Harlan Ellison is one of the most respected living authors of science fiction. However, I have not actually read that many of his stories. I decided to remedy this just a little last week, when I stumbled on one of his most famous works freely available on the World-Wide Web.

The short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” is quite famous, and it’s available here. (There are other versions online, but beware: some of them are missing a key piece of dialogue, as well as the graphical elements that Ellison inserted as scene break markers.) It’s quite a story—a vision of with some really unusual elements. If you haven’t read it yourself, have a look; it’s not very long.

The narrative tells of the last five survivors of the human race, who are imprisoned by a defense computer network that became sentient and wiped out everyone else. It keeps the final five alive, virtually immortal, to be subjected to every kind of torture that its machine brain can devise. In some ways, that makes it a rather conventional example of the “vision of hell” genre. However, there are a lot of unusually effective elements, and there is also quite a bit of subtext to the narrating character’s account.

One thing I immediately noticed was that the evil computer’s name is AM. To me, this seemed to be a deliberate references to the AC computer series from Asimov’s “The Last Question” (which I have previously discussed). The computers in both stories were seemingly godlike, although with practically opposite temperaments toward humanity. I’m not sure whether Ellison meant this as an homage toward the older story or a jab.

After reading the “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” a few times, I think it’s quite good, but it wasn’t quite the masterpiece I was expecting based on its reputation. Some of the scenes do not really work that effectively, in my opinion. Most jarring was context of the brief tale told by Gorrister, one of the five survivors, explaining AM’s origin. The way the history is laid out seems too brief; it doesn’t feel like a narrative that is repeated over and over again, becoming almost ritualistic. Ellison presents just enough information for the reader to understand the basics of what is going on, but on that account, it just feels too staged.

The story is also quite sexist. Or, at least, the narrator is quite sexist. To a certain extent, this is certainly intentional. One of the most important ways that AM tortures the five surviving humans is by making them become less than human, in a variety of ways. Their capacities for rationality and civility are impaired; the prisoners are made to hate each other, for the amusement of their even more hated captor. However, I cannot rationalize away the discomfort I have with the way the sexual relationships among the characters is portrayed. The one woman Ellen, whom the four male characters alternately protect and terrorize, has to satisfy them sexually through a hundred and nine years of captivity. There is a tacit assumption that this is the kind of setup the characters would fall into, when left to their base natures. (This is compounded by the fact that Ellison himself is not known for his appropriate behavior toward women.)

On the other hand, some of the tortures the characters endure are quite creative—unexpected. The captives are given filth to eat, and they eat to fill their stomachs. However, when AM prefers to keep them hungry, it can also keep them alive, even as the pangs gnaw at their innards. When AM gives them the opportunity to have some fresh meat, it comes in the form of a live roc—which AM has apparently created in its boredom, just to torment the last survivors of its creator race. The torment of hunger certainly worked on me as reader. (I once went for fifty hours without food; maybe that has something to do with it.) Maybe the other torments worked better on other readers. The opening scene, with a copy of Gorrister’s body hanging from the ceiling, did not seem that strong to me; changing the name of one of the survivors to the absurd-sounding “Nimdok” did not seem like a much to do to an otherwise ruined man.

Finally, the psychological questions raised by the story are somewhat interesting. Ted, the protagonist and ultimate hero of sorts, claims that he is the only one of the survivors who have not been subjected to neurological or behavioral modification. What seems very clear is that Ted is wrong about this—although whether that is because he also has been subjected to some kind of programming, or whether none of them have, is open to question. Ted’s paranoia is obvious, but he knows that he all-powerful entity that controls the Earth really is out to get him. He attributes Ellen’s promiscuity to a fundamental change in her character, but a reader might simply conclude that she had to deal with her situation as best she could.

Two days later, Yarec was observing with a high magnification digital telescope.  He had disabled the speaker that would have beeped to alert a recreational user that something was moving toward the tiny field of view.  He was lying prone underneath a cheap plastic tarpaulin.  The material was ragged and smelled like tar, but it was sufficient to hide Yarec and his companion.

It was a windy day near the shore, and the tarp rustled noisily, letting a few unseasonably chilly ocean breezes whip across the two human bodies.  Mrissa lay to his right with her head propped up on her elbows beside his.  As the gusts disturbed their primitive blind, she had been edging progressively nearer, and now her softly muscled leg was pressed firmly up against his own.  She was sharing his warmth and he, silently grateful, hers, like two cold, hungry predators lying in ambush, observing their prey.  If she was the orange fox, what was he? Yarec wondered.  A gray wolf?  He felt old and gray—spiritually, if not physically, exhausted.

But of course, it was the physical that was on his mind now.  There was nothing flirtatious or playful about Mrissa’s casual closeness.  That was what made it so disarming.  He found her presence exciting, and she seemed completely unaware.  He could have blamed the overactive hormones in his new body, but the sound of her breath beside his ear and the subtle, distinctly feminine odor of her sweat seemed to make the blood pound in his neck.  It might all have been an act on her part, evincing such disinterest while slowly drawing in closer to her male partner.  Maybe it was always this way, when she worked alongside a man.  Entice him first; then seal their alliance with more than words or money.  This possibility certainly occurred to Yarec, but he chose not to believe it.  It was too late to second-guess his involvement in this venture.  I’m already committed to her job? enterprise?  He wasn’t sure what to call this, since he had a hunch that their partnership was slated to last well beyond this single mission.

“There, look,” Mrissa whispered, pointing at one of the heavy box trucks clattering across the bridge.  Yarec turned the telescope toward it.  Gouts of greasy black smoke spat from its square steel smokestack.  The vehicle’s flank bore no logo or corporate insignia, only a couple of long lengthwise scrapes marring is drab gray-white exterior.  Mrissa and Yarec had watched vehicles entering and exiting the island complex from several vantage points, but this truck was special.

Yarec had bribed the driver to carry him past a security checkpoint on the other side of Sankirk.  He made up a story about being wanted by the police for failing to pay import duties on some smuggled luxury goods.  The driver was not really expected to believe that fib.  When the authorities set up impromptu checkpoints, they were usually more focused on nabbing wanted  burglars and murderers (of which the city had many) than tariff evaders.  However, whatever the nature of his actual crime, Yarec looked harmless enough, with a couple days’ beard, short but halfway stylish haircut, and clean casual clothing.  So the driver accepted Yarec’s second offer (the first had been too low) and let him squat in the back, behind a heavy load of crates.

