Hollowed Memories, chapter 8, part 4

March 29, 2015

Yarec headed back toward the main garage, and Rorke moved off to reinspect the nearby electrical work.  Quite apart from Rorke’s paranoid fears about what the States United Armed Forces had in store for Yarec, there was at least one real reason for him to stay out of their hands.  Whenever he returned from a job, he would undergo a thorough medical examination.  Yarec did not want anyone to scan his nervous system right then.  He did not want them to see that the movement of the water had been making him nauseous, and that the transition to firm land made his legs wobble.  Yarec doubted there was actually anything untoward about his being summoned back to headquarters, but he knew that his supposed allies would have no compunctions about transporting him someplace involuntarily, if they believed it would serve their greater purpose.  He did not want to be tracked, so he disconnected the power supply from his headset and set his computing device not to transmit to any outside communications network without explicit permission.  If there was a backdoor in the system programming, someone might still be able to trace him, but he hoped that doing so would not be worth the effort.  After all, if anybody really wanted to come after him, they could make a better start by tracking the vehicle he was about to expropriate.

One of the overhead doors on the garage was already open.  Inside, Yarec could see there were only larger trucks parked by the entrance.  The kind of car he wanted would be found on the upper level, so he headed for the ramp.  Then Yarec felt a pang when he noticed that he was not alone.  There was a driver or mechanic in the cab of one of the cargo trucks.  Yarec walked straight past, and she did not even seem to notice him.

At the top of the ramp, he found a double row of cars. Yarec selected a nearby two-seater.  It was pale gray, with a rounded outline like a bullet.  Yarec touched the device Rorke had given him to a spot on the driver’s door, and he heard a friendly hum as the electrical system came to life.  Yarec opened the door and dropped his two yellow bags, filled with more equipment that was not technically his, onto the passenger seat.

Then he got in and revved the engine.  He was anxious, although he had made up his mind that he was doing the right thing.  It’s just regular pre-mission jitters, he told himself.  He gritted his teeth, grabbed the steering yoke, and nosed the car out.  Nobody seemed to pay any heed as Yarec maneuvered the car down the ramp toward the open exit.  He tensed involuntarily as the vehicle passed out into the sunlight, but there was no one there to check his progress.  Yarec realized he was free.  “Thanks, thanks,” he said under his breath, kicking the engine up to its full cruising power.

It was only a few hundred meters to the bridge over Black Snail Gorge.  Yarec knew that the underside of the bridge was a chaotic mosaic of rust, because here near the river mouth, the air and water were tainted with corrosive salt.  Yet despite the missing bolts and plates, the construction seemed to have been completed with a sufficient safety factor to keep the modest flow of regular traffic safely elevated above the water.  Yarec shook his head ruefully as he turned south and crossed the span.

Beyond the bridge, the road veered gradually eastward, until it merged with an older southbound highway, which meandered between the concrete ruins of old towns and cities, now lost to droughts and heat.  Yarec passed other vehicles heading north, sometimes travelling singly, but often moving in convoy formations—three or four large trucks, plus one or two cars packed with mercenaries.  Yarec hoped his own coupe would be too small to attract attention from brigands, although he knew from experience that many bandit gangs would attack just about anything that passed their way; even if there was nothing else on board, the car and its human driver could each be sold to the right buyer.

He kept a weapon handy on the dashboard, where it might be visible to an observer with binoculars.  It was probably a worthless deterrent, but it gave Yarec a childish feeling of power.  Now that he was free to search for his wife, he felt a kind of exaltation, and he kept driving until long after dark.  Crystalline white stars came out and lit up the countryside like a dark fairyland.  The pale outline of his car sailed along the old, curving track, down stretches that few other drivers would care to travel by night.  At sunset, he had felt like he could keep going all night, but his euphoria did eventually give way to exhaustion, and Yarec pulled the little car off the road.  He parked in the shadows of a long, high wall—the work of ancient, cyclopean construction cranes—and fell asleep with the car’s proximity alarm set and a pistol gripped loosely in the driver’s hand.

