“Dead Memories” is the second in the Stories of Elektra series, following “People of Light 1“. These interconnected stories will appear here in draft form and will ultimately be published as a single book.
Peri could see Luka in her mind’s eye, and it was all wrong. Rousing in slow stages from hiber after the long voyage to the Elektra system, she was fighting off memories that weren’t supposed to be there. They had been wiped long ago. Yet she was stepping back into them as she gradually awakened. Or were they mere dreams, those images of Luka falling, however vivid the sense of recalled reality might be? Dreams had a way of bringing back their own history of seconds before, seconds that seemed like years of lived experience. That’s what it must be, dreams. He was dead, and the memories were dead too.
Things still looked dark around Peri. She thought her eyes must be closed, but a voice said, “Ah, your eyes are open – can you see me?” Isn’t that what she heard? Who was she looking at in the dark?
She could open and close her eyelids, but that didn’t bring anything into focus. She shut her eyes tightly, as if the energy in those muscles could restore sight. Even that energy drained away. She relaxed. Then her eyes seemed to open. Everything was vivid again, but she was somewhere else.
She and Luka were scaling a building high above an empty street. She was having difficulty focusing her mind on what the mission was, though they had rehearsed every move a dozen times. She turned to make sure Luka was following, but, at the moment she did, he lost his foothold and started falling silently, staring up at her in mute plea. She panicked in helplessness but then thought in dream logic that she could fly down, grab him and get him safely to the ground. So she leapt and sped downward, but his speed increased just as fast as hers, and she could not reach him.
Down and down he fell, always just out of reach, until she realized that she was not flying at all but was only another falling object like him following the laws of physics and knew she could never catch up with him until they both were dead on the pavement. She saw him disappear in an explosive cloud far below her, and then the silent street was hurtling toward her. In that dream she fell through the street as if it were only a projection and tumbled back out of the vast cube of night in the strange city and then was flying along an endless stream through space.
A voice interrupted. She could see more now, medical staff moving her on a gurney?. They were moving her somewhere, out of the hyber-sleep chamber, getting her ready to function again. Those were people shapes, and she let them move her wherever. What did it matter when Luka was back in her mind? She could feel him, and something like hurt was shoving its way inside.
Luka, at least the version she was seeing, is a fantasy, she kept telling herself, perfect like all fantasies, as unlike the real man as can be. The reality of him was hit or miss, a guy who could be overwhelming in his attentiveness, sexy as hell, and there when he was needed – and a guy who could disappear on a whim, emotionally evaporate, abuse with a look, take off on a job without a word to her. So why was she dreaming of him now? What was the point of that? And the dreams were about him dying. That was probably the easiest way to think about her turning the tables and leaving him on a mission without so much as a note, as he had left her. Wait, is that what happened?
These days, going on a mission had to be thought of as the end. It was hard to keep track of time, but what matter? However you counted them it would be standard years before they had any chance of seeing each other again after a major assignment. That was the reality they lived until they had one last mission together. It was the memory of that time they had taken from her, or perhaps it had been burned out by the shock of thermonuclear blasts shattering her mind at the end of Varain’s rebellion.
These were the memories she could not be having, but she kept feeling she was there once again. Waking up in the midst of a crashed hover sled, she was staring at a wound gushing blood from Luka’s belly. Was it a real memory or a day dream that she could see so clearly now as she submitted her body to one ritual of withdrawal from hiber-sleep after another. Her eyesight was still blurring, but in her mind’s eye everything was clear. Then one image tumbled into others like a movie emerging from stills.
Luka, she knew too clearly even in her startled mind, had died six years ago. There had been no saving him then or now, not even in dream. But in most of these dreams, other images flashed through her mind, a glimpse of herself tangled helplessly in wire bonds, a flash of Luka on a rooftop, then of him receding into the distance, not falling but being left behind.
Left behind. A real memory to trigger other memories? Was that how she had wanted it? Luka, injured, dead? She sees him receding, but can’t place the scene, can’t even see where he is.
