Formal debriefing began the next day.  At first, he was questioned in his hospital room, but once they had clearance from the medical staff, the intelligence officers relocated the proceedings.  They moved to a quietly-appointed sitting room, two levels below the bridge, where they could all sit around a circular plastic table, whose black legs were molded into the shapes of reptilian claws gripped around enormous dark pearls.  Yarec nestled a cylindrical pillow behind his throbbing neck and closed his eyes.  He switched off the eyelid clock and let memories of everything he had seen fill in the darkness.  The three debriefers pressed him with questions, and he searched through his repository of images for the answers they wanted.

There were only a few questions that left him completely stumped, and they did not seem to concern matters of any particular importance.  He opened his eyes occasionally, to see whether the intelligence officers seemed to be satisfied.  Whenever he did, they always nodded and looked conciliatory, although Yarec did not quite trust them.  They were valuable allies, but if they had been his enemies, Yarec suspected that they would have utilized very different methods of finding out what precisely he knew.

When Yarec’s body had arrived on board, he had been barely conscious.  He had managed to answer a few very general questions and to hand over the hardware he had scrounged on his mission.  Then they injected him with a copious supply of tranquilizers for the transfer procedure.  His brain activity needed to be strongly suppressed while they mapped out the dendritic architecture.  Thoughts flitting across the cerebrum could confuse the process; as much as possible, the neurophysicians wanted a snapshot of his consciousness under absolutely fixed conditions.

The mapping process was extremely invasive.  It usually left the old brain in tatters, metaphorically if not quite literally.  The corpse left behind after the transfer was complete was supposed to be broken down into its valuable chemical constituents, but Yarec wondered whether the doctors could have pieced a near-dead agent back together sufficiently well to subject the unlucky soul to additional interrogations.  Thinking about it made him shudder visibly.  What an ugly idea.  However, he was confident that, at least on board this vessel, nobody had ever seriously tried to resurrect someone after their conscious mind had already been copied.  It was contrary to numerous regulations, and it raised ethical and philosophical questions that the States United Armed Forces were not staffed to deal with.

After several hours of close questioning, the intelligence men seemed satisfied.  Then Yarec had to repeat an abbreviated version of his story to the vessel’s commandant, Colonel-Admiral Dotchki.  Yarec did not care for Dotchki on a personal level; they were too different in their attitudes and convictions.  However, he respected the commandant’s effectiveness and his devotion to his job.  Dotchki ran a very smooth operation on this ship, and Yarec’s life had been saved more than once by Dotchki’s skillful crew.

Dotchki listened and asked a few perfunctory questions, but Yarec’s report was obviously not the most important thing on the commandant’s mind that afternoon.  He would get the information he needed later, from the debriefers’ fulsome memorandum.  In a hurry to conclude the interview, he eventually announced, “That all sounds satisfactory.  We’ll check back with you if I need anything clarified further.”

Yarec, tired after the long questioning, sighed and sat back in his chair.  For a while, no one spoke, and Yarec closed his eyes again and reactivated the clock display.  There were sounds of people scribbling on computing devices and shifting in their seats.

“Do I have another assignment?” Yarec asked when he opened his eyes.

“As of three days from now, you are on leave,” Dotchki told him.  “We’ll set you off at Sankirk.”

As good a place as any to spend some time off, Yarec thought.

“Enjoy yourself for a while.  Lie out on the sand.”  Dotchki grinned a little.  “We’ll get in contact when we need you again.”

The rest of Yarec’s stay on the ship passed uneventfully.  He had a few more debriefing sessions—to see if he had remembered any new details, and to clear up a couple minor points of confusion.  Yarec memorized the layout of Sankirk, down the level of individual streets in the city center.  He read a short novel about mountain climbers that he found in the computing hub’s recreational library.  Each day, he had a full health screening, and the exams showed that he was rapidly and successfully adapting to the new body.  By his scheduled departure time, he would definitely be ready to travel.

On Yarec’s slated departure date, the old aircraft carrier had a scheduled rendezvous with a much smaller craft.  The schedule of daily events, posted on several display screens mounted in the wardroom and at various points throughout the hangar deck, listed a mid-morning cargo transfer to a three-person courier boat.  The boat, jocularly referred to as the “nail ferry,” carried some of the products that were produced at the small factory facilities that were part of the ship.  The carrier housed Yarec’s allies’ best medical services and also their best facilities for biological compound manufacturing.

A number of organic materials were considered extremely precious.  While any compound could be manufactured from its raw elements, given sufficient time, space, and perseverance, it was frequently advantageous to take a shortcut, by extracting a precursor from living, or recently dead, tissue.  That had been the destiny of the complex biological molecules in Yarec’s old body.  Neurotransmitters were harvested and modified with extra methyl and amine groups to make powerful psychoactive drugs.  Muscle proteins would be reprocessed as a food source for microbes.  Even lipids might become industrial lubricants.

It’s a grim reality, Yarec throught, that today my old body and some day the body I’m wearing now will be recycled to make food and medicine.  As he climbed on board the nail ferry, crewmen were loading up vacuum-sealed cases filled with the output of the ship’s factories.  Some of the containers would hold sludges derived from floating kelp and jellyfish.  However, some of them probably held the residua from his own lungs and central nervous system.  He tried not to think too much about that fact, as he helped stow the cases in the refrigerated hold.

He had donned the attire of a style-conscious businessman.  It showed he was affluent enough to support himself, but not so rich that he could afford unlimited extravagance.  It was a reasonable reflection of his actual financial position.  He had saved up enough to retire if he decided to.  However, he felt he had good reasons to keep working.

The crew members on the nail ferry were taciturn.  Depending on where their next delivery was going, they might be considered lawful couriers, smugglers, or hostile marines.  Each one kept an automatic rifle slung at the ready, and as soon as a smudge appeared at the horizon, a weapon was trained on it.  The lieutenant in command peered at the target through a pair of digital binoculars.  Their photomultiplier microarray told him whether the foreign vessel was a vast cargo ship or a smaller, speedier craft.  Heavier vessels were easily avoided, but the appearance of a speedboat called for vigilance.

