Novel Excerpt: To walk in perilous paths

Posted on August 28, 2018 by

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0. Overedge

Memory is flawed and reality is rotten; through the holes in one we forget the other—but even when a person’s ability to remember is so broken their experiences are a river of shattered glass, reality will seep in like black mould through plaster: a cloud of insidious cilia, spreading, exuding tainting spores.

I have a colony infesting me. If you want to, carry on, and be colonised.

#

She holds the bird by its throat, its eye a little bead of ink. She says, if I let him go he’ll fly back here. He needs me. She splays the cream feathers under its chin softly with the pad of her thumb. Her pupils are huge, as if they’re trying to fit my entire reflection. She leaves her mouth open as she breathes: pale limp lips, a glimpse of shell teeth. She moves her thumb sharply left to cover her fist, making it into a grenade—drops the dead bird on the black loam that makes up the forest floor, where it’s hidden by athyrium fiddleheads and stratocumulus-shaped bulbs of emerald moss.

No, that’s not right; that’s the wrong order. I should begin with the first thing.

The first thing is the view: brilliant primordial green, even through the fine rain that floats rather than falls, pinched into hourglass hills by gunmetal lakes. These lakes are deep—we know from previous research—and disconcertingly warm, carrying the heavy heat of monsoon summers through the weeks to exhale it during the region’s short, ineffectual winters. The air is thick and heavy; toward the horizon the hills gain a sienna tint, then fade to grey.

This far north of the Albion Reserve we are all wearing respirators, even the austringer, who I know is somewhat claustrophobic and has been since childhood, a fact about her that makes sense to me given her profession.

Oh what a beautiful morrr-ning, sings the cartographer. They have a good voice—a honeyed contralto—unmarred by the respirator’s rubbery mouthpiece. (Or perhaps this is the simplifying effect of memory?) Oh what a beautiful day.

The austringer glances at them sharply but doesn’t reprimand them. She’s right: people have died for less noise than this. But the squad has been hiking for weeks; we’ve been counting the millimetres to the edge of the cartographer’s maps and into the blank space, what they tell us is called the overedge.

This ridge (dendritic ridgemellogeologist) marks the final outline on the final map. The rest of us have been doing our jobs since we left the reserve, but the cartographer, I know, is feeling itchy and cramped, like a racehorse poised for too long at the starting gate—the symptoms of an underused expert—and only after this ridge will their abilities become truly useful. And so the austringer says nothing, although I know her well enough to know that if the cartographer carries on past this, she will rebuke them, and curtly.

We all know each other, a little: we were given personnel files when they matched us, asked if we saw any potential personality clashes, and then, when the team structure had settled, were provided the opportunity to meet each other over a meal. I nearly quit then, but I didn’t. I don’t remember why I didn’t.

Muskeg, says the mellogeologist, how does it feel to stretch your wings, finally?

That’s right, that’s right—we did have names. Most people have names, don’t they?

The cartographer Muskeg pauses, lifting their eye away from their alidade, already consumed with mapping the unknown, and smiles behind their respirator for all the world like a pleased cat: a sweet, curling smile that is mostly covered by the respirator mask but that I recognise from the whiskerlike laugh-lines around their eyes. Really good, they reply. Really good, mate.

I bring my toes right up to the edge of the ridge using small shuffling steps, where there’s a sheer drop, and press my weight into the balls of my feet, bouncing a little. A bit of soil falls from under me in clumps like wet biscuit crumbs.

Whoa, whoa, says the mellogeologist. That’s not solid. It might give out on you.

Loess, says the austringer—she puts weight on it, the way you might scold a child. Move back.

I was Loess, I suppose.

I move one foot back but transfer no weight, and instead lean forward, to look over the edge. This earns me gently lifted You’re-really-going-to-push-this? eyebrows.

There’s a crop of ramsons down there, I say. Wild garlic.

It’s true, but it’s still a cover (even now I’m not entirely sure what it was covering for).

Good, says the austringer.

She makes a few clucking noises with her tongue and pinches the hood away from her goshawk, a quick, scrappy little male she named Puddy (Short for pudding—and why does his name come to mind so easily when my own still feels murky and hard-won?) and launches him over the ridge; he’s well-trained and immediately dives to skim the tree-line, out of reach of predators that might inhabit open sky, maintaining two metres of clearance over the uppermost branches so he can’t be grabbed from below.

