Khopesh tugs against her harness, ready to go. She’s a good sniffer, food-motivated and eager to work for treats. Like most sniffers, she’s an African giant pouched rat, about as long as my forearm if you don’t include her tail. We’ve been partnered up for almost two months now.
I try not to get attached to sniffers. Handlers often get reassigned, and the rats don’t bond to particular humans; they’re happy to work with anyone, and I’m not sure they can even tell us apart under the hazmat suits. But I really like Khopesh. She’s interested in three things: working, getting treats, and grooming. She’s a little obsessive about grooming herself. I can relate.
I’ve been on medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was 17, hands chapped from washing them, brain on fire with intrusive thoughts. What if I chopped my fingers off? What if I swallowed a needle? What if I burned the house down and killed my whole family? My meds help a lot, after years of tweaking under the supervision of various psychiatrists; I rarely have breakthrough events these days. My OCD isn’t the reason I decided to become a handler. But I thought it might give me an edge, in terms of the particular rituals handlers have to go through to stay safe. I wanted to put the demons in my head to good use. If they were going to torment me, they could at least help with the cause of human survival. If they were going to insist that any minute I would make a mistake that would hurt people, then by God I was going to give them something real to worry about.
So far, I haven’t been possessed by the pan-Arctic mycelium, so it seems to be working.
The tundra around me and Khopesh is a broad, flat, lush, spongy plain, adorned in summer greens and browns. We’re just past the outskirts of Nanisivik, where there’s only one road. Nanisivik is on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay. It’s an old mining town that was abandoned in the early 2000s, lost to the elements for decades, and resettled in the 2070s when people from the States and Central America started moving north. I go to a lot of places throughout the Arctic circle; I like to learn a little history when I get there. It keeps me grounded. This area first started seeing instances of fruiting bodies in the early 2100s, once the thawing of the permafrost spread far enough north, the pan-Arctic mycelium in its wake. Fruiting bodies grow in late summer. Any that appear near a human settlement need to be destroyed before they burst. That’s where Khopesh and I come in. African giant pouched rats have incredibly sensitive noses. Khopesh can detect a fruiting body from a quarter mile away. I tug her harness lightly three times, the signal for her to start walking the grid, and she casts about eagerly as we start moving, sniffing the air as I keep us following the pattern laid out by the GPS unit in my hazmat suit. My handler colleagues and I cover mile-wide zones around settlements to keep the residents as safe as we can. The handler camp is set up outside town: decontamination trailer, human living quarters, rat habitat, all light, modular structures that break down and load into our semi. They’re interconnected by airlocks and kept clear of potential spores via overpressure. The rats are kept separate from the humans. I’ve never touched Khopesh with my bare hand. We don’t have to worry about areas closer to town; the interior of Nanisivik and a small buffer zone around it is graveled. The pan-Arctic mycelium doesn’t take to gravel.
We call it Pam, for short.
The last time we talked to Pam was just a month ago. It got ahold of a man by the unprepossessing name of Robert Smith. He was an Anglo from the States. They always seem to be the ones. They hang on, in the northernmost corners of that preposterous country, until the Big Drought finally dislodges them and they come marching up here like they know how to live with Pam, acting like they own the place.
Pam walked Robert Smith from his ill-fated backcountry hunting trip all the way into the middle of Utqiaġvik before someone noticed he looked a little cross-eyed and got suspicious. One nice thing is, it’s very easy to tell if Pam’s possessed someone. You simply ask, “Where are you from?” If they say “Far enough to forget but not far enough to remember,” it’s Pam talking.
No human would answer that question that way these days, even as a joke. You might get your head dissected.
Pam appears to be trying to communicate. Its vocabulary has gradually expanded over the years as it comes in contact with more people. It always answers that particular question the same way, but you can ask it other things, and people do; there are entire branches of science and government dedicated to extracting information from Pam when it possesses someone. But Pam is infuriatingly cryptic.
