Hollowed Memories, chapter 3, part 3

June 29, 2014

Two days later, Yarec was observing with a high magnification digital telescope.  He had disabled the speaker that would have beeped to alert a recreational user that something was moving toward the tiny field of view.  He was lying prone underneath a cheap plastic tarpaulin.  The material was ragged and smelled like tar, but it was sufficient to hide Yarec and his companion.

It was a windy day near the shore, and the tarp rustled noisily, letting a few unseasonably chilly ocean breezes whip across the two human bodies.  Mrissa lay to his right with her head propped up on her elbows beside his.  As the gusts disturbed their primitive blind, she had been edging progressively nearer, and now her softly muscled leg was pressed firmly up against his own.  She was sharing his warmth and he, silently grateful, hers, like two cold, hungry predators lying in ambush, observing their prey.  If she was the orange fox, what was he? Yarec wondered.  A gray wolf?  He felt old and gray—spiritually, if not physically, exhausted.

But of course, it was the physical that was on his mind now.  There was nothing flirtatious or playful about Mrissa’s casual closeness.  That was what made it so disarming.  He found her presence exciting, and she seemed completely unaware.  He could have blamed the overactive hormones in his new body, but the sound of her breath beside his ear and the subtle, distinctly feminine odor of her sweat seemed to make the blood pound in his neck.  It might all have been an act on her part, evincing such disinterest while slowly drawing in closer to her male partner.  Maybe it was always this way, when she worked alongside a man.  Entice him first; then seal their alliance with more than words or money.  This possibility certainly occurred to Yarec, but he chose not to believe it.  It was too late to second-guess his involvement in this venture.  I’m already committed to her job? enterprise?  He wasn’t sure what to call this, since he had a hunch that their partnership was slated to last well beyond this single mission.

“There, look,” Mrissa whispered, pointing at one of the heavy box trucks clattering across the bridge.  Yarec turned the telescope toward it.  Gouts of greasy black smoke spat from its square steel smokestack.  The vehicle’s flank bore no logo or corporate insignia, only a couple of long lengthwise scrapes marring is drab gray-white exterior.  Mrissa and Yarec had watched vehicles entering and exiting the island complex from several vantage points, but this truck was special.

Yarec had bribed the driver to carry him past a security checkpoint on the other side of Sankirk.  He made up a story about being wanted by the police for failing to pay import duties on some smuggled luxury goods.  The driver was not really expected to believe that fib.  When the authorities set up impromptu checkpoints, they were usually more focused on nabbing wanted  burglars and murderers (of which the city had many) than tariff evaders.  However, whatever the nature of his actual crime, Yarec looked harmless enough, with a couple days’ beard, short but halfway stylish haircut, and clean casual clothing.  So the driver accepted Yarec’s second offer (the first had been too low) and let him squat in the back, behind a heavy load of crates.

The truck driver would never have allowed Yarec to sneak into the manufacturing facility that way.  However, a half kilometer ride past a group of police checking identify documents and photographs against their database of outstanding arrest orders was no big deal.  The driver put Yarec off a few blocks past the checkpoint and just around a corner.  The man lifted the sliding door on the back of the box truck, and the passenger hopped down and disappeared into a side street.  The first part of their test of the facility’s security was complete.  It seemed that well away from the actual plant, the security posture was rather relaxed.

Yarec had ridden beside cargo headed directly for the factory.  He had poked around among the crates by the light of a solid state lantern, but they were unlabeled.  There was little he could have learned without cracking one open.  However, he had left something behind that would enable the second part of the security test.  Near the bottom of one of the packing crates, Yarec affixed a flat, inconspicuous box, adjusting its color to match the blue-gray exterior of the crate itself.  The box would remain inert until it was activated by a remote signal.  However, it was shielded against radiation except in a very narrow range of frequencies.  That would make the device virtually unnoticeable if they swept the truck for electronic devices before letting it inside the factory.  Once the cargo was through, Yarec would beam a signal at the magic wavelength, and his surveillance device would start to function.

The truck stopped once in the middle of the span, then again near the end.  Guards, dressed in plain sky blue with various numbers of black stripes ringing their forearms, closed wire mesh gates in front of the truck and behind it.  At the first stop, the driver got out and showed his identification and some kind of cargo manifest.  A man with four full stripes examined the digital documents.  He seemed thorough but casual, chatting amiably with the truck driver and clapping him on the back before sending him on his way.  The inner gates swung outward, and the truck rumbled on to the second checkpoint.  The examination there was more perfunctory, and the vehicle was quickly waved in past the final gate.