The austringer flips her left arm over to watch Puddy’s anklet video feed on the screen she wears around her wrist. She wears it on the inside, where the skin is tender, like it’s a secret for her to keep close, where other people might wear it as an ornament, an accessory, facing out. It’s strange to see someone using tech this old; she would have trained with contact lenses—but we can’t lose her eyes, and if she had to put in lenses every day they would be much more vulnerable to contamination by fungal or parasitic pathogens from her fingertips. The Ministry of Reclamation learnt this lesson the hard way.

The garlic is clear, she says.

And that’s all I remember from the first thing.

#

The settlement project’s target region is divided by Muskeg into areas. Not even squares like city blocks, no imposed grid of ideal geometry over the organic, the analogue—which is, I suppose, the central purpose of cartography, even human culture as a whole—mm-mm, no, Muskeg was chosen for this particular project because like all of us they understand on a deep emotional, personal level that it’s necessary to travel away from the human and reach out. They work with the mellogeologist—who really is not only subsumed by the study of potential geography but who is also a speculative biology expert, and whose field can be more accurately described as the potentiality of the natural world—to make grid pieces based on predictions about localised biomes: the teacup ecosystems that develop around a clump of trees isolated in a field, for example, or an interconnected network of rabbit warrens.

Our grid pieces are, therefore, shaped perhaps more like gerrymandered political districts than anything else: weird amoebas of paper that sometimes hug each other in concentric circles, sometimes trickle wild like rain running down a windowpane, sometimes folding in around each other like protozoans about to consume prey.

The austringer and her goshawk are essential to this effort. I don’t remember where we camped that first night—whether we descended from the ridge or whether we in fact ever harvested a single leaf of the wild garlic I had seen. I do remember rumblings—a dark, breathy fear—dampness, discomfort half like an ache, half itching—the taste of my meal, which is of chalk and dry carbohydrate.

I suppose these memories could be false alarms. Perhaps I dreamt anxiously that first night and awoke in a cold sweat; perhaps we ate unappetising rations because we did find something amiss in the wild garlic patch after all.

Whatever the case: the austringer was chosen because while not exactly an intellectual (she had been too poorly brought up for that—by this I mean that her parents treated her like a china doll instead of like a mind that needed nurturing) she is extremely clever, unnervingly so, and can interpret her hawk’s video footage in ways I’ve never seen and am initially doubtful of—and which are invariably accurate. It feels like being an Enlightenment scholar presented with a computer: out of my fucking purview.

I remember Muskeg’s map drafts because they seem so archaic, and pleasing to the senses; Muskeg draws their first drafts in a beautiful folio-sized paper field journal with coloured pencils and graphing tools, then lets the cartography software in their implant take over—processing the information while they sleep, outputting the result to an architect’s drawing pad so Muskeg can make corrections while awake. The rest of us can query their personal drive whenever we like for the finished maps.

I hope the folio made it back.

Did it? Oh.

And was I allowed to keep it?

No, I understand—it’s sensitive. You wouldn’t want anybody outside the Ministry to see the last third of that journal whether it’s classified information or not.

What do I remember about the region in general…it’s nearly always raining. I remember that.

 

1. First Biome – Glade

We’re doing a standard C&C, comb and clear, parsing Biome 1 in a line, three metres apart, without Acrisol—who walks ahead of us, in the centre of the line, scouting. She projects Puddy’s video feed in front of her so she doesn’t trip.

You smirk; you have to know that a pathologist died that way, don’t you? You don’t train yourselves like you train us—with fear, I mean—you didn’t see the photographs of her leg.

The biome is about 100 by 150 metres, mostly tall grass and rabbit warrens; tedious, because you have to poke each hole with a long stick to flush anything out that’s lingering at the entrance before you take a step. We document everything we see with photographs, notes, measurements that pertain to our specialties, anything that strikes our fancy—that’s the purpose of a C&C, to thoroughly and safely document a biome that doesn’t seem to present too many hazards. For my part I pick samples of nutritious or medicinal plants to be dried between the pages of my field journal.

I am…I’m a…

Pardon?

That’s right, I specialise in wildcrafting. Foraging for consumables.

Maybe a third of the way down the first row of the C&C—we have to parse the entire biome in a folded serpent shape, like a combine harvester parsing crop fields—I look up, then immediately glance to my left at Jory, the tech engineer. She’s looking too: at the pair of oil-black trees that are down the hill and maybe twenty metres away from us, larger than anything I remember seeing in the forest proper, bare of leaves although it’s the cusp of summer, standing about fifteen metres apart.