Independent pirates were plentiful.  They operated in clusters of three or four craft, with which they would surround much larger boats.  Sometimes they were brazen, with machine guns—or even rocket grenades—posted on the bows.  Usually, however, they made a nominal effort to make it look like they had legitimate reasons to be out at sea.  Their fast boats were often converted pleasure craft, purchased heavily used on the secondary market or claimed by violence on the high seas.  Many of the pirates were amateurish and easy to spot, even if they decked their craft with superficial trappings of luxury, so as to resemble wealthy recreational sailors.  Such superficialities would not fool the lieutenant’s binoculars, if he saw crew members who were heavily sunburned and armed like shock troops.  Yet there were evidently some boats so stupid that they were taken in by such ruses; even some of the most primitive corsairs managed to thrive.  However, any pirates who posed a threat to the nail ferry would need to be much more able.

As they moved in toward Sankirk’s artificial harbor, encounters with other vessels grew more frequent.  However, they were still hours from shore when they heard an unexpected burst of rocket fire.  It came from a distant boat that the lieutenant had been eyeing warily.  Its course would bring it very near to the ferry—generally a reason to be concerned.  It was small, with room for five or six people, at most, but it did not presently appear to be occupied by more than one.  Yarec knew a lone boat, minimally crewed, was unlikely to be dangerous, and he was sharply taken aback when the first small military rocket fired into the air.

“Everyone, stand ready,” the lieutenant snapped.  He pointed his binoculars again, while his two subordinates aimed their rifles.  Yarec’s hand went to his own sidearm.  It was a small pistol, easily concealed under his high-collared coat.  He crouched down beside the others, watching over the gunwales.

The first rocket arced high into the air, travelling at an extremely steep angle.  It was propelled by a pencil of yellow-white flame, dissipating into a wispy tracery of gray smoke.  Going almost vertically, it was not going to hit anything.  Unless the person who had fired the rocket was remarkable inept, it must have been intended as a signal.

The boom of another rocket followed soon after the first.  This one followed a different trajectory, angling closer to the surface of the water.  The two missiles separated, their exhaust trails looking like a pair of canted antennae rising from the dilapidated boat.  The surrounding waters, stung by the exhaust gasses, churned around the hull, rocking it chaotically from side to side.  The turbulence interrupted the boat’s forward motion, and it was decelerating markedly.

In the boat, there appeared to be just the single occupant at the controls.  Yarec could not make out the details of the individual’s face.  No eyes or mouth were distinguishable at this distance, but even so, the countenance seemed to give an impression of menace.  As the craft came closer, Yarec’s sense that something about the occupant was off only intensified.  Like watching the slow approach of death itself, Yarec thought.

Suddenly, the boat accelerated.  The occupant had gunned the throttle to full strength.  In the same lurching movement, the figure disappeared out of view, dropping behind the protective resin walls of the gunwales.  All signs now pointed toward an imminent attack, and all weapons, even Yarec’s tiny pocket pistol, were turned in the direction of the speedboat.  One rifle aimed at the crew member’s best estimate of where the primary electric drive motor was located.  Another fired two sharp warning shots above and ahead of the prow.

Its speed did not flag, although the boat seemed to waver uncertainly on its heading.  They let a few more seconds pass, simply watching.  “Fire two more warning,” said the lieutenant.  His voice was loud enough to be easily audible, but no more.  It was not stretched with urgency.  This was an incipient crisis, but he accorded it no more importance than was absolutely needed.  This fellow had dealt with innumerable marine hazards, man-made and products of nature.  Whether Siberian pirates or thirty-foot swells, he addressed each danger dispassionately.  At times like this, the lieutenant seemed more like a super-intelligent robot than a mere human being.  Perhaps, Yarec mused with black humor of one awaiting an imminent attack, that’s why I never manage to remember his name.  He doesn’t seem like a real person.  Yarec suppressed a chuckle.  I wonder if more of him is artificial than just that prosthetic pinky he waves around.

The second volley of warning shots passed over the nose of the boat, and the response was no greater this time.  The speedboat careened in the ferry’s direction.  “Hit the engine,” the lieutenant told his second sailor, and the man complied.  It took only a single shot.  The slender polycarbon bullet punctured the thin hull and located something vital.  The motor emitted a horrible electric scream, like a metallic panther being tormented.  A single spurt of red-brown fluid shot out of the hole.  Then liquid began flowing in the opposite direction—salt water sloshing into the round opening and the starburst pattern of cracks that had sliced out from it.

As water glugged irregularly into the bottom of its hull, the boat pitched to a halt.  It’s propellers had seized, and the choppy ocean tossed it awkwardly from side to side.  In no more than twenty heartbeats, it went from being poised for a ramming assault to being a billows-tossed derelict.  They saw no sign of the lone occupant.  Taken out by the same bullet or the shocks it created, Yarec thought.

Cautiously, with their own engines’ soft hiss barely audible over the splutter of the ocean, the ferry’s crew brought their own craft up to the erstwhile attacker.  “Keep your weapons ready,” the lieutenant reminded his men, although the warning was unnecessary.  Everyone was waiting expectantly, awake to the possibility that the speedboat’s driver might at any moment rear up, weapons ablaze.

“Coming alongside, sir,” one of the crewmen intoned, as their hulls slipped to within an arm’s reach.  Rifle barrels angled downward, toward the human shape they could now see splayed at the bottom of the boat.  Seawater had pooled around it, but it was not afloat.  It lay, as if weighted down, against the bottom of the boat, atop a herringbone pattern of traction strips.

