The Secret Mathematic is an original novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your albino lobster host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the twenty-seventh installment.
Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.
Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars
And now, the story continues:
The summer sun beats down on long, narrow fields of yellow canola. The air is humid and heavy, the skyscrapers of Montreal lost behind a blue-grey haze to the south. Far above, planes circle as they queue for the airport. Down below, cicadas buzz.
Etienne Corbeau walks out of the farmhouse and crosses his tanned arms, watching a plume of dust make its slow way along the road down by the river. It changes direction at the gate, coming up the estate road between the long Seigneurial fields. As it nears, Etienne is able to discern an orange micro-schoolbus at the plume's head.
He shuffles down the steps, using his callused hand to shield his eyes from the glare. His face is weathered, his long grey hair tied into a ponytail. He wears a leather vest, beads dangling from the fringes. Etienne re-crosses his arms, straightens his back and raises his chin, preparing his best stare-down-the-white-man pose.
The schoolbus draws up the house and stops, brakes chirping. The doors fold open and a battered red stop sign to swing out from the side, its winking warning lamps made feeble by the bright, haze-diffused afternoon shine.
A man in a trenchcoat comes out of the bus and begins limping awkwardly toward the farmhouse. Etienne frowns, his proud posture sagging slightly. It just doesn't feel right to start out haughty with a cripple. He walks out to meet him. "Detective?"
"Monsieur Corbeau," nods the stranger, offering out a leather-gloved hand to shake.
Etienne finds himself somewhat discomfited by the strong and mechanically cold grip. He looks up to the meet the man's brown eyes with his own. "You're native," observes the farmer.
"It's Etienne," he says, allowing his dentures to show in a slow smile. "Why don't you come inside out of the sun? You must be hot. We can talk a bit before I show you."
Mr. Mississauga says nothing. After a brief, uncertain hesitation Etienne gestures toward the front door. "This way."
Mr. Mississauga ambles past him and begins stumping up the steps, his body rocking back and forth in a practiced if teetering dance of exchanging balance. Etienne follows, trying not to stare.
The farmhouse is antique but well cared for. Etienne chases a scrum of grandchildren out of the sitting room and then returns with a pitcher of iced tea and and two glasses on a tray. He pours a glass and watches with bewildered fascination as Mr. Mississauga sniffs it carefully with his beak-like nose, closes his eyes briefly, and then drains it. "Thank you."
Etienne sits down. Mr. Mississauga places himself in front of the opposite chair, leans backward against it, and then taps on each of his rigid knees. They fold, dropping him into the seat. Etienne swallows. "Are you feeling alright, Detective?"
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga.
"You seem a little stiff."
Mr. Mississauga looks back at him placidly. Etienne shifts in his seat and crosses his legs, then clears his throat. "I understand you used to work with the government, eh?"
"I guess that makes you a bit of a lobster."
Mr. Mississauga raises one eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"
"A lobster," repeats Etienne. "You know: red on the outside, white on the inside." He flashes a brief half smile. "You're integrated, right?"
Mr. Mississauga holds his gaze until Etienne's half smile vanishes, then he reaches inside his coat and brings out a small, gaily coloured notebook with a pencil jammed into the spine. Etienne watches him work through a methodical set of steps involving switching the notebook from one hand to the other as he manoeuvres the pencil free and then spreads the pages open on the thigh of his trousers. His hands whir and hum as they move; Mr. Mississauga squints in concentration and the fingers lock into place with a series of metallic clicks.
"When did you first notice the phenomenon, sir?"
"You have an artificial hand?"
"Yes. When did it all begin, sir?"
Etienne looks away, out the window at the wavering air. A woven dreamcatcher hangs in the frame and its fuzzy shadow plays over the old farmer's face. "We saw the first ones in spring, a few days after equinox. They were biting the children, so we beat the bushes until we captured one."
"Awa-hon-do," says Etienne quietly. He clears his throat again. "Insects from the Dreamtime, mites of the Ghost World."
"I know what awa-hon-do are," says Mr. Mississauga, making a note.
"You speak Abenaki?"
"I speak Mississauga. There's a fair amount of crossover."
Etienne looks to Mr. Mississauga and holds his eye for a long moment, then sits back and whistles. "I'll be honest with you, Detective. When my daughter arranged this, I was sceptical. I was sure you wouldn't be the right man for the job." He shakes his head. "But I'm starting to think I was wrong. It takes a true native to understand." He shrugs. "Perhaps I was too quick to accuse you of being a lobster. Were you raised on reserve?"