They look like hair. Too busy, too divided, too chaotic. I don’t catch the branches writhing but I have no doubt I might if I looked at just the right second.

I really don’t like them, and Acrisol doesn’t either; she raises her right hand in a fist to tell us to stop, then walks back to the line as we fidget and look anywhere but those trees. She’ll give us her instructions one at a time, so she doesn’t have to raise her voice.

I turn to my right to wait for her: she begins at the other end with Chernozem, so it’ll take a minute or two for her to reach me, and I prefer to trust Jory with my back and keep my attention focused outward.

The breeze picks up and I smell pennies. As if I’d put my face in a handful of old coins. It’s so unpleasant I do a rough check on my respirator for damage with my fingertips; I shouldn’t be smelling anything but vaguely sour dust, which is how our filters flavour the air. The respirator doesn’t seem to have any problems with it, so I make up my mind to ask Jory if she’d mind looking it over when we—

lohhessssss

What was that?

Acrisol…? I turn around with her name on my tongue, but it immediately fades. She’s nowhere near me: explaining some kind of manoeuvre to Muskeg—she hasn’t even gotten to Jory yet.

Jory, I say, call Acrisol over. Right now.

She does. A squad’s survival rate is directly, positively correlated with trust.

I explain to Acrisol what I saw, what I smelled. She nods, notes it in her field journal. She says, Loess, I didn’t have any of these experiences.

I understand, I say to her.

How are you feeling? she asks me.

Completely lucid, I tell her. I’m bored, and I need to urinate a little.

Okay, she says, and writes that down. I was displaced from you by a few metres, which means I might not have been within range to have the same experiences. I’ll ask down the line.

What’s the plan?

Nothing, she says, until I ask down the line.

I squint up at the sky. Still raining, although it’s just as light and frothy as it was at the ridge. The sun isn’t particularly warm and it seems pale—watered down, somehow.

She comes back to me with a frown. Nobody had any experiences like yours, she says.

Okay.

She makes a note, then closes her journal to let me know that part of the conversation is over and says, I think we carry on for now—but do tell me if you experience anything else out of the ordinary, all right?

Sure.

I’ve decided we should avoid the trees, to be safe, she says, but be sure to bag any scattered samples if you see them, and take plenty of photos.

Okay.

When we pass them, huddled in a group, the hairy trees seem to leer at us—like they could pick up their roots and glide over to us on thousands of tiny feet.

Ugh, says Chernozem, in my ear. I nod.

We spread out into our line—only this time I position myself between Chernozem and Muskeg, the members of our squad I feel the most personal connection with. Human nature: in times of stress I begin to choose my in-group. The Ministry of Reclamation is of the opinion that our entire squad should be our natural in-group. When compared with everything else, they are—but humans are notoriously choosy about who we consider really close to us.

Now I wonder if I chose those two because they were the most outgoing and extroverted—whether I had a true personal connection with them, or whether they naturally seemed to form a greater connection with everybody and I couldn’t tell the difference because of my nature.

Chernozem spots something and she can’t help but make a noise like a collector who finds a rare prize for sale or an animal lover unexpectedly approached by a street cat. She’s trying to get my attention: pointing far to our left, just at the edge of the trees.

She scoots over to me and mock-whispers. Look! she says.

I’m entirely confused. She’s seen a stag, head raised in alarm, about to bolt away.

Isn’t he gorgeous, she says.

He is. And weird: deer living outside of the Human Reserves are rare verging on extinction. Not because the biosphere is hostile to them—no, wilderness areas are strictly anthropoechthric—but because the majority of evolutionary development across biomes happened to move away from most varieties of deer; the consensus among speculative biologists is that it’s because deer are such a good human food source. One species of Axis, the chital, is still thriving (according to data from the Kanha Reserve) but we’re on an entirely different continent, and this is a roe deer.

I thought they were extinct, I say.

I thought so too! she says.

We motion to Muskeg, and they’re just as puzzled as we are. What the fuck, they say. It’s a statement, not a question.

Acrisol notices what we’re up to and comes over. Gossiping? she says.

A roe deer, says Chernozem. A stag.

Doubt it, says Acrisol—but when Chernozem guides her eyes to the right place she blinks and says, hmm.

He’s not running, says Muskeg.

