Hollowed Memories, chapter 3, part 1

June 15, 2014

Chapter 3:  Cityscape

The hotel Yarec checked into looked respectable but hardly omni.  The cement facade was painted with a hard white spray enamel, and the black plastic coating of the lobby floor was speckled with bits of gray and red-brown, like newly hewn granite.  His room on the fourth floor proved to be plain but cozy.  There was a communications link that was supposed to be highly secure, although Yarec had his doubts.  The bed, sized for two extremely intimate lovers, had dull black sheets and a deep violet blanket made of fuzzy synthetic fibers.

Yarec sat down in the plastisilk swing chair by the window.  Pulling back the curtains, he saw the city of Sankirk in nocturnal celebration.  Frequent flares of color lit up the lower reaches of the sky.  People passed in gay groups along the tarry street below.  A cluster of teenagers were loitering in front of the hotel.  Each of them had a narrow, jointed rod, brightly decorated and lit up in varied colors.  They whipped them from hand to hand, occasionally stopping to make inscrutable adjustments; and they were all still there, toying with their faddish accessories, when Yarec left the hotel to explore the strange city’s night life.

He found a cocktail lounge several blocks away, beside a makeshift stage with a  three-drum ensemble.  The armored door was propped open with a conical chip of cement, to let the music filter into the lounge.  The drumbeat had a rough, pounding tempo, perfect for an establishment where men and women went to find cheap romance.  The name of the lounge was a classical Asian square pictogram, repeated three times.  Yarec eyed its LED-outlined strokes, as he waited for a group of querulous revelers to stagger out of the lounge.  Then, when the way was clear, he slipped in through the square doorway.

The air inside had an old-fashioned perfume odor.  It smelled sweet and floral, reminding Yarec of the pale amber blossoms that still grew wild around his retreat in the high desert.  The walls were draped with cheap, peach-colored fabric, and the sounds of the percussion ensemble outside were muted enough to make shallow conversation easy.  Yarec found a seat on a bar stool.  The spot had only recently been vacated, and he could feel the lingering warmth of the last occupant in the faded red-orange seat cover.  He ordered something off the specialty drinks menu.  It had an extravagant name, which he forgot practically as soon as he had pronounced it, but it looked less than impressive when it arrived in a rose-tinted highball glass.

He sipped his gratuitously expensive drink.  The synthetically flavored ethanol stung the tip of his tongue, but it would have little effect on his composure.  His digestive system had been surgically altered with a metabolic casing.  It was a very common modification, which accelerated the breakdown of alcohol or other intoxicants in the patient’s system; it had supposedly been developed to render an otherwise near-perfect agent immune to the effects of amphetamines.

Yarec frowned, feeling vaguely dissatisfied.  Just relax, he told himself. I’m here to have a good time.  This was a place where men and women came to meet, and he had consciously chosen to drink here.  He looked around to get an idea who might be available.

The woman sitting two stools down from him looked young.  Her hair was an even brown, hanging just past her shoulders.  The tresses were decorated in an elaborate pattern of undulations and impossible whorls, held in place with an invisible jelling agent.  Her eyes were green or gray and her skin palely olive.  She smiled slightly as Yarec glanced in her direction.  It was a small, wry, almost subversive smile.  The corners of her mouth were tucked tightly under her small nose, without seeming to leave a single crease in her skin.

However, the most striking facet of the woman’s appearance was her long nails.  The natural keratin formations had been surgically removed and replaced with curved copper plates.  They seemed to glow, palely red, under the lounge’s dim lighting.  As she twined and untwined her fingers around the delicate stem of a glass, the nails’ metallic upper and lower surfaces appeared to scintillate.  It was effectively alluring, and Yarec also recognized, in those artificial nails, a strain of dissoluteness.  The surgery would have been expensive, wasting medical resources on a purely cosmetic effect, which would be even more expensive to remove if she changed her mind.  That meant she was rich and self-indulgent.

Yarec wondered how those nails would feel against his skin.  They did not look sharp, although that was hard to judge, except at a more intimate distance.  Nor would they have the cold feel of bare, heat-conductive metal.  There had to be a protective coating, to keep them from getting corroded.  Their glamorous effect would have been ruined by anything more than a fleck or two of green verdigris.

