Hollowed Memories, chapter 3, part 2

June 22, 2014

The target for this job was a factory.  A local group militia group, allies of Yarec’s own allies, had gotten a spy inside the facility.  It lay on one of Sankirk’s outer eyots, connected to the rest of the city by a single bridge, heavily guarded.  On the island itself stood one long metal building, with a arched roof that stretched all the way down to the ground.  Covered trucks passed through the dual checkpoints on the bridge, then disappeared into the vast maw of the building, which clanged shut again as soon as they were inside.

The militia had known for a long time that something dangerous was going on there.  There were shipments to and from enemy factions, but whatever weapons or tools were being manufactured out on the island were shielded from view by the tight security.  So they had settled on infiltration, bribing one of the agents who hired people to do menial jobs in the outer parts of the plant.  When they got a man inside, he discovered that there was a complex of lesser buildings inside the single large one.  Materials bustled back and forth from one structure to another, and from what the infiltrator saw, the workers there must have been breeding microbes in colossal numbers.

However, he could not get access to the laboratories where the tanks of bacteria were actually being grown.  On his first day working there, cleaning up the bay where the secure trucks were loaded and unloaded, his supervisor had warned the man to stay well away from the labs, which were off-limits for both security and safety reasons.  However, he had mapped out the basic arrangement of the complex, and it was obvious where the critical biological work was being done.  He also saw pressurized cylinders being shipped to enemy facilities, in ever-accelerating numbers.

His militia superiors decided something needed to be done.  They might have mounted an assault on the factory themselves, and they were probably strong enough to succeed.  However, they were not specialized in urban warfare.  They mostly operated in the hinterlands north and east of the city, where there was ongoing strife over control of valuable rare earth deposits.  Yarec, in contrast, was an expert saboteur, experienced with working in industrial environments.  When the militia leaders got word that he was coming to Sankirk, they immediately moved to hire him for the job.  I probably wasn’t meant to get a vacation at all, Yarec mused ruefully.  They just sent me here to start on another project.

The document also explained the terms of his proposed employment.  The payment they were offering looked adequate.  It was less than he’d been paid for his last infiltration job, but there was no standard schedule of fees for Yarec’s kind of work.  Naturally, Yarec could get whatever materiel his employers could lay hands on at short notice, and the woman, Mrissa, was evidently at his disposal.  Her skills were considerable, according to the computer.  She could be an ideal partner, if she wasn’t going to shoot a venomed needle into his back.

This is too slick, Yarec sighed to himself.  Whoever recommended me for this knew me too damn well.  He loathed bacteriological warfare.  Virulent pathogens were too hard to control, so they were basically only deployed in two situations.  Either they were released by an utterly defeated force as a last, pointless work of revenge—striking one final bitter blow against the erstwhile victors from beyond the veil of death; or else the users simply wanted to obliterate all human life across a wide swath of territory.

Yarec had read that in the olden days, when nations had maintained the self-salving fiction that there were rules and moral precepts in warfare, using bacterial spores against an enemy had been considered a crime.  Yarec agreed with the basic sentiment, although he did not believe that there was anything so uniquely evil about using germs—not compared with the other dire tools the ancient armies had had at their disposals.

He had seen a video once, about the horrors of old-fashioned warfare.  It must have been intended as a morality play and produced in the waning days of the continental nation-states, when someone thought that people could still be convinced that a different way forward was possible.  It concerned a decades-long war between two fictional city-states only a few miles apart.  They had worn each other’s resources down, until the attrition left soldiers armed with lasers, poison gas, and longbows fighting side by side.  A benevolent time traveller had arrived from the future, and he tried to convince both sides to give up their obviously pointless struggle; but he was running out of time, because one side was preparing to retreat into radiation-proof metal shells, to give up their last humanity in order to assure ultimate victory.  The last part of the video had been lost, so Yarec did not know how the story ended, but the devastation of the real North American interior was plain to anyone who travelled inland.

Yarec read the decoded message two more times, and he was forced to conclude it was genuine.  It had used the work “rugose,” which indicated that the mission was considered a high priority, although not the highest.  So it appeared that he would be taking the job.  Having made that decision, Yarec remembered that he was extremely tired, and that left him with the question of where he was going to sleep.  The bed in his first hotel room had felt considerably more comfortable than the one here, but he had not left any luggage there.  Nor did he want to venture out on the street at night carrying the hand-scrawled decrypt.  If he went out again, he would need to destroy the message and then decode it again in the morning.

