The ospreys’ deaths—by the dozens—are inexplicable, as is the bluish taint on their beaks, heads and chests. It simply should not be there. I should know, for I designed the birds.
Every morning, day breaks over the mudflats, covered in osprey corpses and unexpected bluish reflections, as if a hundred will-o-the-wisps of the wrong colour were advancing over the watery surface. The smooth flat mirror of the mudflats shines indigo: fluorescent, freakish, wrong. From their beaks, and from sores on their chests and bellies, there pours a tainted viscous liquid that resembles watery gelatine, odourless and sticky to the touch.
This is, of course, not what our star product for the Scottish ecosystem should do. Our fabricated birds, to start with, should not die this soon, a mere fifteen years after their release into nature. They are engineered: to sustain longer life, eternal in some cases, to maintain fish numbers—a delicate dance of environmental equilibrium.
‘Dr Hay, your presence is required, code A-001.’
A summons from God himself. I cannot recall being asked to Philip’s office since our last disagreement, and that was months ago. But I do what I’m told. In recent times I have been treated by everyone as a newcomer, or at best an embarrassing uncle. No one remembers that I was here at the beginning, exactly like he was, building the company up from nothing. Fighting against those who believed our work unethical. I risked as much as he did, more in fact.
‘Thank you, Dolores.’
I close the intercom, walk towards the cabinet, and slide open its glass doors with a light wave of my hand. Behind a row of gold-tooled volumes, I find a little bottle of vodka that I take gently to my lips, with a furtive movement, in case I’m being observed.
The green rocks and hills of the Scottish highlands reflect the yellow glow of the bio-engineered grass, and the landscape shines on the other side of the glass and white-aluminium dome. The colossal hall, built to the proportions of our greatest achievement to date, the de-extinct monolithic squid, is a vast oblong chamber of pure whiteness into which the landscape pours its new colours. On sunnier days the yellow and orange reflections are almost unbearable, and the glass octahedrons taint themselves a shade or two darker to keep us sheltered. The Highlands can be particularly hot during the winter months.
The dome is a hive of these glass panels supported by white aluminium, a triumph of de-modernized architecture imitating late twenty-first century design. The vast column of the aquarium occupies the centre, placed there to greet the visitors with our impressive bio-engineered reproductions: sharks, whales, dolphins, coral, moonfish. The squid moves gracefully amongst its fellow inmates. I walk round the watery cylinder. It takes me seventeen minutes to complete the circle. I notice new species locked in there. Apparently, we have starfish now. Only the natural-correct colours, in accordance with the Scottish Law on Bio-Ethics, and the International Consensus on De-Extinction. We pride ourselves on reproducing environments; no one is interested here in the new fashions for violet sheep or pink cows. We leave these frivolities as the pets of rich Russians.
Philip’s office has its own private elevator, as well as another entry-escape route: a helipad on its balcony. I press the only button in the white capsule. The answer comes back in flashing red; it has been a while since I have been granted direct access to him.
Two members of the security staff push the doors open to find me there.
‘Sorry, sir,’ one of them says, their attitude relaxing a bit. They have obviously been briefed. They put down their white machine-guns, one of them presses the button again, and the system reacts, positively this time, to his DNA.
The doors close and the elevator moves upwards.
Philip is standing behind his desk when I enter. His office is immaculately white, as is everything else in XenoLab.
The genetically-engineered Siberian tiger, re-imagined by Neo-Bio to be as tame as a gigantic cat, is stretching in the middle of the chamber, causing echoes as he plays with a worn-out red plastic sphere. I cross the vast space, cavernous with the sounds of the beast, and those of my own shoes over the white marble.
‘Andrew, dear friend,’ Philip’s voice resonates. His hair and his trimmed beard are also white now, I notice, in communion with our corporate surroundings.
‘Philip. You wanted to see me.’ I hope I don’t sound like an obedient child.
He looks down, turns awkwardly and advances towards the glass-wall on the south side of the chamber. He looks diminutive with his hands behind his back, looking through the glass in the direction of the distant aviary, an external structure of gigantic proportions, shaped like a huge pinecone.
‘How have you been?’
I would like to imagine that there is some genuine interest in his tone of voice. But I know my ex business partner well enough not to hold false illusions. Nonetheless, his question brings Barbara’s face back to my mind. It was probably designed to do exactly that, throw salt into the old wound. I hate him for it.
‘Marvellous.’ There’s no point hiding the lie. ‘What’s up, Philip?’
