Hollowed Memories, chapter 6, part 1

October 12, 2014

Chapter 6:  In Transit

It took quite a while before Yarec got another real assignment.  He spent weeks hanging around the base and the ship.  During the day, he stayed mostly indoors, but long after dark, he would trudge up and down the island moodily.  That was the only time he could roam around without the feeling that people were watching him.  Meanwhile, we was being charged for his meals and lodging.  Yarec was not technically on the rolls of the States United Armed Forces, and so his sustenance did not come for free.  Still, he was not in any danger of exhausting his savings.  The really costly things—medical matters—were covered under his standard work contract.  Any injuries he incurred working as a spy, saboteur, or assassin were given the best treatment possible—up to the provision of a new body.  It was a good arrangement both for Yarec and his employers; it was in every party’s interest to keep him in the best possible shape.  Of course, there must have been situations where it was not so clear precisely who was responsible for a particular treatment, when multiple employers were involved.  For example, on his mission in Sankirk, Yarec had been hired by an independent allied faction; he had contracted an engineered disease in the course of his bombing mission; then he had gone off duty; and when he became gravely ill, he had been picked up by States United agents.  However, Yarec had stopped bothering with the question of who financed each specific surgery long ago.  His account balances kept rising, and if he got stuck now and then with a dental bill that really should have been someone else’s responsibility, it was not going to bankrupt him.  (His bodies never lasted long enough to develop regular cavities, but sometimes the teeth were not quite right when they came out of extended cryogenic storage.)

While he waited for paying work, Yarec—with the sufferance of General-Admiral Dotchki—looked for information about Mrissa’s whereabouts.  Most of the time, he had an assistant, a scrawny warrant officer named Jenison.  Jenison had agile fingers that whispered across his square meter computing lamina.  He snapped the square flat on the desk of his carrel or creased it with a 110-degree fold and propped it in his lap.  As Yarec worked on the other side of the room—ponderously slowly, it seemed by contrast—Officer Jenison’s eyes darted all around the display.  He had a long, flexible neck, like the pet ostrich Yarec had seen in a rich private employer’s indoor menagerie; and the white pockets on Jenison’s dark uniform only enhanced the effect.

Yarec was paying for this assistance, at the standard rate for allied groups that needed limited access to confidential information.  Whenever there was more important intelligence research to be done, like compiling background dossiers on various skirmishing local groups, Jenison would be pulled off Yarec’s special project.  It could happen abruptly; Yarec had once come back from a quick breakfast to find that his assistant had vanished.  There was a message on Yarec’s computing device, which stated that Jenison had been indefinitely reassigned to a top secret project.  He had taken his computing lamina and scurried off to an even more tightly secured area, where he and the other intelligence analysts might be poring over reports of fresh troops movements in the southern hemisphere.  When Jenison came back, three days later, he looked haggard, but he immediately set back to work.  There was no possible discussion of where he had been, just another slow day of searching.

The computers did the rote searching for them.  Told to turn up intelligence about Mrissa, a processor scanned the primary information in Yarec’s file and then delved into its library to find more.  The algorithm turned up plenty of hits, and it did a fairly good job of picking out the most relevant information.  Whenever “Mrissa Roonbeck” turned up in public records, they were flagged for review; and the database also had access to many private documents, obtained by various forthright or surreptitious means.  Once all the unambiguous references to Yarec’s wife had been found, the program began to make educated guesses about matters that might be connected to her, and at this stage, some human input was necessary.  A machine could tease out a lot of information from the files, but when confronted with a long block of prose, it tended to lose the plot.  It was advisable for human interlocutor to check the machine analysis and correct any erroneous impressions that the program had happened to record.  And ultimately, any decision about what to do with all the collected information was obviously going to be left to Yarec as well.

There was information about Mrissa’s numerous movements, but none of it looked especially promising.  If she had a fixed home base, Yarec found no indication of it.  Her longest gig had been along the Isthmus of Panama, where she had worked as chief of countersecurity for a mining installation.  In close to two years on the job, she must have gotten to know people.  Yarec would have jetted down there to interview her coworkers, but the region was a dead zone.  Right around the time Mrissa left, somebody had set off a dirty bomb—blocks of improvised high explosive, laced with radioactive material.  The nuclides had been salvaged from a long-abandoned nuclear waste dump, and they were dispersed through the air first by the blast, then by wind currents.  (The bombers had purportedly been caught and executed, but according to secret reports, unofficially there was disagreement about whether more conspirators—including the possible mastermind—had been missed.)  The landscape around the mine had been poisoned, so the miners packed up their gear and left.  Any people Mrissa might have grown close to had dispersed to new projects all around the Americas.  Yarec ordered up some information about the current whereabouts of a couple of coworkers who sounded like possible confidants, but the approach was definitely a long shot.

Yarec had seen pictures of radiation-contaminated sites.  There were plenty of them, even though no one had ever been so foolish as to release the worldwide rain of fission bombs that peace activists and military planners had once feared.  In times of scarcening resources and a damaged atmosphere, nation-states had turned increasingly to nuclear power.  Engineers constructed ever smaller—and even portable—generating plants, which had slaked the old cities’ thirst for electricity.  When they were properly staffed and adequately maintained, the miniaturized nuclear reactors had seemed almost miraculous; they were safe, efficient, and clean—as long as they had a ready supply of new fuel and a secure disposal system for the old.  To keep the fuel cycle rolling smoothly, old radioactive waste was reprocessed.  The great states’ nuclear warheads, which could have been delivered through outer space to enemies on the opposite poles of the world, were dismantled to make more civilian fuel.  Such weapons had long since ceased to be guarantors of security.  They were too imprecise to use against the world’s newly evolving military threats.  Militias, paramilitaries, and the private armies of local warlords who made no attempts to conceal their megalomania—these were the new foes faced by the remaining cohesive armies like the States United Armed Forces, whose own industrial base was cracking and rusting away in the heat.  The new paramilitaries had first appeared in less developed regions, where political stability had never fully established itself; but they spread, until nation-states that had been bastions of cohesiveness for centuries were shredded apart by regional rivalries.

Amid the intensifying conflicts, nuclear stations fell into disrepair, and accidents followed—control rod problems, coolant leaks, and even complete fuel meltdowns.  There were also incidents of intentional contamination, like the dirty bomb in Central America.  Depending on the amount of radioactive material released, areas of a few hectares to thousands of square kilometers could be rendered uninhabitable.  The pictures of such places were eerie.  They showed human ruins, suddenly abandoned and returned to nature.  The plant growth was lush and healthy looking, in spite of what must have been millions of invisible mutations.  Long, leafy vines wound up old concrete drain pipes, and hardy oak trees grew in the courtyards of old, stately office plazas, cracking the ancient flagstones with their roots.  The famed Anatolian photographer Mehmet Constans had taken pictures of a basement storeroom in one empty town, entirely by the place’s own light.  He set up a camera there, far away from the rays of the run, and left its charge-coupled detector on for nearly a year, to pick up the sporadic glow of old isotopes.  The decaying nuclei left tiny pinpricks of light, and over time, the spots of radiation lit up the walls, floor, and the huddle of janitorial equipment left behind by the last human occupants.  It was a ghostly image of fallen civilization and perhaps the most iconic artwork of its century.


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