So Yarec stripped naked and squeezed between the plain white sheets, lightly treated with a perfumed disinfectant.  He scowled, annoyed that he had not really gotten to spend a single night on vacation, sleeping how and where he chose.  The mattress sensed that he was settling in for the night, and the communications unit on the bureau beside the bed frame flashed an invitation for him to set a wake-up alarm.  Yarec ignored the suggestion, and the screen slowly faded into quiescence, leaving only the flickering colors of the street outside to filter in and cast a few long shadows.

Waking up late was not Yarec’s usual policy, but it was well into the morning before he dragged his body out of bed.  His mouth felt fuzzy, thanks to all the alcohol and the artificially scented air.  He paused at the barred window on his way to the small toilet cubicle.  Pushing back the curtains, he saw people at work in the street below, clearing up the debris from the last night’s partying.  The city-state of Sankirk was stable enough to have a professional class of city workers.  There were steady jobs in law enforcement, public records, and maintenance, financed with high rates of taxation.  During festival time, the street cleaners had to sweep the pavement and gussy up the public spaces during the day, so that revelers could make a fresh mess of it every night.

The hot water in the shower stung his shoulders.  Yarec scrubbed himself down with whatever liquid detergent the hotel had left for him, then stepped out to find a towel.  In the tiny mirror above the washbasin, he could see that the skin of his face was excessively pink, sunburned.  He dabbed some liniment around his forehead and nose, then re-donned the clothes he had been wearing the night before.  They felt clammy with his old sweat, and he made a note to purchase a fresh wardrobe before his afternoon meeting.

He had one of the local specialties for breakfast—a long pastry filled with sweet and savory cream.  The dough was still warm and crispy from the oven.  The filling tasted both fruity and meaty, loaded with lipids and protein.  Sitting next to him at the diner counter were two teenagers.  The boys wore gray mesh shirts like the toughs Yarec had disabled the day before.  They were grumbling about trouble finding work and the rank unfairness of it all, between sips of iced, carbonated, caffeinated beverage.  Yarec ignored them.  Sometimes he was interested in local goings-on, but not now.  He had his new job to figure out.  Yarec chewed the tough pickled vegetable pod that had come as a side, until it was down to a nub of a stem.  Then he paid the bill and left.

He took a two-hour bus tour around the city, matching firsthand observation with the street map he had committed to memory.  The tour naturally focused on Sankirk’s historic and cultural landmarks—the statue of the dockworker on cemetery isle, the Meridianic amphitheater, and the massive rectangular Great Hall of the Republic.  The route largely avoided the seedy industrial districts, where tourist hijackings were not unknown; so they came nowhere near the factory island that Yarec was plotting to assault.

Nonetheless, he found the tour quite edifying.  He observed the overarching pattern of the city—the way structures were laid out and the way motorized traffic flowed on the bridges and causeways that connected the low-lying islands.  In between the driver’s scripted anecdotes and queries from languid tourists, Yarec asked a couple simple questions, about Sankirk’s prominent seaweed farming industry and the low-level strife in the mountainous hinterlands to the east.  The driver had little to say about the latter topic, but he did confirm a few of Yarec’s suppositions about the nature of the conflict he was entering.

Yarec preferred to research each of his targets thoroughly, although time for that was not always available.  He did not entirely trust his memory of past encounters and tactics, and it was a good idea to review the more advanced operational practices on a regular basis.  So he found a lending library and paid the single day usage fee.  They issued him a computing lamina that was tied into the library’s vast collection.  Yarec carried it back to an isolated carrel and unfolded it.  He called up Riland’s Urban Warfare and then scanned through several references on weaponized bacteria.  Satisfied that his new brain hadn’t misplaced any key details, he departed.  On the way back to his original hotel, he purchased another pastry and two new sets of clothes.  In his room, he stripped off his sweaty outfit a second time and started getting ready for his meeting.