She focused on that remembered sight. It held a fact, a real event. Then she could see that he was lying on a rooftop, and suddenly that bit of a world opened up.
She was there again, not in a dream but in a real memory. It was real, wasn’t it? Was this part of what they wiped? Must have been. So much for that technique, the claim that memory was like a database that could be revised or deleted at will. She and Luka had been a team, both assigned to the madman Varain’s colony. No fantasy, no dream. They had been there at the end, sabotaging city roads and tunnels before the main assault. Yes, but now they had to get out. Something had changed. The danger was too great, and she had little doubt what that danger was. The city could be incinerated. Varain would never surrender. He was crazy enough to take his little kingdom straight to hell with him.
They were close to the evac point but not close enough. Luka had snagged a small landcar from the blast site they had narrowly evaded, but it was damaged and, compared to the robot tank following them, only chugging along. That beast had them in its sites. Luka turned suddenly into a narrow street that led to an old city section of alleys and dead ends. Just behind them, the corner of a building blew away, its rubble clattering down around the car. Luka pointed ahead to a building facing us at the end of the block. “That’s it!” The evac building.
He revved the last juice out of the engine and screeched to a halt 20 meters from its entrance. Peri looked back just as the tank was turning the corner, pushing rubble out of its path and lining up for a shot right at them. Luka lifted the grenade launcher and stood to level his aim on the car’s roof frame. The tank shot first but send a shell over the car and into the facade of the evac building, blasting away its wide doors and collapsing the first floor. A shower of rubble hit them, but Luka’s aim was good. He hit the tank just below the barrel of its cannon where he knew the main sensor cluster was. The grenade blew aside the barrel and stopped the vehicle in its tracks. Blinded, it was no danger to them.
But Luka was leaning forward clutching his gut. She turned him around enough to see.
He’d been hit in the side under his ribcage. She tested the depth of one jagged piece that was mostly sticking out of his tattered vest. The weight of it was leaning into her hand, and as she gently cut farther along the fabric that was holding it in place, the fragment, a sliver of metal, slid out of the shallow wound. It hadn’t torn deeply into his gut so it should heal up. But there were other fragments, more deeply embedded. She tore parts of his vest and shirt-front to get at the wounds. Then she directed some of the power in her suit through the biometal sleeve around her wrist to heat-suture the tears in his flesh. The jagged pieces that had penetrated more deeply had not punctured the chest cavity. At least he could breathe, but he was likely bleeding internally.
Then she made a rough travois out of his broken seat and dragged Luka’s unconscious body to the ruins of the warehouse. There was enough of a gap in the blasted loading door that she could drag him through after pushing some of the rubble out of the way. Through the settling dust inside, she spotted a stairway shattered by a heavy beam of old gouged wood that had fallen onto it. It was wedged in place well enough to form a crude ramp. If she could get to the roof and if that could hold the weight, she could set up the signal for evac there, maybe even haul Luka up as well. That was the only way they could both get out.
She looked around at the large open space that must have been a small warehouse or maybe a workshop. There were shattered tool racks, splintered fabricators and storage bins, the cloth-like contents strewn about. But not cloth, tufts of fibers, like old insulation. What was that? No time to think about it. Hurling things about in fear of losing the chance for evac, she pushed and kicked her way through the rubble looking for rope or cable of some kind. Turning toward the blown-in door she had clambered over, she spotted a roll of fiber cable in the wreckage of supplies on the floor. She yanked out enough to rig up a rough harness around her shoulders, tied the ends around Luka’s seat frame, then counted on the remaining juice in the suit’s legs to power her up over the beam toward the roof.
