Hollowed Memories, chapter 2, part 3

May 25, 2014

Formal debriefing began the next day.  At first, he was questioned in his hospital room, but once they had clearance from the medical staff, the intelligence officers relocated the proceedings.  They moved to a quietly-appointed sitting room, two levels below the bridge, where they could all sit around a circular plastic table, whose black legs were molded into the shapes of reptilian claws gripped around enormous dark pearls.  Yarec nestled a cylindrical pillow behind his throbbing neck and closed his eyes.  He switched off the eyelid clock and let memories of everything he had seen fill in the darkness.  The three debriefers pressed him with questions, and he searched through his repository of images for the answers they wanted.

There were only a few questions that left him completely stumped, and they did not seem to concern matters of any particular importance.  He opened his eyes occasionally, to see whether the intelligence officers seemed to be satisfied.  Whenever he did, they always nodded and looked conciliatory, although Yarec did not quite trust them.  They were valuable allies, but if they had been his enemies, Yarec suspected that they would have utilized very different methods of finding out what precisely he knew.

When Yarec’s body had arrived on board, he had been barely conscious.  He had managed to answer a few very general questions and to hand over the hardware he had scrounged on his mission.  Then they injected him with a copious supply of tranquilizers for the transfer procedure.  His brain activity needed to be strongly suppressed while they mapped out the dendritic architecture.  Thoughts flitting across the cerebrum could confuse the process; as much as possible, the neurophysicians wanted a snapshot of his consciousness under absolutely fixed conditions.

The mapping process was extremely invasive.  It usually left the old brain in tatters, metaphorically if not quite literally.  The corpse left behind after the transfer was complete was supposed to be broken down into its valuable chemical constituents, but Yarec wondered whether the doctors could have pieced a near-dead agent back together sufficiently well to subject the unlucky soul to additional interrogations.  Thinking about it made him shudder visibly.  What an ugly idea.  However, he was confident that, at least on board this vessel, nobody had ever seriously tried to resurrect someone after their conscious mind had already been copied.  It was contrary to numerous regulations, and it raised ethical and philosophical questions that the States United Armed Forces were not staffed to deal with.

After several hours of close questioning, the intelligence men seemed satisfied.  Then Yarec had to repeat an abbreviated version of his story to the vessel’s commandant, Colonel-Admiral Dotchki.  Yarec did not care for Dotchki on a personal level; they were too different in their attitudes and convictions.  However, he respected the commandant’s effectiveness and his devotion to his job.  Dotchki ran a very smooth operation on this ship, and Yarec’s life had been saved more than once by Dotchki’s skillful crew.

Dotchki listened and asked a few perfunctory questions, but Yarec’s report was obviously not the most important thing on the commandant’s mind that afternoon.  He would get the information he needed later, from the debriefers’ fulsome memorandum.  In a hurry to conclude the interview, he eventually announced, “That all sounds satisfactory.  We’ll check back with you if I need anything clarified further.”

Yarec, tired after the long questioning, sighed and sat back in his chair.  For a while, no one spoke, and Yarec closed his eyes again and reactivated the clock display.  There were sounds of people scribbling on computing devices and shifting in their seats.

“Do I have another assignment?” Yarec asked when he opened his eyes.

“As of three days from now, you are on leave,” Dotchki told him.  “We’ll set you off at Sankirk.”

As good a place as any to spend some time off, Yarec thought.

“Enjoy yourself for a while.  Lie out on the sand.”  Dotchki grinned a little.  “We’ll get in contact when we need you again.”

The rest of Yarec’s stay on the ship passed uneventfully.  He had a few more debriefing sessions—to see if he had remembered any new details, and to clear up a couple minor points of confusion.  Yarec memorized the layout of Sankirk, down the level of individual streets in the city center.  He read a short novel about mountain climbers that he found in the computing hub’s recreational library.  Each day, he had a full health screening, and the exams showed that he was rapidly and successfully adapting to the new body.  By his scheduled departure time, he would definitely be ready to travel.

