Hollowed Memories, chapter 4, part 4

August 31, 2014

The party the following afternoon began on the spotty lawn in front of the Kubiaks’ long, low concrete house.  Sweet flavored drinks were laid out on folding tables, with things less likely to spill positioned atop the blocks of native sandstone that were dotted sporadically around.  Yarec sniffed at some phosphorescent red punch and then went looking for a biscuit, while Ris sipped her own drink and looked around at the other guests.

Gatherings like this were not uncommon events.  In this thoroughly rural region, separated from the cities that remained along the ocean coastlines, lifestyles had regressed.  As the wealth and ready access to varied forms of culture that characterized the epoch of great nation-states had dissipated, people returned to a focus on community and family.  Whether any of these strangers were Yarec’s blood relatives, they were the kind of people who had shaped his upbringing.  They knew stories about his earliest explorations and exploits, and some of those anecdotes would probably be recounted that very day.  How many days, in contrast, had Mrissa known him?

Yarec returned with a string bag of baked nuggets and found his lover gazing distractedly at the other milling partygoers.  He tapped her lightly on the shoulder.  She tossed back the remainder of her drink and started to reach for another; but the punch had a bitter synthetic aftertaste, and she changed her mind.  She drew back her hand, and another woman bustled past her, wearing a black dress with heavy shoulder straps that looked like it might have belonged on a brisk winter day in Sankirk, forty or fifty years ago.

The woman straightened up, balancing two cups of punch and a cube of protein in her right hand.  “Pardon me,” she said, trying to squeeze between Mrissa and Yarec.  She glanced over Yarec’s face in passing, and a sense of familiarity brought her up short.

“Yarec ban Silfien,” Yarec said, holding his hand out faceup.  The woman grasped it from above and applied a very tentative pressure.  “You’re Tellura Rovish, right?” he went on.  “I think I remember you as a little girl, running around in the grass.”  The woman’s expression signified, not suspicion exactly, but dissatisfaction with his identity.  Her own age was indeterminate, but she was definitely not young.  The more intense ultraviolet light of the mountain plateau had stiffened her skin, and there were layered creases across her forehead and cheeks.  She had not benefited from the regime of frequent renewals that had just placed Yarec in a completely new body.

They spent a little while chatting, before the partygoers started to move inside.  The shift occurred gradually.  The double doors of the longhouse were thrown open, revealing the receiving room, draped in brown bunting, inside.  Then, as the dust and heat outdoors became too tiresome, people found themselves drifting inside.  In pairs or small groups, they passed through the broad portals.  The doors’ synthetic surfaces had been crudely molded into square panels, each with a staring human face in the center.  The hydrocarbon composite had not been artificially tinted, so the faces had a flat off-white complexion, very subtle tinged with green.  Their skin and hair were exactly the same color—and even their eyes, which gazed out, pupil-less, looking as mindless as the cold lenses of any robotic surveillance device.

Mrissa and Yarec were near the middle of the trickle.  Past the eerie entrance, they found six more long tables, arranged in a sunburst pattern.  Stacks of circular crackers, rich in fiber, sat alongside troughs of variously flavored dipping sauces.  The closest table, which jutted straight out toward the entrance, had a vaguely pinkish mixture.  It’s odor was earthy and tangy like vinegar.  It was a local favorite, and Yarec’s nose recognized it instantly, although he could not remember what it was called.  “Red root” something?  “Hash root”?  Most the guests, including Yarec, scooped some up as they moved past the table. Yarec grabbed one of the carbohydrate discs and dipped it in the trough.  He offered the wafer to Mrissa, but she waved the offering away.  The sauce’s tart vegetable odor was unfamiliar and not really to her liking.  Yarec shrugged and took a big bite himself, savoring the distinctive taste, which had known since… childhood? he thought.

Where the tables came together, their ends formed an open hexagon, and in it stood a pedestal supporting the centerpiece of the room.  It was a statue, about sixty centimeters tall, of a muscular athlete.  It was elegantly proportioned, displaying the subject’s great strength without making him look musclebound.  It was old, but Yarec could see it had obviously been created as a copy of an even older work.  Sculpture was one of the oldest art forms and one that could still be practiced, even with only rudimentary tools.  So it was also an art form that was still widely appreciated, even if no contemporary sculptures could approach the scope of earlier works.  Far to the east, there was supposed to be a mountain on which men had carved the face of the legendary founder of the States United Armed Forces.  Its location was lost, but a dreamer named Carter had once gone in search of it, wanting to see what race of humans most closely resembled the ancient gods.

Yarec did not feel like dawdling among the snacks.  The party was already tiring him out, and he wanted to sit down for a while.  They found seats in the next room, along one of the long tables that had been laid out in rows.  Yarec plopped down and sipped something.  He meant to get up and go back to the buffet, but it seemed that before he knew it, other guests were sitting down around him, and a bread course was on its way.

Yarec never remembered most of what anyone said at dinner.  There was a lot of chitchat about local characters, mixed in with tactful inquiries about Mrissa’s background and interests.  The locals seemed to know better than to ask Yarec about what he had been up to.  He volunteered some information in general terms—places he had visited, cultural events witnessed—and his neighbors seemed satisfied with that.  They were curious about Mrissa’s line of work, until she told them that she and Yarec had met professionally.  After that, the other diners shied away from such topics.  They were happy, however, to hear about her extensive travels and her interests in music and literary archaeology.

