Hollowed Memories, chapter 6, part 5

November 16, 2014

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.

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