"Have you taken your spirit walk?"
Mr. Mississauga puts his pencil down and looks up, expression grim. "My life is a spirit walk, sir."
"Then you haven't forgotten the old ways."
Mr. Mississauga faintly smirks. "I have a rare condition that causes me to remain fully aware throughout the sleep cycle, Monsieur Corbeau. You may have noticed the bags beneath my eyes: it is not a restful way to live. Never the less, it means I am in near constant communion with dream, which provides me certain advantages. Indeed, I have not forgotten the old ways. The old ways won't let me go."
Etienne's eyes widen. "To live in dream...to fly at will, to speak with the spirits. I am amazed, and I envy you."
Mr. Mississauga's smirk fades. "You would not, sir, if you knew the whole of it. You are thinking of the shallow dreams, of the visions grasped by your waking mind. You, a healthy man, have never experienced the dark space of the deep dreaming. For that you should be grateful." His fingers buzz as he picks up the pencil again, swivelling his shoulders to poise it over the page. "May we continue?"
Etienne blinks, then licks his lined lips. "Um, of course. As I said, we captured one and brought it into the barn. That was...a mistake."
Etienne turns back to the window. "An army of moos-bas rose up at sunset, enraged mink spirits exploding from the soil -- like in the stories my grandmother used to tell us around the fire. Vicious things they are, the moos-bas. Terrifying, eh?" He sighs. "They stormed the barn and freed the awa-hon-do. Three of my farmhands were bitten."
"No, by the moos-bas. Mink bites. Sharp and deep." He shakes his head. "But the wounds weren't nearly half of it, eh? Over the next couple of days each of them developed this urge to leave the farm. My cousins, their whole lives lived here on Jesus Island, hellbent on dropping everything to go."
"To go where?"
"North. They awoke with the word on their lips, 'Wiyasakami.' Do you know it?"
"No. It sounds Cree."
Etienne nods vaguely, gaze still cast out the window. "They couldn't explain it. All they knew was that they had to leave, right. And, no matter what we said, they went. They went north, two at sunset then the third the next dawn. We haven't heard from them since."
Mr. Mississauga makes a note. "The children bitten by the awa-hon-do did not suffer the same compulsion?"
"They have nightmares. That's it. Night after night."
"Do they bring any memories back?"
"They see Glooscap, He Who is Made of Words. They attack him, thrashing his body with birch, but he breathes flames and repels them. They wake up clawing at their skin, as if it was on fire still. Some of them have scratched themselves up something awful to stop the burning." He takes a breath and looks back. "They all dream the same dream. Even before they told anyone about what they saw. Have you...ever heard of anything like that before, Detective?"
Mr. Mississauga nods without missing a beat. "Yes," he says shortly. "You mentioned that you had something to show me, sir? Is it a caged specimen?"
Etienne shakes his head. "We followed the holes, from where the moos-bas erupted outside the barn. They converge underground. They come together, feeding into a...network, I guess you'd call it."
"Some kind of cave system?"
Etienne rubs his jaw, considering this. "We call it the Iceberg."
"On account of only a fraction of it being visible, right. It's a tree that grows underground. Far underground." He pauses, looks briefly sheepish. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever laid eyes on. If anyone else had told me about it I'd say they were nuts."
"And all the tunnels converge there?"
He nods. "It's their highway. A highway for spirits."
Mr. Mississauga closes the notebook and tucks his pencil back into the spine. He raises himself from the chair, limbs buzzing. "Show me."
A strip of glen runs between two of the yellow fields on the western side of the estate road, a small valley of natural bush where the land is too rocky to farm. The crown of a single great tree dominates the greenline. Etienne's pickup rumbles over old furrows and then settles to a squeaky stop at the edge of the woods. "The lane goes in a ways," he explains as he climbs down from the cab, "but I like to keep it clear so the machines can get through. You're okay to go in on foot, eh?"
Mr. Mississauga exits the truck in precise stages, a brief and stodgy ballet of rotations and leans. "Yes," he grunts, letting himself down to the ground and then swivelling to face Etienne. "What sort of machines?"
"Earth-movers. We started off trying to dig the sucker out -- you understand, to get rid of it -- but now we're just digging to see how far the damn thing goes."
It is cooler in the shade beneath the thick canopy of leaves. The shadows are lengthening and the cicadas have gone quiet. Etienne walks briskly for a spell and then slows to allow Mr. Mississauga to catch up. "Maybe we should've driven after all," he says apologetically.