“You there, get up!  Keep your hands above your head.”  The lieutenant repeated the order and tried several other common maritime languages, but the shape did not move.  The water had risen to nearly cover its head, and there were no bubbles from the downturned face.  The man—it appeared to be a man—was almost certainly dead.

“Finsh, get in there and flip him over.”  The lieutenant was hesitant, and he added, “Be careful.”

The man Finsh nodded, with an assured-sounding, “Yes, sir!”  He slung his rifle across his back and swung his body over into the rocking speedboat.  A sudden large swell struck as he landed.  Finsh wobbled momentarily, and Yarec winced.  He still half expected the corpse to leap up and disembowel the sailor while he was off balance.  However, the body did not move, and Finsh was an excellent sailor.  He recovered his balance and rolled the limp body over with his waterproof boot.

The dead man’s face was a rictus of agony.  The features were dry and twisted—distorted into something that looked practically more demonic than human.  The eyelids were fixed open in a rigid, sunken stare, and the eyeballs themselves were discolored.  The orbs had the hue and texture of old wilted rose petals, once smooth and white but now beginning to look mossy.  Around the man’s mouth grew a few days of withered beard, and the skin beneath it was unevenly furrowed, with long creases running down from his temples, around the almost lipless line of the mouth, and down the emaciated neck.  The man’s muscles had hardened, even before death, into a look of bitter hatred.  Now, the corpse stared up at the sun as it leaned toward the western horizon, angry at all life that was continuing on without it.

Lower down on his body, they found recent wounds.  His wrists and ankles had chafed against restraints.  The arms, legs, and chest had a spatter of round red punctures, some of them still oozing gore.  “Juiced,” Finsh grunted, and the others nodded, in sad agreement with the assessment.  Somebody had decided that the interior fluids of this fellow’s body were more valuable than the person himself.

For those with time and excellent resources, it was possible to grow whole new cloned bodies.  Yarec was lucky that his employers considered him worth that level of investment.  Even when he didn’t need an entirely new body, parts of him—skin, blood, organs—could be replaced with perfect genetic copies.  However, for the unfortunate mass of humanity, there was generally not time, nor funds, nor facilities to produce biologically identical replacements when body parts were affected by disease or injury.  So they had to accept material drawn from the bodies of others.  In some municipalities, the sale of human fluids and tissues was legal and efficiently regulated, but even where it was banned, the trade existed.  Hospitals and suffering patients bought and sold their kidneys and cerebrospinal fluid.  They made deals through shadowy couriers, paying in negotiable currency or salable electronic components.

Sometimes, people even resorted to theft.  The man in the speedboat had been robbed of every valuable liquid his body had contained.  Hormone proteins could be more cost efficient to drain from a living creature than to synthesize with bacteria.  So his glands had been tapped.  The secretions could sell for an excellent price while they were fresh, and they might even save a buyer’s life.

It had probably all happened aboard another large medical industry ship, anchored away from the shore.  The surgeon might have intended to harvest his liver, spleen, and heart as well; but if so, the fellow must have escaped somehow.  That would have been an impressive achievement for a person in his condition—to win free and navigate towards shore, firing off the rocket flares in an attempt to call for help.  Or perhaps the killers had set him free for some reason; the truth would almost certainly never be known.

The man’s identity was also going to remain a mystery.  His thin shorts and shirt revealed nothing about his origins, and the crew agreed unanimously that it was too risky to carry the body of an obviously murdered man back to port with them.  So they arranged his limbs in positions of repose and covered him with a waterproof blanket.  Then they left the ruined speedboat to sink on its own.  In a few minutes, the ocean was sloshing over the sides.  The hull filled completely with water, and the doomed boat disappeared, stern first, beneath the surface.  It would drift down to rest on the continental shelf, where it would form an open coffin for its last unlucky passenger.

The rest of the trip was very quiet.  Yarec sat near the bow, looking back and forth between the frothy waters and his hands.  The fingers still looked unfamiliar to him.  He was not entirely at ease in this new body, and he did not like to think about what must happen to his old bodies once he had vacated them.  The crewmen kept to their mundane work and spoke little.  Nobody felt like discussing what they had seen.  The dead man’s countenance, with its twisted devil face, was too close in their minds.

Yarec’s profession was risky and extremely physically demanding.  He was only still working thanks to extensive artificial assistance.  Once a body was sufficiently battered that it was no more use operationally, the neurophysicians made a meticulous scan of Yarec’s brain.  It was supposed to capture every dendritic branch and the connections at every synapse, so they could imprint all the chemical and morphological features onto a freshly grown cortex, in a new body grown from his own DNA.  In this way, his memories and consciousness passed from body to body.  There was a continuity of self, and some might have called it immortality.

However, a process this complicated did not work perfectly in every instance.  Sometimes agents woke up after a transfer with pieces of their memory missing.  The recollections were not usually gone; they were just inaccessible—blocked by some imperfection elsewhere in the duplicate brain.  Such minor glitches were not usually permanent.  Very often, the memories would come back after another transfer—the lost days or years just there again when the patient awoke.  That was a frequent scenario, and the best one, but the human brain was a complicated ball of glial cells and nerve fibers.  Sometimes, the memories had other ways of coming back, and they were not always perfectly intact when they did.  Moreover, with too many consciousness transfers, the small errors did gradually begin to accumulate.  Ultimately, it could only be a downward slope—slow enough for most patients to last scores of iterations, but not forever.

Yarec ran through some memory exercises.  Their word patterns had a soothing familiarity.  He enunciated the sounds clearly but softly, as he pulled on a set of garments appropriate for venturing out.  The illogical nuggets of verbiage came easily, proof that he hadn’t suffered any major loss of cognitive function.  If I ever forget these drills, then I’ll know I’m in real trouble, Yarec thought.