The truck driver would never have allowed Yarec to sneak into the manufacturing facility that way.  However, a half kilometer ride past a group of police checking identify documents and photographs against their database of outstanding arrest orders was no big deal.  The driver put Yarec off a few blocks past the checkpoint and just around a corner.  The man lifted the sliding door on the back of the box truck, and the passenger hopped down and disappeared into a side street.  The first part of their test of the facility’s security was complete.  It seemed that well away from the actual plant, the security posture was rather relaxed.

Yarec had ridden beside cargo headed directly for the factory.  He had poked around among the crates by the light of a solid state lantern, but they were unlabeled.  There was little he could have learned without cracking one open.  However, he had left something behind that would enable the second part of the security test.  Near the bottom of one of the packing crates, Yarec affixed a flat, inconspicuous box, adjusting its color to match the blue-gray exterior of the crate itself.  The box would remain inert until it was activated by a remote signal.  However, it was shielded against radiation except in a very narrow range of frequencies.  That would make the device virtually unnoticeable if they swept the truck for electronic devices before letting it inside the factory.  Once the cargo was through, Yarec would beam a signal at the magic wavelength, and his surveillance device would start to function.

The truck stopped once in the middle of the span, then again near the end.  Guards, dressed in plain sky blue with various numbers of black stripes ringing their forearms, closed wire mesh gates in front of the truck and behind it.  At the first stop, the driver got out and showed his identification and some kind of cargo manifest.  A man with four full stripes examined the digital documents.  He seemed thorough but casual, chatting amiably with the truck driver and clapping him on the back before sending him on his way.  The inner gates swung outward, and the truck rumbled on to the second checkpoint.  The examination there was more perfunctory, and the vehicle was quickly waved in past the final gate.

Beyond lay the island, with an expanse of asphalt stretching all the way down to the water’s edge, where it disintegrated into cracks and potholes.  The truck followed a pair of chalky yellow lines, right up to the riveted portals at the end of the long arched structure.  It idled there.  Then the doors slid back, with a click and a hum that Yarec could only imagine.  The gray light of diode lamps was visible in the interior, before it was blotted out by the bulk of the truck in the entryway and the doors sealing closed again behind it.

Mrissa took the observation scope and watched for a while longer, as guards shuffled around the entrance.  Her left eye was closed, displaying the delicate red freckles on her eyelid.  Water lapped roughly at the bottom of the concrete wall beneath their perch.  As time passed, the swells were growing larger.

“How long do you think we should give them to unload?”  Yarec asked.

“Maybe half an hour,” Mrissa replied, without removing her eye from the objective, “assuming they unload immediately.  The reports from inside said important shipments were handled pretty quickly.”

Yarec nodded.  Blinking, he read off how much time had already elapsed since the truck had driven inside.  He felt tight; the pressure of waiting was bothering him.  He cleared his throat and asked, “Where are you from originally, Mrissa?”

The question obviously surprised her.  She jerked her head around, leaving the telescope for the moment unattended.  Her brow was wrinkled, although it was difficult to read precisely why.  Is she offended? Yarec wondered.  Or did I remind her of something unpleasant from her past?  He added tentatively, “I hope you don’t mind my asking.”

Mrissa’s hand ran awkwardly through her hair—a nervous gesture.  There was still concern marking her brow, but those first hard lines around her eyes were now perceptibly softer.  She grimaced and ground her teeth for a moment, then said, “I came from a pretty ordinary family, I think.  We moved around on the southern coast, by the great gulf.”  Yarec nodded; he had been around there two or three times.  She continued, “My parents worked in resource extraction.  Mom did mapping work, and my Dad did labor on the strip mines and gas wells.”

“That can be dangerous work,” Yarec murmured, and then he was immediately sorry he had said it.  This was obviously an emotionally fraught subject, and he had no wish to bring up memories of any tragic industrial accidents.

“It was dangerous,” Ris echoed with a nod.  “Dad never really got hurt though, apart from some knocks and bruises.  He was lucky, I guess.  I know some of the people he worked with sometimes did get badly injured.”  She scraped her knuckles through her hair again and went on, “I never talk about this stuff any more.  Everything is about business, you know?”

Indeed, Yarec reminded himself.  I pretty much never talk about my own parents.  Who’s going to care about my childhood, anyway?  I was such a different person then.

Then he blurted out:  “I grew up a long way northeast of here.  Up high, in the desert.  It was really dry, and I think it was one of the old deserts, an authentic natural wasteland.”

“But you went to sea eventually, didn’t you?”  Mrissa’s question was rhetorical; she knew the answer.

“Aye,” he said, using some old nautical jargon he had picked up from reading light fiction.  “I found my way to the sea.”

Then their oddly personal conversation seemed to be over.  Yarec held out his hand, and Mrissa returned the telescope.  He raised the device to his eye, and though they were lying almost prone, he felt the urge to lift up his head as he gazed through the eyepiece.  For a few seconds, his head and shoulders modelled the pose of an ancient and gallant sea pilot peering through his spyglass.  Then he saw something moving on the island, and all frivolity vanished from his manner.

The great doors were opening again, and Yarec tried to get a good view of what was going on inside.  Then another box truck came rolling out of the opening, the doors resealing behind it with a definite, but at this distance inaudible, clank.

“Is that our truck?” Yarec asked as it emerged.  If it was, it had been processed awfully quickly.  He scanned for the characteristic markings on the sides.  They were there.

“That’s it,” Mrissa confirmed.  She could tell without even using the scope.

Yarec rapped his fist against the chipped concrete beneath them, in a gentle celebratory gesture.  Before the doors shut, he had transmitted the narrow-band activation signal to his spy device inside.  He had pointed the transmitter at the open doors, aiming with the help of a collimated infrared laser.  It produced a reflected spot, not to be seen with bare human eyes but easily detected using the digital scope.  The dot traced across the building wall as Yarec homed in on target.  Then it disappeared into the portals’ open maw—that narrow gap in the metal enclosure that could not easily be screened against incoming microwave radiation.

