Hollowed Memories, chapter 6, part 2

October 19, 2014

In the search for Mrissa, the mining site in the radiation zone was probably a dead end.  However, the most immediate clue to Mrissa’s whereabouts was her recent presence at Maldanko’s fortress.  So far, little was known about her circumstances there.  The underground base had been hastily evacuated after the colonel’s death.  A few hours after Yarec’s departure, it had come under rocket fire.  Missiles, launched from a ship just out of sight offshore, crashed down the beach, striking the walls of the blockhouse and the rocky ground around it.  Then, when the bombardment paused at nightfall, most of the garrison had fled.  Mrissa must have been among them, but where she had gone next was unknown.

The structure had immediately been occupied by marines.  They shot their way in, capturing or eliminating the small contingent of enemies who had not abandoned their posts.  The fortification would be of limited strategic value by itself, but the operation had dislodged a hostile foothold on the North Pacific coast.  There would also be a wealth of new intelligence.  The first round of interrogations had revealed that Mrissa had been Colonel Maldanko’s third in command, although she had been a fairly recent arrival at the fort.  She was there to help the colonel prepare for an upcoming operation, but none of the prisoners knew much more than that.  Information about the operation was kept tightly controlled, and it remained to be seen how much more detail the cryptologists would be able to ferret out from the captured electronics.  Properly encrypted files were virtually impossible to decode, except through the brute force of prime factorization algorithms, and only the absolutely most valuable documents could be afforded that much computing power.  However, humans were lazy, and they always tended to leave some amount of information more or less out in the open—encrypted insecurely or not at all.  Yarec hoped that among the data recovered after Maldanko’s death, there would be something more about Mrissa; but it would still take time to find it, and it was a very low priority.

His own research had turned up nothing that looked particularly promising, so Yarec decided to make a deal.  “Send me on another mission,” he told Dotchki.  “I’ll do it for free, and when I get back, you tell me whatever you’ve found out about my wife.”  Time in the field would give Yarec something else to think about, leaving the research for more able eyes than his own.  If Yarec was away for a month or two, they might have time to turn up something useful.  And if they don’t, Yarec told himself, I’ll go out again, and maybe they’ll do better the next time.

Dotchki seemed hesitant.  The two of them were in small office, one of several the General-Admiral used for personnel matters.  He looked at Yarec intently, his bland blue eyes narrowing under bushy gray eyebrows.  “I can’t send you out when you’re under this much mental strain, ban Silfien,” he said.  “If you’re rattled, you’re likely to screw up.”

“I’m very good at compartmentalizing, sir,” Yarec said.

“Compartmentalizing?” Dotchki echoed, obviously dubious.

Yarec tried to look modest and unemotional.  “If I’ve got something hot to work on, I won’t have time to think about my marriage situation.”  Dotchki’s concerned expression did not change.  Yarec went on, “This will actually be best for both of us.  I’ll have my mind off this stuff for a while, and I’ll be out of your hair while I’m getting something useful done.”

The pale blue eyes widened a bit.  It was as close as Dotchki ever came to showing amusement when he was dealing with military matters.  “I’ll consider it, captain, but I make no promises,” Dotchki said softly.  In friendlier company, Yarec would have grinned, but here he merely mirrored Dotchki’s expression—brow relaxed and eyes opened to their widest extent.

Dotchki nodded vaguely and dismissed Yarec.  The admiral referred the matter to his aides, and they eventually found a job that did not look particularly risky—especially for an agent of Yarec’s caliber—but still might require a significant degree of finesse.  Dotchki decided that it was suitable, and Yarec found himself slated to depart in seven days.

Most of the preparations for the mission were fairly routine, but before he left, Yarec also stopped by to see his mother.  He did not like talking to her, normally.  For one thing, she sounded wrong; she had a island accent now, quite unlike the desert plains drawl Yarec remembered from his childhood.  However, he had to tell her about Mrissa.  It was the kind of thing that a mother had a right to know, and she in particular ought to be able to sympathize with her son’s predicament.