He exited the hospital, which was a separate two-story building constructed on the ship’s underdeck.  Glass doors, tinted to allow perfect transparency from the inside but appearing dark as bonfire smoke to anyone peeping in from the exterior, slid open with a friendly whirr as he approached.  Overheard, the sterile pastel ceilings of the clinic were replaced with gray metal plates and massive arching girders, crusted with salt and rust.

The ship was old—not ancient enough to predate the economic collapse of the superpowers, but nearly so.  It had been constructed by one of the first generation of fractious successor states, but the mighty shipyard that birthed the vessel had rusted away long ago—lost like so many other heirlooms of humankind’s illustrious past.

Atop the ship sat a tall bridge complex, bristling with the stalks and finials of half a dozen communication and surveillance systems.  Around the bridge spread the flat expanse of the landing deck.  The vessel belonged to an era when airplanes were still plentiful, swarming like hot wasps across the skies above the battlefield.  The carrier still supported a squadron of fixed wing fighter craft and a number of helicopters, but most of the cavernous hangar deck was now occupied with medical and manufacturing facilities.

Yarec left the transfer clinic wearing an off-white gown and a pair of brand new but ill-fitting boots, whose soles clicked against the riveted floor of the hangar deck.  He crossed past the blocky command core, hanging like a cubical stalactite from the bottom of the bridge.  He would probably receive his next assignment there in a few days, but he avoided the place now.  He found his way to a familiar staircase and descended, down into the old gray-enameled tunnelways of the ship.

His fingers ran lightly over the spiraling guard rail.  The paint had been worn off near the top of its cylindrical surface by the passing of so many grubby hands.  Yarec stepped off the steel mesh steps at the second landing.  With a jaunty twitch, he ducked through an open hatch into a vaulted corridor and set off at a brisk pace, in search of some old friends.

There were cabins along the hallway, for visitors and the permanent officer corps.  If space was needed in the clinic, they would bunk Yarec here.  There was room on the carrier for nearly fifteen thousand sailors, but Yarec knew that it had probably never been crewed to capacity.  The number on board never rose beyond a thousand nowadays.  This passageway was almost empty, and there were lonely clanging echoes was he walked.

Yarec turned a corner and brushed past a junior lieutenant.  There was an insignia pinned to the shoulder of Yarec’s hospital gown, and the young woman turned him a perfunctory salute.  Yarec offered no gesture in reply—only a grunt of acknowledgement.

He located the stateroom he was looking for, which belonged to a retired couple.  Yarec knocked, and the oval portal swung back.  The hinges moved smoothly; the only sound was from the soft decompression of the flexible plastic bumper that made the closed door waterproof.  The mistress of this tiny homestead, who kept her front door so excellently oiled, beamed out at the visitor.

“Oh, hello!” she said airily.  “It’s wonderful of you to come by.”  Her body looked relatively young, for she had changed it many times.  Her hair, cropped short above her ears, was a thin, wispy brown, interrupted by one or two lines of gray.  Her face dimpled when she smiled, but even without a nest of wrinkles, Yarec could see something about her face that reminded him she was very old.  He wondered whether she remembered who he was.

“It’s good to see you, Elara.  It’s me, Yarec.”  Her expression did not move.  No sign of surprise or recognition or anything, Yarec silently observed.

“Come in, please,” she said softly, stepping out of the way.  “Jonah, Yarec is here to visit.”  Her husband was lying down in narrow recessed bunk.  He sat up, his pudgy frame shaking uncertainly as he moved.

“Sit down, and tell us what you’ve been up to,” the man said.  His wide face bore an innocent-looking grin—a sight seldom seen in places like this floating fortress.  That was exactly why he had come to see this pair, Yarec reminded himself—to get away from the bitterness of work.  He needed a respite from the emotionless calculation that his profession demanded.

Yarec shook a proffered hand, then dropped himself into a chair beside the room’s small square table.  Yarec looked at his host.  Nobody remembered this man’s birth name—not even he himself.  His wife called him “Jonah,” which had been one of his professional aliases—after a legendary hero who had been swallowed by a whale and given the monster its baleen throat.  Too many transfer cycles had robbed Jonah’s mind of its potency.  His wife had been an agent too, and most of her skills and memories were also gone.  They had worked together skillfully for many years, as infiltrators and thieves.  Time and again, they had returned from missions crippled or maimed, but there was always a new body waiting—cloned flesh with a blank, undifferentiated brain, ready to receive a nearly-perfect imprint of a unique human consciousness.

Eventually, however, near perfection was not sufficient.  They had waited too long to retire, as errors in their duplicate neurocircuitry compounded—until all their knowledge and tradecraft were washed away.  Now they were no real use for anything, except to each other.  It was joked that when she had first been assigned as Jonah’s partner, Elara had hated him, but that was the first thing she had forgotten.

“I just finished a job,” Yarec told them.

“You don’t look familiar,” Jonah said.  “Does that mean the job went badly?”

“Not too badly, I think,” Yarec said with a grin followed by a grimace.  “I did get pretty slammed around at the end, though.”

Elara clicked her tongue, as if she disapproved of such exploits.  “You should be more careful.  You can’t keep injuring yourself and then moving to a new body.”  Yarec wanted to offer a defensive demurral—that he was cautious, as a rule—but Elara waved him to silence with a sternly crooked finger.

“I lost a leg once, you know,”  Elara announced.  This was news indeed to Yarec, and his eyes widened.  Jonah must have known the story already, but his flat affect showed no evidence of either recognition or surprise.

“I got it shot full of pellets, and they amputated it in the prison hospital.”  She made a hacking gesture at the level of her knee.  Her husband reached over to stroke the spot tenderly as she continued.  “I was in prison, on crutches, for nearly a year.”

“Where was that?” Yarec asked.

“Point Daring,” Elara answered, “I think.”  She bit her lower lip pensively.  “No, no, it couldn’t have been.  It was… such a long time ago.”

“I lost a leg,” she picked up again after a morose pause.  “The phantom pains were hellish.  I woke up screaming in my bunk every night for weeks.”

