Screaming is rare. Outside the movies, war zones, or psychiatric institutions, it’s unusual to hear anything more than an exaggerated squeak. This wasn’t that.
Alison Luria was screaming. She stood in the middle of the cluttered office, rigidly upright, arms by her sides, head angled slightly back. Her mouth was locked open, eyes tightly shut. The sound she was emitting, in a continuous, only slightly uneven stream, overwhelmed apprehension. It was less a specifiable noise than an abstract inaudibility, the unheard manifested as a monstrous positive entity, insensibility made palpable.
It had begun at almost exactly the moment of entering the room. I had not quite finished closing the door behind me, still uncertain whom first to address, when – as if out of nowhere, without the slightest warning – a shard of sonic shrapnel sliced into my head, making any further thought impractical.
It was my second visit to the company, and the small team was already vaguely familiar.
Fred something, the tech guy, was (incredibly) ignoring the phenomenon, and seemed still to be working. Alison’s editorial assistant, Xu Ling, had retreated beneath her desk, where she now lay perfectly immobile, coiled into a tight fetal knot. Millie Zhang, the sales director, had missed it. Her tidy, south-facing work-space was unoccupied. It had been set up as an oasis of light and order, semi-withdrawn from the gloomy debris-field of the larger open-plan attic area. She was probably out on a sales call.
I had never fallen prey to mystical inclinations, and problems of an esoteric nature seldom detained me. If, on rare occasions, hints of hidden profundities over-spilled the dikes of dismissal, they elicited vague repulsion, rather than enthusiasm. I would, at that time, have reacted with instinctive aversion to any claim that the suspension of reason opens secret gates. (No one had ever bothered me with such suggestions.) Yet as the threads of intelligence were severed by the scream, it was as if access were being granted to the inner substance of the world, violently unwrapped from the distractions of visual identification. Something was poking through the wall of sonic oblivion – a clicking or crackling. This isn’t a message, said the click-code, it’s just the sound of your auditory nerves dying.
Would it ever stop? Had it, in reality, ever begun? Its duration had become a matter of no significance, because this breakage of the world was no longer Alison Luria screaming, but the scream as it existed in eternity, freed from the bonds of fact. It was the primordial scream, vast beyond cosmology, anonymous and inexpressive, the pure howl of being now perceived as it always had been …
… and then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ceased.
Something crawled out of her mouth, then a second, and a third – wasps. They wandered across her lips indecisively, before flickering out in a trick of minutely-dappled light. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a wasp in Shanghai before. Almost certainly, I still haven’t.
“I’m finished,” she said. Then she walked past me, out of the room, without looking at anyone, and clattered down the stairs, fast.
“That was intense,” I muttered awkwardly.
Fred looked up, smiling crookedly. “Girls,” he mumbled, as if that explained everything.
There was a commotion behind me, and Bob Jarvis – the company’s Australian boss – rushed in, smiling implausibly, grabbing me by the shoulder to avoid pitching me across the room. “Nick! I’m so glad you could make it in. Are you ready to go?”
“To get going, to start, there’s no point messing around.”
“Start work?” I asked stupidly.
“Absolutely. Why not right now? You’re here after all. Don’t waste the journey. There’s no room for dithering in this business. You can have Alison’s desk.”
“Yes, Alison …”
“Nothing to worry about. Spot of tension.” He steered me across the room, then started picking randomly through the chaos of papers, battered copies of Shanghai Live magazine, and work-desk lunch detritus that surrounded her computer. Mine now, I suspected ambivalently. “We thought you could take over the Shang-Hive blog, keep it pressing forward, raise the profile, you know. Dig deeper.”
Ominous fragments of writing, scrawled in red ball-point, flickered from the print out sheets that Jarvis was consigning to the waste-paper basket. There is no blood in Cyberspace. Endless darkness now. It drains. We brought it to unlife. And so it ends.
“Was Alison OK?” I persisted, stubbornly.
“Oh, nothing really to worry about, it was just, you know … She was fine wasn’t she Sue?” he pretended to ask, reaching out for narrative support.
Xu Ling looked as if she were about to vomit. She nodded in grim obedience.
“Fred, what was that business with Alison about?” Jarvis soldiered on. “Any previous signs of a problem?”
“Was it in any way work-related?” I interrupted.
Fred was struggling to suppress a cruel smirk. “Perhaps a little,” he said. “Towards the end, her blogging became a little … I don’t know, I guess you could say, weird.”
“No one said anything to me about that,” Jarvis cut in, clearly irritated by the direction this conversation was taking.
“‘Weird’?” I refused to let that go.
“Yeah, you could definitely say that, I suppose,” Fred explained. “She said that she’d ‘contacted something’.”
“Contacted something in the backend,” Xu Ling added. She looked like under-cooked death.
Fred scowled at her. “Like she even knew what the backend is.”
“What is the backend?” I was clutching.
Jarvis waved away the query. “You don’t need to worry about that. Nor did Alison. That’s what we have a tech team for, isn’t it Fred?”
“The backend is where everything happens,” Fred said. “You’ll see.”