On Yarec’s slated departure date, the old aircraft carrier had a scheduled rendezvous with a much smaller craft.  The schedule of daily events, posted on several display screens mounted in the wardroom and at various points throughout the hangar deck, listed a mid-morning cargo transfer to a three-person courier boat.  The boat, jocularly referred to as the “nail ferry,” carried some of the products that were produced at the small factory facilities that were part of the ship.  The carrier housed Yarec’s allies’ best medical services and also their best facilities for biological compound manufacturing.

A number of organic materials were considered extremely precious.  While any compound could be manufactured from its raw elements, given sufficient time, space, and perseverance, it was frequently advantageous to take a shortcut, by extracting a precursor from living, or recently dead, tissue.  That had been the destiny of the complex biological molecules in Yarec’s old body.  Neurotransmitters were harvested and modified with extra methyl and amine groups to make powerful psychoactive drugs.  Muscle proteins would be reprocessed as a food source for microbes.  Even lipids might become industrial lubricants.

It’s a grim reality, Yarec throught, that today my old body and some day the body I’m wearing now will be recycled to make food and medicine.  As he climbed on board the nail ferry, crewmen were loading up vacuum-sealed cases filled with the output of the ship’s factories.  Some of the containers would hold sludges derived from floating kelp and jellyfish.  However, some of them probably held the residua from his own lungs and central nervous system.  He tried not to think too much about that fact, as he helped stow the cases in the refrigerated hold.

He had donned the attire of a style-conscious businessman.  It showed he was affluent enough to support himself, but not so rich that he could afford unlimited extravagance.  It was a reasonable reflection of his actual financial position.  He had saved up enough to retire if he decided to.  However, he felt he had good reasons to keep working.

The crew members on the nail ferry were taciturn.  Depending on where their next delivery was going, they might be considered lawful couriers, smugglers, or hostile marines.  Each one kept an automatic rifle slung at the ready, and as soon as a smudge appeared at the horizon, a weapon was trained on it.  The lieutenant in command peered at the target through a pair of digital binoculars.  Their photomultiplier microarray told him whether the foreign vessel was a vast cargo ship or a smaller, speedier craft.  Heavier vessels were easily avoided, but the appearance of a speedboat called for vigilance.

Independent pirates were plentiful.  They operated in clusters of three or four craft, with which they would surround much larger boats.  Sometimes they were brazen, with machine guns—or even rocket grenades—posted on the bows.  Usually, however, they made a nominal effort to make it look like they had legitimate reasons to be out at sea.  Their fast boats were often converted pleasure craft, purchased heavily used on the secondary market or claimed by violence on the high seas.  Many of the pirates were amateurish and easy to spot, even if they decked their craft with superficial trappings of luxury, so as to resemble wealthy recreational sailors.  Such superficialities would not fool the lieutenant’s binoculars, if he saw crew members who were heavily sunburned and armed like shock troops.  Yet there were evidently some boats so stupid that they were taken in by such ruses; even some of the most primitive corsairs managed to thrive.  However, any pirates who posed a threat to the nail ferry would need to be much more able.

As they moved in toward Sankirk’s artificial harbor, encounters with other vessels grew more frequent.  However, they were still hours from shore when they heard an unexpected burst of rocket fire.  It came from a distant boat that the lieutenant had been eyeing warily.  Its course would bring it very near to the ferry—generally a reason to be concerned.  It was small, with room for five or six people, at most, but it did not presently appear to be occupied by more than one.  Yarec knew a lone boat, minimally crewed, was unlikely to be dangerous, and he was sharply taken aback when the first small military rocket fired into the air.

“Everyone, stand ready,” the lieutenant snapped.  He pointed his binoculars again, while his two subordinates aimed their rifles.  Yarec’s hand went to his own sidearm.  It was a small pistol, easily concealed under his high-collared coat.  He crouched down beside the others, watching over the gunwales.