Jonah squeezed her leg more tightly, his fingers roving high enough up her thigh to make Yarec a bit uncomfortable.  “You got out of that place,” Jonah murmured softly.  “You’re out now, starling.”  From what Yarec had seen of starlings, that seemed a rather unsavory nickname, but they were one of the few birds that had thrived through the human-wrought devastation of the major landmasses.

“Yes, I got out, and I showed a few of those guard bitches what I thought of them.  I made it back, and they naturally fitted me for a new body.  The pains were mostly gone by then, except for occasional twinges.  They got me a new body, with two legs, and the pain came back, even worse than before.  I felt like I had three legs, and the middle one was constantly being electrocuted.”

“Wow,” was all Yarec could think to say.  His mind still felt rather fuzzy from his own transfer.

“It passed eventually, but that was a bad time,” Elara sighed.  Yarec nodded, indicating his understanding.

“Now then,” said Jonah, perking up now that the story was over, “have you been down to the mess yet?”

Jonah led the way down another flight of stairs to the officers’ dining hall, where he and his wife ate every day.  The ship had originally been built with separate kitchens and dining areas for petty, warrant, and commissioned officers, as well as enlisted sailors.  However, there was no need for most of those facilities now.  The skeleton crew managed with two modest-sized mess halls, and the others had been closed off or converted into laboratory space.

An artistic crew member had painted a mural over the arched entrance to the officers’ mess, something that would never have been allowed when the ship was new and military discipline still tight.  The mural depicted a bearded personification of one of the solar system’s outer planets, harpooning enemy warships with his trident.  Waves crested around his torso, and his face was grim.  Wispy clouds drifted across the painted sky, and in the distance, a pod of whales blew froth into the air.

Jonah ducked beneath the arch and found his regular seat at an isolated table near the kitchen.  He sat down, Elara across from him, and waited to be served.  Yarec ate with them, but nobody really talked.  Jonah stared down at some fiber mash that had been reconstituted in a heavy cook pot, raising a bite to his mouth every now and then.  After the meal, Yarec shook hands with the narcotized couple and returned to the clinic.

His head was throbbing by the time he got to the head of the stairs.  According to his eyelid, he had stayed out longer than the surgeon’s instructions allowed.  Yarec generally recovered quickly from his transitions, but he still needed extra rest while his metabolism normalized.  The neurophysician would give him a stern lecture and a powerful sedative.  Tomorrow, they’ll give me another full physical exam and take about a deciliter of blood, Yarec grumbled silently.  What a joy to wake up to.

Molten Gold

May 12, 2014

A couple days ago, I took my car in to the Honda dealership because one of the warning lights had turned on. (It turned out the problem was a bad seat belt buckle, for which there is apparently a lifetime warranty.) While I was waiting for the service techs to diagnose the problem, I saw a couple minutes from what I assume was the very end of the second Hobbit movie.

I didn’t realize it was The Hobbit at first though—not until I recognized Martin Freeman. In fact, I saw the dragon, but I discounted the possibility that this might be one of Peter Jackson’s efforts almost immediately. The reason was that the quality of the computer animation was pretty bad. I saw a stories-high gold statue of a regal-looking figure (probably Thror, although I thought it looked more like a normally-proportioned Norseman than a dwarf), which the good guys seemed to be trying to gull the dragon into melting. The dragon fell for it, and the result was one of the worst CG sequences I have seen recently, in which they hope to drown the dragon in the molten gold. (As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of Alice in the pool of her own tears.)

Animating liquids is hard. (I remember that this was parodied in an early episode of Rick Mercer’s black comedy about the Canadian film industry, Made in Canada. The producer in charge of one film was explaining to the head of the Toronto studio that a German firm was going to add CG water to all the lake scenes, which were actually being filmed on dry ground, and that nobody would be able to tell the difference. The boss’s response: “We’re ninety minutes away from one of the largest lakes in the world, and you’re having the Hun add the water in post?”) But the gold in this movie did not look anything like a real liquid—not like water, not like liquid metal either. (Liquid metal is wonderful to watch. Try some YouTube videos of mercury flowing around.) It looked like the kinds of effects I would expect to seen on television, or a strictly children’s movie, or even a children’s television show. So I was astounded to discover that this was indeed a high-budget production.

I did not plan to see any of the Hobbit movies anyway, but this really convinced me I would not be missing much.

Chapter 2:  Underway

He had the sensation of awakening in a surgical recovery room.  Those rooms tended to smell either like vomit or disinfectant, and Yarec actually preferred the former.  If he could smell that the place had been washed all over with a strong cleanser, there would be a nagging suggestion at the back of Yarec’s mind that somebody had recently died there.  Fortunately, all he caught here was an understated whiff of digestive problems.

He was oddly squeamish about hospital deaths.  Dying in battle was not noble, but it was naturally, in a way.  The world was a vast and cruel place, and there was no quarter for those partisans who lined up to oppose its movements.  Everyone knew that being out where real action was happening was dangerous.  Yet a medical clinic was supposed to be safe.  People saw doctors to be cured, and usually they were; that made it all the more unnerving when they died instead, even in their place of refuge.

Yarec had woken up more than once to find himself strapped to a narrow bed, but there were no restraints holding him this time.  He flexed the fingers of his deft hands and admired the skin of his palms, clean of any scars or discolorations.  His arms were muscular, and their length matched his height, which was a little below average.  Curly black hairs ran down his naked chest and disappeared under the white plastisilk sheet that maintained his modesty.  Yarec tried to sit up and kick the sheet away, but he felt dizzy as soon as he had propped himself up on his elbow, so he allowed himself to sink back down into the featureless foam of the mattress.  Now his mouth felt tight and cottony, and he ran his tongue back and forth, back and forth, back and forth over his teeth, trying to get used to the odd feel of them.  Well, he reminded himself, this is now the body of Yarec ban Silfien.