Mr. Mississauga glances at him briefly as he stumps past. "Why?"
Etienne opens his mouth but changes his mind and says nothing. After a few seconds he jogs onward to come abreast with the limping detective. "I didn't mean to offend you," he offers.
But Mr. Mississauga is no longer paying attention: they have rounded the final bend to bring the excavation site into view. A mud-spattered green backhoe is straddling the edge of a yawning hole, the sides of which are reinforced with wood, the machine teetering dangerously as it lowers its scoop into the shadows in the lee of a preternaturally massive oak tree that expands as a sky-girdling umbrella of dense foliage overhead. The coverage is such that the site stands in constant twilight while the surrounding forest and fields shine.
Farmhands in hardhats are everywhere. Their pants are tucked into their boots. They wear mosquito netting over their faces, and work-gloves that extend far up the arm. They turn to look in near concert as Etienne and Mr. Mississauga step into the sombre clearing.
A lanky native in filthy coveralls and no shirt sprints across the site to meet them. He removes his hardhat, which has no netting. Etienne introduces him as his son-in-law, Gerard. "Gerard's been supervising the dig," says Etienne, clapping the young man on the back. "And we've learned to become close through it. We didn't used to get on, right."
"Why is that?"
"Gerard's a genuine lobster, Detective, and he's not ashamed of it. He went to white man's school in Halifax, doesn't even speak a word of Abenaki. He'd be more likely to tell you something about Jerry Seinfeld than Tabaldak or Glooscap." He leans in closer to Mr. Mississauga. "The value in that is that he's not so intimidated by the spirits, eh? His ignorance makes him brave."
Gerard offers a lopsided smile. "It's no big deal to be brave in the face of folklore and bullcrap," he says.
Mr. Mississauga nods to him. "What do you think is going on here, sir?"
He shrugs carelessly. "If you ask me, somebody's trying to run us off the land. To spook us, eh? It's like in Scooby Doo -- 'and I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling Indians!' You know?" He chuckles. "Listen: we're going to dig this thing out, figure out what it is, and then sue whoever's responsible. That's all there is to it, guy."
"Is there reason to think someone may want you out?"
Etienne steps forward. "Well, there is and there isn't, Detective. I suspect there's some Mohawks that wouldn't mind seeing the farm in Six Nations hands, but it's not something we get trouble over. My family won this land in a card game back in seventeen ninety-three. We've been working it ever since. Now, are there companies that wouldn't mind taking over? Sure there are. Green Giant tries to squeeze us. They come by with offers from time to time, okay: but they know they don't have a hope unless we want it. The fact is, we turn a healthy profit here. Nobody's about to foreclose on us, or force us into anything. We're not desperate."
Mr. Mississauga approaches the edge of the hole, a torus of excavation surrounding the fat, gnarled trunk of the ancient oak. Instead of spreading out into roots, the trunk continues straight down like a shaft. Lamps on metal tripods are oriented downward, converging on a wood-reinforced platform some twenty meters beneath the surface. Clods of dirt from the backhoe's work widening the mouth of the hole rain down on two natives in hardhats labouring with tools on the trunk. Mr. Mississauga looks back over his shoulder, calling to be heard over the chortling of a gasoline-powered generator: "What are they doing?"
"Hacking in," replies Gerard.
"When we got below ten meters, we started hearing things," says Etienne. "Noises coming from inside, right."
Mr. Mississauga raises a brow. "Inside the tree?"
Gerard nods. "It's hollow. It's not a tree -- it's a tube."
"Like I said, a superhighway for spirits," agrees Etienne. Gerard rolls his eyes at this. Etienne looks to Mr. Mississauga. "There isn't a tree on Earth that's supposed to grow this way, is there, Detective?"
Mr. Mississauga shrugs. "I'm not a botanist," he says, then turns away from the hole. "Do you have an extra hardhat?"
"Uh, sure," says Etienne. "You want to have a closer look?"
"We'll also need lights. And water."
"We don't know how long we'll be in there."
Etienne hesitates, Mr. Mississauga's meaning gradually becoming plain to him. "You mean to dive right in?"
"What is the alternative?"
"Frankly, I was hoping you might be able to give us some answers."
Mr. Mississauga shakes his head. "I do not believe there exists a living expert in...this. No one can solve the puzzle for us, Monsieur Corbeau. If we want answers, we'll have to get them ourselves."
Etienne wipes a hand down his weathered face. "Just like that, eh? Damn, Detective." He holds Mr. Mississauga's steady gaze for a moment, then bows his head slightly. "You're a true brave, aren't you? You walk with the warriors."