Assuming the device had not been discovered or damaged, it should now be active.  The pickup for its transmissions was already on, waiting.  The signals coming out of the factory would arrive in intermittent bursts.  This was another measure aimed at avoiding detection; a source radiating in sporadic bursts was much more likely to remain unnoticed than a continuous wave transmitter.  The signal blasts were compressed, encrypted, and heavily redundant, so that Yarec would receive a full account of whatever his device detected, even if he missed most of the information packets it sent.

The video signal came out on a palm-sized screen Mrissa held out in front of them.  At first, there was nothing; the screen was a pure, untroubled silver-gray.  Then the first batch of data arrived, having seeped through the chinks in whatever electromagnetic armor surrounded the place.  The images were instantly crisp, limited only by the resolution of the simple solid state display.  Yarec tilted his head to minimize the chromatic distortion, which made the colors appear warped when the screen was viewed from an oblique angle.  They could study the video imagery again, on a better display, later in a more secure location.

They saw a wide angle view from the side of a packing crate.  A few more crates were visible nearby, while workers in uniform strode to and fro in the background.  One fellow stepped up to look at something on the top of one of the crates.  Then a woman arrived with a dolly and loaded a container up.  Mrissa and Yarec watched as she wheeled the cargo away, toward a blocky secondary structure inside the arched outer walls.

Yarec’s attention turned to the interior architecture, which featured a double row of square constructions.  The lines of buildings began about two hundred feet inside the entryway, past the open plaza where vehicles to be loaded or unloaded could maneuver.  The nearest buildings appeared to be windowless, at least on the sides Yarec could see.  They were largely plain concrete constructions, distinguished only by huge painted numerals and colorful placards posted by their enameled steel doors.  However, a couple of the more distant structures had patterns of heavy metal tubing snaking across their exteriors, and Yarec hoped he might get a better view of those arrangements.

There was another bustle of figures, and the bugged crate started to move.  Someone, only visible as a collection of limbs sometimes protruding into the field of view, levered the box off the floor and onto another dolly.  Then it was off with a jittery roll.  Yarec watched as the point of view passed between empty containers and hulks of idle machinery.  I just hope I didn’t bug a box of toilet paper, he thought.

There was a pause.  Then the movement changed direction.  They appeared to be approaching the third building on the left, marked as number five.  However, building number seven, standing next to it, looked quite a bit more interesting, with stainless tubing protruding from its roof.  The tubes trailed down off the edges like hanging plants, connecting to pressurized cylindrical tanks or disappearing through holes in the concrete floor.

“That looks important,” Mrissa said, and Yarec clicked his tongue in agreement.  They would look over the video of building seven in more detail later.

Up to this point, the audio pickup on the spying device had only been getting undifferentiated industrial noise and scattered clusters of syllables.  With offline audio post-processing, their computer ought to be able to pull a lot more intelligible information out of the recording.  However, for the moment Mrissa and Yarec had to rely principally on their own ears.

Now they heard a clear conversation.  It seemed to be occurring between whoever was controlling the dolly and someone standing even further out of view.  “Watch out,” said a rough male voice.  “Keep this away from the boxes of biological over by seven.”

“This is on its way to five,” came another voice.  This time, the sex was harder to determine, but the speaker sounded much younger.

“Just keep the shipments separate.”

That was all that was said, and the dolly’s motion, which had slowed a bit during the brief conversation, returned to its previous brisk pace.  The container found its way between buildings five and seven, and the video feed showed why the first speaker had been concerned.  In the aisle between the structures, crates had piled up awkwardly.  Some of the cargo was stacked snugly against the building walls, but most of it seemed to have been dumped there almost haphazardly.  Blue-gray crates stretched out in disorderly, jagged lines, and Yarec agreed that if the unloaders continued abandoning their cargo so carelessly, it would become confusing just which box belonged where.

“They’re running out of storage space,” Yarec said.

“Yes, yes,” Mrissa muttered.  She watched as the crate they were monitoring was rolled toward the wall of the alley then dropped off the dolly with a clunk.  Then it sat there, not moving.  The camera’s view was mostly obstructed by other containers, but Yarec and Mrissa kept watching, hoping something else interesting might happen.  Another crate arrived and was slid in beside the first, but that was all.

After another half an hour, Yarec was growing too restless to continue, and the onshore wind was picking up speed.  There was probably no more to be learned from the device, although they would leave the receiver running; if anything else interesting was caught by the bug’s camera, the computer would notice it and bring it to the humans’ attention.  However, Mrissa and Yarec had noticed one more rather interesting thing while the container was in transit.  As they moved into the space between the buildings, they had gotten a cockeyed view of the entrance to building seven.  The heavy tubing avoided the entranceway area, but there were signs posted on either side of the reinforced doors.  Yarec couldn’t make out what they said, although a computer might be able to decode them.  However, the signs were clearly marked with the particular lurid blue color commonly used to distinguish the presence of the most virulent biological agents.

The target for this job was a factory.  A local group militia group, allies of Yarec’s own allies, had gotten a spy inside the facility.  It lay on one of Sankirk’s outer eyots, connected to the rest of the city by a single bridge, heavily guarded.  On the island itself stood one long metal building, with a arched roof that stretched all the way down to the ground.  Covered trucks passed through the dual checkpoints on the bridge, then disappeared into the vast maw of the building, which clanged shut again as soon as they were inside.

The militia had known for a long time that something dangerous was going on there.  There were shipments to and from enemy factions, but whatever weapons or tools were being manufactured out on the island were shielded from view by the tight security.  So they had settled on infiltration, bribing one of the agents who hired people to do menial jobs in the outer parts of the plant.  When they got a man inside, he discovered that there was a complex of lesser buildings inside the single large one.  Materials bustled back and forth from one structure to another, and from what the infiltrator saw, the workers there must have been breeding microbes in colossal numbers.

However, he could not get access to the laboratories where the tanks of bacteria were actually being grown.  On his first day working there, cleaning up the bay where the secure trucks were loaded and unloaded, his supervisor had warned the man to stay well away from the labs, which were off-limits for both security and safety reasons.  However, he had mapped out the basic arrangement of the complex, and it was obvious where the critical biological work was being done.  He also saw pressurized cylinders being shipped to enemy facilities, in ever-accelerating numbers.

