Chapter 7:  Underground

He met his contacts by the riverside, after quite a long walk.  After his nighttime flight, Yarec found a spot to rest in the lee of a rocky outcrop.  It was surrounded by tufts of dessicated grass, enough to keep him concealed from any hostile observers who stayed at a reasonable distance.  Yarec knew it was unwise to sleep out under the sky, especially in unfamiliar country.  However, sometimes there were no other options.

Yarec would be in danger while he slept, but he had always been a light sleeper.  Even with his eyes shut, it would be difficult to take him completely by surprise.  He was well equipped to spend the night out in the open, although he heard of other individuals who might have been even better prepared.  For the last few years, there had been rumors flying, of specially equipped soldiers or agents who could fight even in their sleep.  They were supposed to have been spotted in South Asia, snoring with their eyes open, then leaping up with gun or blade in hand if anyone else ventured too near.  The necessary technology might be plausible—rerouting visual stimuli and gross motor control through some kind of digital device while the recipient slept in darkness.  Yared had not seen any actual intelligence about such superlatively modified individuals, but if they were real, he would likely find out eventually—probably when someone sent him on a mission to kidnap one of the surgeons who knew how the required work was done.

In the partial shelter of the stone, Yarec found a few more hours of sleep without being disturbed.  He was itchy when he woke up, but he lay perfectly still, concentrating until the irritating sensation had passed.  He focused all his attention on the patches of itchy flesh, letting them feel heavy and relaxed, until each one was free of discomfort.  Then he sat up, rubbing the back of his head, which had happened to be resting on a sharp knob of rock.  He looked around cautiously, initially keeping hidden behind the outcropping as he peered back westward, in the direction of the Kruppeen Engineering Center.  No one else seemed to be in sight.  He had departed from the road before bedding down, and the only things around were dirt, rocks, spotty plants, and a few small ground-dwelling birds.  The sun was still low, but it was full light, and Yarec knew he ought to get moving soon, once he had an idea which way to head.

He unfolded the wire headset that was resting against the back of his neck, invisible next to the black collar of his shirt.  The tiny speakers hooked over his earlobes, underneath the gray micro-woven cap that had been keeping his head warm.  A small pickup dangled near his mouth, and his tongue tapped out a series of tiny clicks, ordering the device into transmission mode.  The clicks were barely audible even to Yarec (for whom they were magnified by the reverberations inside his skull) but the headset heard and replied with a clear tone, like the sound of a thin metal bell.  Yarec issued more instructions, with a mixture of coded clicks and spoken commands, and opened a channel toward the nearest allied communication station.

The headset transmitter identified itself by number and the processor at the other end accepted.  Once the two-way link was functioning, it tried to locate a human operator, and after a few seconds of repetitive but inoffensive drum music, a breathy male voice popped into Yarec’s ear.

“Captain ban Silfien, sir,” the voice said, “can you please confirm your identity?”

“Transparent furious limpet,” Yarec said, invoking one of his more esoteric identity codes.  The operator he did not have direct access to the list of acceptable answers, but the communications computer confirmed the adequacy of Yarec’s response.

“Thank you, sir,” the man said after the necessary pause.  “Are you safe at your current location?” he asked, proceeding according to his script.

“Yes, yes,” Yarec replied.  “I’m alone and in no danger, so far as I can see.”

“That’s good,” was the man’s response, then, “Do you need immediate assistance?”

“Listen, there have been some problems,” Yarec said.  “I don’t want to grouse too much, but I was sent into a literally unstable situation.  I need to know what’s going on and what I need to do.”

“Well, uh… well,” the operator stammered a bit, not having all the information Yarec required immediately at hand.  “I’ve actually got several urgent messages for you.”

“They’re presumably related,” Yarec interrupted.

“Yes, sir,” the man at the other end sighed.  “Would you like to hear those messages?”

“How many are there?” Yarec asked, feeling tired, hungry, and impatient.

“Just three.”

“Fine then.  Shoot ‘em at me.”

“Check.”  The operator’s voice again became clipped and businesslike.  “Message one, to Captain ban Silfien, from Colonel Conchita Tomblin, United Command Headquarters, at zero fifty-four this morning:  Yarec, we have reports of violent activity at the Kruppeen Engineering facility where you are deployed.  Please take care, and if possible, advise us of developments.”

