Hollowed Memories, chapter 5, part 4

October 5, 2014

In a more serene location, the hotel’s superstructure might even have survived.  However, records indicated that there has been an undersea quake not long after the building had been abandoned, and what ancient seismologists referred to as a harbor wave had knocked the top layers off the structure.  Since then, the remains had been gradually filling with sand.  It washed in, lodged in the structure’s crevices, and could have remained there for millennia.

The planet had innumerable ruins.  They had been built with sturdy materials, and the pieces that were not looted could survive for a very long time.  Mostly, the sites were ignored—or avoided as eerily unlucky—and left as habitats for snakes.  This ruin had benefited, however, from its proximity to a sizeable garrison that often had little to do.  To pass the weeks and months, the service members had taken it upon themselves to conduct a proper archeological dig.

Slowly, the workers excavated their way through the ruins, guided by systematic thinking and old manuals, written when men were still digging up the Bronze Age.  The basic methodologies had not been lost, but there were only a handful of professional archeologists in the world, working at a scattering of sites that were deemed particularly historically important.

A handful of people were working on the hotel site that day.  Three bulky marines were sifting a barrel of beach sand.  They dumped out load after load onto a grill of rigid metal mesh, then shook the loose sand through, leaving larger material behind.  It was a mixture of shell fragments, smooth rocks, and man-made artifacts.  Bits of glass were especially plentiful.  They had been scraped up by the sand and worn slick by the power of the waves.  Some bits had washed down the coastline from other settlements, but most were shards from the hotel’s enormous windows.  They were readily recognizable, because they shared a distinctive tint.  The windows had had a rich gray-brown gleam, to block out the glare from the choppy blue ocean and the growing flux of ultraviolet photons.  The workers plucked out every piece of the hotel glass, and they tapped each one with an invisible ink stamp.  The stamp applied sequential numerical labels, which were transparent under sunlight but would fluoresce if showered with ultraviolet light.

Past the trio of marines, Yarec found a close acquaintance removing sediment in situ.  Her blond hair was tucked back in a ponytail, and with a tiny suction tube, she was vacuuming grains of pale sand off a black metal bedstead.  Its tubular legs and rails were heavily scuffed and dented in several places.  Rusty coil springs, whole or in fragments, protruded from the sand bank underneath.  There were also tears of fabric—the least organic bits of the original mattress and foundation—dangling from the frame’s rounded corners.  The construction looked very heavy—sturdily built to support a luxuriously tall block of padding.  From what Yarec had seen on previous visits, the hotel beds, even in what appeared to be single-occupancy rooms, were huge, especially compared to the tough, narrow cots of the military base.  They had probably bounced like trampolines when they were new, and molded to every contour of a reclining visitor’s body.

Yarec’s heavy heel-toe tread crunched in the sand, and she heard him coming.  She looked up.  “Oh, I heard you were in country, Yarec,” she said.  She gave him a crooked smile.  “Word was you were in the infirmary for quite a while,” she said, and Yarec offered a noncommittal nod.  “You weren’t just hiding out from me, were you?”

She stood up fully, laying the suction device down casually, with the vacuum hose dangling over one of the bed frame rails.  The pale, rigid tube on the end nodded up and down as it came to rest.  She stretched out her lithe body, with her arms over her head.  The movement looked natural, but Yarec was well aware that every feature was completely intentional.  He looked at her unkempt coverall—crusted with sand, sleeves pushed up to the elbows—and how the vertical bands of quilting wrapped sinuously around her hips.  She had a nice body underneath, which, Yarec realized, he would not be able to enjoy again.

He also realized that she was waiting for him to say something.  “No, no,” he stammered, “I really have been under medical care the whole time since I arrived.”  He grimaced, and he wondered idly how many more rueful frowns it would take to give his new forehead a full set of wrinkles.  “I didn’t really need all the extra attention though.  It was a pain.”

“Yeah, you seemed to have settled into this body pretty well,” she said.  The expression on her face started out sweetly understanding, then morphed into something more coy.  “I like the look of this,” she added, reaching over to finger Yarec’s bicep.  “Have you come down to try out your new body?”

He parried the movement with the back of his left hand.  “I didn’t know you would be here, Booker,” he explained.  “I just came down here to work on the dig.  I wanted to think, to get some time to myself.”  The slow, monotonous work is a good distraction for an emotionally damaged individual, he added silently.

That was surely not the news Booker had wanted to hear.  Before she could look hurt, Yarec added, “I’m glad to see you’re looking very well.  Your skin looks beautiful”  He paused, thinking back to what he had seen on his walk along the beach.  Then he continued, “I wasn’t looking for you, but I saw my mom on the way down here.  She must have thought I was coming to see you, but….”  He stopped again, awkwardly, and Booker looked concerned.  Yarec tried to go on:  “But I wasn’t.  In fact, I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” she asked.  Yarec wondered which of them was actually more confused.