His militia superiors decided something needed to be done.  They might have mounted an assault on the factory themselves, and they were probably strong enough to succeed.  However, they were not specialized in urban warfare.  They mostly operated in the hinterlands north and east of the city, where there was ongoing strife over control of valuable rare earth deposits.  Yarec, in contrast, was an expert saboteur, experienced with working in industrial environments.  When the militia leaders got word that he was coming to Sankirk, they immediately moved to hire him for the job.  I probably wasn’t meant to get a vacation at all, Yarec mused ruefully.  They just sent me here to start on another project.

The document also explained the terms of his proposed employment.  The payment they were offering looked adequate.  It was less than he’d been paid for his last infiltration job, but there was no standard schedule of fees for Yarec’s kind of work.  Naturally, Yarec could get whatever materiel his employers could lay hands on at short notice, and the woman, Mrissa, was evidently at his disposal.  Her skills were considerable, according to the computer.  She could be an ideal partner, if she wasn’t going to shoot a venomed needle into his back.

This is too slick, Yarec sighed to himself.  Whoever recommended me for this knew me too damn well.  He loathed bacteriological warfare.  Virulent pathogens were too hard to control, so they were basically only deployed in two situations.  Either they were released by an utterly defeated force as a last, pointless work of revenge—striking one final bitter blow against the erstwhile victors from beyond the veil of death; or else the users simply wanted to obliterate all human life across a wide swath of territory.

Yarec had read that in the olden days, when nations had maintained the self-salving fiction that there were rules and moral precepts in warfare, using bacterial spores against an enemy had been considered a crime.  Yarec agreed with the basic sentiment, although he did not believe that there was anything so uniquely evil about using germs—not compared with the other dire tools the ancient armies had had at their disposals.

He had seen a video once, about the horrors of old-fashioned warfare.  It must have been intended as a morality play and produced in the waning days of the continental nation-states, when someone thought that people could still be convinced that a different way forward was possible.  It concerned a decades-long war between two fictional city-states only a few miles apart.  They had worn each other’s resources down, until the attrition left soldiers armed with lasers, poison gas, and longbows fighting side by side.  A benevolent time traveller had arrived from the future, and he tried to convince both sides to give up their obviously pointless struggle; but he was running out of time, because one side was preparing to retreat into radiation-proof metal shells, to give up their last humanity in order to assure ultimate victory.  The last part of the video had been lost, so Yarec did not know how the story ended, but the devastation of the real North American interior was plain to anyone who travelled inland.

Yarec read the decoded message two more times, and he was forced to conclude it was genuine.  It had used the work “rugose,” which indicated that the mission was considered a high priority, although not the highest.  So it appeared that he would be taking the job.  Having made that decision, Yarec remembered that he was extremely tired, and that left him with the question of where he was going to sleep.  The bed in his first hotel room had felt considerably more comfortable than the one here, but he had not left any luggage there.  Nor did he want to venture out on the street at night carrying the hand-scrawled decrypt.  If he went out again, he would need to destroy the message and then decode it again in the morning.

So Yarec stripped naked and squeezed between the plain white sheets, lightly treated with a perfumed disinfectant.  He scowled, annoyed that he had not really gotten to spend a single night on vacation, sleeping how and where he chose.  The mattress sensed that he was settling in for the night, and the communications unit on the bureau beside the bed frame flashed an invitation for him to set a wake-up alarm.  Yarec ignored the suggestion, and the screen slowly faded into quiescence, leaving only the flickering colors of the street outside to filter in and cast a few long shadows.

Waking up late was not Yarec’s usual policy, but it was well into the morning before he dragged his body out of bed.  His mouth felt fuzzy, thanks to all the alcohol and the artificially scented air.  He paused at the barred window on his way to the small toilet cubicle.  Pushing back the curtains, he saw people at work in the street below, clearing up the debris from the last night’s partying.  The city-state of Sankirk was stable enough to have a professional class of city workers.  There were steady jobs in law enforcement, public records, and maintenance, financed with high rates of taxation.  During festival time, the street cleaners had to sweep the pavement and gussy up the public spaces during the day, so that revelers could make a fresh mess of it every night.

The hot water in the shower stung his shoulders.  Yarec scrubbed himself down with whatever liquid detergent the hotel had left for him, then stepped out to find a towel.  In the tiny mirror above the washbasin, he could see that the skin of his face was excessively pink, sunburned.  He dabbed some liniment around his forehead and nose, then re-donned the clothes he had been wearing the night before.  They felt clammy with his old sweat, and he made a note to purchase a fresh wardrobe before his afternoon meeting.

He had one of the local specialties for breakfast—a long pastry filled with sweet and savory cream.  The dough was still warm and crispy from the oven.  The filling tasted both fruity and meaty, loaded with lipids and protein.  Sitting next to him at the diner counter were two teenagers.  The boys wore gray mesh shirts like the toughs Yarec had disabled the day before.  They were grumbling about trouble finding work and the rank unfairness of it all, between sips of iced, carbonated, caffeinated beverage.  Yarec ignored them.  Sometimes he was interested in local goings-on, but not now.  He had his new job to figure out.  Yarec chewed the tough pickled vegetable pod that had come as a side, until it was down to a nub of a stem.  Then he paid the bill and left.

He took a two-hour bus tour around the city, matching firsthand observation with the street map he had committed to memory.  The tour naturally focused on Sankirk’s historic and cultural landmarks—the statue of the dockworker on cemetery isle, the Meridianic amphitheater, and the massive rectangular Great Hall of the Republic.  The route largely avoided the seedy industrial districts, where tourist hijackings were not unknown; so they came nowhere near the factory island that Yarec was plotting to assault.

Nonetheless, he found the tour quite edifying.  He observed the overarching pattern of the city—the way structures were laid out and the way motorized traffic flowed on the bridges and causeways that connected the low-lying islands.  In between the driver’s scripted anecdotes and queries from languid tourists, Yarec asked a couple simple questions, about Sankirk’s prominent seaweed farming industry and the low-level strife in the mountainous hinterlands to the east.  The driver had little to say about the latter topic, but he did confirm a few of Yarec’s suppositions about the nature of the conflict he was entering.