I’d have expected him to run by now, I say.

Acrisol takes a look through her binoculars. I’m expecting her to say something else, but she just says hmm again.

I look through mine—it looks exactly like a stag, all right, and it is moving, but it’s moving like those forced-3D images that have been made out of 2D photos: in a way that makes the back of my brain scream at me that this is not right, this is not good.

I don’t know, I say. Look. It’s almost shimmering.

Chernozem doesn’t want to believe anything’s wrong with her beautiful find, but Acrisol calls Puddy to the fist with a strip of meat, which I take to mean we’re going to move closer, so I wave Jory and the last one, the pathologist (I forget his name), over to us.

Jory is not happy. That’s not a stag, she says. Statistically impossible. She doesn’t even bother with binoculars.

She quotes figures at Chernozem until Chernozem says, stop, stop!—and prods her in the arm. I get it, she says. It’s not possible. But it’s there.

We’ll see, says Jory.

The pathologist says nothing.

We divide into groups: Chernozem, Jory, and Muskeg; Acrisol, the pathologist, and me—and walk in single-file, one group to the left and one group to the right, far enough away not to startle the stag but close enough to get a better look at him.

The other group sees it the same time we do; I hear Chernozem gagging from a full thirty metres away. I understand her reaction, although it’s not exactly disgusting: when we move past a certain angle, the stag seems to split in two, becoming nothing but a pair of strangely delicate, twisted bramble bushes that jut from the forest floor like twin flames, arranged in just the right position to look like a startled deer from the glade.

Oh, says the pathologist.

I see Chernozem start toward the brambles, perhaps in disbelief or perhaps in disappointment—and Acrisol barks at her: No! Chernozem, startled, stops mid-step.

Acrisol taps her temple to bring up short-range comms. That’s good bait, she says. From a strategic standpoint.

A human trap, says the pathologist. He makes his arms and hands into jaws and snaps them shut. Rr-arr! he says. Like a venus flytrap.

I feel sick. Chernozem backs away.

Watch, says Acrisol. She aims her rifle at the bramble bushes like they really are a deer, and fires.

The quote stag unquote collapses exactly like a deer might if shot in the neck.

Back to the C&C, says Acrisol. I hear the responses just near my ear: roger, okay, will do, etc.

Why did you do that? says the pathologist. That’s probably how it’s primed.

It’ll be all right, she replies. Long as nobody springs it.

#

We eat lunch inside a transparent pup tent that we pump air into through its built-in filter, by hand, inflated on a patch of grass with no flowering or fruiting plants, no burrows, no rise or fall in elevation, not close to the border or far away from it—nothing to tell it apart from any other piece of land in this biome except its blandness. Sitting in a little circle, watching over each other’s shoulders.

Lunch is rabbit with wild mushrooms I picked that morning, and Jory is reciting a list.

From above, from the water, hidden in the food, hidden under the soil, from the shadows…

Acrisol tosses Puddy a strip of meat.

…in the air, behind a tree, while we sleep, while we eat…

I pick at my rabbit. I blink and then I see the structure of its leg in my bowl like a dissection: brown muscle, ivory sinew, grey bone—wild mushrooms wound through it in cooking as if they’d grown there while it was alive.

I put my bowl down.

…on the breeze, from our food, in the water, biting insects, bird droppings, bat droppings…

I’m going to go wash up, I say.

#

The river is like living glass—flashes of sunlight on its surface that hurt my eyes, perfectly clear and colourless, quick moving over smooth green-backed rocks large as eggs. At the bottom, huge brown trout bask in the sun, the black freckles up their back a sign that they’re a native species—and I have a distinctly human thought: they look delicious.

Our water purifier runs on solar power; it pushes the water through a filtration system that self-cleans overnight with engineered bacteria consuming whatever they find. It will last us for up to six months. I can feed it with anything: river water, rain, urine, blood. It produces little dehydrated cubes of waste we leave behind us as we travel like middens of mechanised rabbit spoor.

I wash the dishes in the stream of water from the filter, toss wastewater back into the tank. I choose a spot under a harmless species of tree to get out of the sun, which became suddenly strong and hot in the early afternoon.

I put the water purifier and its tank in the shade with me but leave its solar panel in the sunshine. Our equipment was limited by weight—six massive ultralight rucksacks, capable of carrying 20 kilos each, though we’re not capable of carrying nearly that much. The water purifier weighs 300 grams, including tank and solar cells, which fold up when—

What was that?