She had turned toward him slightly now and seemed to be eyeing his left hand, which was resting loosely on the edge of the black plastic bar.  Yarec looked over at her again and nodded casually.  She batted her eyelids coquettishly.  It was an obviously affected gesture, like the long, fluttering lashes themselves, which were manifestly false, a colonnade of artificial hairs running from one end of her eye to the other.

She turned her eyes downward, sizing up his physique.  Yarec figured that own appearance might have been just as revealing as hers.  The way he moved must seem too cautious yet capable for him to have been born into the youthful body he wore.  However, whatever character she recognized in his thews, it was obviously still of interest.

He hummed a little tune—something that matched the prevailing beat—to give her an excuse to look at him more directly.  Taking advantage of the opening, she said, “That sounds very nice.  I don’t think I’ve heard it before.”

Yarec stopped at the end of the next phrase.  “It’s a pretty slick folk tune,” he explained.  “I’m not sure where it’s from.”

“Not around here,” she said.

“No, no,” Yarec agreed.  “I’ve been travelling a lot.”  Yarec normally disliked this kind of obvious conversational cues.  However, having made a conscious decision to insert himself into the city’s romantic nightlife, he felt obligated to play the game according to its established rules.  He would drop hints, openings for further social interplay, until either she was thoroughly entranced or she lost interest.

“You look like you just got into town,” the brunette said sympathetically, and Yarec nodded his head.  “You’re here alone?” she asked, and he nodded again, confirming he was not waiting for any boorish male friends who might intrude themselves at any moment.

“Have you been to the city before?” she went on.

“No, I haven’t,” Yarec replied truthfully, “and I don’t really know anybody here.”

“That sound like an awfully lonely situation,” the woman said.  She pursed her lips, which seemed impossibly full in that position.  Certainly, Yarec observed, no one was ever born with slick lips like that.  As he was watching her sympathetic lips, pressed together like a kiss waiting to be released, she asked:  “I don’t suppose you would mind if I budged over and joined you?”

“No, please do,” Yarec told her.  It was all he could think of to say.  He felt hot—breathless, almost—and he was afraid that he was perspiring.  He hadn’t yet got the feel for the way his new body tended to sweat, and he felt unusually self-conscious.  He realized, somewhere deep down, that he was getting too swept up in the game.  But he was here on vacation, so he just ordered the lady another cocktail and smiled at her as she sat down on the stool beside his, taking an appropriate moment to admire her muscular thighs.

While the woman waited for her drink, she tapped her copper nails idly against the side of Yarec’s glass.  It made a pleasant tinkling sound, and he started to hum again, matching the rhythm of her fingers.  The order arrived, and he paused, trying to think of something witty to say, as she took a long, sensual sip.

Then another face appeared at the bar.  Pale complexion was flanked by loose red-brown waves.  The round eyes were gray and somewhat shadowed, either with exhaustion or a style of makeup Yarec had never seen before.  There was a modest nose and a small, feminine mouth surrounded by pink lips.  The whole countenance, and the rather curvaceous figure beneath it, were unpleasantly familiar.

“Outa’ here,” the new arrival said curtly.  The woman Yarec had just gotten so flirty with snapped her head around, bridling at the command—obviously intended for her—to depart.  She was astute enough, reading the others’ body language, to recognize that the redhead had no prior claim on Yarec.  This was no aggrieved wife, here to rein in her mate’s outside activities.

The first woman was looking to Yarec to stand up for her, but he knew that this was not merely a confrontation between romantic contenders.  His right hand again found the grip of his concealed pistol, although his face betrayed no hint of his intense unease.  Inwardly, he was suddenly frantic with questions, trying to remember all the details of his most recently concocted cover identity.  My full name?  Country of birth?  My business, and how it brought me to Sankirk?  Yet all the fictional details seemed to be crowded out by real ones.  The true past was all he seemed to be able to recall.

The redhead cocked an eyebrow cynically, in response to the brunette’s obvious indignation.  “Out,” she repeated.  Seeing she would get no support from Yarec, the first woman sniffed angrily and hopped down off the stool.  As she passed the redhead, she could have scratched her on the arm with those remarkable red claws.  But she restrained herself and simply flounced away, leaving her nearly untouched drink behind on the bar.  The bartender scooped the glass up and dashed its contents down a chute, to a machine that would recycle the unconsumed alcohol for another round of cocktails.

The redhead took over the stool next to Yarec’s and ordered a cheap drink.  Then for a little while, neither of them spoke.  When her plastic tumbler arrived, she took a quick sip.  Then she announced, very quietly, “I’m here with an assignment for you.”