He cannot see the birds from where he stands. It is obvious he’s looking in the direction of the cone to avoid turning to face me.
‘The ospreys were one of our first, were they not?’ he says laconically. I notice he still speaks the same way, ending sentences with a negative answer. Manipulation 101.
‘That is correct.’
‘I am sorry to say this requires swift action. We cannot allow the reputation of our company to be affected.’
‘What do you propose?’
‘Go there, back to Black Isle, and take a small team, of your choosing. Find out what is wrong with the birds.’
‘I need someone I can trust’. I believe him, God knows why. Perhaps because I want to believe him, even after everything that has happened.
‘Why are a bunch of birds so important, Philip; what aren’t you telling me?’
He turns and smiles briefly, more with his squinting eyes than with his mouth.
‘Nothing, old friend, nothing.’ Now he is the one who doesn’t bother to hide the lie. ‘But they were some of our first, were they not?’ he repeats.
His meaning dawns on me at last. I never had his powers of memory, and it’s been fifteen years. Fifteen years in which I have had reason enough to forget.
I reply that I’ll do all in my power, and turn in the direction of the elevator. Before leaving I specify that I will go on my own. He does not refuse me this small request, the only victory I contemplate gaining anytime soon. I savour it in silence.
‘Andrew,’ he calls as the elevator’s doors are closing. I push them open, and wait for him to speak. ‘Andrew. Mendez has already been there.’ This surprises me. I thought I had kept myself informed of the company’s recent goings-on. It had obviously been a secret outing. ‘He went and returned, no conclusive results. You should seek him out, talk to him.’
‘Of course, I will do so first thing.’ I let the doors go.
‘Andrew!’ I put my foot just in time once more between the doors before they close.
‘Yes, Philip?’ My tone is ironic, disdainful. Each one of us is back in his proper place, and mine is obviously that of the delivery boy.
He looks in my direction again, and advances towards the elevator. I did not expect this; I tense unexpectedly. Even at a distance he looks haggard, strangely old. I wonder if my ex-friend has stopped following his re-juvenating bio-treatments. ‘Mendez is in Hospital Zero Zero Sixteen. Committed. Mental ward.’ The matter-of-fact manner with which he delivers this piece of significant information freezes me out. I leave at last.
The elevator takes me back down into the hall. This time I fancy that I see a bluish foam coming out of the whale’s mouth as she exhales. There is nothing there. It is only a reflection of a rare passing cloud over the glass cylinder, staining the structure with its shadow.
I am alone in bed. Dolores has just left me and gone back to her own compound. I get up and go to the bathroom and splash my face with cold water.
I open my computer and connect myself to the company hive. ‘Black Isle’, I say to the screen that waits flat like the surface of calm stagnant water. The requested information starts popping up fast over the screen, reports and charts and scientific articles, and I am startled by the number of species that we have introduced into that particular environment. Not only birds, but fish and mammals as well. Insects, some species genetically engineered to help decimate the rapidly multiplying ones. Genetically modified grass, the kind that won’t miss the disappearing clouds. Flowers. I wonder how much of the landscape is fake in the place, how much of it remains original, if any.
Close to us, Black Isle was one of our first proving-grounds. A small peninsula twenty minutes to the west of Inverness, it is placed right in front of the vast watery expanse of the Bauly Firth in the North Sea. On the opposite shore, the hills and the glens of The Aird are visible in the distance, with its farmland and its pretty copses, and a soft mist dancing over the small summits.
The Bauly Firth is an unusual spot. The place is subjected to dramatic changes in its ecosystem every few hours following the tides. For half a day, twice a day, the water recedes, and an expanse of mudflats extends itself further into the distance, crossing the whole bay and reaching the Aird, a strange black mirror filled with the inevitable quick-sands, a deceptive landscape that looks barren but that is full of life. I notice this landscape of an entire bay without water has been called in the company reports “a long view of a lot of mud”, not very flattering.
The mud houses a particular type of animal life. Afterwards, in a few hours, all of a sudden, the water re-conquers it all, with its undulating dark glimmer. It is then when the birds reappear, together with certain type of fish, seals, dolphins, crossing the bay in direction to Inverness. Enormous hen harriers and cormorants, diving gracefully into the water to hunt their prey, small martens running around, birds coming and going, ever-changing, as subtly as the rhythms of the water. The place is utterly fascinating for a biologist. The bay becomes a completely different biological environment in each of its distinctive phases.