Mrissa was never overtly the sole center of attention, but she got to spend more time talking than any of the other people seated around her.  Yarec listened and was reminded of how little he actually knew about this woman he had somehow fallen into living with.  She had a sister, who might or might not still be alive.  As a child, she had always dreamed of travelling by air, but when she actually got a chance to fly, it terrified her.  She had a middle initial in the Devanagari alphabet, in honor of one of her father’s co-workers, who had saved him from serious injury more than once.

The last turn of conversation that Yarec remembered was about aerial technology.  Some of the larger estates had fleets of tiny airborne monitors, to keep an eye on the whole properties.  They were typically the size of large beetles; they could have been built smaller, but they needed to be large enough to support small solar collectors.  After the children had gone back outside, to kick a black and red checkered ball around in the sand, one of the adults who remained at the table brought up a recent rumor that a new generation of flying devices was coming.  The were supposed to be so small that they could practically float in the air, like motes of dust.

“There could be hordes of them swarming around us by this time next year, and we might never notice,” said Kylia Tetson.  Yarec had always considered her a credulous old bat—although, he belatedly realized, she was probably younger than he was.

“Nobody who could afford that technology would be interested in anything going on here, dear,” said her husband.  Mrissa frowned at his pronouncement.  It seemed like a bizarrely presumptuous inversion, assuming that the people here were so unimportant.  As saboteurs, most recently working for a rurally-based resistance organization, Mrissa and Yarec knew better than to discount a whole region merely because it was a backwater.

“If you have nothing to hide, why should you care if there’re little bugs watching,” said someone farther down the table.  Yarec missed the identity of the speaker.  He was feeling a bit lightheaded, and his powers of observation seemed a little blurred.  He had been drinking Marshall Kubiak’s special cordial rather freely.  Alcohol should not have had much effect on him, but the cordial was unusual.  It was distilled locally, in small batches using an old-fashioned home reflux fractionation column.

“Who really has nothing to hide?” asked Mrissa.  It was a truism, but coming from her, it sounded ominous.

“Of course, there are things we do that I wouldn’t like to see broadcast,” Kylia Tetson said.  She glanced sideways at her husband.  His bushy gray eyebrows twitched, and he muttered something unintelligible under his breath.  Kylia went on, “Certain places should be private, and I don’t want to have to filter the air in my bedroom for microscopic prying eyes.”

“Yes, no spying on people in the privacy of their homes!” said someone else, quite animatedly.

“Why should someone’s home be special?” Mrissa asked.  “What if a person doesn’t have a real home?  I don’t.  I follow my work around.  Where am I supposed to find privacy?”

“Well, you’re not from around here,” said a man across the table, who Yarec could no longer recognize.  “Our sort don’t have that kind of problem.”

Yarec lurched to his feet to defend Mrissa against this provincialist slander.  He had a furious protest ready in his throat, but when he stood up, his legs quivered, and his head felt like it was stuck in a slow centrifuge.  The other diners became colorful blurs, green or orange according to their party outfits.  They seemed to wobble, revolving before his eyes in lazy ovals.  Then came pain.  It felt like fiery napalm was trickling down his arm, from the nape of his neck to his fingertips.

He cringed and felt himself listing sideways.  He tried to brace himself with his bad hand, but his muscle tone seemed to have melted.  His elbow buckled, and he collapsed onto the table.  He knocked over a drink, and his cheek was pressed against the corner of a hexagonal dinner plate.  The people around pulled back, but Mrissa was beside him, trying to help Yarec back into his chair.  She was yelling orders, but they just sounded like cymbals jingling against Yarec’s eardrums.

Someone gave him something warm to drink.  It had the citrate taste of synthetic fruit.  Mrissa laid him down on the floor, on a simple foam sheet that somebody had laid out.  Yarec realized Mrissa was repeating a question.  “My arm hurts,” he croaked.  Even after the fluids he had been given, his mouth felt so dry it was painful.  “Uh, hurts,” he said again, as Mrissa began gently peeling back the fabric of his right sleeve.

She rolled back the cuff.  Whatever she saw must have been alarming, and she pulled out a monocrystalline knife and gently slit the sleeve all the way up to Yarec’s shoulder.  The flesh underneath was rippling with red sores.  The lacework of cuts from the window glass, which he had thought was healing, was badly infected—practically fulminating with pus.

He had seen a wound like that at least once before, somewhere.  So much corruption.  Had the victim died?

Yarec had a vague sense of the Doc leaning over and giving him an injection.  Even though the throbbing pain, he felt the prick of the heavy-gauge needle pumping antibiotics into his tissue.  There must have been a massive dose of opioids as well, since he felt the pain muting and gray sleep overcoming him.  He seemed to have a brief instant of clarity, when the pain had subsided enough that he could reason again, but he was not yet quite inundated by slumber.  In that slender moment, he saw Mrissa looking down on him, tense with consternation, and around her a choir of other piously concerned faces.

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