Hollowed Memories, chapter 5, part 2

September 21, 2014

Yarec tried to think.  At least from the mission with Maldanko he knew that Mrissa was alive.  As he had watched her being led away, Yarec had been afraid.  There had been a solid chance that she would simply be interrogated and then get a bullet in the back of her head.  Yet that had obviously not happened.  What did she do to convince them to leave me alone? he wondered.  Then he thought: There must be some relevant information in seven years’ collected intelligence records.

Yes, Yarec realized, that was where he had to start.  If he wanted to get Mrissa back (And does she even want me back?), he had to find out where she was.  According to Yarec’s own biographical record, his wife’s current whereabouts were unknown.  So to track Mrissa down, he needed to find out what she had been doing since she and Yarec separated—where she had travelled, what work she had done, who she might have met.  It would be a tricky job, and he would need assistance.  There was no way he could get all the research done in an hour or a day.  It all would take time.

At this point, Yarec saw that he could afford to slow down for a while; if fact, he would have to.  He exhaled deeply.  He had finally stopped fighting against the calming drugs he had been given, and before he breathed out again, he was unconscious.

As soon as he laid back down to sleep, between the confining arms of his hospital bed, Yarec started to dream.  It was a very brief sequence.  He and Mrissa were walking together, holding hands.  The path ran under a rocky precipice, and as it narrowed, Yarec let go of Mrissa’s hand.  She moved ahead.  As she looked up at the towering cliff face, her foot slipped off the trail, and she tumbled over onto a stony slope.  Yarec threw himself after her, but before he could reach her hand, the sudden terror had rocked him awake.  He had been barely across the boundary of slumber, and it had only taken a minor fright to wake him up.  However, Yarec still found the dream fairly disturbing.  He realized that he had been seeing Mrissa in his nightmares for a long time—only before, she had just been a blurred, meaningless face.

Sleep quickly overtook him again, and there were no more dreams.  When he woke up, Yarec saw he was still alone. The lights were dim, simulating nighttime.  Yarec opened his eyes but did not move.  He was still frightened, but he had to think.  He had to force himself to understand.

Yarec had crossed paths with Mrissa three times.  The first time was on the actual job that had come immediately before the factory bombing in Sankirk.  Yarec had gone to sabotage a construction project.  It was a huge operation, but it was located high in the mountains.  They were excavating some kind of alpine redoubt.  When Yarec got there, it was nothing but a pit, but there was to have been an immense curving wall in front, with a sheer mountain face defending the fort in the rear.  The warlord who controlled the district wanted to place a huge artillery battery on top of the fortress, to blast his hereditary enemies at the mountain’s foot.  However, it was an absurdly wasteful undertaking, and Yarec had been hired to halt the construction by the warlord’s own superiors in the loose hierarchy of the Sierras.

Yarec’s target was not the construction site itself, but the road providing access to it.  It was a wide asphalt ribbon, winding up through the dirty mountain gullies.  The slopes had once been blanketed with evergreens, and a few isolated stands still remained, but only where it was just too uneconomical to justify harvesting them for timber.  The access road wound past half a dozen little camps, which doubled as security posts and supply depots.  Mrissa had been working at one of those stations.  At the time, she had been just another one of three of four dozen faces Yarec had glimpsed and remembered.  He had a natural talent for matching names, faces, and other facts, which was aided by the special training he had received as a new agent.  It paid to remember everyone he saw, at least for a while.

On the day of the attack, Yarec had stolen a heavy dump truck from one of the camps and led a group of guards on a winding chase.  A couple kilometers along, he took the vehicle around a hairpin turn.  Then he bailed out of the cab and jounced down the slope.  As he rolled, he activated a radio controller, which detonated a massive cache of explosives that he had deposited beside the roadbed.  Yarec had needed to smuggle the explosives up one or two blocks at a time, while he was posing as an engineer.  There was always blasting material travelling up the road, and Yarec had discovered that the security forces did not get unduly concerned if there was a little bit less when a shipment reached the work site at the top.