Yarec preferred to research each of his targets thoroughly, although time for that was not always available.  He did not entirely trust his memory of past encounters and tactics, and it was a good idea to review the more advanced operational practices on a regular basis.  So he found a lending library and paid the single day usage fee.  They issued him a computing lamina that was tied into the library’s vast collection.  Yarec carried it back to an isolated carrel and unfolded it.  He called up Riland’s Urban Warfare and then scanned through several references on weaponized bacteria.  Satisfied that his new brain hadn’t misplaced any key details, he departed.  On the way back to his original hotel, he purchased another pastry and two new sets of clothes.  In his room, he stripped off his sweaty outfit a second time and started getting ready for his meeting.

He arrived back at the cocktail lounge around half past three and settled himself in a corner booth.  By day, the dim reddish lighting seemed tawdry rather than subtly alluring.  A couple of lingering lunchtime customers were still at the bar, and small groups of festival revelers occasionally stopped in to grab cheap drinks that would maintain their buzz while they wandered the streets.  This was not the kind of place Yarec would ordinarily have chosen to enjoy an afternoon cocktail.  There were plenty of nicer bars in Sankirk that served better booze in more interesting locales.  A few were even located on mobile floating platforms, accessible only with a boat (or persistent swimming).  He could have lazed away the day at a place like that, sipping glucose rum in a patio chair.  However, he was stuck here instead, where the sweet and bitter flavors in the cocktail the waitress handed him were too unbalanced to be properly enjoyable

The redhead arrived at ten minutes to four.  She spotted Yarec immediately and glided over to the booth.  She was light on her feet, as her job portfolio had indicated.  She sat down on the curved bench and slid around until her bottom was perched right beside Yarec’s.  A drink, identical to the one she had ordered the night before, was waiting for her.  She smiled lightly and dropped her small bag of social impedimenta on the table between them.

“Good afternoon, Mrissa Roonbeck,” Yarec said with a nod.

“Ris, please,” she reminded him.  She drained half her drink, then cradled the remainder in her hand, eyeing it distrustfully.

Yarec took another sip of his own.  Then he announced, “I’ve looked over what you gave me.  I still have a few questions, but I think I’m interested.”

“That’s really good news.”  Ris finished the cocktail and waved for another.  Then she added, in a mock-conspiratorial whisper, “Personally, I’m really glad.  I need this job, since my last work didn’t turn out very well.”

For a moment, Yarec froze.  It was not the right thing to do.  The paralysis was an autonomic response from the lower reaches of his brain—something that a well-trained agent should have been immune to.  He should have known better than to react to her baiting him about their last encounter.  His startled reaction betrayed information that should have been kept secret, and it could even have placed him in physical danger.  In that moment of alarm, Mrissa might have leaned over and kissed him.  With poisonous unguents laced around her lips, she could have killed him then and there.

Mrissa recognized the flash of fear on his face and winced herself.  “I told you, I’m a mercenary,” she said.  “I have to take the work I can get.  I don’t get emotionally invested in my employers and their projects.”

Yarec sighed, and Ris handed him a fresh drink, which the waitress had just delivered.  They clinked their refills together and sloshed the liquor down.  Then they set off in search of a quieter eatery which would provide a better atmosphere for their serious business discussions.  Walking together, the pair might have looked like exemplars of camaraderie, although Yarec had many invisible misgivings about the future of this venture.

Ladyhawke

June 17, 2014

I watched Ladyhawke with my two older kids a couple of days ago. Initially, there was resistance to watching a medieval fantasy film with sword fighting and evil wizardry; however, once the film got going, they settled down and had an amazing time.

I first saw Ladyhawke in the theater, when I was eight. I don’t think I figured out what was going on until Leo McKern’s character explained it. However, my ten-year-old daughter figured out that the mysterious woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer was the transmogrified form of the hawk in her first appearance, and then my six-year-old son immediately provided the corollary that the black wolf was the hero, Etienne of Navarre.

I really like all the major actors in the film: Broderick, Pfeiffer, Hauer, and McKern. My brother is (or was) a huge fan of Rutger Hauer. I do not get quite as excited about his lesser work, but he has some impressive moments. His final speech in Blade Runner (which I do not like much, all in all) is rightly legendary. However, I think his finest performance is as the leader of the concentration camp uprising in Escape From Sobibor. It’s a great film, but I don’t think I could watch it again. It is simply too horrible.

The kids wanted to watch Ladyhawke again the next day, but other business intervened, and we haven’t gotten around to seeing it again yet. However, when perusing the LEGO catalog*, the kids noticed that there were Ghostbusters LEGO sets now. My daughter suggested that there should be Ladyhawke LEGOs as well, since the movies were about the same age. As much as I enjoy Ladyhawke, it’s not the cultural icon Ghostbusters is. I would love having Rutger Hauer in LEGO form, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. (There are already LEGO Catwoman figures, so I can pretend those are Michelle Pfeiffer.)

Failed Chapters

June 15, 2014

I missed posting an excerpt from Hollowed Memories last week, but I’m sure nobody noticed. One reason was that I’ve been very busy, handling undergraduate researchers at the university. However, the big thing was that I had been having an awful lot of trouble with my writing.

I don’t mean I was having trouble writing chapter 3. That’s been composed and edited for months. However, chapter 8 has really been giving me trouble. I wrote a version of it, then decided it did not work. So I started composing another chapter, with a significantly different plot, but that seemed to be coming out even worse. This chapter was supposed to mark the end of one of the book’s major divisions, but I couldn’t come up with a plot that wrapped things up adequately before a major shift in focus.

Eventually, I just needed to take a break from the story. I think I know what I’m going to do with the storyline now, plucking bits from each of the drafts I’ve written. However, I still needed time away from the story to catch my breath, so I took a week off. (I also too some time to do some writing in my professional capacity as a physicist.)

Chapter 3:  Cityscape

The hotel Yarec checked into looked respectable but hardly omni.  The cement facade was painted with a hard white spray enamel, and the black plastic coating of the lobby floor was speckled with bits of gray and red-brown, like newly hewn granite.  His room on the fourth floor proved to be plain but cozy.  There was a communications link that was supposed to be highly secure, although Yarec had his doubts.  The bed, sized for two extremely intimate lovers, had dull black sheets and a deep violet blanket made of fuzzy synthetic fibers.