She struggled up the beam’s pocked surface, getting just enough traction to get the suit going. The thrust pushed her with surprising ease up the angled ramp to get her head above the roofline. Suddenly, there was a flash and small blast that showered her with debris and knocked her backward over Luka’s shoulder. The momentum carried them both in a tangle back down the ramp. The fibers pulled around Peri’s neck as she rolled to one side pulling Luka’s travois down on top of her. The weight was pulling the harness and choking her. But the shock of the blast also wakened him into a scream as the pain in his gut seized his consciousness. Peri felt the cable cutting into her neck and desperately heaved herself back over Luka, trying to unwind the wire and avoid rolling over Luka’s wound at the same time.
He screamed again, but the maneuver worked. The wire wasn’t choking her, but she could feel blood running down her neck. She released a blade from the sleeve of her suit to cut through the rest of the harness. She tore it off her neck and shoulders as if it had been a poisonous snake.
“So much for that idea!” she spoke toward the side of Luka’s face.
His eyes were staring wide in pain. “What the fuck did you do to me?”
“You took some shrapnel in the gut, and I’m trying to set up the evac signal. The suit trackers aren’t strong enough …”
“I know, I know – so get on with it. Leave me here and get the signal up first.”
“Still trying to give me orders?” She stood up beside him, shaking off the last clinging fibers from her suit.
“Shit yeah” he winced as he tried to explore his wounds with his hands. “You tied me down! What is this contraption. Get me the fuck out of it!” He arched his back off the seat, but the stabbing pain flattened him at once.
“Take it easy. You’re already coming apart at the seams. I’m just trying to keep you in one piece.”
“Oh,” he moaned, “you’re doing a great job!”
She righted the seat on the beam, this time getting behind it so she could push it up. Securing her heels against the scarred surface of the wood, she drew on the last power boost in the suit and a huge surge of adrenalin and raw determination to scud the clumsy rig along the beam. She crouched as low as she could to keep the force directed parallel to the improvised ramp and yelled and strained as hard as she could to keep Luka moving. Suddenly, the resistance was gone, the travois spilled over the end of the beam and tumbled sideways, and she stumbled headlong onto the flat roof. She was aware of one thing: it held her weight. Then she heard Luka yelling at her.
“Are you trying to fucking kill me? cause you’re making a master fucking piece of it!”
“Whine, whine,” she said but could see he had passed out. “I’m gonna get you out of here if it kills us both.” She stood up to get her bearings. The rest of the roof looked stable enough. The blast below had only blown out the posts supporting that one beam. Everything on the far side of that loading door was still bearing weight. The roof had a slate-like surface that raked slightly to one side for drainage, and it was wide open, plenty of room for them to be spotted under the clouds if she could get the transmitter working and draw them to these coordinates. This was an evac point. It was on their map. They needed to see it light up.
Peri yanked the small box out of the seat back where she had jammed it. It responded to her touch and began flashing the light that showed it was working. She put it down a few meters away from Luka, then set to work at his side. She’d have a little time before the trans-lift came to stop the bleeding, re-bandage his gut and see if she could get him conscious again. Luka would want that rather than just fading out.
She could hardly understand why she felt so strongly for him, but then just stopped her mind from going in that direction. She was forever trying to find reasons for the emotions she felt, reasons for feelings that had no reason in them. It was her nature to look for a cause, even when there was no single thing to point to. She’d gotten used to the questioning and kept it in bounds by telling herself to shut up from time to time.
She propped him up and set about rewrapping his wound. The bandage was soaked with his blood and shriveled up, almost inside the torn flesh. He would die soon unless could be healed up with the equipment the evac vehicle always carried. As she thought about the possible internal injuries and bleeding, she saw white flakes melting into the blood on her busy hands. Snow was coming down. Even amid sporadic gunfire and blasts, there was a peaceful stillness in the cloudy day, as the gentle snowfall thickened and started to obscure her view of the city.
Her gut was telling her something was wrong. She felt almost queasy with doubt. What had happened on that rooftop? Was this a dream? Where was she? She reached down and touched the slate-like surface of the roof. Solid enough. That much was real.