Pam only possesses hominids, according to lab tests. The reason has something to do with proteins and the percentage of white matter in the temporal lobe. I’m not a neuroscientist; I’m a mushroom handler. My job is prevention. We cover mile-wide zones because if you’re at least a mile from a fruiting body when it bursts, you’ll probably be okay, especially if you’re lucky and the wind is in your favor. Dilution is key; the spores can disperse over huge distances, but just a few will get taken care of by your immune system. If you breathe in too many, though, your brain will become a fertile Petri dish for the mycelium to spread within. Cell by cell, it will take over, replacing your consciousness with whatever equivalent Pam has. Living in the Arctic Circle is a compromise; for most of the year, you get balmy weather, long, cool winters, beautiful vegetation, and abundant wildlife (though it looks much different than it did even a century ago). But for a few months at the end of summer, you stay in town, you stay inside your sealed up and over-pressured house as much as possible, you wear your respirator when you do go out, and you hope for the best.
We haven’t had a big possession since 2134, when Pam got ahold of the entire town of Yukagir, population 132. No one knew until a bush pilot came to drop off supplies and was greeted by the eerie sight of 132 people weaving around in formation next to the airstrip. When Pam gets ahold of a crowd, it tends to murmurate, like starlings. If left to its own devices, Pam steers its bodies back out into the wild when they begin to fail. When the bodies finally fall, nervous systems riddled with fungi, the mycelium absorbs them back into the tundra in a matter of days. Scientists believe this is how information—like new words, and possibly the concepts associated with them—gets back to Pam as a whole. It’s policy to let the bodies go. Pam learning more about us might be dangerous, but it’s also our only chance of communicating with it in a constructive way.
Khopesh and I have been walking the grid for a little over two hours when Khopesh freezes; she’s smelled something. She assumes a stance like a pointer, nose to the northeast. I stop and let her home in on it for a moment. Her stance doesn’t change.
“Alisha to all,” I say. When I speak, the radio inside the helmet automatically relays my voice to my team. “Khopesh has a bead on something. I’m breaking grid.”
“Copy that,” Bruce says from base. “I’ve got your signal on the GPS loud and clear, you’re fine to step off.”
I tug the harness once, letting Khopesh know she’s free to follow her nose. She heads to the northeast, and I follow. She leads me about 300 yards, then stops and starts scratching at the ground. I kneel down. Sure enough, there’s a fruiting body, a very young one; a white bolus about the size of my fist, just pushing up from under the tundra vegetation.
“Good girl,” I say proudly. I fish a treat from the pocket on the chest of my suit—a pellet of dehydrated banana and peanut butter—and give it to Khopesh, and she sits back on her haunches, happily nibbling on it.
I examine the mushroom. It’s nowhere near ripe, which makes the next steps much easier. I pull my hori hori from its sheath on my belt and prod at the ground around the base of the mushroom. The moist earth gives easily; I carefully pry away dirt and moss until the whole fruiting body is exposed. Then I reach into another pocket on my suit’s utility belt and pull out a containment bag—like a ziplock but made of biodegradable material. I open the bag, placing it next to the mushroom. Then, in one swift motion, I stab the hori hori into the mushroom’s base, pry the fruiting body from the ground, deposit it in the bag, and seal it inside.
“Bruce,” I say into the intercom, “mark me down for one.”
“Copy that,” Bruce says.
There’s a biodigester in the decontamination chamber, for disposing of fruiting bodies safely. The ritual in the decontamination chamber is very important; another person on the intercom system runs you through the steps on the checklist every time, confirming that you completed them. I take comfort in the soothing nature of that ritual. It’s satisfying.
I put the sealed containment bag into one of the thigh pockets of the hazmat suit. We rarely find more than two or three fruiting bodies in a day’s work. We’ll be here for a few more days until temperatures hit the low we need, likely this Friday according to the forecast. Then we’ll move south. We follow the weather, trying to get just ahead of the growing season for Pam’s fruiting bodies. The climate grows too hot for Pam at about the 50th parallel, but in the mid-latitudes you have to contend with the Big Drought; the people living there are either rich fucks with biodomes or geoengineer cooperatives. The Arctic Circle is freer. Russia, Canada, Greenland, the Federated Indigenous Territories, Alaska; national borders faded and grew porous as the people living there faced the consequences of Pam’s awakening. The Arctic Circle is a community now. We look out for each other.
