.

Here’s the door I need, Yarec told himself.  He hesitated, much longer than he should have, and the pain welled up in his leg as he stood there, staring at the steel-reinforced portal.  Finally, he rapped on the door with the butt of his light.  Then he stepped aside and crouched down.  With the light off, he withdrew into the darkness like an incorporeal specter.

At first, there seemed to be no response.  The door stood impassively, unbothered by the recent eruption of violence.  Then it swung out, so forcefully it could have knocked Yarec senseless had he been standing directly in front of it.  Yellow diode light poured into the hall.  There was only a momentary pause—perhaps not even long enough for the guard on the other side of the threshold to ascertain that there was not a friendly figure waiting there in the corridor—then a long cacophony of automatic gunfire.  The slugs slammed against the opposite wall.  Some embedded themselves in the concrete, but most simply glanced off and eventually clattered to the floor.  Yarec was well out of their path, hugging the wall beside the door itself, but the resounding noises and vibrations from the bullets were so close that he felt like they were peppering his body with tiny impacts.

He waited for a pause in the shooting.  When it came, he slid instantaneously back from the wall—placing himself in the firing zone but also giving him an oblique-angled shot into the room.  He fired twice then threw himself to the floor, rolling when he hit it, back away into the ragged blackness.  The second shot struck the enemy guard.  The man collapsed backward, but before he fell, he had time for a reprisal.  There was another volley from his machine gun, and one of the slugs hit Yarec in the hip.  It found a chink in his subcutaneous armor and burrowed deep toward the bone.

Blood started gushing, much more freely than from the earlier surface wounds.  Yarec wrenched himself to his feet and staggered back to the doorway.  The door was still vibrating softly from the force with which it had been slammed open.  Yarec stumbled over the fallen body.  The guard did not seem to be dead, but Yarec did not bother to stop and finish him off.  He made his way straight to the narrow spiral stair that dominated the back corner of the small guard post.  While the room could have easily held two people, there was no one else present.  It was as if the second warder had been inextricably called away, as if whoever was in control now believed that the intruding assassin was in a completely different location.


However, whatever confusion there had been about Yarec’s position had evidently been remedied by the explosion of gunfire.  He could hear people rushing after him again, tracking him by the sounds of violence that he left as a wake.  Up the stairs he moved—as quickly as possible, trying not limp and grinding through the searing discomfort.  He made it up to the first landing, dizzied and panting.  He saw the time again on the inside of his eyelid.  Then he gripped the railing and started the last excruciating stage of this bloody ascent.

With each step, he felt like he was tripping his feet on the edges of the risers, but he still managed to keep stumbling uphill.  The door at the top was locked, but somehow he found the key again, and the door swung open, with the rusty screech of hinges that had been exposed to decades of salty air.  Outside, it was a night of no stars, and only a faded aureole marked the spot where the waning moon had hidden itself away behind the taut clouds.  It was not raining yet, but Yarec could smell that it would.  Despite his pain and the sounds of armed pursuit echoing up the staircase, Yarec felt oddly happy to be out of the stark concrete donjon.

He saw the white light of a helicopter, riding like a flare across the heavens.  The beam swept toward him, and he signaled his best approximation of the correct pattern.  Something like a long, flexible metal hook swung in his direction.  It quivered with the air around it, as the helicopter blades lashed again and again.  Yarec reached for it, and somehow it bore him aloft and finally into unconsciousness.


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