The first rocket arced high into the air, travelling at an extremely steep angle.  It was propelled by a pencil of yellow-white flame, dissipating into a wispy tracery of gray smoke.  Going almost vertically, it was not going to hit anything.  Unless the person who had fired the rocket was remarkable inept, it must have been intended as a signal.

The boom of another rocket followed soon after the first.  This one followed a different trajectory, angling closer to the surface of the water.  The two missiles separated, their exhaust trails looking like a pair of canted antennae rising from the dilapidated boat.  The surrounding waters, stung by the exhaust gasses, churned around the hull, rocking it chaotically from side to side.  The turbulence interrupted the boat’s forward motion, and it was decelerating markedly.

In the boat, there appeared to be just the single occupant at the controls.  Yarec could not make out the details of the individual’s face.  No eyes or mouth were distinguishable at this distance, but even so, the countenance seemed to give an impression of menace.  As the craft came closer, Yarec’s sense that something about the occupant was off only intensified.  Like watching the slow approach of death itself, Yarec thought.

Suddenly, the boat accelerated.  The occupant had gunned the throttle to full strength.  In the same lurching movement, the figure disappeared out of view, dropping behind the protective resin walls of the gunwales.  All signs now pointed toward an imminent attack, and all weapons, even Yarec’s tiny pocket pistol, were turned in the direction of the speedboat.  One rifle aimed at the crew member’s best estimate of where the primary electric drive motor was located.  Another fired two sharp warning shots above and ahead of the prow.

Its speed did not flag, although the boat seemed to waver uncertainly on its heading.  They let a few more seconds pass, simply watching.  “Fire two more warning,” said the lieutenant.  His voice was loud enough to be easily audible, but no more.  It was not stretched with urgency.  This was an incipient crisis, but he accorded it no more importance than was absolutely needed.  This fellow had dealt with innumerable marine hazards, man-made and products of nature.  Whether Siberian pirates or thirty-foot swells, he addressed each danger dispassionately.  At times like this, the lieutenant seemed more like a super-intelligent robot than a mere human being.  Perhaps, Yarec mused with black humor of one awaiting an imminent attack, that’s why I never manage to remember his name.  He doesn’t seem like a real person.  Yarec suppressed a chuckle.  I wonder if more of him is artificial than just that prosthetic pinky he waves around.

The second volley of warning shots passed over the nose of the boat, and the response was no greater this time.  The speedboat careened in the ferry’s direction.  “Hit the engine,” the lieutenant told his second sailor, and the man complied.  It took only a single shot.  The slender polycarbon bullet punctured the thin hull and located something vital.  The motor emitted a horrible electric scream, like a metallic panther being tormented.  A single spurt of red-brown fluid shot out of the hole.  Then liquid began flowing in the opposite direction—salt water sloshing into the round opening and the starburst pattern of cracks that had sliced out from it.

As water glugged irregularly into the bottom of its hull, the boat pitched to a halt.  It’s propellers had seized, and the choppy ocean tossed it awkwardly from side to side.  In no more than twenty heartbeats, it went from being poised for a ramming assault to being a billows-tossed derelict.  They saw no sign of the lone occupant.  Taken out by the same bullet or the shocks it created, Yarec thought.

Cautiously, with their own engines’ soft hiss barely audible over the splutter of the ocean, the ferry’s crew brought their own craft up to the erstwhile attacker.  “Keep your weapons ready,” the lieutenant reminded his men, although the warning was unnecessary.  Everyone was waiting expectantly, awake to the possibility that the speedboat’s driver might at any moment rear up, weapons ablaze.

“Coming alongside, sir,” one of the crewmen intoned, as their hulls slipped to within an arm’s reach.  Rifle barrels angled downward, toward the human shape they could now see splayed at the bottom of the boat.  Seawater had pooled around it, but it was not afloat.  It lay, as if weighted down, against the bottom of the boat, atop a herringbone pattern of traction strips.

“You there, get up!  Keep your hands above your head.”  The lieutenant repeated the order and tried several other common maritime languages, but the shape did not move.  The water had risen to nearly cover its head, and there were no bubbles from the downturned face.  The man—it appeared to be a man—was almost certainly dead.