Black Isle is also one of many self-contained late twenty-first century environments, protected by its own glass and aluminium dome. The company will organise the necessary paperwork to grant me access.
The ospreys were not simply one of our first; they were our first one hundred per cent success story. After the ospreys, everything else came swiftly, easily, and Neo-Bio gave a massive leap forward. Everything changed. When they first disappeared, the transformations in our ecosystem posed an unimaginable danger to our species. Hundreds of birds suffered a sudden decline in numbers, vanishing, at the same time as their main food, small insects, increased in numbers out of all proportions. Maintaining the insect eaters constant became XenoLab’s first mission. After the success with the ospreys, we turn our attention to the insects-eaters, re-imagine them with a supra-hunger. Success after success, our reputation grew without equal.
I remember the day we freed the ospreys. They all had a white tag embedded in their legs, shiny, easy to spot with binoculars.
I glide over the avenues and the open squares, marvelling as always at the daring of some of our competitors. I ascertain, even from manoeuvring-height, that the new fashion for taking polar bears as pets has reached our city, as has the one that prizes giant lizards, tigers, and other unusual animals for human company. My opinion about this hasn’t changed: It does not matter how tame these beasts have been re-imagined by Neo-Bio; it is obvious that this new fashion for modifying the instincts of species not suited for human company has to pose some kind of danger.
At least, the Scottish Republic’s law spares us from the blue bears, the orange lizards. I will not be able to stand seeing them around when they are legally available, which will surely happen eventually.
I negotiate the narrow entry into the parking dock at the block where the hospital is located. I do not know this area of the city well, but my vehicle has brought me in with the autopilot. It is a new model, provided by the company, a convertible which will also run over ground once I am granted access to the domed zone of Black Isle.
I show my credentials and am ushered quickly to the exact place by a young assistant doctor. I am impressed by the effectiveness and power that a card from XenoLab still commands.
The hospital is as white as every other building in the city—Scotland still misses, all these centuries later, its snowy winter landscapes—but I am led through one white corridor after another until we reach a back area outside of the main wards, and here the paint is peeling, the plumbing is exposed over the walls, the lights flick, covering each turn in increasing darkness.
We stop in front of a metal door with a dirty hatch for food. The door is unlocked and I am pushed in, then it is locked again quickly after me.
The place is hardly illuminated by an orange bulb. Mendez is a formless bundle in one corner.
‘Mendez?’ There’s no answer. ‘Mendez?’
He turns and finally sees me. He tries to focus his eyes on me, tries to recognise me.
‘I am waiting for him.’
‘Do you mean Philip?’
He looks up, and crawls closer. He has aged beyond recognition. His re-juvenation program had stopped him at age twenty-four. He looks nearly forty now, or perhaps fifty. It is difficult to know.
‘God’ he says simply. Just before I ask again if he is talking about Philip, he utters a few words that I don’t quite catch, and takes something into his mouth.
He is eating flies. I don’t even know where from. There are no flies—not officially at least—under the city’s dome.
‘What have you said?’ I ask.
‘Pan. I am waiting for him.’
I do not have a clue what he is talking about, but understand I will get no useful information, and leave. His mind seems to be gone completely.
Later, I will be reminded of this in Black Isle. While I am in the hospital, all I think is that Philip has made me waste my time, as usual, and get unduly annoyed.
I stay with Peter and Anita, the allocated occupants of Pier Cottage, exactly like I did fifteen years ago. The house enjoys a privileged situation, a mere five minutes walk from the Gothic ruins of Red Castle, a small turreted structure abandoned to rot at the end of the twentieth century, when its owner decided he could not pay more taxes on the property and removed the roof to stop paying them.
On the right side of the cottage there is a path that leads into the old quarry, with its oddly flat and reddish walls cut into the hill. The house and the Castle are both built out of this local stone, as it is the abandoned Victorian pier that gives its name to the cottage, put there in order to transport the stone from the quarry into Inverness over the bay. The pier’s abandonment means it is no more than an overgrown greenish and rocky long structure that advances into the water, hard to walk over, and which gets dangerously covered by the regular tides.
Apart from the striking landscape, and the Gothic ruin of Red Castle, Black Isle is particularly rich in Megalithic chambered cairns. It was inhabited in 3000 BC by prehistoric men, and New Stone Age folk constructed these tomb-buildings. There seems to be two main types on the isle, the Orkney and the Clava, one rectangular and one a stone ring, with a circular burial chamber underground. I promise myself to visit some before my fieldtrip is over, something I did not manage to do during the release-trip all those years ago.