No, I’m not joking, what is that?

Don’t you hear it?

Of course not. I’m sorry. It’s a memory.

What did it sou…? Well, I’ll tell you exactly what it sounded like. It sounded like somebody talking about me. Exactly like that. You’re in secondary school; you see a cluster of your friends speaking low to each other, huddled in a corner of the form room. You approach them, glad to see them, and they all turn around at once, and suddenly you know they were speaking about you, so you take fright, walk away as quickly as you can.

That sort of noise.

I stop, my fingers at the bottom of a bowl—in the middle of rubbing it clean—and I stand up, water sloshing over my hand and onto my foot. I look around; a breeze ruffles the tall grass at the riverside, and suddenly I feel very alone. But Muskeg is there, only a few metres away, with their back to me, lightweight rifle out and ready, just as they’re meant to be.

I can’t help it; I turn around and around, unable to shake the feeling, my fingers warming the dregs of dishwater in the bottom of the bowl so it feels like thin soup. There’s a flick of movement at my feet—I step back—but it’s only one of the river trout, deciding it’s had enough of me, vanishing into the shadows downstream.

I crouch down. I shouldn’t touch the water—who knows what’s in it—but I put the bowl at my feet and stretch out my hands until my palms are just over the surface and try to feel the heat from my sticky, swollen fingers being taken away by the river. It doesn’t work; I’m desperate to put my hands in the water—to feel that slipping, smooth shock of coolness on my skin.

Instead I step back and run my hands under the tap from the water purifier. It’s not exactly right, but it feels good all the same. I go back for the bowl—sitting next to the river, flecked with dry pieces of grass—rinse it, and stack it with the other clean dishes—and I’m about to call out to Muskeg, when that strange smell hits me: old coins, iron filings.

Fuck, I say, to nobody in particular.

I’m going to have to tell Acrisol, and I don’t want to. She could decide anything, and they’ll all listen to her.

What’s that? Muskeg says; they must have heard me swear.

Oh, nothing, I say. I just nearly tipped headlong into the river.

They laugh. I’ve half a mind to jump in there myself, they say. Gotten warm, hasn’t it?

Yeah. I nudge them on the shoulder. Mind carrying these plates?

As we leave I look over my shoulder, but I see nothing but the grass, the depression in the ground where the river runs, and on the other side, a slope, rising into a bluff, grassland broken by bare rock.

#

During the only previous attempt to establish a permanent human presence outside the reserves, the Ministry of Reclamation thought it would be best to dot settlements around Albion like satellites—within a reasonable orbit—so that they could be topped off with supplies and settlers as necessary to stabilise them.

It didn’t work. Settlements started to disappear, so quickly that the Ministry barely had time to check on them. Practically overnight.

We covered it as a case study when studying anthropogenic response compensatory growth. I don’t remember my classmates—who was my friend, who was my enemy, how they switched and swapped in the swirling way teenagers manage their social groups—nor do I remember my teacher’s face. I don’t remember my mother’s face.

But I remember the images printed in monochrome in my textbook. Plate A: Photo of smiling settlers, standing in front of a freshly-painted wall, everybody spaced a few paces from each other with their chests spread wide and open, faces tilted slightly up as if they couldn’t believe they finally had room to breathe and stretch their arms without knocking out someone else’s teeth. Plate B: A photo of the same place. Deserted, shot through with weeds, the white wall cracked and crumbling, covered in curling creepers with leaves like shark teeth. Taken barely a fortnight after the first.

Your theory was that you failed because the settlers were too close to the reserve. That perhaps the presence of so many humans together made the reaction that much more violent. Stimulus/response.

But that’s not why you failed.

Did anybody like me tell you why? Because I know why. It was the same reason my squad failed.

Why we will always fail.

#

A bubble of oppressive, perfect blue, hot, a sticky fug of sweat; I wake so suddenly I don’t realise it’s happened at first. It takes me fifteen minutes to strip, wash, dress in damp clothes, fit my respirator; by the time I’m ready to safely unzip the tent door there’s another bubble in my throat like a scream and I don’t particularly care if the wild air is poisonous.

We’ve progressed through the region like a cat through high grass: every camp is a delicately, deliberately laid footmark. I remember thinking this when I look back at our tents, covered in ghillie nets and isolated from each other as though they’ve grown spontaneously from the forest floor like warts on the landscape.