She checked the two remaining hand guns and the particle rifle strapped to her back. Her fingers worked quickly over each one as she looked to the east over fields of low, flat rooftops toward the hills where Varain had his little fortress. Northward toward downtown, she could see the bulk of the smashed city administration building and the burning hospital. The bots and drones would swarm out from there, checking for pockets of resistance, shooting or burning out anyone firing on them.
The scouring bots would sweep systematically toward the hills, guided by a fleet of drones. Those were the eyes of the blind shooting machines and would be swinging out in widening circles to feed them coordinates and organize them in groups as necessary for more firepower. She could only wait for a drone to pick up her signal and relay for evacuation to Kalos station.
A fusillade of shots suddenly reverberated through the street below. She crept up to the parapet and looked down. Toward the end of the block, three bodies lay in a bloody tangle, the rolling bots just twenty meters farther down. One of the bodies was small enough to be that of a child. The parents had tried to shield it, but the particle beams from four bots firing simultaneously would never be so selective. She looked for the flying drone that had targeted that family. She could hear a faint hum but could see nothing.
She pulled back from the roof’s edge and turned toward Luka, only to find the drone hovering over him, then darting over the transmitter, lastly to her. She stared for an instant at the single barrel of its beam weapon and held her breath. In another moment, it was gone, swooping over the street and on to the next block. It had clearly read the signal and would have relayed immediately to a ship, if one hadn’t already picked it up. At least they wouldn’t have to worry about being blown apart by friendly fire.
She looked across the rooftops to the foothills where Varain’s fortress HQ was. The snow and mist obscured it, but she had been in and out of the place so often she kept a map of its intricately winding halls and tunnels vividly in mind. The hillside house, even the hill itself, formed the merest tip of that iceberg. They had hollowed out most of the hill and buried the command center deep below the surface. The visible house was mostly a wreck now, its once imposing facade pocked with holes that gave it a look of sorry surprise. The real entrances were at the base of the hill, and one tunnel ran for a mile to a plaza near the center of the city. That enabled Varain to appear with dazzling suddenness as if out of nowhere in the midst of rallies.
Varain had sacrificed a lot of people to get control of the perimeter missiles. It was up to him as to how this would end. He could signal for talks, or he could launch a suicidal volley toward the orbiting ships. Brilikova’s defenses could easily deflect the outmoded missiles and turn back their hellish fire to consume most of the colony. He was crazy enough to get them all obliterated, the tens of thousands who had put their faith in him. The rebellion could not be stopped, he had always said, but the truth was they had never had a chance against the Dominium.
Luka woke up. “You should be gone by now.” She turned to him. “I’m signaling for evac, won’t be long.”
“I … can’t …” He was groggy and had trouble staying with the words.
“Can’t is shit. They’ll get you up. No problem.”
“Right,” he said. “Who needs all this … blood … uh.” The last was just a moan as he passed out.
She knelt by his side, stroked away some dirt and blood from his forehead and cheeks, then pushed her gloved fingers through his tangled hair. “You got us here, do you know that? We’re just waiting for evac, so don’t go losing it now.”
She remembered thinking this but then felt a gap in the memory. It was like watching a holo that started crackling with interference, blinking on and off. One moment it was clear, then next breaking up, then an empty space, then it was clear again in her mind’s eye. Was this the way it happened? Was she imagining things?
There were the years they had kept up this maddening bond between them, lost-track-of years because of hibernation and space travel. How old you were in earth years could easily be lost, but you knew how you felt and what your body could still do. Now here he was, half dead on the improvised travois, like a broken raft they had hoped to keep them both afloat in the time they’d spent apart. He was too woozy to hear what she wanted to tell him, but he knew they might not get out in time. And what did she want to tell him any way? What was between them? Why did anything have to be said? The only thing in her mind was “I’m sorry,” but that didn’t make sense. What did she have to apologize for?
She heard more drones but couldn’t make them out in the thickening snow. This city that could so easily be devoured by the raw hunger of fire storms felt peaceful as the snow quietly fell and began to accumulate on the rooftops, in the streets, on her sleeves and across the blood-red wounds of Luka. Peace was never so deceptive as she listened to muffled sporadic weapons firing, as the rough front of the drones and bots made steady progress across town toward the foothills.
