Hollowed Memories, chapter 9, part 7

July 12, 2015

Once Yarec was actually inside, Mrissa had to wait.  She had parked her cycle on a rough stretch of of lakeshore.  Behind her sat a low brown warehouse, with a corrugated steel roof.  Down each of the roof’s creases ran a stream of cloudy rainwater.  They reached the edge and tumbled down in a ragged, watery sheet.  The warehouse was empty, but it was no relic.  It looked only a few years old, and Mrissa could see where the latest occupants’ corporate insignia had been spraypainted over with a thin layer of gray.

She could still hear one street performer at work nearby, in spite of the rain—playing the same impromptu over and over on a synthesizer box.  Mrissa leaned against the seat of her bike.  The cowl of her rain slicker hung low over her face, hiding her features from the wandering gazes of distant security cameras.  Her only distinguishing feature was the heaped red curls protruding over her collar.  There was a significant chance that Yarec was never going to make it out; if that happened, Mrissa had decided that she was just going to disappear.  She might send in a terse report in a few weeks, once she had found a stable situation far, far away, but there would be no detailed debriefing at the FAF headquarters if Yarec’s infiltration was a failure.

She had a low resolution video feed, transmitted from Yarec’s position, but it provided a narrow shaky view.  If a security officer came up behind Yarec, she would never see the attack coming.  There would just be a sudden jerk to the floor, then stillness as Yarec lay either unconscious or dead.  Mrissa reached back into her hood and bunched the hair at the side of her neck between her muscular fingers.

For a long time, nothing had been happening.  At first, there were only occasional twitches as Yarec changed position slightly in his dim little compartment.  That showed he was alive, but nothing else.  Then Yarec was out in the light and moving, with a cautious but natural gait.  Ris tried to match up the screen’s narrow field with what she understood of the factory’s interior layout, but beyond staying alert, there was still very little for her to do.

However, when Yarec’s movement became a dogged sprint, her pose changed completely.  Mrissa became minutely attuned to everything that was going on.  She knew her assistance could be required at an instant.  On the shaky screen, she watched the chaos begin inside the facility.  It was soon mirrored in what she observed directly across the turbid gray water.  The plant rang with sirens and lit up with emergency lights.  There were shooting flames on the monitor, and a fiery blast ripped through part of the roof.  Lightning flashed, and thunderclaps mixed with the booming explosions.

Yarec, having set the disaster in motion, had now lost himself among the escaping throngs.  Outside, the security personnel, in their sky blue uniforms, were still trying to maintain a cordon, but with each blast, they were pushed further back from the conflagration.  When the panicked factory workers finally burst past the guards, Yarec broke away from their horde.  While the others rushed for the causeway road to the mainland, Yarec broke for the shoreline opposite Mrissa’s position.

It was her job to provide covering fire for his escape.  She shot off six or seven rockets, hitting the fence at the spot where Yarec hit the water, then to his left and right along the coast.  Then she was supposed to wait.  Yarec might need serious medical attention the moment he was pulled from the water.  It was her responsibility to provide it, but only if he arrived soon.  Mrissa had picked out a fairly safe location—on the grounds of another small manufacturing facility that had only recently closed down—but she had given away her position now.  Someone would be around to look for her, and probably soon.

There was no way to track Yarec once he was in the water.  His camera was waterproof, but in the wet, ragged dimness, there was nothing for it to see.  As the rain fell harder and harder, the surface of the lake became a dirty, pock-marked mess.  It was impossible to see whether Yarec was still coming up for air.

Mrissa dropped the rocket launcher.  She pushed back the hood of her parka and ran both hands up through the soggy curls stuck to her forehead.  She pushed the locks back and held them tightly against her scalp, is if they might be the only things blocking her from seeing him.

Then, like a gray dolphin breasting from the water, his head and torso were up and out.  He wheezed a horrible-sounding breath.  Then Mrissa’s arms were there for him to fall upon.

She half led, half dragged him to her motorcycle, and they rode back to a clean hotel room, where they could hole up until they decided what to do next.  She gave Yarec’s bruised body a bath.  Then he just wanted to lie down beside her, with his own skin next to hers under the blanket.  He kept shivering for a long time.  The harsh ordeal had left him cold to the core, and for a while he had very little to say.  He just lay, curled up with his arms around his knees.  Mrissa lay behind him, still half dressed in her bra and undershorts, until he finally stopped shivering and fell asleep.

