Hollowed Memories, chapter 4, part 1

August 3, 2014

Chapter 4:  Inland

They rendezvoused in the rail terminal east of town, where at least a dozen tracks converged.  The train tracks, coming in from secondary stations located at various points inland, dipped underground, passing along ancient tunnels cut from the bedrock and lined with flaking concrete.  First the lines ran inward, like long spokes; then they bent, and lined up in parallel just as they reached the passenger hub, forty feet beneath the asphalt streets.

Heavy plate glass doors, which hummed and slid back whenever a human form or a gust of subterranean breeze passed near, separated pairs of tracks.  There were few passengers present.  The trains ran infrequently, and there was little reason to tarry at the station.  But as Yarec and Ris traced their way cautiously, inconspicuously towards their outbound track, they were surrounded by voices.  Scratchy voices, of conductors probably long dead, echoed off the slick tile walls.  Their messages, announcing arrivals and departures hours or days ahead of time, overlapped to become an unintelligible morass.

On track nineArriving from Rand Track sixAt fourteen oh seven The train from Stardhaven will be delayed untilArriving from Track change, please take noticeNine forty-six

The pair were carrying only three light bags between them, with a few extra clothes, food, and other necessities.  They huddled on a damp bench, waiting for their train to arrive and trying to look as unobtrusive as possible.  Mrissa had been the one who first suggested leaving town.  At the time, they had been cooped up in a hotel room she had booked several days earlier, observing the chaos that had followed their sabotage mission.  Out-of-town festival-goers were looking on in horror as armed squads roamed the streets.  Some of the gangs had been deputized by the city-state itself, to augment the overtaxed police force.  However, a much larger number were working for the faction that had operated the factory.  They were out looking for revenge, prowling the neighborhoods most associated with Mrissa’s employers, harassing or assaulting anyone who they thought might have been complicit in the attack.

The factory itself was on fire.  The islet on which it stood had become a sinister beacon, blazing in yellow and red.  The hard rain kept the conflagration from spreading across the canals to other parts of the city, but the factory’s vats and barrels of organic compounds fed a bonfire that no storm could extinguish.  When night fell, the merry multicolored lights of the festival had been replaced with a single column of furious firelight.

Safe houses were probably not safe now.  The faction that had hired Mrissa and Yarec had put their own bullies out of the streets, to defend their territory.  However, their greatest strength was in the hinterlands, among the wildcat miners who scraped the dry earth for veins of transition metal.  They would probably be forced to withdraw from Sankirk itself, and the open warfare would move back into the countryside.  Mrissa had been watching news updates on a large computing lamina, spread out flat on a soft double bed that she and Yarec were not going to use.  It was difficult to gauge the severity of the unrest from those dim video snippets, and the torrents of rain outside the hotel blocked out any sounds of melee and gunfire.

Then there was an explosion, just a few blocks away.  It was not an especially large blast, but the sound and vibrations cut easily through the blanket of the storm.  It might have killed scores of people, or none at all, but it was positive proof their location was insecure.  They had to leave.  So the pair split up; Mrissa had to send a secure message to their employers, and Yarec was responsible for reconnaissance and assembling additional provisions.  Once these tasks were completed, they met up at the train station, to get transport out of the city.

The station, like many of Sankirk’s relics from brighter days, was located in the toniest part of the city.  It was no architectural marvel; even when it was new, it had been strictly functional, with no better decoration than cheap stenciled murals.  Above it, on the bank of the river, was a huge semicircular arena, open to the sky and the water.  Even today, wealthy residents could watch boat races or pyrotechnic displays from its aluminum benches.  Around the arena stood the waterfront mansions of the city’s magnates, intermixed with old concrete bungalows, whose antediluvian age alone made them valuable properties.  Sometimes rich families bought them and constructed whole walled compounds around them, caring for the simple structures like esthetic gems.