“Acknowledged,” Yarec said.

“Moving on….  Message two, to Captain ban Silfien, from Colonel Conchita Tomblin, United Command Headquarters, at one twenty-eight this morning:  There have been several explosions at your location.  Exercise extreme caution.  You are authorized to take necessary actions to address the situation.”

“Acknowledged.  Keep going.”

“Message three, to Captain ban Silfien, from General-Admiral Sebastian Dotchki, at two oh six this morning:  Damn, Yarec, you sure got out of there pretty fast.  A few electrical fireworks and you dash.  Well, it was probably the smart thing to do, if sparks were shooting off all over the place.  I assume you got away fine, but we do need confirmation that we’re doing alright.

We’ve been in contact with the Solara brothers who are going to guide you.  They will try to meet up with you on the way to the investigation site.”

“That was the last message?” Yarec asked.  “Nothing since then?”

“Negative, sir.  Those were the three.”

“Well, this is just great.”  Yarec crammed his fingers into fists, in a display of frustration that the operator would not see.  He exhaled sharply three or four times, then said, “I can confirm that I’m alive.”

“Acknowledged, sir.  I have recorded that you survived the incident.”

Then Yarec asked, “Do you have any more info about what all that stuff blowing up back there was?”

“Uh, I don’t see any, but I’ll include a note about it in my report,” the operator said apologetically.

“Real slick.  I’m still in the dark,” Yarec sighed.  “Thanks anyway.”  There was a dull pause—a few seconds of silence while the men faced off against their parallel frustrations.  Then Yarec asked, “Have you got my position?”

“Yes, sir, your coordinates are transmitted clearly.  Please leave your set tuned in, so we can track your movements and get ahold of you when we need to.”

“Will comply,” Yarec muttered.  “Can you shoot the rendezvous directions over?”

“Already done, sir,” was the clipped response.

“Thanks.  Lemme have a look.”  Yarec fell silent for a while.  He called up the area map on his computing lamina.  It was folded into eighths, to fit comfortably in his palm, and only the topmost display surface was on.  As promised, there was a new route outlined on the map, transmitted from a computer bank somewhere, to a relay station, to Yarec’s radio headset, and finally over to his personal computing device.  The dotted orange path looked fairly easy.  He needed to loop around a marshy area and down to the Black Snail River.  There was a semi-improved road paralleling the river, and he was supposed to meet up with the Solaras along it.  Beyond the anticipated meeting point, the dots continued toward the east in red.

“It looks to be in order,” Yarec said at last, after tracing out the full route with his eyes three times.  He stared across the plain in the direction he was supposed to head, but there was nothing much worth seeing in view.  Before cutting off the transmission, he added a bit of strictly social conversation.  “How much longer is your shift?” Yarec asked.

“About an hour, sir.”  For the first time, Yarec thought the operator sounded tired.

“So we probably won’t be talking again today,” Yarec said.  “I hope you have a better rest period than I did last night.  Signing off, but leaving the channel open.”

“Signing off, sir.”

Yarec glanced at the map again, then once more surveyed the terrain.  With a histrionic sigh, he started walking.  His night spent on the run, then sleeping under a rock, had left his muscles stiff and twitchy.  As he started moving, there were jabs of discomfort from spots on his hamstrings and ankles; but then they settled down into just a barely perceptible soreness, which he could endure for many hours, if necessary.  He ate while he walked, nibbling at a chewy red-brown bar.  It tasted sweet, like a mixture of real fruits, and it was packed with sugars and important proteins.  The bar was not large, but it was designed to be filling, and when Yarec dropped the last sticky crumb into his mouth, he felt mostly satisfied.  He took a long drink of water from the canteen on his belt and ran his tongue over his teeth, trying to wash away the fuzzy feeling in his mouth.  Then there was nothing to do but walk, keeping an eye on the scenery and which way he was headed.

