Hollowed Memories, chapter 6, part 4

November 2, 2014

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.

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