No such care and attention went into the maintenance of the the railway terminal, but the city leaders always kept it functioning as a symbol of Sankirk’s affluence.  It provided a metaphorical connection to an earlier epoch, as well as a physical link to the towns and villages in the surrounding desert.  The regular train service, carrying passengers and commercial goods, helped the city maintain its cultural and economic hegemony over the backcountry.  Through the nearest glass doors, Yarec and Mrissa watched laborers unloading a set of long, off-white freight cars, removing boxes and crates of all shapes and dimensions.

Little commotions disturbed the departure platforms now and then, but they were only caused by people, like Mrissa and Yarec, who were desperate to leave town.  Groups of locals got into arguments, and out-of-towners stomped their feet, all anxious for trains to carry them away from the sudden eruption of civil strife.  Some jumped onto the first passenger car to pull in, but others had specific destinations in mind and had to wait until the right train arrived.

Yarec was not particularly choosy about which way he went, although he certainly liked some of the outlying areas better than others.  The digital schedules (and the constantly intoning voices as well, if he bothered to listen to them) told him that there was a train heading northeast due to arrive, unload, and depart again within the next three quarters of an hour.  So that was the route he decided on.  Going by train had also been Mrissa’s idea, but as far as she was concerned, all directions were the same, so long as they were travelling outward; and she accepted Yarec’s choice with a curt nod.

The train swept into the station with a echoing screech.  The original magnetic braking system had become unreliable, and it had been supplemented with a cruder frictional mechanism.  The retrofit had placed long black boxes along the sides of the train, down near the wheels.  From a distance, they almost seemed to be dragging against the ground, and as the train squealed closer, Yarec could see they were crisscrossed with warning notices.  Passengers and cargo loaders were admonished not to climb on or place any cargo on the brake assemblies; failure to heed the warning could result in damage to the mechanisms, injury, or dismemberment.

A group of women, all rather similar in appearance although widely varying in apparent age, exited the train through the nearest door.  They might have represented three generations of the same family, visiting Sankirk together.  Apart from them, there appeared to be no other incoming passengers in that car; Yarec waited, but no one else emerged.  Farther down the train, two men were unloading a small shipment of cubical yellow boxes.  Yarec grew impatient, waiting for the information screen to announce that the train was finally boarding new passengers.  Under other circumstances, he might have barged aboard before the formal announcement, but right now, he knew it was better just to wait and not run the risk of attracting attention.  Eventually, the screen changed to display the sea green word “BOARDING,” and he and Mrissa slipped aboard.  They found seats together and stowed their minimal baggage by their feet.  Soon they heard the rumble of the brakes being released, and the train began to crawl backward out of the station.  Looking out through the small plastic windows, they saw the cold lights of the station fall away as they accelerated into the near blackness of the tunnel.  Mrissa sighed softly, feeling significantly safer than she had on the platform.

When the train emerged from the tunnel, they looked back toward Sankirk.  Even through the sheets of rain, Yarec could see the pillar of flame rising from the factory.  It was distorted, like a faint column of light ascending toward the gray blankets of cloud.  If there were still any lights from the festival, they had vanished into the storm, but the factory fire remained visible for a long time.

The tracks were climbing eastward into the mountains.  After passing through the first of the old tunnels, the route was completely hemmed in by cliffs, and there was nothing left to see outside, except the distant flares of lightning.  The rain was weaker here than down on the coastal plain, but it still rattled noisily against the thin metal hide of the train car.  The beating of the rain was interspersed with groaning rolls of thunder, which pounded off the peaks and made Mrissa shiver.

She and Yarec were alone in the train car.  It could have seated twenty, but there were few passengers going this way in the dead of night.  The lights were dim, just enough for them to see the aisleway and the simple digital controls at each seat.  Yarec knew he had to get some sleep.  He reclined his seat the twenty centimeters it would allow and closed his eyes halfway, but he still felt too keyed up to sleep.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mrissa’s curving shape.  She was reading something on a handheld device.  She reeked of dirty rain, and Yarec knew he did too.

He had formed an idea of where they were going, but he had not told Mrissa yet.  Their orders were to stay together until their employers had time to evaluate the mission’s success and could assure the pair’s safety if they returned to Sankirk.  Since Yarec was in charge, Mrissa was just following along with him, and for now, she seemed satisfied with that.