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They did find him a room—a spare bedroom in one of the dormitory suites, which the other occupants had been using as an extra closet.  The bed, bolted to the wall two meters off the floor and accessible via a flexible plastic ladder, had been converted into a storage shelf for metal miniatures.  Two rows of soldiers and old-fashioned armored vehicles were pointing their weapons out at various angles.  Their silver-gray surfaces had been intentionally oxidized in places.  The technique was intended to give the figurines an additional appearance of texture, but it had been done rather clumsily, making the results splotchy and unexpressive.  Underneath the bunk was a jumble of out-of-season clothing and sealed plastic crates, to which Yarec paid no attention.  Once the bunk was cleared of war machines, he climbed up onto it

He fell asleep almost immediately, which was rather unusual.  When he woke up, a few hours later, Yarec’s first thought was that he must have been extremely tired.  Only after a several seconds of lying still, with his eyes still closed, did he realized what had wakened him.  An alarm was going off.  It sounded distant, like the wailing of a terrified child through a concrete prison wall, but it demanded his attention.

Yarec also saw yellow light flickering around the edges of the closed bedroom door, and as he groped for the touch panel controlling the room lights, he heard one of the suite’s regular occupants stumbling around in the common room.  His middle finger found the control, and the rectangular plastic plates at the tops of opposite walls began to glow.  The light level slid up gradually, but the room never came to full illumination.  The lights brightened for a while, then stopped, as if holding back a portion of their full radiance.

The room had been chilly, and he had puffed the plain red blanket up to its maximum bulk and snugged it tightly around his body.  Yarec punched another button, and it relaxed to almost sheet-like slimness.  It released him and slid away as he rolled over to the still-dangling ladder.  The ladder swung haphazardly as he descended, and his heel collided with the corner of an open plastic carton full of powdered wine mix.  He knocked it over, scattering the floor with flat, brightly-colored pouches that advertised riesling and rose flavors—”Just add ethanol and water.”  By the time Yarec reached the floor, it was evident that it would have been less awkward just to have jumped down from the bunk.

Yarec pulled on his work pants, which had been durably woven out of micrometer-scale plastic threads, and his boots.  He unlocked the bedroom door.  (Did I actually lock that last night?)  Then he peeked outside.  The lighting the common area was also incomplete—perhaps intentionally so, since the dimness made the flashing yellow beacon on the wall all the more visible.  The rectangular lamina, propped up on narrow notched shelf against the wall, was flashing.  The entire viewing area, right out to the edge, which was textured for easy gripping, lit up yellow-orange, then flipped back to its quiescent gray-black, then back to yellow again, several times a second.

Two groggy-looking engineers were staring at the flashing screen.  One of them had flopped down on one of the curving benches that were pushed in around the breakfast table.  The other fellow, who was tall and bald and looked more awake, was poking at the lamina, clumsily trying to coax it to supply additional information.  The third engineer in the suite was not present.  His door was closed, and he was either still pulling on some clothes or simply ignoring the alarm outright.  The man at the table glanced over at Yarec.  There was a mixture of suspicions and disgust in his expression, although it was not clear whether any of it was actually directed at Yarec.

Yarec remained in the doorway, watching.  The flashing yellow illumination suddenly grew less intense.  Responding to the bald man’s fingered commands, the lamina had shrunk the flashing yellow alarm light to the bottom third its area.  Above the flashing rectangle now appeared informational messages, and the man read over them, paraphrasing as he went.

“Looks like an… electrical emergency?”  He tapped a word to get more information.  “What the hell is an electrical emergency?”

“Yeah, what the hell?” repeated the man sitting by the table.  He brushed his mop of gray-brown hair back out of his eyes and stared up at one of the room’s illumination panels, which was glowing feebly.  “Hey, Gustapho!” he called out in the direction of the absent roommate’s door.  “Do you know what this kinda’ crap means?”

There was no response from the door, but the fellow studying the lamina answered insead.  “It says there has been a serious failure somewhere in our power grid.  Level chartreuse precautions.”  The man at the table threw up his hands in a disgusted gesture.  Remembering Yarec’s presence and realizing the opaqueness of the code, the man reading from the lamina explained, “We’re supposed to stay put until we receive specific orders to go somewhere else, unless there’s an imminent safety threat right here.  Plus, we’ve got additional orders to minimize our power use.”

“Until we hear otherwise, sit ready with the lights halfway off,” was the pithier version from the man at the table.  They heard an unexpected thump, and everyone immediately looked toward Gustapho’s door, but it remained closed.

Then Yarec spoke for the first time.  “You get a lot of these alarms going off in the middle of the night?” he asked, trying to make it sound like mere idle curiosity.