Yarec sat down in the plastisilk swing chair by the window.  Pulling back the curtains, he saw the city of Sankirk in nocturnal celebration.  Frequent flares of color lit up the lower reaches of the sky.  People passed in gay groups along the tarry street below.  A cluster of teenagers were loitering in front of the hotel.  Each of them had a narrow, jointed rod, brightly decorated and lit up in varied colors.  They whipped them from hand to hand, occasionally stopping to make inscrutable adjustments; and they were all still there, toying with their faddish accessories, when Yarec left the hotel to explore the strange city’s night life.

He found a cocktail lounge several blocks away, beside a makeshift stage with a  three-drum ensemble.  The armored door was propped open with a conical chip of cement, to let the music filter into the lounge.  The drumbeat had a rough, pounding tempo, perfect for an establishment where men and women went to find cheap romance.  The name of the lounge was a classical Asian square pictogram, repeated three times.  Yarec eyed its LED-outlined strokes, as he waited for a group of querulous revelers to stagger out of the lounge.  Then, when the way was clear, he slipped in through the square doorway.

The air inside had an old-fashioned perfume odor.  It smelled sweet and floral, reminding Yarec of the pale amber blossoms that still grew wild around his retreat in the high desert.  The walls were draped with cheap, peach-colored fabric, and the sounds of the percussion ensemble outside were muted enough to make shallow conversation easy.  Yarec found a seat on a bar stool.  The spot had only recently been vacated, and he could feel the lingering warmth of the last occupant in the faded red-orange seat cover.  He ordered something off the specialty drinks menu.  It had an extravagant name, which he forgot practically as soon as he had pronounced it, but it looked less than impressive when it arrived in a rose-tinted highball glass.

He sipped his gratuitously expensive drink.  The synthetically flavored ethanol stung the tip of his tongue, but it would have little effect on his composure.  His digestive system had been surgically altered with a metabolic casing.  It was a very common modification, which accelerated the breakdown of alcohol or other intoxicants in the patient’s system; it had supposedly been developed to render an otherwise near-perfect agent immune to the effects of amphetamines.

Yarec frowned, feeling vaguely dissatisfied.  Just relax, he told himself. I’m here to have a good time.  This was a place where men and women came to meet, and he had consciously chosen to drink here.  He looked around to get an idea who might be available.

The woman sitting two stools down from him looked young.  Her hair was an even brown, hanging just past her shoulders.  The tresses were decorated in an elaborate pattern of undulations and impossible whorls, held in place with an invisible jelling agent.  Her eyes were green or gray and her skin palely olive.  She smiled slightly as Yarec glanced in her direction.  It was a small, wry, almost subversive smile.  The corners of her mouth were tucked tightly under her small nose, without seeming to leave a single crease in her skin.

However, the most striking facet of the woman’s appearance was her long nails.  The natural keratin formations had been surgically removed and replaced with curved copper plates.  They seemed to glow, palely red, under the lounge’s dim lighting.  As she twined and untwined her fingers around the delicate stem of a glass, the nails’ metallic upper and lower surfaces appeared to scintillate.  It was effectively alluring, and Yarec also recognized, in those artificial nails, a strain of dissoluteness.  The surgery would have been expensive, wasting medical resources on a purely cosmetic effect, which would be even more expensive to remove if she changed her mind.  That meant she was rich and self-indulgent.

Yarec wondered how those nails would feel against his skin.  They did not look sharp, although that was hard to judge, except at a more intimate distance.  Nor would they have the cold feel of bare, heat-conductive metal.  There had to be a protective coating, to keep them from getting corroded.  Their glamorous effect would have been ruined by anything more than a fleck or two of green verdigris.

She had turned toward him slightly now and seemed to be eyeing his left hand, which was resting loosely on the edge of the black plastic bar.  Yarec looked over at her again and nodded casually.  She batted her eyelids coquettishly.  It was an obviously affected gesture, like the long, fluttering lashes themselves, which were manifestly false, a colonnade of artificial hairs running from one end of her eye to the other.

She turned her eyes downward, sizing up his physique.  Yarec figured that own appearance might have been just as revealing as hers.  The way he moved must seem too cautious yet capable for him to have been born into the youthful body he wore.  However, whatever character she recognized in his thews, it was obviously still of interest.

He hummed a little tune—something that matched the prevailing beat—to give her an excuse to look at him more directly.  Taking advantage of the opening, she said, “That sounds very nice.  I don’t think I’ve heard it before.”

Yarec stopped at the end of the next phrase.  “It’s a pretty slick folk tune,” he explained.  “I’m not sure where it’s from.”

“Not around here,” she said.

“No, no,” Yarec agreed.  “I’ve been travelling a lot.”  Yarec normally disliked this kind of obvious conversational cues.  However, having made a conscious decision to insert himself into the city’s romantic nightlife, he felt obligated to play the game according to its established rules.  He would drop hints, openings for further social interplay, until either she was thoroughly entranced or she lost interest.

“You look like you just got into town,” the brunette said sympathetically, and Yarec nodded his head.  “You’re here alone?” she asked, and he nodded again, confirming he was not waiting for any boorish male friends who might intrude themselves at any moment.

“Have you been to the city before?” she went on.

“No, I haven’t,” Yarec replied truthfully, “and I don’t really know anybody here.”

“That sound like an awfully lonely situation,” the woman said.  She pursed her lips, which seemed impossibly full in that position.  Certainly, Yarec observed, no one was ever born with slick lips like that.  As he was watching her sympathetic lips, pressed together like a kiss waiting to be released, she asked:  “I don’t suppose you would mind if I budged over and joined you?”

“No, please do,” Yarec told her.  It was all he could think of to say.  He felt hot—breathless, almost—and he was afraid that he was perspiring.  He hadn’t yet got the feel for the way his new body tended to sweat, and he felt unusually self-conscious.  He realized, somewhere deep down, that he was getting too swept up in the game.  But he was here on vacation, so he just ordered the lady another cocktail and smiled at her as she sat down on the stool beside his, taking an appropriate moment to admire her muscular thighs.

While the woman waited for her drink, she tapped her copper nails idly against the side of Yarec’s glass.  It made a pleasant tinkling sound, and he started to hum again, matching the rhythm of her fingers.  The order arrived, and he paused, trying to think of something witty to say, as she took a long, sensual sip.