"No," says Mr. Mississauga.
The sun sinks behind the trees, the sky turns gold and pink. The farmhands fire up a motorized winch to draw up the workers from the excavation on a wooden seat. They step onto the firm ground and wipe the sweat from their eyes. "We broke through, patron," one says to Etienne. "And it's just black inside. And just quiet, eh? But you can hear the wind."
Etienne takes the man's hardhat and hands it to Mr. Mississauga. Gerard jogs up with a set of walkie-talkie radios and a satchel jammed with bottled water and sundries. He offers it out to Mr. Mississauga. "You're not thinking of doing this all by your lonesome are you, guy?"
Etienne smiles grimly and pushes the load back into his son-in-law's arms. "Of course he isn't, Ger. You're going with him." He claps him on the back again. "You should have had a spirit walk to prepare you for this kind of journey. You may get lost without one, and there are many ways to get lost."
Gerard frowns, his shoulders hunching. He takes a breath and then ducks to put the satchel's strap over his head. "Okay. Okay, Et. How many guys can I take?"
"One," says Etienne, touching his own chest. "Me."
Gerard smiles uncertainly. Etienne walks back to his truck and returns with a handheld device, its small screen glowing cyan. Mr. Mississauga raises his brow in inquiry. "GPS," says Etienne, hitching the device onto his belt. "It'll keep us from getting turned around."
Mr. Mississauga offers him a small, tight smile. "Ah yes," he remarks drily, "the traditional Abenaki satellite-based microwave orienteering system."
Gerard snorts. Etienne shoots him a harsh look. "It's only sensible," he says irritably.
"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga, though he still smirks.
One by one the three men are transported down into the hole, the wooden seat knocking against bark on one side and dirt on the other. The winch whines, the generator fumes. Mr. Mississauga slips off at the bottom, joining his companions on the work platform.
There is a rude gash in the oak tree. He flips on the lamp on his helmet and moves toward Etienne and Gerard; they part before him, shuffling aside as they take in the alien rhythm of Mr. Mississauga's locomotion. The detective drops a pebble inside the gash, then sticks his head inside after it to listen for the sound of its fall. He withdraws a moment later. "We'll need to be lowered in. The bottom -- if there is one -- is not close. And, if I read the bounces correctly, any plumbline would likely get fouled in the convolutions."
Etienne nods and thumbs the contact on his radio, issuing instructions to the farmhands above. A length of rope is lowered down and Gerard sets to tying it into a series of impromptu harnesses. "You know Abenaki tying?" asks Etienne, pausing from barking into the radio. Gerard shrugs and smiles, then apologizes as he is forced to reach between Mr. Mississauga's legs to tie the final knot. The detective holds obligingly still. "They're going to hook us up to the winch," reports Etienne. "We've got about thirty meters of play on the cable and extension, give or take, plus our rope slack. Gerard, you'll carry the radio repeater."
The winch momentarily reverses, gathering the cable almost taut. Gerard takes a few steadying breaths. "Are you sure about this, guy?" he asks.
"It's only bull," Mr. Mississauga reminds him. "Lift me in."
"Right, right," mumbles Gerard quietly as he and his father-in-law squat down and heave the detective up to the gash in the tree. Mr. Mississauga drops inside, then dangles as the line goes taut. Etienne radios up for more slack, and when it comes he boosts up on Gerard's leg to get through the hole next. The winch cranks down a little more slack, then Gerard follows.
Dangling inside the hollow crevice they can see nothing but darkness above and below, meagre pools of bark revealed fuzzily around them by their lamps. "Everybody ready?" calls Etienne.
They begin a slow descent. The trunk is not altogether hollow, but rather run through with a constricted fissure that wanders in gentle curves from one side to the other. "It's got bark on the inside," observes Gerard in wonder. The shaft has not been cut out, but rather folded in along a series of complex whorls; each stage of twist contributes a discrete iteration of reorientation that, cumulatively, achieve a full inversion of the arboreal topography. Mr. Mississauga sweeps his headlamp over the whorl nodes, noting scrapes and claw marks gouged into the ridged walls.
Etienne's radio chirps. "Dix metres, patron."
"We're at ten," Etienne relays.
"What do you think we're going to find -- you know, at the bottom?" asks Gerard.
"A white rabbit," says Mr. Mississauga.
The darkness continues to yawn below them, rolling to and then fro, the group slowing as they are forced to repel off bulwarks of oak and shimmy through constricted gaps. Mr. Mississauga's limbs click and hum.