Yarec concealed the explosives in an indentation above the hairpin turn, practically invisible to anyone driving by.  It detonated just as the dump truck rolled past below it.  The blast launched a barrage of rocky debris and knocked the truck sideways.  It tipped over and careened violently down the slope, bouncing with an elasticity that did not look right in such a massive hunk of metal.

The pursuers in their work trucks were caught off guard.  They were racing toward the hairpin; then had to screech to a stop, as boulders fell and crushed the road in front of them.  The first two vehicles collided, giving the riders a nasty jolt but nothing more serious.  The slide continued to rumble down ahead of them.  Chunks of the asphalt tore away and disappeared in the river of debris.

The spot where Yarec had hid himself was relatively safe from the cascading rocks.  He was almost directly below the jam of stopped vehicles near the end of what remained of the road.  Plenty of smaller rocks, from the margins of the slide, were tumbling in Yarec’s direction, but nothing larger than a fist actually hit him.  However, the construction trucks that had been chasing him took a much worse pounding, with plenty of dents and fractured glass.

At first, nobody noticed Yarec observing the scene.  He lay pressed against the ground and mostly concealed by a hummock of rock.  The carcass of his stolen truck, scarred and mangled, had come to rest near the bottom of the valley.  A naive observer might have assumed that Yarec had died in it.  However, the security guards were able enough to realize that the theft of the dump truck and the subsequent landslide had come too close together to be unrelated.  Once the immediate shock of the rockfall had worn off, the man in charge started giving orders.  He got out digital binoculars and started scouring the terrain.  As soon as the slide was over—a matter of seconds now, probably—he would send people down to search the slopes.  If Yarec wanted to avoid capture without a lot of bloodshed, he had to move immediately.

So Yarec started rolling downhill.  With his gray outfit, he might have been mistaken for another rock, at least out of the corner of an observer’s eye.  However, Yarec did not manage to escape detection for very long.  One of the guards shouted something and pointed in Yarec’s direction.  Then came gunfire—slugs ricocheting off the rocks just ahead of him.  Until that point, Yarec had been trying to control his tumble down the slope, to keep himself from accelerating completely out of control; but when he realized he was under fire, Yarec just tucked his body into a ball and let himself fall.  He would have preferred to be killed by a simple, forthright rock than by a fired bullet.

Yarec was spinning too fast to see any more of what was happening up on the road, and he needed to remain tightly curled up to protect his extremities.  He could still control his motion a little bit, by leaning his weight to one side or the other.  Mostly, he just tried to minimize his bouncing, to limit the beating that the ground was inflicting on his back and legs.  Keeping low to the ground also made him a more difficult target, if the guards decided to start shooting again.  As long as he did not roll into the main path of the rockslide, all the paths down the slope were basically equivalent.  There were no sharp precipices he had to avoid.  The slopes were ragged, but the steepness was fairly consistent, all the way down to the floor of the valley cleft.

After a little while, he almost thought he had escaped.  Then Yarec struck more bad luck.  He had come down several hundred feet in elevation, and his limbs were throbbing.  The back of his shirt had come apart in three places, threads severed by sharp splinters of stone.  He was wiggling a bit, trying to spread the punishment out among different parts of his anatomy.  Then a spire of rock reared up suddenly in front of him.  It was only about a meter high, but Yarec noticed it too late to react.  He plowed into it with his left hip.  Yarec felt a surge of pain, accompanied by an ominous cracking sound, which could have been either rock or bone.  He lost most of his momentum as he jolted sideways off the spire.  If he had actually come to a stop, Yarec might just have hidden there behind the outcrop and tried to gauge the situation; he was now far enough down that no one could get a direct shot at him from the road.  However, before he could grab a handhold, he found he was falling again.  He accelerated with each bounce or flip, and every time his hip hit the ground, the pain returned.  With each impact, Yarec’s vision wavered, and he found he lacked the strength to move his lower body.  He thudded down over the rocks, feeling his injured joint being pulverized into bone meal, until he finally rolled to a halt in a low, woody thicket.