Then another face appeared at the bar.  Pale complexion was flanked by loose red-brown waves.  The round eyes were gray and somewhat shadowed, either with exhaustion or a style of makeup Yarec had never seen before.  There was a modest nose and a small, feminine mouth surrounded by pink lips.  The whole countenance, and the rather curvaceous figure beneath it, were unpleasantly familiar.

“Outa’ here,” the new arrival said curtly.  The woman Yarec had just gotten so flirty with snapped her head around, bridling at the command—obviously intended for her—to depart.  She was astute enough, reading the others’ body language, to recognize that the redhead had no prior claim on Yarec.  This was no aggrieved wife, here to rein in her mate’s outside activities.

The first woman was looking to Yarec to stand up for her, but he knew that this was not merely a confrontation between romantic contenders.  His right hand again found the grip of his concealed pistol, although his face betrayed no hint of his intense unease.  Inwardly, he was suddenly frantic with questions, trying to remember all the details of his most recently concocted cover identity.  My full name?  Country of birth?  My business, and how it brought me to Sankirk?  Yet all the fictional details seemed to be crowded out by real ones.  The true past was all he seemed to be able to recall.

The redhead cocked an eyebrow cynically, in response to the brunette’s obvious indignation.  “Out,” she repeated.  Seeing she would get no support from Yarec, the first woman sniffed angrily and hopped down off the stool.  As she passed the redhead, she could have scratched her on the arm with those remarkable red claws.  But she restrained herself and simply flounced away, leaving her nearly untouched drink behind on the bar.  The bartender scooped the glass up and dashed its contents down a chute, to a machine that would recycle the unconsumed alcohol for another round of cocktails.

The redhead took over the stool next to Yarec’s and ordered a cheap drink.  Then for a little while, neither of them spoke.  When her plastic tumbler arrived, she took a quick sip.  Then she announced, very quietly, “I’m here with an assignment for you.”

Yarec expression was doubtful, and he kept his hand on his weapon.  “An assignment?” he repeated, echoing both her words and her whispering tone.

She nodded firmly.  “Yes, an assignment.”  She downed the rest of her drink in one sliding gulp and motioned for a refill.

“The last time I saw you, you were working for a different side,” Yarec pointed out.  There was an obvious implied question, but he presented it in a roundabout way.  Assuming she was still an enemy, he did not want to supply her with any information she didn’t already have.  She might or might not know his allegiance and his actual identity, just like she might or might not be planning to kill him the moment he turned his back.

“That was just business,” she said.  “I have to take the work I can get.  I operate like a mercenary, and my skills are not always in high demand.”

Yarec grimaced.  Her explanation was plausible, although not particularly convincing.  He had seen her at work in the home of his last target, but he knew nothing about what role she had played there, unless she had been a courtesan, which did not now appear to be the case.

The doubt was obvious on Yarec’s face.  “Let me show you my credentials,” she said.  If she did have a job for him, there would be a coded message from his superiors.  Once the ciphertext was decrypted, the message would have to include a number of special words.  The code words had been chosen a long time ago, when he first entered the service.  They were unique to him, and they were never reused.  Yarec had memorized the list and what each word would mean if he saw it in his orders.  Valid instructions would also be peppered with a number of odd but meaningless word choices, so the genuine code words could not be picked out if a message were intercepted.

“Go ahead,” Yarec told her, “but slowly.”  She reached toward the flat black wallet belted to the waist of her jumpsuit, which was patterned with wispy streaks of red-brown, green, and smokey gray.  She was using her left hand, which was the proper protocol in this kind of situation; if she pulled out a weapon instead of the documentation she had promised, she would probably be less dangerous holding it on the left.

She produced a two-dimensional square of solid state circuitry.  It was small, less than the width of Yarec’s palm, with a monochromatic display screen filling about half its expanse.  It was primitive technology, but its very crudity made it more difficult to counterfeit.  She set it down on the bar and flicked it in Yarec’s direction.  Caught up in a breeze from the open door, it flittered across the scuffed resin surface and came to rest beside Yarec’s hand.

He picked it up gingerly, holding it by a corner.  As if sensing his presence, the screen lit up, and a string of characters appeared, starting in the upper left corner.  There were only a few dozen on the first screen, and Yarec had committed enough of the opening pages of his single-use code book to memory to decrypt what he was seeing, on the fly.  Even after it was decoded, the message was extremely terse, but it had the hallmarks of legitimacy and included a rough description of the courier.

Yarec looked her over.  “Red hair,… about the right height,” he murmured.  “Sounds like it could be you.  Do you have any identifying markings?”

She laughed, casually threatening.  “Like the fingernails on that trollop?  No,” she said, “nothing I’m going to show you right now.”

She was practically leering at him, and Yarec felt genuinely frightened.  He was trying to curb any physical expression, but she must have sensed his discomfort.  Her tight expression softened, and the hard creases around her pale gray eyes relaxed.  “Let me introduce myself,” she said languidly.  Yarec raised an eyebrow slightly but gave no other indication of interest.  “I’m Mrissa,” she told him, prevoicing the R sound, “but people mostly call me Ris.”

Yarec had remembered his operating alias:  “Trent Lial,” he said.

“Good to meet you, Trent.”  She rolled her eyes wearily as she emphasized the ersatz name.  “Honestly, I am quite looking forward to working with you.  I’ve heard you’re very good.”

“Well, don’t get ahead of yourself.  I’m in the city on my own time.  I get to choose if I’m taking this job or no, after I verify this communication.”

“It’s an important assignment,” Mrissa whispered.

“If this is genuine, I’ll see you back here tomorrow,” Yarec continued.  “Four o’clock.  We’ll get dinner.  If it’s fake, I better not see you again, ever.”

She nodded, accepting the terms.  Then Yarec was out, through the rear exit, into an alley that reeked of spices and rotting produce.  He ran for a while, then slowed to a swift walk and kept going for seven or eight blocks.  Yarec needed somewhere private to look things over, so he found another hotel.  Everything about the place was worn and dingy, but it had been thoroughly sprayed with insecticides.  He got a room and hunkered down at the tiny desk, decoding the rest of the instructions Mrissa had given him.