When Yarec was young—truly young, with the original body that had been assembled in his mother’s uterus not even fully grown—his parents had taken a trip down to the coast.  It was partially for business—negotiating new terms for the family’s mineral interests—and partially a vacation.  Yarec stayed behind, while his father and mother checked into a surfside hotel.  The weather was unusually chilly, so the hotel guests spent a lot of time indoors, watching the heavy wind blowing in across the ocean and tossing the few majestic gulls that were soaring over the waves.

On the couple’s third day there, terrorists had spiked the hotel’s basement water tank with a virulent strain of toxic fungus.  It swept through the pipes to every drain and faucet, where the fungus took up residence, feeding on the detritus of human occupation.  Then the spores spread into the air, inside the walls and through the heating system.  Guests began to complain of headaches, then nausea and difficulty breathing.  Within a few days, the mold deposited by the Airam Liberation Army was everywhere, filling the entire hotel with neurotoxins.

Yarec’s parents had chosen an economical room near the water heaters and the sauna.  Each night, as they slept, spores poured in through the air vents.  It was later discovered that some of the wall panels in their room were so damp, their rear sides were covered with dusty purple-gray fuzz.  When the number of people showing symptoms grew so large that the hotel owner’s protests that there was just a mild strain of influenza going around were no longer plausible, the local sheriff ordered the whole structure evacuated.  However, Yarec’s mother and father remained behind in their room, unconscious, until a search team with breathing masks discovered them and carried them out.

They arrived at the local clinic comatose, and Yarec’s father never recovered.  His central nervous system had been irreparably poisoned, and he died ten days later.  However, Yarec’s mother lingered.  Someone eventually remembered to send word of what had happened to the patient’s son, and he arrived as rapidly as he could.  Her lungs were heavily damaged, and she remained attached to an artificial ventilator for weeks.  However, with several surgeries—funded by selling most of the family’s property to speculators—she eventually was able to breathe again unassisted.  Yarec was sitting beside his mother’s bed when she finally woke up, and she did not recognize him.

Rahelle Middelrash-ban Silfien did not recognize anything when she woke up from her coma.  Her eyes were full of animalistic terror from the first moment they opened.  She could not speak and had no grasp of where she was.  It was an appalling sight, especially for her teenaged son.  After a few minutes of her hoarse, incoherent screeching, the medical practitioners sedated her again and then conferred about how to proceed with her treatment.

Ultimately, nearly all her memories were gone.  Her mind had been hollowed out like Maldanko’s whales.  Some language skills eventually returned, and Yarec sometimes thought that she could recognize people’s faces, but all the knowledge of her life before had been stolen away.  She went through years of skeletomuscular and neurological rehabilitation, but most of the process Yarec could not bear to watch.  Rahelle was taught that Yarec was her son, but she would never remember carrying him or playing with him.  They had become strangers, and the memories of his old mother that Yarec retained were now tinged with a sense of unreality.  He asked himself:  If I’m the only person who can ever remember these events, did they really even happen?

In spite of the extensive memory loss, however, Rahelle’s brain proved to be exceedingly durable.  Her progress in rehabilitation consistently outpaced expectations.  She still possessed a brilliant analytical mind.  She would not have abided sitting out the rest of her life—“like a moldy cabbage,” as she described it; she needed something meaningful to keep her busy.  So she was retrained as a meteorological officer.  It was very different from her former jobs as an agronomist and commodities accountant, but she learned quickly.  Her talent with numbers had survived, albeit imperfectly and divorced from the context and hands-on skills that had accompanied it.

Rahelle took up this commission with her son’s blessing; Yarec had himself already embarked on the first leg of the violent journey that had brought him to where he stood now.  He threw in with the forces opposing the anarchist Airam rebels.  He was young, but he understood all too well why he was enlisting.  Yarec remembered the opening words of an epic composed about the Irish high king Ui Neill, and as he considered his position, just as Ui Neill had done, Yarec told himself he was searching for justice, though he knew that was really just another word for revenge.  During his voyaging since then, Yarec had witnessed many more horrendous crimes—too many to ever be avenged by a single man, however many mortal bodies he could have.  But the attack on his parents had been the first, and Yarec was still not convinced that justice for that atrocity had been fully lotted out.

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