For a while, Yarec simply lay there, amidst a nest of snapped branches.  Everything hurt, especially his hip.  A rough scrape, seeping blood, ran down the side of his face, from his forehead to under his chin.  He wanted to close his eyes, but he knew that if he did, he would probably lose consciousness.  And he needed to stay awake.  Soon, the guards would be coming after him, and he had to get away, to a better hiding place at least.  Yarec gathered his strength and tried to sit up.  The pain proved excruciating, but he managed to reach a sitting position.  Yarec panted and rubbed his eyes with the back of his wrist, trying to clear the pink fog that had settled over him.

Then he fumbled in his pockets for a pair of important items.  The first one he found was a square metal bottle of pills.  The rattle of the medicine inside was soothing as soon as he heard it.  He popped the lid open and poured two small capsules into his mouth.  They started to dissolve almost instantly.  The pills were specially compounded for agents out on assignment, who might be in extreme pain or have trouble swallowing.  The medicine—an extremely powerful analgesic—could be absorbed directly through the mouth, and it would only take a few minutes for its early effects to be felt.

As he waited for the drugs to tamp down the searing agony of his hip joint, Yarec pulled out the second item.  It was a coded radio transmitter—a thick red rod about fifteen centimeters long.  He activated its emergency signal mode, which would send an alert to another transmitter cached about fifteen kilometers away.  The second unit would broadcast a higher-power signal, summoning a rescue team to pull Yarec out.  The two transmitters bounced signals back and forth a few times, confirming Yarec’s location and the urgency of his situation.  Then the handheld device reverted to listening mode.  It would receive regular queries from the relay station, and send back updates about Yarec’s position if necessary; and it would keep Yarec informed about when the rescuers were going to arrive.

Having sent out his summons for help, Yarec then needed to get moving.  He could not walk; the crushed hip would never support his weight.  The most he could manage was a sort of three-limbed crawl.  The bushes around him impeded his progress, but they also provided plenty of cover.  He navigated gradually downhill, because that was the easiest direction to go and because it took him farther away from the armed guards.

They were searching for him, coming down the slope in loose groups.  Occasionally, Yarec heard their gunshots, as they fired down as suspicious movements.  The shots echoed off the rough slopes, like thunder slowly rumbling down from on high.  Mrissa might have been among the searchers, or perhaps she had remained back at the camp, managing communications with the work site on the mountaintop.

From what Yarec had seen, the road would be out for quite a while.  Before it could be rebuilt, the slopes around the hairpin turn needed to be shored up, or there could be more rockslides.  That meant work at the construction site higher up must soon grind to a halt.  Supplies for the workers could be ferried up by helicopter, but not the heavy equipment or construction materials.  The interruption might not have been enough on its own to shut the operation down for good.  However, it was followed by a number of major mishaps at the excavation site.  The heating system for the workers’ dormitory had failed.  Then a huge heap of scrap had collapsed back into the open pit, burying one of the excavators.  When the main hydrocarbon fuel tank had sprung a leak and nearly caught fire, there was no option left but to evacuate the mountain.  A few months later, a heavy blizzard nearly obliterated the site, and any plans to return were abandoned.

Yarec knew there must have been other saboteurs working with him in parallel.  However, he had not known their identities, and they operated independently.  As he lay in his hospital bed, thinking back to those events, it occurred to Yarec that perhaps Mrissa had not actually been one of his enemies on that job, after all.

Eventually, they had plucked Yarec out of his predicament and flown him back out to sea.  He had recuperated there and then sailed over to Sankirk, to meet Mrissa for the second time.  In the course of their work together, they had become lovers and then, probably prematurely, husband and wife.  It still seemed like that had only just happened, yet he and Mrissa had actually been separated for years.

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