She saw a bright flash to the north then seconds later the deafening blast hit them with its sonic pounding. Had Varain done it, launched a nuke at the fleet? The position of that flash was likely the northern battery on the outskirts of the city. She and Luka had mapped that site and all the other launching facilities, detailing their capabilities for the Dominium. There were more than enough to provoke a meltdown of everything and everyone in the colony. She waited for more flashes, all she would be able to see in this snow, but nothing followed. Hopefully that was a warning shot, one that Brilikova could easily deflect into space. Varain was trying to draw her into an exchange so the Dominium would be tarred forever with the massacre of a civilian population. There couldn’t be much time left now to get out of here. She recalled willing hard to pull the rescue plane into sight or hearing, but again something felt wrong.
She looked up into the roiling gray sky that seemed to be crumbling into a fine powder of snow, descending in silence. Suddenly, there was a twisting in the otherwise featureless looming sky, like a small whirlwind. It grew in intensity and reached down its funnel shape toward her. A wall of rumbling sound broke over her, and she was encircled by the invisible violence of a tornado of crashing noise. It must be a hovercraft coming straight down on her position, but this was no craft she was familiar with.
The flyer broke suddenly out of the dense clouds and shone its warming sensor beam down into the vortex that surrounded her.. “Prepare to board,” came the barren piloting voice. Peri saw she was alone in the beam with the flyer hovering only 20 feet above.
“Wait,” she shouted, knowing in her gut what this meant. “Get the wounded man first!”
The voice crackled about her. “No life signs but yours. Prepare to board!”
The telescoping filaments circled her, as she shouted out, “No! Wait! Don’t leave him!”
But she was already inside the flyer feeling its warmth penetrate her muscles. “We can save him! It’s not too late!” Then the small ship was rocked by explosive bursts as it sped off. Varain had launched an all out attack, a doomsday volley. In seconds, the city would be cinders. Instinctively, her arm reached out to surround the wounded Luka, but it was taken by a medic who hauled her onto a gurney. “Don’t worry,” she heard. “We’re out of the kill zone. You’re OK now!”
She recalled waves of anger, relief, guilt and anguish flooding through her in these memories of leaving Luka behind, but there was another knot in her feelings, a knowledge that this replay of what had happened at the colony years before was only what she wanted to remember.
Memories she had hoped were true, memories she had bought and paid for when her mind was wiped after flying through the vast shock waves and electrical pulses of those blasts that had incinerated thousands of colonists, and Luka as well. Wasn’t the truth different?
Wasn’t she flying that transport? Didn’t she decide to take one survivor and leave Luka behind? The twist in her gut felt that was closer to the truth, but she could not be sure.
She knew she was a survivor, and if it had been her or Luka in that moment she knew she would have taken the chance to live. It wouldn’t have been fear or panic to get on board first, it would have been quick and cold calculation. I am getting out of here. I’m going to live whatever happens to him or anyone else.
That’s what I do. I survive.
Whatever had happened, whether she was piloting the transport or waiting for it to arrive, she had come through, and he hadn’t.
Then she remembered the hard flight away from the colony, with the world engulfed in roiling waves of blinding light, racing walls of dust and flame, the lifting shock felt through the atmosphere. Had she been the pilot or the sole survivor? Did it matter? She got out. Luka didn’t. Wasn’t that the end of it?
But Luka, she felt in her bones, Luka, Luka! Something broke then. She felt it, like a great rift opening in the continent of her soul. There was a vastness and an emptiness, a sundering, or maybe it was just the imprint in her body of that onrushing wave of crushing pressure and violence in the nuclear blast.
Whatever it was, it had never gone away. She was the survivor. She had done what had to be done. And now she was arriving on Elektra and felt empty, so stupidly empty. The agency would use her, and she was not ready to be used.
Copyright 2023 by John A. Folk-Williams