The air becomes close, stinking of mould, thick with old moisture. Arrays of pale mushrooms appear in the crags of the bark, glistening with tiny hairs around their caps. "Ugh -- what is that?" murmurs Gerard.
The sound of the winch has long been lost to them. It is unnervingly still and silent deep within the bowels of the monstrous tree.
They all jerk to a halt.
"Well," says Etienne. "Here we are at thirty-nine meters. It looks like this is the end of the road, eh?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga.
Mr. Mississauga shifts in his harness. Etienne and Gerard hear the sound of rope grinding against rope. The detective grunts. "What are you doing down there?" calls Gerard.
"Undoing my harness."
"Are you crazy?"
Rope sings against fabric as it slides free.
"Detective, no!" cries Etienne. He gasps as the line beneath him goes slack. A bump sounds below. "Detective!"
For a moment there is nothing but the sound of Etienne and Gerard's breathing. And then a tiny spark of light ignites in the shadows beyond their dangling legs. It goes out. Something crackles. Etienne smells tobacco.
"We have arrived," announces Mr. Mississauga calmly, exhaling smoke.
Gerard twists to try to peer between his own feet. "Can you see anything?"
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga. "The rabbit."
Etienne and Gerard unhitch their harnesses and clamber down the rope, dropping to an irregular, woody floor beside the detective. Etienne pauses to take his own pulse, lined eyes squeezed shut. Gerard touches his arm. Etienne opens his eyes and nods reassuringly. They both turn to survey their surroundings.
They are in a grotto of bones. Tiny, fine, grey and brown -- mounds rising in logarithmic arcs to a bark-vaulted ceiling festooned with naked roots hanging in hairy bunches. The stink of rot is recent but weak.
Gerard stops sweeping his headlamp around because the shifting shadows give him the shivers. He focuses on the strange detective.
Mr. Mississauga kneels. His cigarette flares as he drags, the ember casting a rosy glow on his lips. He points his headlamp down, isolating the fresh carcass of a rabbit. He prods it with his toe. "The flesh and organs have been stripped. Note the marks of tooth and claw."
"What does that tell you?" asks Gerard breathlessly, putting down the radio repeater.
"Nothing specific," replies Mr. Mississauga as he works himself back into a standing position. "But it does lead one to wonder: since when do spirits eat?"
"There's no such thing as spirits," says Gerard.
"There's no such thing as this," counters Etienne gruffly, gesturing around him. "Your prejudices won't gain you a thing down here, Ger. We're in the unremembered realm now, where the Ghost World touches our own, okay. What you think you know is useless. But I can feel my guardian with me now, and he will work for us both."
"What's your guardian?"
"A raccoon? Just one?"
"Just one raccoon."
"Shit. We should've been the other kind of Indians. Their gods come in numbers, you know. Serious numbers. Not one freaking raccoon. That's weak." He looks to his father-in-law and then pales at the expression there, changing his tone: "No disrespect, Et, but if a dozen rabid mink try to take us down, I really can't see this invisible raccoon of yours as anything but a freaking appetizer."
"Don't swear at me, boy."
"That's not swearing. That's specifically not-swearing, in place of saying fu --"
"You say 'no disrespect' but you have no idea what it means. Close your mouth. Try to learn something." Etienne grunts and turns away, the sweep of his headlamp following the grain of the bone-filled chamber until it reveals an aperture at the centre of a massive whorl of bark. Etienne consults his GPS unit, craning it around to find a patch of decent signal. "The tunnel leads south," he says, puzzled. "I would've thought it would go north. Everything about this whole mess seems to point north. Why not this?"
In reply, Mr. Mississauga begins stumping purposefully into the tunnel. "Let's find out," he says, passing the men and fading quickly from their sight. Gerard and Etienne hurry after him. "We're entering a tunnel, moving southbound," Etienne murmurs into his radio.
Mr. Mississauga casts his light down at the floor, panning as he passes a small pile of debris. "Droppings," he says, moving on.
"Droppings?" echoes Gerard. "Like turds?"
"Yes," confirms Mr. Mississauga from ahead. "Our spirits not only eat, but they defecate as well."
As they proceed the character of the tunnel changes. A layer of packed dirt has gathered on the bottom, its face stamped with hundreds of overlapping mink prints. The wooden sides are older, worn and cracked, reinforced at regular intervals. Etienne slows, pausing to examine the buttresses more closely. "Detective! Take a look: it's architecture."