When he felt capable of standing up, Yarec located a pair of slippers with microtextured soles to prevent slipping.  He found himself quite steady on his feet, although the extra traction was still welcome; every so often, the floor pitched slightly, and he was still a bit slow to react.  When he moved his legs they stung a little.  Lactic acid in the tissues was inevitable.  It built up—the product of a certain amount of anaerobic metabolism—while a cloned body sat in storage, and it took a bit of moderate activity to flush it out.

He padded out into the hallway to the call station, where a junior practitioner was tapping her stylus against a folded-up computing lamina.  She unfolded the two-dimensional device as Yarec approached.  Running a fingertip along the quartering creases, they melted away.  The lamina automatically smoothed itself out and adjusted its texture for greater rigidity, quickly transmuting into a hard display panel.  The practitioner held it up in her left hand while she scribbled the beginning of the patient’s name with the stylus, so it could call up his attending surgeon’s case notes.

“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked brightly.  Her voice was pleasantly disarming, as she looked the patient over—observing his gait and posture, taking note of his bloodshot eyes.  This was an elite medical facility, despite its odd location, and the professional staff were extremely sharp.  The junior practitioner checked the time with a wink and entered a new annotation in Yarec’s records.

“I feel pretty good,” Yarec answered.  He leaned his forearms against the call station desk and tilted his head from side to side, stretching out his neck.  “My shoulders are sore, but the legs feel good.”  She made a noncommittal sound and entered the information.

“Do you know… how was my last mission?” Yarec asked.  The insignia on the woman’s sleeve indicated sufficient intelligence clearance to discuss such things, and he was eager to find out, informally, how the results of his most recent infiltration had been received.

“I got the impression that the commandant was pleased, but I didn’t pick up too many details.  You were in pretty rotten shape when they brought you down here.”  Yarec nodded, reflecting gratefully on the excellent work the staff had done.  “They ordered up a standard body for you, and we had to get right to work on the consciousness transfer.”

She glanced at Yarec’s chart one more time, before folding the sheet back up.  With a bit of finger pressure at its edges, the computer relaxed to a consistency like flimsy paper.  As she rested the device in a metal basket on her desk, she said, “You really shouldn’t walk around too much.  Why don’t you have a seat over there?” and she motioned toward a heavily padded chair.

The patient accepted her suggestion and sank down into the yielding, plastisilk-coated cushions.  With its gently angled back and foam-stuffed arms, the chair felt much more comfortable than the strictly functional hospital bed.  Yarec dozed off and had a confused dream, full of distorted faces painted in lurid colors.

He woke after only a few minutes, shivering violently.  “I feel so cold,” Yarec stammered, trying to keep his new teeth from knocking.  The practitioner at the desk spoke a few words of command jargon into her communicator unit, then crossed to Yarec’s side.  She covered him with a programmable blanket and adjusted its controls for maximum thickness.  Then she read off his vital signs from the digital display on the easy chair, which had been dutifully collecting the information transmitted by the multiple sensors affixed to Yarec’s body.  She was soon joined by the member of the nursing staff she had summoned.  He moved quickly to the patient’s side, although it was easily readable in his long, measured strides that there was no emergency, no reason for undue concern.  The pair adroitly raised Yarec to his feet and assisted him back to his room.  Then they laid him out on his bed and gave him a sip of restorative serum.

I’ve never felt this kind of side effect so badly, Yarec mused as he was relaxing back into slumber.  The shakes diminished, with the heavy blanket sealing in his natural warmth.  His aching neck began to relax, and that was the last sensation he remembered for many hours.

The ship was pitching more when he woke again that afternoon.  Oddly, the uneven footing seemed to make it easier for him to get up and walk around again.  He’d seen other patients wake up in the vessel’s hospital ward and immediately start vomiting, but today the motion of the North Pacific seemed to be soothing.  Basing operations at sea had advantages and drawbacks.  Supplies were regularly an issue, and there were many other logistical concerns.  However, security was the paramount problem, and a vessel at sea was a mobile and, in many ways, impregnable fortress.

Yarec pulled himself up again, taking things more slowly on this second attempt.  He let his legs dangle off the bed, and the blood flowed more uniformly through his extremities.  After about an hour, a member of the medical staff checked him over and pronounced him fit to take a minor excursion.  On board the ship, he held the breveted rank of captain in the States United Armed Forces.  That entitled him to various minor perks and gave him mostly free run of the vessel.  There were not many places to go, but he had some old haunts he wanted some time to explore with his new limbs.

Grand Moff Scorpius

May 9, 2014

When Star Wars, Episode III was being made (I incidentally predicted the correct Episode III subtitle around the time Episode I came out), I was still holding out hope that George Lucas might manage to pull off a successful end to his six (down from nine) film cycle. That did not happen. When I saw the film, I arrived in the theater a little late. I missed the opening scroll, but the rest of the film was so bad that I will probably never go back and see it again. (For reference, I am such a fan of the original trilogy that I went through a phase where I watched all three every weekend.)

However, one specific thing I was hoping to see in Episode III did appear. I wanted to see Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin was clearly one of the emperor’s most important lieutenants, so it would make sense from a plot standpoint. Moreover, I thought it would be a nice tribute to the actor, Peter Cushing, who had such an illustrious career in British science fiction and horror films before Star Wars. (It should be said, however, that many of those films are really bad, in spite of Cushing’s talents as a actor. The first Doctor Who dalek movie is terrible, much worse than the original, lower-budget television version. I haven’t watched the second Doctor Who movie he made, since the television serial it was based on, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” is already terrible.) Of course, Peter Cushing being dead, I had hoped they would use some computer wizardry and old footage to put together the appearance.