“Ris,” Yarec said.

“Yes?”  She turned her head slightly toward him, while she continued to read.

“Uh… uh.”  Yarec’s mumbles were lost amid the sound of the rainfall.  He pulled his reclining body upright, opened his eyes, and said quickly:  “Do you need to be back in Sankirk any time soon?”

“No.  I told you I’m not from around there, and I don’t have any other jobs lined up after this one.”

“I think perhaps we should disappear for a while,” Yarec said.  “You know, lie low.  That was an awfully sophisticated operation we hit, and I don’t know whether they’re going to come after us.”

“Fine,” Mrissa said.  “You have a spot in mind, I take it?”

“Yes, up farther north.  I know the area.”

Mrissa nodded, and Yarec laid back again.  He closed his eyes to check the time, and when he opened them again, the beginnings of the predawn light were creeping in through the train car windows.  His mouth was hanging open, and he seemed to have drooled a bit on Mrissa’s shoulder.  She was snoring, very slowly, and she twitched but did not wake when he lifted his head to work the kinks out of his neck muscles.

They rode all the way to the end of the line.  Around noon, the train pulled into a dusty red town.  They had finally outrun the storm, and the sun was blazing down through a haze of sandy debris.  Mrissa and Yarec disembarked and crossed to the railway station cafe for some hot food.  The meat-flavored gruel was not much of an improvement over the dry bars they had eaten for breakfast, but the steaming coffee did really perk them up.

As he waited for the waiter behind the counter to mix up another couple cups, Yarec asked, “Do you know where we can buy a car around here?”

The man shrugged.  “There’s a couple lots around town.  One is right down the street.  Me, I don’t drive.  It’s easier to just hitch a ride on a truck if I need to get somewhere.”  He plunked the heavy plastic mugs down in front of Mrissa and Yarec.  She lifted hers up convivially and then took a slow sip—as much as she could manage without burning her mouth.  It was almost the same way she drank alcohol, Yarec noticed—gradually at first, then finishing the cup in one big slug.

Yarec felt sore and itchy, especially around his right forearm and hand.  He rubbed the back of the hand on the ceramic tile of the bar.  The rough grout in the creases scraped soothingly against the red, sun-baked flesh.  Beside him, was Mrissa was grabbing at her hair again.  She twisted it around into a crude rope and tossed it forward over her shoulder.

She looked over at Yarec.  “You want to take a drive?” she asked.

“I’d rather get some more sleep,” Yarec said.  He took another gulp of coffee to stifle a yawn.

She finished his thought:  “But we should put some more distance between us and the city.”

“Yeah.”  Yarec motioned for the waiter to bring him another bowl of gruel.  Mrissa went back to reading while he ate, occasionally stealing spoonfuls for herself.

Yarec finished quickly—too quickly, it seemed; he did not want to be on the move again so soon.  They exited the station and walked down to the car lot the waiter had been talking about.  No one else seemed to be around.  The locals knew better than to be out walking the streets during the highest heat of the day.

There were only a few cars for sale.  They were parked in a ring around the two-room cement bunker that was the dealer’s office.  Mrissa picked one out, a two-seater with an unusual custom paint job.  The roof of the vehicle was pale blue like the sky, while the front and sides showed images of crumbling ruins under a hail of yellow-white bomb explosions.  Yarec dickered with the dealer over the price.  The engine was fairly new, and the man wanted more than Yarec thought it was wise to pay—not because there was any shortage of funds, but because he did not want to be memorable as a spendthrift.  They eventually reached an agreement, and the dealer—a little man with burnt mahogany skin and a soft white mustache—handed over the identifier key.

“Let me drive first,” Mrissa said, casually lifting the key out of Yarec’s hand.  She tossed her bag behind the driver’s seat and sat down at the controls.  Yarec yawned and scratched his itchy forearm, then settled in beside her.  She adjusted the position and consistency of her seat, then gunned the motor and took off northward with a screech.

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