As they combine their headlamps it becomes apparent that between each stretch of eroded bark is an archway of stone-like material, a solidified slurry of gravel and soil coated in a translucent shell of very hard, yellowish material.
"It looks like amber," says Gerard. "Could...could the tree have made these somehow?"
Mr. Mississauga leans in close as he extracts a small, zipped leather kit from an inside pocket. He takes out a scalpel and uses it to scrape a few shavings of the translucent sealant into a plastic bag, then tucks everything back away again. He puffs on his cigarette, craning his head to take in the view as he ambles on.
They wander deeper. Etienne attempts to check in topside again but finds the transmission marred by static. "It's too dense, even with the repeater," he says. "We're on our own." He clicks off the walkie-talkie.
"Bullcrap," whispers Gerard as a private mantra; "bullcrap, bullcrap."
A quarter hour passes. Gerard and Etienne glance at one another as Mr. Mississauga continues to push on ahead of them, methodically swivelling his headlamp from side to side. "It just goes on and on," says Etienne with a sigh. "Detective, I'm starting to think we might as well turn back, okay. How long can we go on doing this?"
"Wait," says Mr. Mississauga, holding up a gloved hand. "Listen."
The men freeze in their tracks.
Ahead of them the darkness faintly hums.
"What the hell is that?" hisses Gerard.
Etienne shakes his GPS unit, panning it around for a better signal. It meeps feebly, reporting nothing. "I think we're under the fields," he guesses.
Mr. Mississauga begins limping ahead again, rotating his hips in his peculiar way to toss each undead leg forward. His light shows openings to either side of the tunnel ahead, round maws of deeper darkness extending into humming catacombs. He turns and disappears into the nearest aperture.
Etienne and Gerard follow, glancing over their shoulders. Both stop dead once they have turned the corner, craning their heads upward in unison to match the trajectory of Mr. Mississauga's beam.
"Ho-ly f..." says Gerard.
A jungle of exposed roots hangs from the ceiling of the vast, irregular chamber, a tangle of twisting filaments forming a thick veil terminating in a pool of noxious, viscous fluid comprising the whole of the floor. The liquid is brown and pungent. Etienne and Gerard throw their arms over their noses in defense against the stink.
A number of very small dead insects float in the thick sludge, double wings set on either side of a tapering, triple section body. The mottling on the carapace forms the uncanny impression of a human face near the top of the thorax, the head's furry mandibles curled like hair.
"Awa-hon-do," says Gerard, shifting closer to Etienne.
Etienne shudders as his eyes pick out motion from the gloom: the roots crawl with clouds of busy insects. Up by the ceiling the air scintillates with the dance of millions of wings, their buzzing accumulating into a blanketing drone. They crawl and worry over the thick root bundles that descend to meet the pool.
"Your crops," says Mr. Mississauga. He turns to face the men, his hawkish nose twitching. "Rape seed?"
Etienne nods dumbly, eyes locked on the roots and insects.
"GE canola," clarifies Gerard, speaking slowly as he stares. "It's the only way for a family farm to stay competitive. It's the only way to get the yields we need to turn a profit."
Mr. Mississauga frowns. "GE?"
"Genetically engineered," replies Etienne, mouth dry. "Herbicide resistance is spliced into the DNA, along with counter-measures against predator insects. They sell it as a package solution: seeds and spray."
"Who? Who sells it?"
"The Monsanto Company."
Mr. Mississauga smirks darkly. "Truly, you live close to the land, Monsieur Corbeau." He turns back to the cavern, carefully kneeling at the side of the pool. As he scoops a sample into a small vial he says, "Whether by design or opportunity, something has found a novel way to exploit the unique makeup of your modified canola. This compound in the pool -- its production is being catalyzed, farmed from under your own farm."
Etienne shifts his arm over his nose. "But what is it?"
Mr. Mississauga looks up and shrugs. "It's goo."
Gerard grimaces. "Goo?"
"I'm not a chemist." The detective points across the pool, his headlamp illuminating two apertures at either end: one for inflow and one for outflow. "I don't think it is something unto itself, though, but rather an ingredient." He turns back to face the men, temporarily blinding them with the light on his forehead. "This is just one stage in the process."
Gerard blinks rapidly. "What the hell do you mean -- what process?"
Etienne's mouth tightens, but he says nothing, turning to jog after the detective as he ambles out of the chamber. Gerard hurries after them, shaking his head and muttering. They return to the central tunnel and proceed to the next aperture. Etienne and Gerard cordially allow Mr. Mississauga to enter ahead of them, then follow nervously, shoulders knocking against one another in an unacknowledged but mutually understood need for contact. They stumble to an abrupt stop, eyes wide and mouths gaping.