When he woke up again, they talked.  The city was not safe, and she wanted to get away.  So Yarec took her northeast into the countryside, to the the little town where he was born.  Mrissa accepted the bumpy trip, but she did not like the destination.

Where am I? Mrissa wondered once they were there.  She knew the geographic coordinates, but the highland seemed so alien compared to the coastal plains.  It was dry here in the summer and dry in the winter.  The landowners seemed to fancy themselves old-fashioned country squires, but there was virtually nothing to grow.  The soil, where it was not just sand, might have been quite fertile.  There was certainly volcanic activity to enrich it; just outside of town, Ris had seen two cinder cones.  They rose up thirty of forty meters—heaps of ash and black rock laced with razor-sharp edges.  Yet whatever nutrients the coughing little volcanoes had donated to the soil, there was too little water to draw them out.

In that dry countryside, for the first time Yarec seemed old.  He must have been much older than Mrissa, but she had never dared to ask his age.  In Sankirk, it had not seemed to matter.  When they were actively working, he had been a perfect professional—fit, sharp-eyed, and ingenious; and during their off time, Yarec’s behavior had always seemed uncommonly youthful, almost immature—as if some part of him had been frozen in perpetual adolescence.

However, in the country, among Yarec’s native people, his true age became an unavoidable fact.  The community was full of middle-aged men and women whom Yarec had known since they were infants.  Before Marshall Kubiak’s garden soiree, Yarec had tried telling Mrissa about the many relatives and family friends she would probably meet.  She leaned back against his chest and listened, snapping the names and the brief anecdotes associated with them into place in her mental diagram of the community.  So when she was introduced to people at the party, she remembered most of them; yet she was shocked at how old they all seemed.  Yarec, she realized, must have been one of the oldest people in town, and he was unquestionably the richest.  The affluent in these parts mostly survived by selling away the mineral resources under their feet, and that was nowhere near as lucrative as Yarec’s own very specialized line of work.  Whenever Yarec’s back was turned, Ris was aware of people’s envious glares, and she wanted to whisk him away to a safe place where he would be more appreciated.

How are they so backward, yet so smug in their own superiority?  No wonder Yarec had to get away from here.  When he collapsed on the banquet table, Mrissa was afraid for a moment that the locals, with their blanket of self assurance, had actually smothered Yarec into unconsciousness.

She drove Yarec back to his house, leading a modest convoy.  The doctor was following along to see that Yarec got suitably situated, but most of the other cars were just loaded with the curious.  A sizeable fraction of the community seemed to have come along to wish Yarec well.  They all professed to be deeply concerned about his welfare, and of course they were willing to help out in any way they could.  By the time Yarec was tucked gently under the covers of his steel-framed hospital bed, the most daring folk were beginning to congregate in the front room of the house.  Mrissa banished them all except for the Kubiaks.  A few of the visitors were hesitant to go so soon—and not entirely convinced that Ris really had such authority over Yarec’s house—but they acceded to the country custom of never overstaying one’s welcome.

After that, Mrissa watched Yarec’s body deteriorate.  His eyes were bloodshot—splotched with red where they should have been white.  His skin was puckered with sores, and any new nick or bruise became another oozing purple mess.  He was seldom awake and ever more rarely lucid.  So it took Mrissa entirely by surprise when he called her over to him and asked—in the strongest, calmest voice he could muster—to become his spouse and heir.

The question was a real effort for him, and he was asleep again before she could even answer.  Just as well, she told herself, since she was not sure what to say.  She did not feel entitled to Yarec’s largesse.  What would they have said back in Red Stick if they heard I was marrying a terminally ill older man for his money?  Imagining those catty sneers did nothing to dissuade her from accepting Yarec’s proposal though.  No, so what what if a bunch of bitches who don’t know anything about my life would think I’m a gold digger?  That was not why she was marrying him.  The infection may have sped things up, but if events had gone more smoothly, and Yarec had asked her in a year, she believed that she still would have said yes.

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