Yarec expression was doubtful, and he kept his hand on his weapon.  “An assignment?” he repeated, echoing both her words and her whispering tone.

She nodded firmly.  “Yes, an assignment.”  She downed the rest of her drink in one sliding gulp and motioned for a refill.

“The last time I saw you, you were working for a different side,” Yarec pointed out.  There was an obvious implied question, but he presented it in a roundabout way.  Assuming she was still an enemy, he did not want to supply her with any information she didn’t already have.  She might or might not know his allegiance and his actual identity, just like she might or might not be planning to kill him the moment he turned his back.

“That was just business,” she said.  “I have to take the work I can get.  I operate like a mercenary, and my skills are not always in high demand.”

Yarec grimaced.  Her explanation was plausible, although not particularly convincing.  He had seen her at work in the home of his last target, but he knew nothing about what role she had played there, unless she had been a courtesan, which did not now appear to be the case.

The doubt was obvious on Yarec’s face.  “Let me show you my credentials,” she said.  If she did have a job for him, there would be a coded message from his superiors.  Once the ciphertext was decrypted, the message would have to include a number of special words.  The code words had been chosen a long time ago, when he first entered the service.  They were unique to him, and they were never reused.  Yarec had memorized the list and what each word would mean if he saw it in his orders.  Valid instructions would also be peppered with a number of odd but meaningless word choices, so the genuine code words could not be picked out if a message were intercepted.

“Go ahead,” Yarec told her, “but slowly.”  She reached toward the flat black wallet belted to the waist of her jumpsuit, which was patterned with wispy streaks of red-brown, green, and smokey gray.  She was using her left hand, which was the proper protocol in this kind of situation; if she pulled out a weapon instead of the documentation she had promised, she would probably be less dangerous holding it on the left.

She produced a two-dimensional square of solid state circuitry.  It was small, less than the width of Yarec’s palm, with a monochromatic display screen filling about half its expanse.  It was primitive technology, but its very crudity made it more difficult to counterfeit.  She set it down on the bar and flicked it in Yarec’s direction.  Caught up in a breeze from the open door, it flittered across the scuffed resin surface and came to rest beside Yarec’s hand.

He picked it up gingerly, holding it by a corner.  As if sensing his presence, the screen lit up, and a string of characters appeared, starting in the upper left corner.  There were only a few dozen on the first screen, and Yarec had committed enough of the opening pages of his single-use code book to memory to decrypt what he was seeing, on the fly.  Even after it was decoded, the message was extremely terse, but it had the hallmarks of legitimacy and included a rough description of the courier.

Yarec looked her over.  “Red hair,… about the right height,” he murmured.  “Sounds like it could be you.  Do you have any identifying markings?”

She laughed, casually threatening.  “Like the fingernails on that trollop?  No,” she said, “nothing I’m going to show you right now.”

She was practically leering at him, and Yarec felt genuinely frightened.  He was trying to curb any physical expression, but she must have sensed his discomfort.  Her tight expression softened, and the hard creases around her pale gray eyes relaxed.  “Let me introduce myself,” she said languidly.  Yarec raised an eyebrow slightly but gave no other indication of interest.  “I’m Mrissa,” she told him, prevoicing the R sound, “but people mostly call me Ris.”

Yarec had remembered his operating alias:  “Trent Lial,” he said.

“Good to meet you, Trent.”  She rolled her eyes wearily as she emphasized the ersatz name.  “Honestly, I am quite looking forward to working with you.  I’ve heard you’re very good.”

“Well, don’t get ahead of yourself.  I’m in the city on my own time.  I get to choose if I’m taking this job or no, after I verify this communication.”

“It’s an important assignment,” Mrissa whispered.

“If this is genuine, I’ll see you back here tomorrow,” Yarec continued.  “Four o’clock.  We’ll get dinner.  If it’s fake, I better not see you again, ever.”

She nodded, accepting the terms.  Then Yarec was out, through the rear exit, into an alley that reeked of spices and rotting produce.  He ran for a while, then slowed to a swift walk and kept going for seven or eight blocks.  Yarec needed somewhere private to look things over, so he found another hotel.  Everything about the place was worn and dingy, but it had been thoroughly sprayed with insecticides.  He got a room and hunkered down at the tiny desk, decoding the rest of the instructions Mrissa had given him.



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