“No,” both men said—their flat denials coming in almost perfect unison.  The bald man added, “The infrastructure here has been damn reliable.  If there’s a problem now, some jerk screwed something up.”

“It can’t be that bad, anyway,” the other man interjected.  “That alarm sounds like its coming from a long way off.”

“Can’t be that bad then?” Yarec asked, getting more anxious.

“What’s the worst some schmuck could do?  Blow up one of the generators?”  The bald man turned back to the computing device, to see what else he could find out.  He seemed to have inferred that the cause of the electrical emergency was human incompetence, but Yarec was more conditioned to expect sabotage.

The bald man took down the lamina and sat beside his roommate at the table.  He laid the device flat on the tabletop, so that its flashes were now directed toward the ceiling.  The shadows of two craning heads interrupted the orange-yellow light dancing among the overhead panels, as the two engineers prodded the surface for more detailed data.  The tiny metal army, which had been hastily relocated to the table the previous night, was pushed aside, so that both men could get a good look at the lamina.

The came another noise from outside the room—much louder or nearer this time.  There was a squeal, then a violent crackle, and everyone present, even Yarec, winced visibly.  Whatever was happening, Yarec decided he wanted to get away from it.  He turned back into the bedroom, and took a minute to scoop up all his equipment.  With a coat draped over his shoulder, and holding his bags in his left hand, he emerged into the common room and headed for the outer door of the suite.  Trying to look concerned but still fairly casual, he tossed back, “I’m going to go see if I can help out with anything,” just as he reached for the unlocking plate.

The bald man leapt to his feet.  “Hold on!” he cried, as he bounded after Yarec.  The man covered the distance between them in just three long strides.  The second roommate also got up and followed, although a bit lethargically.  “You can’t go out there!” the bald man yelled, reaching for Yarec’s elbow.  “The orders said to stay where we were.  Weren’t you paying attention?”

With a sudden twist, Yarec evaded the long, reaching arm.  He reached for the door control, but the engineer got there first and tried to interpose himself between Yarec and the door.  “Come on,” Yarec began, but he did not finish his plea.  In another second, both residents would be beside him, firmly barring his exit.  So he slipped around another grab aimed at his left arm, then rose up on the balls of his feet and planted his fist in squarely on the taller man’s jaw.

The attack caught the man completely by surprise.  Yarec did not put that much strength behind the blow; he just wanted the man out of the way, not injured.  Had the man been ready for the punch, he could probably have adjusted his balance and shrugged it off.  However, Yarec caught him leaning, and the impact knocked him back.  He backpedaled, stumbling, then lost his feet.  The back of the man’s struck the tabletop like a brick, scattering miniature war machines onto the floor.  His shorter roommate watched him fall, stunned by the sudden violence, but Yarec only saw what happened out of the back corner of his eye as he was on his way out the door.

The lighting in the corridor outside was even dimmer than in the suite.  The white panels that normally provided the primary illumination were located at the tops of the walls, alternating between the two sides of the hallway.  Now they looked feeble and gray, much less noticeable than the yellow flashing that was present out here as well, coming from ten centimeter square emergency monitors welded to the walls at forty meter intervals.  Yarec set off at a loose run, back toward the main laboratories in the middle of the station’s long chain of buildings.  He reached the end of the dormitory, where it connected to the next structure and there was an exterior exit.

He opened the door into the transparent-roofed connecting corridor, and immediately the sound of the alarm was louder.  It had a high, wailing voice, like a furious priestess Cassandra shrieking out a baleful warning that had no words.  Yarec stepped through into the connector and looked up.  Outside, the overcast sky was very dark.  There might still have been a sliver of moon, somewhere down near the horizon, but it cast no light.  However, as Yarec loped towards the next building, there was a sudden burst of blue-white light and another furious crackle.  Sparks shot up.  It looked like they were coming from somewhere down near the water’s edge, but that was all Yarec could discern from inside the corridor.

Rather than continuing into the office building that was next in line, Yarec ran back to the external door.  A warning message was flashing on its semiconductor veneer surface—something about not exiting unless in immediate danger—but Yarec paid it no heed.  He thumped his fist against the unlocking plate, and with two quick snicks, the heavy portal unlatched and swung ajar.  He pushed through, catching one of his yellow bags against the door frame, and looked around anxiously, trying to determine what was going on.