In reality, they used a lookalike actor, which I still appreciated. I was also hoping they would have Tarkin posed so that his feet could not be seen—alluding to the fact that in Episode IV, the character’s feet are never on camera. (The reason, apparently, was the boots for the costume hurt Cushing’s feet, and so he did not wear them.) That was not how the scene was shot, but it was still nice to see the Grand Moff (or whatever his title was then) on screen.

Tarkin

This is all old news. What I had not previously noticed (in case you’ve forgotten the post title after reading this far) was that the minor role of Tarkin was played by Wayne Pygram—Scorpius himself, from Farscape.

Naturally, I was not the first person to notice this.

More on the Warlord

May 7, 2014

I finished reading the Warlord trilogy. Given my previous statements about the unreasonable effectiveness of fistfights in science fiction, it seems odd that I should like these books, which do involve an awful lot of punching. To be honest, the fighting scenes, although they are very important component of the story, are not my favorite parts of these stories.

Kiell often manages to defeat the toughest enemy agents with his boots and fists. Although the story makes clear that he would prefer to use firearms whenever possible (and an awful lot of enemy mooks end up felled by pistol fire), the dramatic fights against the Deathwing leaders are usually hand-to-hand affairs. However, the books go out of his way to explain why this happens again and again. The Deathwing’s arrogance is its greatest failure. Every single Deathwing agent Kiell meets passes up the chance to just shoot him dead. Sometimes, they want to interrogate him, but mostly they just want to defeat him in single combat. Kiell has the advantage of having unbreakable bones, which usually makes the difference in his battles. However, the routine does get old by the fourth book. The last time The One announced that he wanted to beat the legionary to death, I just groaned.

On the other hand, the alien landscapes in the book are often quite compelling. The Cluster, where most of the second book takes place, is a grouping of asteroids that move together and are collectively able to hold onto a breathable atmosphere. That’s absurd, scientifically. The mass required to condense a body into a spherical form is much smaller than what is needed to hold onto an atmosphere that would support Earth-like life. The Starwind, a planet-wide storm which troubles the planet Rilyn when another body passes too near its orbit, helps Kiell defeat the Deathwing in book three. A somewhat similar concept was used by Poul Anderson in Fire Time*, although neither one is particular realistic. In Day of the Starwind, nobody can apparently predict when the wind will start, until they see the rogue body approaching in the sky. Actually, with only twentieth-century technology, we can predict the positions of bodies throughout the solar system centuries in advance. Still, it makes for a pretty cool story, especially when the primary target audience is teen-aged or younger.

*Fire Time is a book that introduces a whole slew of interesting ideas, most of which turn out to be nothing but background scenery. The plot is abruptly resolved when the main characters decide to open up with ray guns.

He was almost alone in the room now.  The guards were dead, but Maldanko still had a few minutes of life remaining.  Yarec picked up a flashlight and stood over the commander.  The man’s face was purpling like a dragon fruit, but he was still breathing.  Yarec pointed the pistol barrel at Maldanko’s head.  “You’re dead already, mister colonel,” he hissed.  “No secrets now.”  Maldanko coughed into a growing puddle of gray spittle.  “Answer my questions, and I’ll let it go easily.”

There was an impersonal plaint from Maldanko’s communicator.  Yarec tapped his toe roughly against the colonel’s side.  “Answer, Maldako,” his growled, but if the colonel still had the capacity to understand, he showed no sign.  “Answer me!”  Yarec aimed a strong kick, but he could see there was no point in continuing.  He fired one more pistol shot, at close range, into Maldanko’s temple.  Then Yarec reloaded and slipped out into the corridor.

One task was done; Yarec had felled the colonel.  However, he still had a second job to complete, although it was of lesser importance.  Yarec’s personal vendetta would end with the deaths of all Maldanko’s ilk—the leaders and key operators of their power faction.  However, the countervailing forces who employed Yarec, arranging and financing his activities, had priorities beyond bare revenge.  They wanted whatever operational data Yarec could lay his bloody hands on.

If the information were stored in digital form, it would probably be useless, unless someone else betrayed the key to its encryption.  Still, Yarec grumbled to himself, I suppose I owe an honest effort to bring back something.  So he jogged cautiously toward the lower-level control cluster—the place where Yanaka had shot up a main control unit.  The door was sealed, and the lock possessed its own internal power cell; but Yarec had an electronic key, lifted from Maldanko’s body along with the colonel’s communicator unit.  The panel swung open without complaint, and Yarec peered inside with his pistol ready.

He was surprised to find the control area unoccupied.  It had evidently been abandoned in haste, although what misapprehension about the ongoing emergency had prompted the monitor to leave his post, Yarec could hardly guess.  Hesitantly, he stepped inside and pulled the door behind him nearly shut.  He could see now where the the xaser had cut through one corner of the room and attacked a block of rather dated electronic machinery.  Around the perfectly circular incision ran drips of recently molten plastic, and he could tell from the blue flicker within the hole that a small fire was still burning deep within the dead apparatus.

He grabbed anything that looked like mobile data storage, including a hefty optical chip that might have a chance of containing something more useful than hourly power usage logs.  As he emerged back into the corridor, Yarec realized that the two blunted wounds on his forearm were still oozing blood.  A trail of occasional red circles had followed him down the hall, and though they were undetectable in the darkness, he did not want anyone to be able to trace his movements once the immediate confusion had settled down.

He had to get up six flights of stairs to reach the roof.  That was the primary escape plan, which they had worked out in advance on the ship at sea.  Yarec found it reassuring, having a plan to follow—even if he typically needed a to improvise a great deal.  So far, they day’s events had required very little original thinking, but something had to be done about the blood.

Yarec zipped back to the control cluster and unwound a section of electrical sealing tape.  It stung as he laced it over the bullet holes, and it would no doubt be even more painful getting it off—if his body survived long enough for that to matter.  Then he flashed his light up and down the empty passage and, still seeing no sign of any guards, dashed in the direction of the stairwell.