Not ten metres from camp, the mostly broadleaf forest of hazel and oak on a floor of flowering bluebells begins to fall away—replaced by a small grove of silver birch, the ground spotted here and there with anemone and wood sorrel, some of which I take for my foraging basket. At the base of the birches are ferns, grasses, clumps of moss, a proliferation of mushrooms like birch milk cap and fly agaric; I search for the sunlit honey of c. ciberius—chanterelles would be an excellent prize for the morning—but am disappointed. It’s perhaps a week too early for them.

Foraging is a habit. I groom the land, plucking useful plants away like I’m combing its fur for parasites. I forage like some people clean their houses: unconscious, self-soothing. A reflex.

At the far side of the birch grove the land falls away into a valley; on the hillside there is a splash of conifers painted with a wide brush that cuts through the mostly deciduous forest: Douglas firs, maritime and Monterey pines, the odd monkey puzzle tree that has, since the fall of the anthropocene, managed to escape the confines of front gardens and ornamental parks—interlopers, introduced by humans since the last Ice Age, crowding out the native Scots pines that still stand here and there, but uneasily, their raised branches held above the canopy like a person holding their umbrella on tiptoe above the heads of a crowd.

#

I turn around at the bottom of the valley: the jarring sawtoothed song of a great tit brings me back into myself, out of a trance, reminds me I’ve probably gone too far. When I reach the band of conifers I veer to my right, to avoid the birch grove. I find burdock, clover, and more ramsons.

About eighty metres from camp is a small slope of earth, only a metre or so high, but just the right angle to have built up a good depth of leaf litter, and under that, a patch of wild strawberries. There is such a thing as a mock-strawberry—a member of the nightshade family and a recent development, first recorded in my lifetime—but I didn’t see any as I harvested.

Oh, well, there is no simple trick to it. It’s one of those things that comes easily to an expert, but that I would never entrust to a novice.

Yes, if you’re so interested. I can.

All right, well, when just picked mock strawberries smell like the stems of unripe tomatoes—the colour green punching me directly in the nose. They don’t run stolons along the ground like genuine members of the fragaria family, and they haven’t quite mastered the seeds; in atropa pseudofragaria the fruit has discoloured depressions in the skin that look very much like seeds but contain no separate body (the seeds are dropped directly from the flowers before the fruit begins to form), whereas true fragaria vesca does carry its seeds on its skin.

Before the appearance of mock strawberries, novice foragers could be confident: nobody would mistake a wild strawberry for anything else. But now you must be careful: pseudofragaria only grows surrounded by true strawberries, and unless you’re very good at spotting the difference you’re likely to put at least one in your basket by mistake. One berry eaten plain is enough to cause liver failure in an adult; if you mix one into two kilos of genuine strawberry preserves you’ll make every person who has one teaspoon or more violently ill for at least twelve hours.

This is why you hired me, no?

When I stand up from harvesting strawberries there’s a patch of heat and discomfort under my trouser leg, on my right thigh. I don’t check it there and then; our trousers are lined with a skintight mesh to repel most ectoparasites, so it’s unwise to strip in the middle of a forest—and besides, it aches like a friction burn or a heat rash rather than that needling itch that comes from a bite or sting.

I can’t help rubbing it absentmindedly with my palm as I listen for birdsong on the way back to camp.

#

I am checking my body for ticks. The inflamed patch on my thigh is visibly pink, but smooth: there’s no central paleness where the toxins from a fresh insect bite or sting would be most concentrated.

It’s nothing, I think. It’s nothing—as I run my fingers over my calves, circle my ankles, up into the crevices where pelvis meets leg, lifting my cotton underwear to pinch the roots of my pubic hair. I live on the crest of expectation, sure any second now I’ll feel that flat tab of something foreign, a lentil with legs.

I loathe biting insects on a deep level; they violate my basic barriers. I imagine a head like a pin-sized drill bit, joyfully burrowed under the flaking warmth of my skin, neck-deep in me.

In the old world we lived in the liminal spaces of evolution, between predatory malevolence that occasionally swung apathetically in our direction and the castoff dangers of evolved systems targeted at other problems: reproduction, territory reclamation, digestion. Our new world has noticed us: the eye that once swept lackadaisically over humanity has focused, narrowed, and now we can’t shake its regard.

