Hollowed Memories, chapter 2, part 4

June 1, 2014

When they reached Sankirk, the ferry dropped Yarec off at a commercial passenger pier.  He paid the inbound user fee and quietly exited the terminal.  Yarec could have landed for free at the drop-off location for the boat’s cargo, but he was sick of feeling like another piece of freight and travelling alongside the packed remains of his former innards.  Arriving like a select passenger felt more dignified, and the cost was hardly prohibitive.  There was little chance that Yarec would run out of cash before Dotchki decided to pull him out of Sankirk and give him another assignment.

It was a festival week in the city, and as Yarec made his way down the long causeway that connected the marina to Sankirk’s central island, he saw flashes of colored light ahead of him.  They lit up the purple dusk—pale blinks of white, orange, and blue.  As he drew closer to the revels, he heard the sound of the crowds.  A drone of intermixed voices, with the scattered cracks of celebratory fireworks and gunplay, drifted out over the water.  The sounds felt warm, redolent of humanity.  Yarec smiled, anticipating his first relaxing vacation in a long time.  He had put in a long stint of service, but now he was free again.

Yarec crossed the last arching footbridge and emerged on Commerce Boulevard.  Brightly lit stalls, draped in colorful bunting, dotted the roadway.  Narrow, three-seat cars meandered between them, the electric engines buzzing like insects.  Near the port entrance, the vendors mostly sold trinkets for out-of-towners.  Yarec wound past these stalls, towards the more authentic centers of activity, following the virtual map of the island he had recently committed to memory.

After only two blocks of progress, he chanced upon a robbery in progress.  In the gorge between two cement-block buildings, away from the glaring lights of the boulevard, two youths in collared gray mesh shirts had closed in around a chubby fellow wearing casual shorts and a hat with a floppy brim.  The victim looked rather drunk, and he seemed too stunned to speak, as one of the toughs gestured with an object that Yarec could not identify.  It was narrow and black, and the thug pointed it at the pudgy man’s chest.  The victim drew back and found himself instantly locked in the arms of the second assailant.  The unfortunate fellow screamed, until a hard blow to the abdomen cut him off.  Then he was on the ground, cowering under the impact of the men’s kicks.

One another day, Yarec might have kept walking.  He had learned to keep a low profile, and dispensing vigilante justice was too easy a way to get noticed.  However, there was something pathetically affecting about the pudgy man’s mewling, coughing cries.  After what he had seen in the speedboat that afternoon, he could not just walk past this victim without intervening.

Yarec moved quickly, but he tried to keep looking casual for as long as possible.  The thugs’ attentions were focused on their prey, but they might remember the need for vigilance at any time.  After a few more kicks, one of them would probably notice Yarec approaching, but he wanted to remain unobtrusive at the outermost edges of the men’s awareness until he was ready to lunge himself.

His footsteps were inaudible, since the air was filled with the clang of metal drums.  The nearest musicians were two streets over, but their syncopated rhythms seemed to permeate the whole metropolis.  The hard ringing, of plastic sticks against the lids of old chemical drums bent into smooth concave resonators, became the musical score for the violent encounter now taking place.  This was the characteristic local sound, and it fit the chaotic nature of the festival.  It was fast, with a beat that changed unpredictably, like the rough kicks that pummeled the fallen man’s trunk.

One of the thugs yelled something that Yarec could not make out.  Either he was speaking an unusual language, or it was an epithet that Yarec was not familiar with.  The mugger’s toe lashed out one more time, then he turned away in disgust.  The man on the ground gasped, and the mugger finally turned his head in Yarec’s direction.  The smug, sadistic look on his face melted into one of fear.  “Look out!” he yelled to his companion, and Yarec, who was now only twenty feet up the alley, broken into a full sprint.

The second attacker whirled around, and the thin black weapon snapped in Yarec’s direction.  It looked flat and sharp, as the man whipped it in a crude figure eight.  Coming another step closer, Yarec recognized it as a monocrystalline knife blade.  It had been grown from a pure chemical solution, into an elongated shape that achieved molecular thinness at the edges.  Other blades like it were used for the most precise medical incisions.  They could separate flesh with only a tiny impulse of force; the barest touch might open a deep and dangerous wound.

Yarec feinted a dodge to the left, toward the nearer wall of the alley, and the knife moved, trying to intercept him.  Then with a jerk he ducked down under the jagged sweep of the blade and aimed a hard kick at the thug’s ankle.  The maneuver caught the man off guard.  He shifted his weight, reaching out awkwardly with his weapon.  Yarec’s foot rammed into the man’s leg as he was off balance, and the blow sent the mugger sprawling.  Flailing as he fell, the man cracked the side of his head against the cratered asphalt pavement.  As he hit, the robber screamed, even more loudly than his intended victim, who was still wailing in pain and confusion.

The remaining thug—the one who had first noticed Yarec’s approach—was more lightly armed, with two segments of steel pipe.  With his friend out of the way, the man swung them at Yarec.  It was a crude, instinctual attack; the thug was just trying to pummel this vigilante with something hard and heavy.  One of the pipes landed a glancing blow on Yarec’s left arm, and a tingling pain ran along the bone.  Then, while he was still holding the pipes, the man tried to wrap his arms around Yarec’s body, as if to wrestle him to the ground.

But before the man could close his bear hug around Yarec’s chest, Yarec pulled his pistol out of a right coat pocket and fired a single bullet into the thug’s knee.  The counterattack immediately collapsed, as the man’s leg buckled underneath him.  He shuddered to the ground, and the leg of his light trousers was rapidly soaked in crimson.

“Here, get up,”  Yarec said, leaning over the pudgy victim and offering his arm.  The fellow’s eyes were agog, and his face was ashen.  Yet he retained enough of his wits to grab hold of Yarec’s hand immediately.  Yarec levered the man back to his feet and told him, “Get out of here!  Now!”

The man choked out something that sounded like, “Thank.”  Then he took off, with a limping run, down toward the far end of the alleyway.  Yarec looked down at the two erstwhile muggers, who were now themselves lying moaning on the pavement.  He judged that they would both live, provided they found medical assistance within a reasonable amount of time.  Other people, having heard the brief struggle and its concluding gunshot, were approaching now, full of ghoulish curiosity.  Yarec elbowed past them, back out into the street, and then disappeared from the scene.  His pistol had dropped back into the pocket of his coat, and he strode away, in the original direction he had been heading, looking for a stand where he could buy a warm, refreshing drink.

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