The alarm went off once during the night, and its frenetic buzzing pattern jolted Yarec awake.  He flipped on the passenger compartment light and brandished his weapon, but no one seemed to be about.  Yarec stepped out of the vehicle and looked around very carefully.  Whatever had spooked the sensors was gone.  It could have been a nocturnal carrion bird, or even a bit of blown debris.  In any case, it did not seem to present a actual threat, so Yarec returned to his seat.  He locked the door, turned out the light, and reset the alarm; then he slipped back into the same dream that he had been woken out of.

Recently, it had become quite common for Yarec to have these persistent dreams, which continued on from night to night.  The one he was experiencing currently had him somewhere in the icy Andean heights, fighting blue-green lizard people who stood about waist high.  He would forget most of it when he woke up.  He only retained a general sense of what had occurred in these serialized dream narratives during the waking interludes between episodes.  However, as soon as Yarec fell asleep and reentered the dream world, the whole history would come back, and the story would continue as if it had never been interrupted.

By dawn, Yarec had one of the reptilian chieftains by the throat, but the burst of daylight brought him back to physical reality.  He got out of the car again to stretch out his legs, which were prone to stiffness since they were equipped with internal armor.  He found something to gnaw on while he relieved himself against the wall.  Then Yarec started the engine up again and maneuvered back onto the roadway.

The old roadbed had gotten so bad that at some point in the past it had been broken up and overlaid with gravel.  The lack of proper pavement taxed the gripping power of his tires, especially as the terrain became more mountainous.  The highway had come out on the eastern side the mountains that appeared sporadically along the coastline, and now it was zigzagging back westward towards the shore.  There were broad passes between the adjacent peaks, but traversing one still entailed gaining a significant amount of elevation.  Yarec had to wonder what vagaries of history had left the principal surviving road with this ineptly laid out track.

After he had driven for several more hours, Yarec decided he need something more substantial to eat than the nutrition cakes and sticks he had stocked in his luggage.  The previous day, he had been anticipating a proper supper at the Kruppeen Engineering Center, which he had obviously not been able to eat.  So he pulled over at a small town, perched on the last downward slope of the mountainside before the Pacific coast plain.  At the edge of town, the road went from sun-bleached gravel to a hard synthetic surface made from reused petroleum solids.  Yarec felt the rubberine tires bump as the road abruptly improved, and then pale mud-colored cottages, topped with brilliant red tile roofs, appeared on either side of the street.  The houses had nothing resembling yards and were built practically right down to the curb.  Their front doors opened almost directly into the street, and the narrow flat corridor that served as both sidewalk and doorsill was stacked with various salable goods.  On the shaded southerly side of the road, women and men sat under the shadows of their eaves, sipping synthetically colored sugar water and waiting for passersby who might be interested in their “like new” wares.

When he reached a cross street, Yarec turned southwest and stopped in the parking lot of a small restaurant.  The lot had room for five or six four-passenger cars, and Yarec slid his low-slung coupe neatly between the two other vehicles present.  It was late morning, probably before the peak luncheon period.  “Consignment Restaurant,” the sign over the door proudly proclaimed.  There was a sticker on the door, indicating that the establishment had been inspected by a privately hired health examiner, who had pronounced the sanitation conditions tolerable.

Inside, there was one other customer sitting at the counter, with two blue plates of fried strips and mashed starch.  She paid Yarec’s arrival (and the accompanying ching of the electronic door sensor) no heed.  Along two walls stood eight-foot-high refrigerators.  Their stainless metal surfaces were well polished, but the rubberized wheels on which they stood had left apparently indelible black track marks on the floor.  Slips of paper taped to the huge refrigerator doors indicated, in general terms, their contents:  soups, stews, and porridges Yarec passed in turn.  He stopped at the first case marked carbohydrate sides and yanked the door open.

The door was heavy, and its deformed bearings whined as they moved.  Inside, Yarec saw white wire shelves, laden with various noodles, loaves, and synthetic rice-shaped nuggets.  Each serving was wrapped in transparent plastic foil, with a price sticker stuck to the outside.  The stickers were color-coded, according to a scheme Yarec did not need to understand.  A few were computer printed, but most of the tags had been lettered by hand, by whatever seller had brought them in.