It was colder than he had expected, with the steady sea gale blowing in.  Yarec pushed his arms into his coat sleeves as he took stock of his surroundings.  He was on the seaward side of the arc of buildings.  Behind him sat the humped bulk of the dormitory, with bits of yellow light flickering forth from its many curved, tinted windows.  Ahead of him was the drop-off to the sea, and somewhere off to the right, hidden behind the administrative building, was the source of the electrical light show.  He could hear people moving around, even over the scream of the alarm.  Yarec dislodged his bag from the door and transferred one of the two bags to his right hand.  Then he set off at a jog toward the evident source of the disturbance.

As he came around the corner, he saw someone climb up atop a natural outcropping of rock and start shouting orders through a fist-sized megaphone.  It took Yarec a moment to recognize his voice with the distortion, but it was Rorke.  “You men, get down to the fish enclosure and see what’s wrong.  What’s causing those discharges?”  Another smaller burst of electric energy swept up from the livestock pond, showering the edge of the bluff with dots of white plasma.  “You two, get the….  No hold on.”  Rorke said something that the megaphone did not pick up, listened to a brief response, and then continued:  “Get to the main cutoff for the pond, and tell me what you see.”

The pair he was addressing sprinted off out of sight.  In the chaotic darkness, Rorke had not noticed Yarec behind him.  From his perch, he watched as his orders were carried out, and he appeared to be carrying on a separate conversation via a communications link.  Rorke could see down over the edge of the cliff, and something he saw must have alarmed him.  “Look out!” he screamed into his magaphone.  “There’s one….”

The words were cut off by what appeared to be the largest blast yet.  It rose, like a lightning strike aimed up from the ocean to the clouds.  Starting with a brilliant blue streak, it branched like a burning tree, with trunks clawing towards the heavens.  A whine that totally obliterated the scream of the alarm erupted from the display.  Workers fell to the ground, knocked down by force or simple fear.  The blue-white columns pulsed, then stretched.  The noise shifted to a hissing sizzle, as the eruption split apart into a rain of blazing sparks.  They flew in all directions—up into the cloud cover, out to sea, inland toward the buildings and over their rooftops.

Yarec was running, bags in hand, back the way he had come.  “This is a slick mess,” he coughed to himself.  He continued past the door he had exited, which had swung neatly shut and kept going past the entire row of buildings.  He found the paved road leading away from the Kruppeen Engineering Center and slowed down when he reached it, panting.  Looking back toward the facility, he saw no more active pyrotechnics, but the alarm call was still blaring, and Yarec had no desire to stay.  So he walked quickly, down the left side of the road until he was far beyond the range of its voice.  The terrain was rocky, with plenty of moss and low grass, as well as occasional trees.  He travelled at least five kilometers, past enough small hills to put the troubled facility securely out of sight.  It was still dead black, and the LED bulb on his jacket cuff seemed to be the only light around.

Yarec realized that he was very tired, and he sat down on a flat, moist rock.  He flopped his gear bags down at his feet and sighed, wondering whether his unlucky presence had somehow brought about the disaster at the center.  Either way, there was nothing he could do about the situation now.

Yarec sighed.   So, I’ve cheated the Duke of Destiny again,” he said aloud, and immediately he made a sour face.  Spoken invocations of old pagan deities—such as the heavenly lord he had mentioned, who, along with his blind child bride, measured out the number of days owed to each living human—were traditionally taboo.  Yarec was strictly agnostic and not very optimistic about the possibility of a benevolent god, but he was feeling in a penitent mood, so he spat twice over his shoulder to ward off ill fortune.

After that visit, he went back to his preparations.  He would be heading down into the earth, to an old facility that was partially natural caverns and part human excavation.  It had been a mine and then doubled as a scientific laboratory, but for a very long time, it had been abandoned.  However, there was clear evidence that somebody had recently taken up residence in the old tunnels, and Yarec’s job was to find out who and why.