The tick, if it exists, hasn’t bitten me just to fill its belly; it’s bitten me because there is a freshly-penned imperative written into its genome to penetrate me and muddy my blood. Perhaps it’s not the tick’s salivary glands that produced the thing that will kill me; perhaps the tick felt the compulsion to bite a bat first, which in turn was carrying something—a protozoan, a bacterium, a virus—and that will be the predator I’m expecting.

Paranoia.

We must be paranoid, or vanish.

#

I finish checking myself; if there was a parasite, I can’t find it.

I tap the side of my head twice, on the flap of cartilage that protects my ear canal, and say, Pedalfer.

Yes? says the pathologist. He crackles onto the comms like an old radio—which should never happen. Our implants are sub-dermal. There should be no interference.

I need you, I say. I’m in my tent. Are you busy?

No. I’ll be there in five minutes.

There is a pause while he mutes the comms.

Do you also need Acrisol? he asks. Do you have anything to report? Strong and clear, no crackling.

I don’t know, I say. You tell me. Is he with Acrisol right now?

All right, he says.

#

He sweeps into my tent like a weather front. There’s no polite fumbling of the zips, no awkward shuffling in the airlock while the built-in air-purifier makes it safe for him to take off his respirator.

I’ve removed myself to sit, legs splayed, on top of my sleeping bag, pelvis rolled forward so I can stretch the tendons that join my body to my legs after this morning’s hike, elbows and forearms braced on the ground.

Let me see it, he says.

I gesture to my leg.

Stand up, he says. I don’t want to kneel on the ground for you.

When I stand he kneels anyway, right forearm across my pubis, fingers curled around my left hip, his other hand pressing painfully into my flesh, face so close to me I can feel his breath, wet and hot, blooming across my thigh.

The rash itches painfully in response, deep in the skin—as if it’s aggravated by the muggy microclimate he’s creating around it and the layers of my dermis are being forced apart with inflammation.

I turn my head away from him and wait.

There’s no weal, he says.

No.

He stays there, breathing. I watch the seams of the tent, where his breath is mixing with mine, beading on the fabric, making rivulets I’ll have to mop up when he leaves.

#

Puddy has caught us a brace of pheasant, which we eat pulled directly with our fingers from the makeshift spit I use to roast it over the fire, sucking on them when it’s too hot or when they get too greasy.

The night is empty and silent. It peels away the trees from over our heads, isolates us in the yolk of firelight—a dizzy sensation—if I get up, if I walk out into the dark water that surrounds us, will I stumble into the rough curds of a tree trunk or will I be lost in an infinite plane? If I turn around will I be able to stare down the tunnel at the life I left behind, at the people protected by the fire as they go to bed, dream, wake to sunlight that never reaches me?

I put my toes together, brace my knees against each other, rub my legs with the palms of my hands, then my hands together, as if I’m cold—when really, all I need is grounding.

Acrisol sees me, I suppose; from the corner of my eye she tosses another cut log onto the fire, which splashes a corona of sparks over me.

You’ve always run cold, she says.

Under my right palm, my thigh throbs as if in response to the flaring heat; the sudden itching is so intense my fingertips twitch with the urge to scratch it.  Instead I press down hard with the ball of my hand to occupy the nerves and reduce blood flow to the area.

I’m tired, I say. I’m off to bed.

#

In my tent I throw down my trousers. There it is: a weal, an amoeba-shaped white plateau right at the centre of the pink patch, as if someone had decided to insert a coin under my skin.

Fuck, I say.

#

The pathologist looks at the trousers puddled around my ankles for a lush, full moment before he puts gloves on to examine my leg.

You overreact to mosquito bites, he says.

Yes.

Mosquitoes are repelled by the expedition-assigned trousers.

I haven’t been frolicking nude in the woods. I don’t have to add, If that’s what you’re implying.

He examines the weal, stretching my skin with his fingertips as though it’ll tell him something if he pulls it apart like a ripe seed pod.

I’ll take a sample, he says. It’s probably a mosquito. God knows what it was carrying. You should be more careful.

I reach for my trousers.

Leave them off, he says.

I’m weary of men. Of how they hide in the sheaves of a personnel file, how they wrap themselves in a cocoon when you first meet them at introductory dinners, how they tell you who they are from the first minute in ways you’re conditioned to forget in the face of their professionalism that you’re forced to accept to keep your own.

He draws out a few drops of clear liquid into a hypodermic needle.

Be more careful, he says.

Are you going to report this?

No, he says. Not unless I find anything.

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