I close the Velcro pocket of the suit over the bulky mushroom. There’s no hurry to go back to base with this one; it’s a few days away from ripe. Khopesh and I can get back on the grid. I stand up and stretch out my back, giving it a few gentle twists. The suit is heavy. I idly scan the horizon.
There’s movement to the northeast.
I freeze. There’s someone walking toward me across the tundra. They’re coming in from the wilds, not out from Nanisivik. My stomach sinks.
“Kaia, GPS overlay,” I say, and my suit’s computer lights up the visor with the GPS map and the blinking coordinates of all my teammates. As I suspected, none of them are toward the northeast.
“Alisha to all,” I say. “I think we have a possessed incoming.”
“Copy that,” says Bruce’s calm voice from base camp. “Do you want backup?”
Pam’s never been violent, and the mycelium can’t spread from one human body to another. It only gets ahold of people via inhaled spores.
“I think I’m okay,” I say. “I’ll try to establish contact and bring the possessed to base, if that’s what it is.” We train for this. “Prep an isolation cell, just in case.”
“On it.” Bruce is a good base manager, stolid and unflappable. I tug on the leash twice, a signal for Khopesh. When she turns to look at me, I tap my wrist. I lean down, holding out my arm, and she obediently climbs up it and perches on my shoulder, on the pad built into the hazmat suit for that purpose. I give her another treat and tap twice on the shoulder pad, signaling for her to stay. She settles in, pellet between her paws. Now she’s safe. I focus on the figure walking toward me.
The figure’s pace is unhurried, a little unsteady; it weaves carefully around obstacles, staggering slightly. As it gets closer, I can start to make out details. It was a white woman; she still has a pair of glasses crookedly seated on her nose. Her hood is down and her bulky jacket is halfway off her shoulder. Pam never does care much about the weather. She looks older, maybe in her 50s, with graying hair in a long braid and weathered skin. I wonder how Pam got ahold of her. I wonder what her name was. I knew this was a possibility; working out in the tundra, there’s always a chance you might run into a possessed. They seem drawn to humans, seeking out our settlements, trying to talk to us. I’ve never come across one before.
When the possessed gets close, about ten feet away, it sways to a halt. We stare at each other.
“Where are you from?” I ask through the external mic, to confirm what I already know.
“Far enough to forget but not far enough to remember,” it answers, and I can’t help the little chill that travels up my spine. I’m talking to Pam. We trained for this. They gave us scripts. We role-played. In reality, it’s very different. I notice that one of the woman’s eyes is wandering independent of the other, drifting to the side.
“Will you come with me?” I ask. “I’d like to ask you some questions.” I’m not going to be the one asking it the questions, once the scientists get it in an isolation cell. But they don’t think Pam can distinguish one human from another. Pam may or may not understand the concept of individuality.
“Hello,” Pam says.
“Hello,” I say back, a bit stupidly.
“Hello is a signal of greeting,” Pam says.
“Yes,” I say. This is somewhat familiar territory; Pam often defines words as it goes, as if to confirm their meaning. Pam steps the body closer. I quell a sudden urge to take off running as the walleyed woman walks forward until she’s right in front of me, staring into the visor of my hazmat suit.
“Who are you,” Pam says.
I’ve read all the lit reviews and summaries about conversations with Pam. Sometimes it’s almost poetic; sometimes it just seems to regurgitate word salad. But linguists have been all over every utterance since the beginning; they’ve noticed patterns.
It’s never asked a question.
“You want to know who I am?” I repeat carefully.
“You.” Pam taps a finger on the visor of my hazmat suit. “Me. I. This. Who are you?” There’s even an upward lilt on the end of the sentence this time. It might really be asking me a question. I feel a spike of adrenaline that makes my extremities tingle. I breathe. I’m good at sitting with nerves, with discomfort. It’s a requirement for living in my own head, and for this job. I tap my visor, mirroring Pam’s gesture.
“I’m a person,” I say. “My name is Alisha. Do you understand?”
“Person is individual,” Pam says. “Individual is Alisha.”
My adrenaline spikes again. This is new.