It was not expected to be a high-risk operation, but with so many unknowns, there was always the definite possibility that things might abruptly turn ugly.  So Yarec was going to be well prepared.  In addition to his regular complement of weapons, surveillance equipment, and dehydrated foodstuffs, we has taking along climbing gear.  It was bulkier than he would have liked, but the tools he might need could not be miniaturized beyond a certain point.  The rope was thin and lightweight, but he needed plenty of it, in case an extended descent along one of the old elevator shafts was required.  There were also hooks and a hammer, which was formed from a molybdenum-lead alloy for weight, as well as separate sliding clamps for ascending and descending.

He also took along the xaser.  It was surplus materiel now, sort of—since it had not been certain that it would make it back from Yarec’s mission.  Its control mechanism had been corrected, so it was back to factory specifications, and it could puncture any ordinary material Yarec encountered—rock, steel, or flesh.

Once everything was ready, they flew Yarec by helicopter to a post along the North Pacific coast.  It was not a military station, but an engineering firm.  It was situated only a few hundred feet from the water, atop a rocky promontory.  The site had rounded buildingings, strung together with connecting corridors, and when it snowed, they looked like a necklace of oblong pearls.  Five meters down the bluffside lay the ocean, where stalks of bull kelp, studded with green-brown protrusions the size of Yarec’s two clenched fists, undulated with the waves.  Part of the water had been penned off with a mesh of plastic nets, bobbing beneath spheroidal blue buoys.  The engineers used the area for holding fish and invertebrate specimens when they were needed for experiments.

Large land animals were rare in North America, although coyotes remained a persistent problem in some areas.  However, the oceans were still teeming with organisms, from microscopic algae and plankton up to sizeable predatory fish.  The creatures at the very top of the marine food chain had been fished nearly into oblivion, but the lower tiers of predators had survived and were still a significant source of protein for the Earth’s human population.  And since sea bass were still plentiful, they were a common vertebrate model for metabolic engineering studies like those being done by Kruppeen Engineering.

The plan was for Yarec to be picked up at the facility by the guides who would be transporting him overland.  The guides had been scheduled to arrive late that afternoon, but during the flight, Yarec had received word that the pair had been delayed by at least a day.  “Oiysh,” Yarec grumbled, before remembering to add, “Received and understood, operator.”  Yarec shook his head in disgust, and the helicopter pilot nodded with a sympathetic scowl.

As they approached the facility, the pilot transmitted an encrypted greeting, and a clear voice responded, instructing him to hover offshore.  The pilot and the ground control exchanged security codes, and the craft received clearance to land.  A few minutes later, the pilot set the helicopter down on a flat asphalt pad beside the largest structure of the complex.  A guard in a brown coat and peaked hat yanked the door open and gestured with the butt of his rifle for the passenger to hop out.  Yarec tossed his two padded yellow bags down onto the gray pavement, then jumped down between them, stubbing his left big toe as he landed.

The guard hussled Yarec inside, as the twin helicopter blades kicked up turbulence.  Outside, his ears were constantly being battered by the noises of natural and artificial winds, but once he had lugged his gear across the threshold and the building door clanged shut behind him, the loudest sound was the reassuring hum of the heating system.  The administrative offices were carpeted in burgundy and forest green, with thick, rigid shag extending all across the floor and up the walls to the height of Yarec’s armpits.  Above that, at eye level, the internal walls were made of cement, enameled in a pale, pinkish gray.  The ceiling was low, and despite the contrasting shades, the walls felt heavy and claustrophobic.

Another armed man, casually dressed in a black sweater and indigo pants tucked into the tops of his boots, was waiting inside.  He greeted Yarec with a desultory, “This way, mister,” and headed off down the hallway that ringed the building, without bothering to see whether Yarec was actually following.  “You can park your stuff in here, mister,” the man announced as they reached an interior door numbered “E 19.”  He unlocked the door with a tap from his master key and pushed it open to reveal a small, empty office space, with a worn metal desk and a single chair that looked like it would list precariously if anyone larger than a toddler sat in it.

“Slick… thanks,” Yarec said softly, trying to sound polite.

“I hear we’ll need to put you up tonight,” the fellow said, forestalling Yarec’s question.  “Something will be arranged, but it’s not ready yet.”  Yarec nodded, accepting the station’s hospitality.  The fellow turned to leave.  His fingers brushed idly against the handgun holstered to his hip, and he said, “In the meantime, my name’s Rorke if you need anything.  Just give me a call.”