 

When they reached Sankirk, the ferry dropped Yarec off at a commercial passenger pier.  He paid the inbound user fee and quietly exited the terminal.  Yarec could have landed for free at the drop-off location for the boat’s cargo, but he was sick of feeling like another piece of freight and travelling alongside the packed remains of his former innards.  Arriving like a select passenger felt more dignified, and the cost was hardly prohibitive.  There was little chance that Yarec would run out of cash before Dotchki decided to pull him out of Sankirk and give him another assignment.

It was a festival week in the city, and as Yarec made his way down the long causeway that connected the marina to Sankirk’s central island, he saw flashes of colored light ahead of him.  They lit up the purple dusk—pale blinks of white, orange, and blue.  As he drew closer to the revels, he heard the sound of the crowds.  A drone of intermixed voices, with the scattered cracks of celebratory fireworks and gunplay, drifted out over the water.  The sounds felt warm, redolent of humanity.  Yarec smiled, anticipating his first relaxing vacation in a long time.  He had put in a long stint of service, but now he was free again.

Yarec crossed the last arching footbridge and emerged on Commerce Boulevard.  Brightly lit stalls, draped in colorful bunting, dotted the roadway.  Narrow, three-seat cars meandered between them, the electric engines buzzing like insects.  Near the port entrance, the vendors mostly sold trinkets for out-of-towners.  Yarec wound past these stalls, towards the more authentic centers of activity, following the virtual map of the island he had recently committed to memory.

After only two blocks of progress, he chanced upon a robbery in progress.  In the gorge between two cement-block buildings, away from the glaring lights of the boulevard, two youths in collared gray mesh shirts had closed in around a chubby fellow wearing casual shorts and a hat with a floppy brim.  The victim looked rather drunk, and he seemed too stunned to speak, as one of the toughs gestured with an object that Yarec could not identify.  It was narrow and black, and the thug pointed it at the pudgy man’s chest.  The victim drew back and found himself instantly locked in the arms of the second assailant.  The unfortunate fellow screamed, until a hard blow to the abdomen cut him off.  Then he was on the ground, cowering under the impact of the men’s kicks.

One another day, Yarec might have kept walking.  He had learned to keep a low profile, and dispensing vigilante justice was too easy a way to get noticed.  However, there was something pathetically affecting about the pudgy man’s mewling, coughing cries.  After what he had seen in the speedboat that afternoon, he could not just walk past this victim without intervening.

Yarec moved quickly, but he tried to keep looking casual for as long as possible.  The thugs’ attentions were focused on their prey, but they might remember the need for vigilance at any time.  After a few more kicks, one of them would probably notice Yarec approaching, but he wanted to remain unobtrusive at the outermost edges of the men’s awareness until he was ready to lunge himself.

His footsteps were inaudible, since the air was filled with the clang of metal drums.  The nearest musicians were two streets over, but their syncopated rhythms seemed to permeate the whole metropolis.  The hard ringing, of plastic sticks against the lids of old chemical drums bent into smooth concave resonators, became the musical score for the violent encounter now taking place.  This was the characteristic local sound, and it fit the chaotic nature of the festival.  It was fast, with a beat that changed unpredictably, like the rough kicks that pummeled the fallen man’s trunk.

One of the thugs yelled something that Yarec could not make out.  Either he was speaking an unusual language, or it was an epithet that Yarec was not familiar with.  The mugger’s toe lashed out one more time, then he turned away in disgust.  The man on the ground gasped, and the mugger finally turned his head in Yarec’s direction.  The smug, sadistic look on his face melted into one of fear.  “Look out!” he yelled to his companion, and Yarec, who was now only twenty feet up the alley, broken into a full sprint.

The second attacker whirled around, and the thin black weapon snapped in Yarec’s direction.  It looked flat and sharp, as the man whipped it in a crude figure eight.  Coming another step closer, Yarec recognized it as a monocrystalline knife blade.  It had been grown from a pure chemical solution, into an elongated shape that achieved molecular thinness at the edges.  Other blades like it were used for the most precise medical incisions.  They could separate flesh with only a tiny impulse of force; the barest touch might open a deep and dangerous wound.

Yarec feinted a dodge to the left, toward the nearer wall of the alley, and the knife moved, trying to intercept him.  Then with a jerk he ducked down under the jagged sweep of the blade and aimed a hard kick at the thug’s ankle.  The maneuver caught the man off guard.  He shifted his weight, reaching out awkwardly with his weapon.  Yarec’s foot rammed into the man’s leg as he was off balance, and the blow sent the mugger sprawling.  Flailing as he fell, the man cracked the side of his head against the cratered asphalt pavement.  As he hit, the robber screamed, even more loudly than his intended victim, who was still wailing in pain and confusion.

The remaining thug—the one who had first noticed Yarec’s approach—was more lightly armed, with two segments of steel pipe.  With his friend out of the way, the man swung them at Yarec.  It was a crude, instinctual attack; the thug was just trying to pummel this vigilante with something hard and heavy.  One of the pipes landed a glancing blow on Yarec’s left arm, and a tingling pain ran along the bone.  Then, while he was still holding the pipes, the man tried to wrap his arms around Yarec’s body, as if to wrestle him to the ground.

But before the man could close his bear hug around Yarec’s chest, Yarec pulled his pistol out of a right coat pocket and fired a single bullet into the thug’s knee.  The counterattack immediately collapsed, as the man’s leg buckled underneath him.  He shuddered to the ground, and the leg of his light trousers was rapidly soaked in crimson.

“Here, get up,”  Yarec said, leaning over the pudgy victim and offering his arm.  The fellow’s eyes were agog, and his face was ashen.  Yet he retained enough of his wits to grab hold of Yarec’s hand immediately.  Yarec levered the man back to his feet and told him, “Get out of here!  Now!”

The man choked out something that sounded like, “Thank.”  Then he took off, with a limping run, down toward the far end of the alleyway.  Yarec looked down at the two erstwhile muggers, who were now themselves lying moaning on the pavement.  He judged that they would both live, provided they found medical assistance within a reasonable amount of time.  Other people, having heard the brief struggle and its concluding gunshot, were approaching now, full of ghoulish curiosity.  Yarec elbowed past them, back out into the street, and then disappeared from the scene.  His pistol had dropped back into the pocket of his coat, and he strode away, in the original direction he had been heading, looking for a stand where he could buy a warm, refreshing drink.