Beyond lay the island, with an expanse of asphalt stretching all the way down to the water’s edge, where it disintegrated into cracks and potholes.  The truck followed a pair of chalky yellow lines, right up to the riveted portals at the end of the long arched structure.  It idled there.  Then the doors slid back, with a click and a hum that Yarec could only imagine.  The gray light of diode lamps was visible in the interior, before it was blotted out by the bulk of the truck in the entryway and the doors sealing closed again behind it.

Mrissa took the observation scope and watched for a while longer, as guards shuffled around the entrance.  Her left eye was closed, displaying the delicate red freckles on her eyelid.  Water lapped roughly at the bottom of the concrete wall beneath their perch.  As time passed, the swells were growing larger.

“How long do you think we should give them to unload?”  Yarec asked.

“Maybe half an hour,” Mrissa replied, without removing her eye from the objective, “assuming they unload immediately.  The reports from inside said important shipments were handled pretty quickly.”

Yarec nodded.  Blinking, he read off how much time had already elapsed since the truck had driven inside.  He felt tight; the pressure of waiting was bothering him.  He cleared his throat and asked, “Where are you from originally, Mrissa?”

The question obviously surprised her.  She jerked her head around, leaving the telescope for the moment unattended.  Her brow was wrinkled, although it was difficult to read precisely why.  Is she offended? Yarec wondered.  Or did I remind her of something unpleasant from her past?  He added tentatively, “I hope you don’t mind my asking.”

Mrissa’s hand ran awkwardly through her hair—a nervous gesture.  There was still concern marking her brow, but those first hard lines around her eyes were now perceptibly softer.  She grimaced and ground her teeth for a moment, then said, “I came from a pretty ordinary family, I think.  We moved around on the southern coast, by the great gulf.”  Yarec nodded; he had been around there two or three times.  She continued, “My parents worked in resource extraction.  Mom did mapping work, and my Dad did labor on the strip mines and gas wells.”

“That can be dangerous work,” Yarec murmured, and then he was immediately sorry he had said it.  This was obviously an emotionally fraught subject, and he had no wish to bring up memories of any tragic industrial accidents.

“It was dangerous,” Ris echoed with a nod.  “Dad never really got hurt though, apart from some knocks and bruises.  He was lucky, I guess.  I know some of the people he worked with sometimes did get badly injured.”  She scraped her knuckles through her hair again and went on, “I never talk about this stuff any more.  Everything is about business, you know?”

Indeed, Yarec reminded himself.  I pretty much never talk about my own parents.  Who’s going to care about my childhood, anyway?  I was such a different person then.

Then he blurted out:  “I grew up a long way northeast of here.  Up high, in the desert.  It was really dry, and I think it was one of the old deserts, an authentic natural wasteland.”

“But you went to sea eventually, didn’t you?”  Mrissa’s question was rhetorical; she knew the answer.

“Aye,” he said, using some old nautical jargon he had picked up from reading light fiction.  “I found my way to the sea.”

Then their oddly personal conversation seemed to be over.  Yarec held out his hand, and Mrissa returned the telescope.  He raised the device to his eye, and though they were lying almost prone, he felt the urge to lift up his head as he gazed through the eyepiece.  For a few seconds, his head and shoulders modelled the pose of an ancient and gallant sea pilot peering through his spyglass.  Then he saw something moving on the island, and all frivolity vanished from his manner.

The great doors were opening again, and Yarec tried to get a good view of what was going on inside.  Then another box truck came rolling out of the opening, the doors resealing behind it with a definite, but at this distance inaudible, clank.

“Is that our truck?” Yarec asked as it emerged.  If it was, it had been processed awfully quickly.  He scanned for the characteristic markings on the sides.  They were there.

“That’s it,” Mrissa confirmed.  She could tell without even using the scope.

Yarec rapped his fist against the chipped concrete beneath them, in a gentle celebratory gesture.  Before the doors shut, he had transmitted the narrow-band activation signal to his spy device inside.  He had pointed the transmitter at the open doors, aiming with the help of a collimated infrared laser.  It produced a reflected spot, not to be seen with bare human eyes but easily detected using the digital scope.  The dot traced across the building wall as Yarec homed in on target.  Then it disappeared into the portals’ open maw—that narrow gap in the metal enclosure that could not easily be screened against incoming microwave radiation.

Assuming the device had not been discovered or damaged, it should now be active.  The pickup for its transmissions was already on, waiting.  The signals coming out of the factory would arrive in intermittent bursts.  This was another measure aimed at avoiding detection; a source radiating in sporadic bursts was much more likely to remain unnoticed than a continuous wave transmitter.  The signal blasts were compressed, encrypted, and heavily redundant, so that Yarec would receive a full account of whatever his device detected, even if he missed most of the information packets it sent.