This time, Yarec didn’t bother to reply.  He just headed inside and dropped his baggage on the desktop.  Looking around, he saw a lamina screen pinned to the wall beside the door.  The images it displayed—currently cycling through generic-looking snapshots of mountain snowscapes with people riding snowmobiles—had permanent little ripples, from being folded and unfolded too roughly, too many times.  There was also a digital key sitting on a corner of the desk, so Yarec could lock the office behind him if he left.  However, he had no intention of leaving anything valuable behind, in someone else’s office.  He took all the electronic equipment out of his duffel bags and stuffed it into the long pockets of his coat.  Then he stepped out into the corridor, closing and locking the flimsy door behind him.

Having nothing better to do with his time, Yarec went looking for the managing director.  She was away from her office, but her assistant directed Yarec down a transparent-roofed connecting hall to the company health facility adjacent to the barracks.  All the buildings in the complex were linked, to keep the staff warm and dry whenever the weather turned foul.  Looking up through the domed plastic panes, Yarec saw a sky of dusty gray clouds, stirred by the seaside winds.  At the end of the tunnel sat two doors—a double door leading to the housing areas straight ahead and a smaller portal to the fitness unit on Yarec’s left.

Yarec pulled the small door open and stepped through into the main gymnasium area.  Bright yellow-white light reflected off a hard blue plastic floor, crisscrossed by lines denoting the boundaries of play for various indoor sports.  The air was heavy with the scent of sweat, in spite of the large fans positioned at either end of the gym.  One of the fans was rotating swiftly and  smooth behind its protective steel grille, but the other unit was spinning more slowly.  Yarec detected the whine of an overstressed electric motor, underneath the bouncy music playing through small white speakers hanging from the four corners of the ceiling and the sounds of the employees moving their bodies in time with the beat.

“Kick… kick… kick… roll!” yelled the group leader enthusiastically.  Fourteen men and women followed his directions.  They made three stylized foot gestures, kicking first to the front, then swinging around to the side, then toward the back.  The most fit-looking participants finished the sequence with a standing back flip, while the less acrobatic majority swung their heads and torsos around in a wide circle.

Yarec waited quietly for the exercise set to end.  As the routine went on, most of the workers who were there to improve their oxygen uptake ability were clearly struggling to keep pace with the music. However, the leader—the factory’s medical practitioner—still moved with perfect fluidity.  His black hair was cropped short above his burnt coppery brow, and his long, muscular limbs flipped back and forth with flexibility and speed that made Yarec jealous.  The practitioner demonstrated basic, intermediate, and advanced versions of the various calisthenic exercises, while an invisible vocal pickup relayed his merry instructions to the sound system.

The intensity of the workout peaked, and then the moves began to get easier.  After a slow cooldown period, the instructor finally dismissed the participants with praise for their efforts and a great deal of foot stomping.  “Great job, everyone!” he shouted.  “I hope I can see you all back here tomorrow.  Now go on out and have a great day!”

Yarec caught the eye of Laurelei Pedersen, the managing director of the Kruppeen Engineering Center.  She was about Yarec’s height, currently with pale parchment complexion and shoulder-length black hair pulled back behind her head.  Rivulets of sweat were running down toward her elfin earlobes.  Catching sight of Yarec, she tilted her head to one side.  She was momentarily puzzle by his presence; he was not one of her employees, and his face was unfamiliar.

Yarec and Laurelei Pedersen had worked together, peripherally, once before, when she was directly employed by the local governorate.  He remembered her as an adept engineer and a skillful manager, and she had obviously done well in the intervening years.

“Hi, ma’am.  I’m Yarec ban Silfien.”  He introduced himself, unsure whether she would remember him personally or merely as a name in an electronic register.  He grinned like a salesman but did not hold out his hand.  It would have been rude to demand a shake from somebody who was dripping with perspiration.

“Oh, I didn’t recognize you,” she said.  Yarec tried to think of a body-changing joke that did not sound hopelessly stale, but he could not come up with one.  “It’s been a while,” she went on.  “Welcome to Port Yacoma.  Sorry the weather’s not better.”

“Thanks.  It must be fifteen, sixteen years since we worked on the special staff during the Wolverine Lake Petrochemical War.”  Yarec tried to remember what she had looked like then.  He could not recall her appearance very well, but it must have been different.  Perhaps she too had taken on a new body.