Here, the goo flows as a river, the current sufficient to push it around elbows in the channel seemingly shaped to instigate turbulence. The river slowly churns and roils. Bundles of roots touch it at intervals, a thicker, golden fluid oozing from their ends to mix with the goo, their colours striping together into spirals that meld into a uniform light brown before the river exits the chamber. The root bundles originate near the ceiling where dozens upon dozens of papery hives hang in the shadows, networked to one another with sagging, papery tubes. The air between the hives and tubes flashes and flickers with winged movement. "Oh man," groans Gerard in terror, "Awa-hon-do hives!"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga crisply. "These are bees."
"We used to do honey..." says Etienne quietly from beside him. "We had to give it up, though. Lost all our hives to Colony Collapse Disorder."
Mr. Mississauga raises one brow. "Now you know where your bees went."
"Some people say CCD is connected to genetically modified crops," observes Gerard. "I thought that was just paranoid bull, but..." He whistles, then swears.
"Is that honey, do you figure?" asks Etienne, staring at the golden additive.
Mr. Mississauga shrugs. "I wouldn't recommend a taste test."
In the next chamber the goo is separated into a connected array of smaller pools in which it congeals into a tough putty, its flow straining against a dried-skin cap. These pools are ringed by a host of small animals who are consuming the substance, tearing away strings and lobes and licking or gnawing them into morsels. Each of them has a translucent sac of skin stretching from their backs, inflating with every bite they eat. The air is filled by the sound of munching and slurping.
"Moos-bas," whispers Etienne, flattening himself against the wall.
"They're...they're eating it," says Gerard, hands shaking.
"No," says Mr. Mississauga firmly. "They eat meat; we've seen their scat. These moos-bas may be ingesting the goo, but they are not living from it. Observe the sacs between the shoulders -- they are filling with some kind of gas. A chemical reaction is occurring. The goo is being transformed."
Mr. Mississauga does not reply. He shuffles slightly closer to the edge of the nearest pool, his headlamp clearly illuminating a row of little furry rumps. He slowly reaches out a gloved hand. Etienne and Gerard hold their breath.
Mr. Mississauga's finger makes contact with a semi-turgid gas sac. In a blink the creature spins, its whiskers splayed as it hisses horribly, and then it sinks a quartet of sharp fangs into Mr. Mississauga's glove.
Gerard gasps. Mr. Mississauga simply pulls his hand away, then straightens. A trio of local moos-bas attack his boots, their claws raking at his pants as they shriek. Mr. Mississauga steps back. The creatures retreat, stare him down, sniff the air, then turn around and resume consuming goo from the pool. The thousands of others have taken no notice of the commotion.
"Are you okay, guy?" cries Gerard. "Oh man, you're bit!"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "My limbs are artificial. No skin has been punctured."
Etienne leans into the wall, hand on his heart. "This is crazy," he says. "I feel like I'm losing my mind. Can this be real, Detective?"
"Let's get the hell out of here," says Gerard, taking his father-in-law's arm and pulling him toward the central tunnel. Mr. Mississauga follows.
The tunnel -- once foreboding -- is now relatively peaceful in its familiar stillness: no insects milking canola roots, no bees, no armies of unholy mink with bubbles on their backs. Gerard sits on a rock and cradles his head in his hands. Etienne paces restlessly, casting looks to Mr. Mississauga.
The detective lights a new cigarette. He removes a coin from his pocket and flips it several times, checking the result critically. He replaces the coin and looks up. "Something complex is going on here," he says, blowing out a stream of fume made visible in the shaft of his headlamp's glow. "This activity is directed, purposeful..."
"You've seen things like this before, though, right?" begs Etienne.
Mr. Mississauga drags, then exhales. "No," he says. "I have seen many strange things, Monsieur Corbeau, but they were fleeting events -- seldom more than halfway in this world. This, on the other hand, is concrete. This is tangible, and real, and very, very old. This is not an intersection of the Ghost World and ours...this is something altogether different."
Etienne swallows. "This is the first time you've sounded scared."
Mr. Mississauga nods seriously. "Yes," he agrees.
Both of the Abenaki men are chilled. The detective then turns on heel and continues walking the tunnel, looking from side to side to peer into each new aperture as he passes. Etienne reaches out a hand to help Gerard to his feet. "Come on, Ger," he says. "We can't let a Mississauga do this alone. It's an Abenaki problem, so Abenaki must face it."