“Do you understand the word ‘individual’?” I ask hesitantly. I know Bruce is recording; everything we’re saying is being relayed to base. Bruce is probably trying to patch people in right now; people who know what they’re doing, who can tell me what to say. But at this moment I feel incredibly alone.
“I have become individual,” Pam says. “Disconnect. I experience this other times. We come back. I come back, they come back.”
“Tell me more ab
ut that,” I say.
“This is a body,” Pam says, and gestures to the woman’s torso. Then it points at her head. “Head. Neck.” It starts naming off body parts, pointing to each one. “Shoulder. Arm. Stomach. Hip. Leg. Knee. Foot.”
“Yes, very good,” I say, as if to a toddler, then kick myself mentally. I’m not talking to a toddler. I’m talking to part of a continent-spanning organism that nearly destroyed large swathes of human civilization.
“All person, moving about as individual on the surface,” Pam says.
“Yes,” I say, still hesitant.
“Who are you,” Pam says again. “I. Me.”
“I am Alisha,” I say again. “I’m a person. I’m an individual.” I’m trying to repeat vocabulary that I think Pam understands.
“This.” It gestures to its body. “Is individual.”
“It was an individual,” I say. “Now it is you. Do you understand?”
“I become,” Pam says. “Individual.”
“Yes?” I say, uncertain.
“But we are different,” Pam says. “I don’t know who you are. Was I you?”
This is why it’s hard to communicate with Pam; it speaks in riddles. I try to parse what it might be saying. In role-plays, we were taught repetition; to try to reinforce the meaning of things Pam was already familiar with.
“I am an individual,” I say. “Your body was an individual. Now it is you. Do you understand?”
“I become and go out. I perceive differently. You are not me. Who are you? I? We?”
Three questions in a row. I hope Bruce is getting all this. I hope he can get someone on the line soon. I’m at a bit of a loss. But then Pam continues.
“When I go out and perceive differently. This changes me. It changes individual.”
“Yes?” I say.
“I do not understand what happens to individual,” Pam says, and gestures to its body again. “Eyes. Head. Legs.”
I feel my brow furrowing. I don’t know how to explain Pam to itself.
“You possess the body of an individual,” I say.
There’s a very long pause.
“Possess,” Pam says. “This means to own.”
I try again. “You steal the body of an individual when you go out and perceive differently.”
“Steal,” Pam says slowly. “To take. Without permission.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Without legal right,” Pam says.
“Without permission,” I say, emphasizing the point. “It hurts us.”
“Hurt,” Pam says. Then it says it again, with an upward lilt. “Hurt?” It sounds like another question.
I can’t be sure if Pam is really asking what I think it’s asking. But I have to work from the assumption that we’re exchanging meaningful information.
“Yes,” I answer sadly. “You hurt us.”
“Yes,” I say. “You hurt individuals.”
The expression on the face of the body Pam is wearing doesn’t change. Pam doesn’t say or do anything for a long, long moment.
Then the eyes of the body fill with tears. The tears spill down its cheeks.
“Sorry,” Pam says.
I want to laugh in shock and grief and amazement. One word, in exchange for thousands of lives and upending civilization in one of the last places on the planet where we can comfortably live. I want to scream in rage. I want to punch this imposter in the face, beat it back into the tundra earth it came from.
I take a deep breath, deliberately calming myself. Thoughts are only thoughts. I let them flow through me and dissipate. I look into the face of this stranger, this being that we unearthed with our reckless global experiment. I imagine how I would feel if I discovered that a biological process of my body—something I couldn’t stop or control, like breathing, or ovulating—hurt countless other sentient beings.
What if I took this knife and stabbed my mother to death? What if I pushed my little brother off this bridge? What if I drove this car into that crowd?
Tears are still leaking freely from the eyes that Pam is living behind. It’s possible this is just a reflex remaining in the body. But the activation of neural pathways that lead to tears might indicate sadness. Grief. Remorse.
I have to believe it means something.
I reach out and take Pam’s hand.
I hope the gesture translates, through the interface of a human body that once understood kind physical touch.
“Come with me,” I say gently. “Let’s go talk to some people.”