“Crap, that’s a long time ago,” Laurelei said, wiping another stream of sweat off her eyebrow.  “Well, I hope you’re comfortable here.  I think I heard there was a problem with your connection?”

“Yeah, I was supposed to be on the road today, but there’s been some kind of screw-up.  Real slick,” Yarec grumbled.  “They say I’ll be on my way tomorrow, but who knows?”

“Yeah, transportation logistics can be like gambling on frog races.”  It was a strange expression but nonetheless a familiar regional one.  Yarec nodded in agreement, but Laurelei paused.  After a brief space, she went on tentatively.  “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything, but…” Laurelei’s voice trailed off.

“‘But’?” Yarec prompted.

“Well, there are rumors about you—you know, on the secure rumor mill,” Laurelei said sheepishly.

Ah, Yarec snickered silently, the secure rumor mill.  It was a strange chimera, mixing tight security with the idle wagging of tongues.  In any large organization, gossip was unavoidable.  People had to talk about what other people were doing, and that created a security problem.  With multiple overlapping organizations—allies and business partners—operating with varying degrees of the military rigor, it was probably impossible to keep information from filtering out to the fringes.  For top-tier agents like Yarec, even their marital status might be privileged information.  Even I didn’t know I was married, Yarec reminded himself bitterly.

So, to circumvent the usual channels along which gossip spread, senior authorities had created an alternative conduit for employees with security clearances to talk about their neighbors and colleagues.  They constructed an independent digital communications system—a parallel collection of protocols, for people to share idle chatter about potentially sensitive topics.  It was monitored, loosely, to make sure that truly valuable secrets were not being shared.  That must have been dreary duty for an intelligence officer with top-level clearance—scouring the the online palaver for anything that might actually be an important secret and reporting leakers to the appropriate regional authorities.

There were occasionally posters in the States United officers’ canteens, reminding men and women with access to sensitive data not to share classified gossip through unsecured channels.  Yarec did not know whether the awareness campaign was officially sanctioned, or if it had been concocted by an officer with a particular sense of humor.  The mascot on the posters was some kind of gliding rodent, decked in an old-fashioned intelligence corps uniform.  His pose varied, but he always reminded readers that, “If you have to talk out of turn, at least keep it out of sight.”

“So what’s the word?” Yarec asked.  “What are they saying about me?”

“The word?  The word is you’re obsessed, with an old girlfriend.”  Laurelei offered him a quick, lopsided smile.  “Sorry,” she added.

“It’s not an obsession,” Yarec protested.  “It’s….  Never mind.”  He clenched his teeth into a rigid underbite formation.

“Sorry,” she repeated.  “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, it’s alright, I guess.”  Yarec relaxed his jaw and shrugged.  “Good to know that my monomania is common knowledge in the intelligence community.”  He clicked his tongue a couple times, considering, then added, “Yeah, I’m trying to find her again.  And since you mention it, I do have wanted poster for her, if you wouldn’t mind putting it on the system here.”

Laurelei looked surprised.  “Uh, I guess… if that’ll help,” she said.  Nodding, Yarec pulled out the information to be posted.  “Wanted poster” was a misnomer, a holdover from the days even before electronic communication.  From a zippered pocket, Yarec retrieved a fingernail-sized storage device, one of a dozen that Officer Jenison had stacked with information about Mrissa.    He placed it gently in Laurelei Pedersen’s hand, and she looked down at it through narrowed eyes.

Then she changed the subject.  “Have they found a bunk for you in the barracks?”

“No, not yet,” Yarec replied.  “A guy named Rorke said he’d find me somewhere.”  He suddenly realized that his conversation was keeping his host from her shower.  “Sorry for putting you to the trouble,” he said, gesturing gently toward the entrance to the lockers.

“No, trouble, really,” she assured him.  “But I really need to freshen up and get back to work.  Have something to eat, and put your feet up for a while.”  She waved and headed off to change.  “If I don’t see you again, I hope you have a smooth trip.”

“Thanks.  Thanks again.”  She disappeared through to the locker room, and Yarec was left alone except for the medical practitioner.  His exercise class had dispersed, leaving him to mop up their perspiration with a rag made from hyper-absorbent gel.  The man nodded affably as Yarec left the gymnasium through the same door he had used to enter.