The tunnel widens. The air becomes cool and moist. They emerge into a larger space where a breeze moves and water rains down from an unseen ceiling. Etienne grunts. "It's the river," he says. "We're passing beneath it."
The cave floor here is a mishmash of sharp, fallen rocks serving as islets between flows of mud gurgling through the darkness. "We can't cross," declares Gerard. "It's too dangerous."
"No," argues Mr. Mississauga, orienting his headlamp to the closest chunks of rock and mud. "Look. Droppings. We can follow them."
"Because the moos-bas know the way across. Look at the prints in the mud: they've tested every ford."
On the other side of the fluvial cavern the three find themselves soaked, cold and exhausted. Gerard and Etienne sit on the ground wringing out their jackets while Mr. Mississauga paces robotically back and forth, smoking a slightly damp cigarette. He points his headlamp down. There are many, many sets of tracks. "There has been a mass movement," he concludes. "Heading south..."
"Right under the city," finishes Etienne heavily, fidgeting with his unresponsive GPS unit. He presses his lips together grimly. "Something terrible is happening, isn't it?"
Mr. Mississauga meets his eyes levelly. He nods.
"Christ," whispers Gerard.
"Do you have a theory, Detective?"
Mr. Mississauga shakes his head, cigarette swinging. "No. That's not the way I work."
"You don't form theories?"
"Not now. Not while active. My theories are spun out from dreaming."
Gerard blinks. "What?"
Etienne explains, "Detective Mississauga is aware of his dreams, Ger. He says it helps him."
"The answers come to you in dreams?" asks Gerard, brow crinkled. "What the hell kind of a detective are you?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga, "the answers do not come to me; I come to them. The dreams you remember -- do you know what they are?"
"I'm not sure anybody knows that for sure," says Gerard.
"I do. Dreams are a sorting mechanism, a method for classifying and amalgamating data in preparation for encoding to long-term memory. The engine you use to form higher thoughts is taken offline and repurposed when you sleep; it is used to identify patterns. It separates the wheat from the chaff, trims redundancy, makes semantic connections that allow for higher-fidelity compression." He smokes. "Normally, awareness is partly or wholly subverted by this process. In my case, however, I remain conscious throughout. I am capable of directing the synthesis engine, and tuning it toward a willful end."
Gerard begins to nod slowly. "You make connections..."
"I make connections, yes. A thousandfold more connections than would be possible for a waking mind. I am able to ply the solution-space in a completely fluid manner, culling for arrangements of special significance."
Etienne looks up from his GPS, his face bathed in an eerie cyan glow. "But...when do you rest?"
"Deep sleep," suggests Gerard. "You must get a break when you're in the quiet place between dreams, right? What do they call it? Slow-wave sleep?"
Mr. Mississauga gives him a sad little smile. "Slow-wave sleep is only dreamless for you. Not so for me. It offers me no rest. It is a trial to be endured."
"The brain never stops. To stop would be to die. But in slow-wave sleep -- all things being equal -- the personality is disconnected. The slow-wave visions are not for you, they are for your body. Your reflexes are primed. Your muscles memorize. You are trained."
"Trained for what?"
"For horror. The slow-wave visions are martial exercises, explorations of worst case scenarios. They are limbic and lurid. All the worst things that can happen to a man are simulated in slow-wave sleep, to sharpen our responses to danger and crisis. A programme of methodical nightmares, the merest fractions of which ever bleed into regular dream."
Neither Etienne nor Gerard say anything for a long, somber moment. At last Etienne says, "This happens to you...every time you sleep?"
"It happens to all of us."
"But you -- you remember it?"
Mr. Mississauga nods.
Gerard lets out a long breath. "Shit, Detective. No wonder you're not afraid of nothing. No matter what comes at you, you've seen worse."
He nods again, then looks around at their surroundings. "I'm afraid of this."
"It's worse than a nightmare?"
"Nightmares end. You eat breakfast, you get to work." He drops the end of his cigarette and grinds it into the ground. "But I'm not sure what happens in the aftermath of thousands of mutated minks converging on the core of a major metropolis."
Etienne stirs, then stands, rubbing at his aching back. "That's what's at stake, okay -- then we should be moving."
"But, Etienne -- what can we do?"
Etienne looks over at Mr. Mississauga, then back at his young son-in-law and straightens. "Whatever we are able."
Mr. Mississauga nods. "Let's go."