He arrived back at the cocktail lounge around half past three and settled himself in a corner booth.  By day, the dim reddish lighting seemed tawdry rather than subtly alluring.  A couple of lingering lunchtime customers were still at the bar, and small groups of festival revelers occasionally stopped in to grab cheap drinks that would maintain their buzz while they wandered the streets.  This was not the kind of place Yarec would ordinarily have chosen to enjoy an afternoon cocktail.  There were plenty of nicer bars in Sankirk that served better booze in more interesting locales.  A few were even located on mobile floating platforms, accessible only with a boat (or persistent swimming).  He could have lazed away the day at a place like that, sipping glucose rum in a patio chair.  However, he was stuck here instead, where the sweet and bitter flavors in the cocktail the waitress handed him were too unbalanced to be properly enjoyable

The redhead arrived at ten minutes to four.  She spotted Yarec immediately and glided over to the booth.  She was light on her feet, as her job portfolio had indicated.  She sat down on the curved bench and slid around until her bottom was perched right beside Yarec’s.  A drink, identical to the one she had ordered the night before, was waiting for her.  She smiled lightly and dropped her small bag of social impedimenta on the table between them.

“Good afternoon, Mrissa Roonbeck,” Yarec said with a nod.

“Ris, please,” she reminded him.  She drained half her drink, then cradled the remainder in her hand, eyeing it distrustfully.

Yarec took another sip of his own.  Then he announced, “I’ve looked over what you gave me.  I still have a few questions, but I think I’m interested.”

“That’s really good news.”  Ris finished the cocktail and waved for another.  Then she added, in a mock-conspiratorial whisper, “Personally, I’m really glad.  I need this job, since my last work didn’t turn out very well.”

For a moment, Yarec froze.  It was not the right thing to do.  The paralysis was an autonomic response from the lower reaches of his brain—something that a well-trained agent should have been immune to.  He should have known better than to react to her baiting him about their last encounter.  His startled reaction betrayed information that should have been kept secret, and it could even have placed him in physical danger.  In that moment of alarm, Mrissa might have leaned over and kissed him.  With poisonous unguents laced around her lips, she could have killed him then and there.

Mrissa recognized the flash of fear on his face and winced herself.  “I told you, I’m a mercenary,” she said.  “I have to take the work I can get.  I don’t get emotionally invested in my employers and their projects.”

Yarec sighed, and Ris handed him a fresh drink, which the waitress had just delivered.  They clinked their refills together and sloshed the liquor down.  Then they set off in search of a quieter eatery which would provide a better atmosphere for their serious business discussions.  Walking together, the pair might have looked like exemplars of camaraderie, although Yarec had many invisible misgivings about the future of this venture.


4 Responses to “Hollowed Memories, chapter 3, part 2”

  1. I wonder if the prose could be tighter (I grew up on Saberhagen, and I feel I learned correctly that swift movement of prose and plot is almost always good and, more I feel that applies here). ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a hoary old, ass-hole way to talk about stuff, but I feel writing about things that way (i.e. going through Yarec’s mind rather than telling) would make a lot of these passages possibly more compelling. And, again, shorten if you can (I spend huge amounts of time editing down my own prose by 60% or so, and I firmly believe I get better results that way. But then, I’m just a bear, so who knows).

  2. Also reminds me a bit of Chiana and Chrichton’s penetration of the Gamak research base near the end of Season 1 of FARSCAPE for some reason. That’s a compliment.

  3. Okay, one more: this and other passages seem to me to rely on telling the reader about a lot of exotic things in the world, rather than, again, showing. That, together with the fact that…I’m not literate enough in this precise genre to say for certain…but that the material seems to engage with things and characters (which are now problematic) maybe 30-70 years old…I feel this is a large problem. I love ‘Ringworld,’ etc, but this feels to me a little too much like it, even if it’s done very well. I’m sure you know the SF community is very self-aware of how it’s developed over the years, and….well, you get the idea. And, again, just a bear. Loved it, and can bearly read English.

    • Buzz Says:

      My writing will certainly never be described as “spare,” and I am satisfied with that. (I do pare things down a lot between the initial and final drafts; this is just what is left.) Stylistic preferences in the publishing business come and go, and my writing may not be the most publishable right now. As an exercise, I have tried writing this that are closer to the currently vogue style, and it has never really worked; I find that have to keep enough of my own voice to make my prose readable.

      (By the way, I have a particular, and probably not entirely rational, grudge against the slogan of “Show, don’t tell.” It was used with all the subtlety of an elephant goad by my high school teachers. The treatment of my writing by my teachers and peers during that period is not a subject that I really want to revisit.)

      I think that I wrote this passage before I had actually watched any of Farscape. At the time I was working on chapters 3 and 4, I remember I was going through the last season of Burn Notice. The characters of that show definitely had an impact on how how I chose to pace and present this part of the story.

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