“I can’t fool… uh, hang around with you any more, Booker.  We’ve been good friends, but it was never that serious.  I mean, it certainly wasn’t just about sex, but I was never here very long.  I know Mom thought you and I were going to be a long-term thing, but that can’t happen now.  I’m sorry”

“You see,” Yarec said, “apparently, I’m married.”

“‘Apparently’?” she echoed.  There was no attempt to conceal her disgust.

“You know the cliche, ‘I’ve met somebody else’?  Well, I did.  It’s just that it was a long time ago—only I forgot.”

Booker looked angry now.  Her face was pink, and her ordinarily full lips were drawn tight.  “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she demanded, raising her voice as much as she could afford without disturbing the decorum of the archeological dig.  “Sure, Yarec, you and me weren’t going to be forever, but it wasn’t like I was screwing a bunch of other guys while you were away!  What you did while you were working was your business, and I didn’t pry, but I assumed you weren’t actually married!”

Yarec wanted to yell too, but he restrained himself and waited for her to give him a chance to answer.  “So what happened?” she asked bitterly,  “Did your latest near-death encounter give you a sudden attack of conscience?  Well?”

Her final, “Well?” was laced with icy venom, but he tried to respond calmly and deliberately.  “I really did forget about her, completely.  It was transfer-induced memory loss.”

“That’s absurd,” Booker retorted.  “How could you forget….”  But Yarec’s dejected shrug was too sincere, and her question trailed off.  “Wow… those operations can really crap you up,” she whispered.

Yarec felt obligated to explain further.  “I didn’t really know her that long, so there wasn’t that much to forget.  Our romance was a whirlwind, I guess.  Then we got married, because I thought I was dying.”

Booker sat down on the edge of the bed frame.  It was a clear violation of dig protocol, but that seemed a very faraway concern.  “I understand,” she said softly.  She twisted her mouth into a crooked vee.  “Actually, no, I don’t, but I get that you don’t want to see me any more.”

“We can still stay friends,” Yarec said.  “She—Mrissa, my wife—she wouldn’t hold anything that happened against you.  She’s not the type.”

“What does she think about this, anyway?”

“Ha,” Yarec said.  It was a sad little exhalation, barely audible beneath the beat of the waves and the rustle of the seaside breeze.  His fingers flexed and twitched nervously. “Who knows?” he muttered.  “I haven’t seen her since I got my memories back.”

“Is she around here?”

“Nope.  I don’t know where she is.  I ran into her on my last job though, and I guess it eventually jogged my memory.”

Booker looked incredulous.  “What the hell?  Seriously?”  Then Booker paused.  “You are really screwed up,” she said.  “Seriously, you’ve got to take better care of yourself, Yarec.  C’mere.”  She motioned for him to sit down beside her, and he did, without hesitation.  Booker pressed his head down against her shoulder.  His tender new skin rubbed against the coarse quilted fabric of her work uniform.  Yarec closed his eyes, and she kissed him on the top of his head.  In his mind’s eye, there was only blackness, but Yarec knew he was with a woman who loved him.

They rested for a while.  Then the pair worked, cleaning sediment away from the bed.  Booker was crying a little, when she thought Yarec was not watching; and when he did notice, he politely averted his eyes.  At the end of the shift Booker had signed up for on the duty roster, she invited Yarec to have a drink at her quarters.  He would have liked to go, but he knew it would get awkward.  Booker had far too much self possession to get wildly inebriated and throw herself at him.  However, her apartment had past associations that Yarec was unfortunately no longer comfortable with.  The first time she had invited him back to her room, Yarec had gone eagerly.  She had been eyeing him for weeks, at social events and the on-base bar, and he had seen it.  However, they had gotten into an argument back at her place.  It was about something political, and Yarec could be extremely thin skinned about geopolitical questions, especially if they verged on calling the propriety of his own covert work into question.  After an increasingly irritated back and forth, Booker had flounced off to the bathroom, leaving Yarec sitting on her bed, holding a graduated cylinder full of cheap ethanol.  However, when she returned a few minutes later, she had left her slashed yellow dress and any undergarments behind.  She glided around the bathroom door, totally bare.  Yarec might have preferred it if she had kept on her creamy brown boots, but he was not going to complain about any aspect of her appearance.  Booker wanted nothing to do with consciousness transfers and whole new bodies, but she paid a little extra to have her skin repaired and her breasts readjusted whenever she went in for her regular military physicals.

That memory would be too near if Yarec went down to Booker’s quarters now, so he just helped her check in her digging equipment and wished her a good night.  They separated with the awkward hug of two former lovers trying to remain on good terms.  Then Yarec trudged back to the shipboard hospital, to have more blood drawn and to get his nervous system rescanned.

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