Hollowed Memories, chapter 3, part 5

July 13, 2014

They ate silently, as Yarec took a final inventory of his gear.  Then she helped him dress.  He had to fit on three complete outfits, and when the appropriate times came, he needed to be able to shed the outer layers quickly.  His undergarments were lined with specialized equipment, packed in vacuum sealed metamaterial pouches to make them harder to detect.  Mrissa helped Yarec wriggle the underclothes on, making sure they were properly seated at his shoulders and around his waist.  Then they added three more layers:  an enemy uniform, an attachment suit, and finally a set of street clothes.

The uniform was authentic, stolen from the factory by the agent who had already infiltrated the janitorial staff.  It must have been salvaged from a trash bin, Yarec thought.  The color was fading around the cuffs of the pants, and the synthetic fibers had begun to fray at the collar and elbows.  However, the most obvious wear had been repaired, hastily, and looked like it would be an adequate disguise if Yarec did not otherwise arouse suspicion.

Mrissa only had one suit of clothing to don, and she did it quickly, while Yarec started loading up the two-seat car they would be using.  They had plenty of time to reach their first rendezvous, which would be with another cargo truck headed for the factory.  With their gear stowed in the trunk compartment, the pair squeezed into the small, fuel-efficient car.  Mrissa drove, while Yarec sat in the passenger seat, with a tiny handgun resting awkwardly in his lap.  He didn’t expect to need the weapon, but it would be useful if they had any undesirable encounters while in transit.

The sky was a drab gray, and rain was already falling.  The drops came lightly; the angry torrent that Sankirk’s central weather computer had predicted was yet to arrive.  However, a heavy wall of cloud had already blocked out the brightest rays from the sun, and things would only be growing darker as the day progressed.

Raindrops scraped against the car windows as they drove.  Several major streets were still closed because of the festival, and they arrived at the intersection they wanted by a roundabout route.  A parking spot, only ten meters from the street corner, had been saved for them all night by another car.  As Mrissa brought her two-seater up, the other car slid out ahead of her and disappeared into the traffic.  She intentionally parked slightly awkwardly, and then she and Yarec just had to wait.  The cargo trucks were not especially punctual, but another one was due along this way in about an hour.

They saw it coming at roughly the expected time.  The box truck lumbered down the roadway, puffing dark smoke.  Mrissa was waiting at the intersection, while Yarec remained in the car.  She stepped in front of the truck, waving her hands frantically.  Her bright yellow shirt and gaudy pink leggings ought to grab the truck driver’s attention, and they also marked her as an out-of-towner.  The truck slowed to a crawl, but it continued to advance, until there was barely a meter’s space between the vehicle and Mrissa.  Yet she refused to budge, and finally, with a slight squeal, the truck jolted to stop.

Mrissa immediately ran up to the cab door.  “Thanks so much for stopping!”  The driver looked down suspiciously.  Had he reacted quickly enough, the man could have just driven away, now that his obstruction had removed itself.  However, Mrissa managed to keep his attention focused on her long enough for Yarec to emerge from the car and cross in front of the truck.  By the time the driver was fumbling with the throttle, realizing he should get moving again, Yarec was leaning against the front of his vehicle, looking on over Mrissa’s shoulder as she pitched a proposal.

“We’re out of fuel,” she was explaining, in an affectedly plaintive tone.  “The tank is completely empty, and there doesn’t seem to be another fuel depot anywhere around here.”  That was true.  Motor vehicle fuel, whether it was mined directly–squeezed from the soft rocks–or reprocessed from biological waste materials, was a pricey commodity.  There were no tank facilities selling it in this part of Sankirk; the nearest commercial fuel depot was at least four miles away.  This was not a the kind of neighborhood where a long walk was a safe undertaking, and only careless fools would let their tank run dry in a spot like this.  Of course, like fools was exactly how Yarec and Mrissa wanted to seem.

Yarec’s outer layer of clothing was almost as bright as Mrissa’s.  He wore a long-sleeved knit shirt, with cream and yellow horizontal stripes.  The shirt was cinched at the waist with a white plastic belt, and below hung loose burgundy pantaloons.  However, the most important elements of this costume were the yellow wig with long, curly hair and the wide-brimmed white hat that partially obscured Yarec’s face.

Mrissa was hatless, and the raindrops trickling down her face like huge tears gave lent special pathos to her appeal.  “We were hoping you might be able to help us out,” she told the truck driver.  “With a big machine like that, you must have some fuel to spare.  Trading a little of it to a couple people in a difficult situation couldn’t cause any harm, could it?”