“Finsh, get in there and flip him over.”  The lieutenant was hesitant, and he added, “Be careful.”

The man Finsh nodded, with an assured-sounding, “Yes, sir!”  He slung his rifle across his back and swung his body over into the rocking speedboat.  A sudden large swell struck as he landed.  Finsh wobbled momentarily, and Yarec winced.  He still half expected the corpse to leap up and disembowel the sailor while he was off balance.  However, the body did not move, and Finsh was an excellent sailor.  He recovered his balance and rolled the limp body over with his waterproof boot.

The dead man’s face was a rictus of agony.  The features were dry and twisted—distorted into something that looked practically more demonic than human.  The eyelids were fixed open in a rigid, sunken stare, and the eyeballs themselves were discolored.  The orbs had the hue and texture of old wilted rose petals, once smooth and white but now beginning to look mossy.  Around the man’s mouth grew a few days of withered beard, and the skin beneath it was unevenly furrowed, with long creases running down from his temples, around the almost lipless line of the mouth, and down the emaciated neck.  The man’s muscles had hardened, even before death, into a look of bitter hatred.  Now, the corpse stared up at the sun as it leaned toward the western horizon, angry at all life that was continuing on without it.

Lower down on his body, they found recent wounds.  His wrists and ankles had chafed against restraints.  The arms, legs, and chest had a spatter of round red punctures, some of them still oozing gore.  “Juiced,” Finsh grunted, and the others nodded, in sad agreement with the assessment.  Somebody had decided that the interior fluids of this fellow’s body were more valuable than the person himself.

For those with time and excellent resources, it was possible to grow whole new cloned bodies.  Yarec was lucky that his employers considered him worth that level of investment.  Even when he didn’t need an entirely new body, parts of him—skin, blood, organs—could be replaced with perfect genetic copies.  However, for the unfortunate mass of humanity, there was generally not time, nor funds, nor facilities to produce biologically identical replacements when body parts were affected by disease or injury.  So they had to accept material drawn from the bodies of others.  In some municipalities, the sale of human fluids and tissues was legal and efficiently regulated, but even where it was banned, the trade existed.  Hospitals and suffering patients bought and sold their kidneys and cerebrospinal fluid.  They made deals through shadowy couriers, paying in negotiable currency or salable electronic components.

Sometimes, people even resorted to theft.  The man in the speedboat had been robbed of every valuable liquid his body had contained.  Hormone proteins could be more cost efficient to drain from a living creature than to synthesize with bacteria.  So his glands had been tapped.  The secretions could sell for an excellent price while they were fresh, and they might even save a buyer’s life.

It had probably all happened aboard another large medical industry ship, anchored away from the shore.  The surgeon might have intended to harvest his liver, spleen, and heart as well; but if so, the fellow must have escaped somehow.  That would have been an impressive achievement for a person in his condition—to win free and navigate towards shore, firing off the rocket flares in an attempt to call for help.  Or perhaps the killers had set him free for some reason; the truth would almost certainly never be known.

The man’s identity was also going to remain a mystery.  His thin shorts and shirt revealed nothing about his origins, and the crew agreed unanimously that it was too risky to carry the body of an obviously murdered man back to port with them.  So they arranged his limbs in positions of repose and covered him with a waterproof blanket.  Then they left the ruined speedboat to sink on its own.  In a few minutes, the ocean was sloshing over the sides.  The hull filled completely with water, and the doomed boat disappeared, stern first, beneath the surface.  It would drift down to rest on the continental shelf, where it would form an open coffin for its last unlucky passenger.

The rest of the trip was very quiet.  Yarec sat near the bow, looking back and forth between the frothy waters and his hands.  The fingers still looked unfamiliar to him.  He was not entirely at ease in this new body, and he did not like to think about what must happen to his old bodies once he had vacated them.  The crewmen kept to their mundane work and spoke little.  Nobody felt like discussing what they had seen.  The dead man’s countenance, with its twisted devil face, was too close in their minds.

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