He made it up two flights; then Yarec saw lights above him.  There was the sound of booted feet, gnashing against the corrugated steps.  Yarec killed his own light and ducked out onto the landing.  The master key opened another door, into a bleak hallway.  He moved as quickly as near silence would permit, but he could hear action on the landing behind him.

He realized he was caught, almost.  Yarec bounded around a corner and hammered on a door.  There was no response, so he tried another, and this time he heard movement from the other side.  “What’s going on?” he panted.

The door opened a crack, and a flashlight beam poured out into the hallway.  Yarec mimed being blinded by the sudden burst of brilliance.  The man on the other side looked at him without recognition and asked suspiciously, “Who?”

“I’m Tris Racker, from The Vanbaw Company,” Yarec said, sounding all in a fluster.  “The power’s out, and I heard noises, so I….”  But by the time these words were out, the other man was dead.  A keen knife whipped out from its concealment behind Yarec’s back and slit through the fellow’s burly chest.  A second man, still seated and equally taken in by the infiltrator’s feigned bewilderment, fell dead from gunshot.  Then Yarec was through the room into another corridor, the doors closing behind him with no more noise than a faint snick.

The blackness continued.  I’ve been awfully lucky, Yarec told himself, or the garrison here is a lot less competent than I expected.  The limited visibility had made his escape feel uncommonly easy, but he reminded himself not to rely on that.  With every minute that passed, it became more likely that major power would be restored, and with adequate lighting and an active sensory net, the security force would be a much more substantial obstacle.

He navigated according to his mental atlas to a second, narrower staircase.  It should have been guarded, and he heard soldiers moving as he approached it, but they were headed in the wrong direction.  With another prolonged blink, Yarec checked the time.  Somehow, in spite of the fluidity of his getaway, time seemed to be passing too quickly.  There was a specific time he had planned to reach the roof, and his best hope of escaping alive was to arrive there right on the dot.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, he told himself, the unspoken syllables coming in time with his footfalls on the staircase.  Abruptly, he heard a burst of machine gun fire coming from down below.  Yarec hunched over and ran faster.

This staircase ended on the ground level.  There was only one way to the roof, and he expected to find that route well fortified.  Yarec ran down a hallway, his stolen light bobbing in the blackness and a hard tramp of feet coming on invisibly behind him.  There was another burst of fire, and he heard bullets caroming off the walls around him.  Then one struck his calf.  The armor plating deflected it, but the impact and the pain it carried nearly made him stumble.  He looked back and shot off half a clip of bullets, then sprinted around a corner.  He heard the echoes of more shooting, then unexpected silence.

Here’s the door I need, Yarec told himself.  He hesitated, much longer than he should have, and the pain welled up in his leg as he stood there, staring at the steel-reinforced portal.  Finally, he rapped on the door with the butt of his light.  Then he stepped aside and crouched down.  With the light off, he withdrew into the darkness like an incorporeal specter.

At first, there seemed to be no response.  The door stood impassively, unbothered by the recent eruption of violence.  Then it swung out, so forcefully it could have knocked Yarec senseless had he been standing directly in front of it.  Yellow diode light poured into the hall.  There was only a momentary pause—perhaps not even long enough for the guard on the other side of the threshold to ascertain that there was not a friendly figure waiting there in the corridor—then a long cacophony of automatic gunfire.  The slugs slammed against the opposite wall.  Some embedded themselves in the concrete, but most simply glanced off and eventually clattered to the floor.  Yarec was well out of their path, hugging the wall beside the door itself, but the resounding noises and vibrations from the bullets were so close that he felt like they were peppering his body with tiny impacts.

He waited for a pause in the shooting.  When it came, he slid instantaneously back from the wall—placing himself in the firing zone but also giving him an oblique-angled shot into the room.  He fired twice then threw himself to the floor, rolling when he hit it, back away into the ragged blackness.  The second shot struck the enemy guard.  The man collapsed backward, but before he fell, he had time for a reprisal.  There was another volley from his machine gun, and one of the slugs hit Yarec in the hip.  It found a chink in his subcutaneous armor and burrowed deep toward the bone.

Blood started gushing, much more freely than from the earlier surface wounds.  Yarec wrenched himself to his feet and staggered back to the doorway.  The door was still vibrating softly from the force with which it had been slammed open.  Yarec stumbled over the fallen body.  The guard did not seem to be dead, but Yarec did not bother to stop and finish him off.  He made his way straight to the narrow spiral stair that dominated the back corner of the small guard post.  While the room could have easily held two people, there was no one else present.  It was as if the second warder had been inextricably called away, as if whoever was in control now believed that the intruding assassin was in a completely different location.

 

However, whatever confusion there had been about Yarec’s position had evidently been remedied by the explosion of gunfire.  He could hear people rushing after him again, tracking him by the sounds of violence that he left as a wake.  Up the stairs he moved—as quickly as possible, trying not limp and grinding through the searing discomfort.  He made it up to the first landing, dizzied and panting.  He saw the time again on the inside of his eyelid.  Then he gripped the railing and started the last excruciating stage of this bloody ascent.

With each step, he felt like he was tripping his feet on the edges of the risers, but he still managed to keep stumbling uphill.  The door at the top was locked, but somehow he found the key again, and the door swung open, with the rusty screech of hinges that had been exposed to decades of salty air.  Outside, it was a night of no stars, and only a faded aureole marked the spot where the waning moon had hidden itself away behind the taut clouds.  It was not raining yet, but Yarec could smell that it would.  Despite his pain and the sounds of armed pursuit echoing up the staircase, Yarec felt oddly happy to be out of the stark concrete donjon.

He saw the white light of a helicopter, riding like a flare across the heavens.  The beam swept toward him, and he signaled his best approximation of the correct pattern.  Something like a long, flexible metal hook swung in his direction.  It quivered with the air around it, as the helicopter blades lashed again and again.  Yarec reached for it, and somehow it bore him aloft and finally into unconsciousness.