For the consignment restaurant was a place where people could get a little bit of money for their unwanted leftovers.  Anyone left with too much gruel after a large family meal could portion it out into individual servings and delivery it to the restaurant.  The cooks set their own prices, although the restaurateur absorbed most of the money, as fees for location, marketing, and cleanup.  Every week, the consigner could stop in to inspect their stock (what not had not gone bad), pick up their clean dishes, and collect their modest share of the takings.

Yarec picked out three modest-sized dishes—a bowl of round meaty cakes, a powdery baked carbohydrate, and what looked like some lightly boiled pondweed.  He had considered trying an interesting-looking soup, which looked very thick and almost as black as tar, but its smell put him off.  He place his selections, along with some cutlery and a bleached cloth napkin, on a powder blue tray and carried the lot to the payment station.  The cashier was a short man, with long red-blond hair wrapped up in a dark blue net.  He tallied up the prices scrawled on the three dishes, then asked laconically, “Drink?”

“Just a water,” Yarec told him..

“That’ll be another eighty-eight,” the cashier announced.

“Fine,” Yare said.

A girl, nine or ten years old, popped out of the kitchen carrying a short glass of water.  She looked like the man’s daughter; they had the same hair, with hers trimmed short near her scalp.  She handed her father the cup, which he set down on Yarec’s tray.  Yarec handed over amount shown in the register’s diode display.  “Enjoy,” the man muttered as he counted the coins and bars.  Then he followed the girl back into the kitchen, and Yarec heard the sounds of metal scouring against metal.

Yarec sat down at one end of the counter, on a barstool upholstered with plaid-patterned plastisilk.  Through the back window of the dining room, he could see a twelve-sided white pavilion in the middle of a grassy field.  Beside the high-peaked roof of the tent, a long sign—hand lettered in black on yellowed fabric—flapped unevenly in the breeze.  It said, “REPENT.”  The door flaps of the pavilion had been pushed back, and inside Yarec saw a circle of folding chairs, facing in toward a treadmill.

Yarec tried the greens first; they were lightly seasoned, letting the natural vegetable flavor come through.  After a few bites, Yarec tried to strike up a conversation with the diner’s other patron.  “Excuse me, ma’am” Yarec began.  He had cultivated the disarming habit of starting to talk with bits of food in his mouth, which meant he then had to pause and swallow.  It was not very debonair, but it contributed to the impression, which he often wanted to create when he was working, that he was affable and not very concerned about appearances.

The woman a few seats down looked up when Yarec spoke, then waited while Yarec hurried to chew up the rest of a fritter.  Once the bite was down, Yarec went on, “Are you from around here?”

“Sure thing, fellah,” she said.  Her voice was deep and husky.  “You looking for something around here?”

“In fact, I’m looking for a ship, something going south,” Yarec explained.  “I have experience crewing on freighters, and I thought I might find one down on the coast.”

“Oh, well you’re probably in luck, drifter,” the woman grinned.  There’s a lot of ship traffic just down on Muscle Bay.  Just follow the road down to the bay.  I think they’re usually looking for hands.”

“Thanks, Madam…?” Yarec trailed off.

“Reverend Tilton,” the woman said.  She slid down off her bar stool with a thump and reached out to shake Yarec’s hand.

“Oh, thanks, reverend.  I’m Linc Dan Fuller, by the way,” Yarec told him.

“Good to meet you, Linc,” the reverend said.  “I hope you find your ship.”

“Slick.  Thanks again,” Yarec said, as Tilton returned to her meal.  As they ate, Yarec continued to watch the reverend out of the corner of his eye.  She finished her lunch and left, waving cheerfully to Yarec and the cashier..

Left alone at the counter, Yarec also finished quickly.  Apart from the pondweed, it did not taste like much.  Just as Yarec was finishing, the cashier came over to pick up the empty plates.  He scrubbed the countertop thoroughly, spraying a clear, odorless enzymatic cleaner that bubbled and smoked when it hit the surface.  The spots of food debris dissolved as it touched them; then the man wiped up the mess with a furry brown rag.

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