For the first time, the driver looked like he might be interested.  He opened the side window on his cab just a crack and said, “You mean you’ve got something to trade if I give you a little gas?”

“Oh, we have some local currency, or metals if you want to barter,” Mrissa assured him.  Sometimes it was easier to offer a bribe in platinum or palladium, which could be harder to trace than digital cash transfers.  However, the driver dismissed the suggestion of dealing in metal with a curt gesture.  Mrissa continued, “We only need enough to get us to a proper fuel depot.  Would thirteen hundred be enough money?”  Yarec and Mrissa had chosen the amount they would offer strategically.  The opening bid had to be sufficient to show they were serious, but too large a bribe would look suspicious.  They also needed to leave the mark with room to ask for more, to make him feel that he was getting the better of them in the deal.

“Fifteen hundred,” the driver whispered down to them.

“Fourteen?” suggested Mrissa, and the driver, after a few second of consideration, nodded.

When he spoke again, the driver kept his voice very low.  “It’s not I don’t trust you, but I’m just being careful,” he said.  “I’m armed, and I’m coming down with my weapon out.  Just so we’re clear.”  Mrissa nodded, and Yarec shrugged noncommittally.  Then, for a while, nothing moved, except for the other vehicles that were still passing them along the street.  Up in the cab, the driver was hesitating, although they had no way to tell if he was merely scared or was having an attack of conscience.  He sat in silence, with the window still open just a slit, for an uncomfortably long while.

Then he started moving again.  He told his onboard computer to release the electronic lock on the fuel tank.  Then the cab door swung up, and he lowered himself to the ground awkwardly, thrusting a gray automatic pistol in front of him.  He motioned with the weapon, and Mrissa and Yarec preceded him around the front of the cab.  Using a mechanical key, the driver opened the second lock on the tank, while Yarec detoured to the car to retrieve a siphoning hose.

He handed the hose over to Mrissa, who was digging through her pockets for the bribe money, which the driver evidently wanted in physical chits.  Yarec stuck his head under the box truck’s rear chassis, looking over the size and position of the fuel tank.  He already had those schematics completely memorized, but right now he wanted to be seen peering under the vehicle.  If there were any secret video surveillance cameras mounted on the truck, they would catch him looking at the undercarriage, then returning to the car.  That might provide just a little extra misdirection for anyone later reviewing the sequence of events.

Ostensibly tired of standing out in the rain, Yarec walked back over to the car and shut himself in.  Yarec made sure the driver saw him.  He also cast a few uncomfortable backward glances at the driver’s hard gray automatic, making sure the man noticed those as well.  Once inside the car, Yarec adjusted the electronic window tinting to make it as dark as possible.  Then, while Mrissa transferred a few liters of fuel to a flexible plastic bottle, Yarec made a speedy switch.  While the driver’s attention was focused on the hose, Yarec whipped off his outer layer of garments.  The shirt and trousers he dropped at his feet, while the hat and wig ended up atop the similarly dressed dummy that Yarec propped up in the passenger seat.  Yarec emerged again from the vehicle, probably unrecognizable, and sauntered across to the other side of the street.

He lingered across the street for a little while, until Mrissa could direct the driver’s attention in a different direction.  While the man was looking up at the ugly black clouds in the southern sky, Yarec skipped through the modest traffic, right up to the opposite side of the truck.  Then he slid underneath and pressed himself against the undercarriage.  The dorsal surfaces of Yarec’s second suit of clothes were equipped with special patches of adhesive.  His shoulders, arms, thighs, and heels clung to the exposed metal, and in a fraction of a second Yarec was up off the ground, hanging from the vehicle’s belly.  It was not the most comfortable position, but he could remain there without any problem until it was the right time to peel free.  To hide his presence, Yarec unrolled a sheet of material, covering him from beneath.  It curled up around him like a balloon of metal foil, and the programmed microstructure formed reinforcing ribs to hold it in a hemicylinder-like shape.  The outer color was matched to the material of the undercarriage, so on a casual inspection, Yarec’s cocoon would fit right in among the other protuberances depending from the bottom of the truck body.

With her transaction completed, Mrissa returned to her car.  The truck driver resealed the snap lock on his fuel tank and clambered back into the cab.  Setting aside his weapon, he reactivated the dual electric-hydrocarbon engine and rolled off.  Yarec’s last view before he allowed the inverted metal tent to seal around him completely was of Mrissa’s legs beside the car, as she was fueling it up.

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