The video signal came out on a palm-sized screen Mrissa held out in front of them.  At first, there was nothing; the screen was a pure, untroubled silver-gray.  Then the first batch of data arrived, having seeped through the chinks in whatever electromagnetic armor surrounded the place.  The images were instantly crisp, limited only by the resolution of the simple solid state display.  Yarec tilted his head to minimize the chromatic distortion, which made the colors appear warped when the screen was viewed from an oblique angle.  They could study the video imagery again, on a better display, later in a more secure location.

They saw a wide angle view from the side of a packing crate.  A few more crates were visible nearby, while workers in uniform strode to and fro in the background.  One fellow stepped up to look at something on the top of one of the crates.  Then a woman arrived with a dolly and loaded a container up.  Mrissa and Yarec watched as she wheeled the cargo away, toward a blocky secondary structure inside the arched outer walls.

Yarec’s attention turned to the interior architecture, which featured a double row of square constructions.  The lines of buildings began about two hundred feet inside the entryway, past the open plaza where vehicles to be loaded or unloaded could maneuver.  The nearest buildings appeared to be windowless, at least on the sides Yarec could see.  They were largely plain concrete constructions, distinguished only by huge painted numerals and colorful placards posted by their enameled steel doors.  However, a couple of the more distant structures had patterns of heavy metal tubing snaking across their exteriors, and Yarec hoped he might get a better view of those arrangements.

There was another bustle of figures, and the bugged crate started to move.  Someone, only visible as a collection of limbs sometimes protruding into the field of view, levered the box off the floor and onto another dolly.  Then it was off with a jittery roll.  Yarec watched as the point of view passed between empty containers and hulks of idle machinery.  I just hope I didn’t bug a box of toilet paper, he thought.

There was a pause.  Then the movement changed direction.  They appeared to be approaching the third building on the left, marked as number five.  However, building number seven, standing next to it, looked quite a bit more interesting, with stainless tubing protruding from its roof.  The tubes trailed down off the edges like hanging plants, connecting to pressurized cylindrical tanks or disappearing through holes in the concrete floor.

“That looks important,” Mrissa said, and Yarec clicked his tongue in agreement.  They would look over the video of building seven in more detail later.

Up to this point, the audio pickup on the spying device had only been getting undifferentiated industrial noise and scattered clusters of syllables.  With offline audio post-processing, their computer ought to be able to pull a lot more intelligible information out of the recording.  However, for the moment Mrissa and Yarec had to rely principally on their own ears.

Now they heard a clear conversation.  It seemed to be occurring between whoever was controlling the dolly and someone standing even further out of view.  “Watch out,” said a rough male voice.  “Keep this away from the boxes of biological over by seven.”

“This is on its way to five,” came another voice.  This time, the sex was harder to determine, but the speaker sounded much younger.

“Just keep the shipments separate.”

That was all that was said, and the dolly’s motion, which had slowed a bit during the brief conversation, returned to its previous brisk pace.  The container found its way between buildings five and seven, and the video feed showed why the first speaker had been concerned.  In the aisle between the structures, crates had piled up awkwardly.  Some of the cargo was stacked snugly against the building walls, but most of it seemed to have been dumped there almost haphazardly.  Blue-gray crates stretched out in disorderly, jagged lines, and Yarec agreed that if the unloaders continued abandoning their cargo so carelessly, it would become confusing just which box belonged where.

“They’re running out of storage space,” Yarec said.

“Yes, yes,” Mrissa muttered.  She watched as the crate they were monitoring was rolled toward the wall of the alley then dropped off the dolly with a clunk.  Then it sat there, not moving.  The camera’s view was mostly obstructed by other containers, but Yarec and Mrissa kept watching, hoping something else interesting might happen.  Another crate arrived and was slid in beside the first, but that was all.

After another half an hour, Yarec was growing too restless to continue, and the onshore wind was picking up speed.  There was probably no more to be learned from the device, although they would leave the receiver running; if anything else interesting was caught by the bug’s camera, the computer would notice it and bring it to the humans’ attention.  However, Mrissa and Yarec had noticed one more rather interesting thing while the container was in transit.  As they moved into the space between the buildings, they had gotten a cockeyed view of the entrance to building seven.  The heavy tubing avoided the entranceway area, but there were signs posted on either side of the reinforced doors.  Yarec couldn’t make out what they said, although a computer might be able to decode them.  However, the signs were clearly marked with the particular lurid blue color commonly used to distinguish the presence of the most virulent biological agents.

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