Everything is pretty much unchanged over the past fifteen years. Anita’s cat startles me as much as it did back then, its red eyes marking him out as one of the first, discarded models of genetic manufacture of the old days, reimagined not to attack the birds but unsuccessful in every other aspect. Everything is pretty much the same, including Anita. Her smile still awakens something in me. The way she looks at me makes me think that she hasn’t entirely forgotten our brief affair. I take mental note of this.
The place is quite magical, utterly unspoiled. That is, unspoiled but at present subtly different from what it was, due to the interaction of companies such as ours with the landscape, precisely so as to keep it unspoiled. It is strangely unreal, this truthful version of a late twenty-first century Scottish ecosystem. The irony does not escape me. It has been my major point of conflict with Philip in recent times.
The green expanses reflect the yellow glow of the genetically engineered grass. Once the motorway crosses the bridge over the water, you find yourself negotiating narrow winding country roads framed by little stone walls, trees and thickets. Some of the moss over the fake walls is also fabricated. I can see it plainly even from the moving vehicle.
From the window of the kitchen one can observe even without binoculars the birds that come to the feeders, mostly chaffinch, greenfinch, blue tits, bullfinch, and a rare young woodpecker. Several of these birds are of our own manufacture, as an inspection with the binoculars reveals the white tags in their legs, shining with their unusual plastic glimmer. Not the woodpecker, however. He seems the genuine article.
We walk over to the pier. To reach its end a short walk is necessary, no more than three hundred metres, but I am reminded quite soon how hard is to advance over the abandoned structure. The overgrown reeds and the muddy grass have covered it all. The seaweed climbs onto it from its deceptive little shores. But the worst is that the remaining rocks of the man-built pier are now out of place and out of shape, as if a giant had scattered the original square stones from the sky without looking to see where they would fall. Time and abandonment have covered them in the green of the reeds and the grass, so much so that it is impossible to find steady ground, or even to avoid holes and uneven spots where it would be easy to twist one’s ankle.
We need nearly half an hour to get to its rounded end.
Halfway onto the pier, the grass is spotted here and there with the corpses of crabs of different sizes. They are all the same kind of local specimen, and they are all tainted with the irregular bluish-green. I collect several of them, and some of the bluish-tainted grass around their emptied bodies. The cottage is provided with a small working lab, well enough equipped to carry out small tasks. Anita is carrying plastic sample bags, and Peter is taking digital photographs for my initial report, for which these notes are intended. They both have been most helpful.
I see a figure over the mud, and I put my binoculars to my eyes: a man is dragging a net-fishing bag full of what I can make out as the huge cadavers of a few birds, bleeding their cobalt liquid into the darkened mirror of the mud as he walks.
‘Who is that?’, I ask.
‘Oh no. Good gracious!’
Peter advances to the uneven border of the pier, and starts shouting at the man.
‘McKenzie! You’re going to drown, you stupid son of a bitch!’
I am startled by his reaction. I remember Peter as an educated, mild-mannered, retired science teacher. He turns in my direction and explains.
‘Tomorrow morning those birds will be laid at our door.’
I am not offered an explanation as to how the man McKenzie, who is braving the quicksand in such reckless fashion, knows of Peter and Anita’s connection to XenoLab, or why he directs the birds’ death towards the inhabitants of Pier Cottage. Or how much he knows about our de-extinction work in the area. But that he is angry at us is clear.
Later in the day we observe the tide covering the mud, rapidly filling the Bay, splashing around the pier. The remains of the structure get completely covered except for its round tip. I make a mental note to find out the tide times as soon as possible; it is more than likely that venturing into the pier again will be needed, and I do not desire to get stranded there, with the vicious winds and the vicious seagulls.
I see the man McKenzie is walking along the shore, dragging behind him his trophy of dead fabricated birds.
I am thinking of how quiet has this new nature turned out to be. There are hardly any bird sounds, an unexpected silence. I know by memory the osprey’s call, as described in my field guide: A short, cheeping whistle, sometimes slightly declining. I guess I can remember it; I certainly can imagine a sound described like that. But I haven’t heard it once here, and it has been a while since I’ve heard it anywhere else.
What I have seen is their clear white bellies, the black wing patches, when the birds glide overhead. I have seen them, alive and flying; and I have also by now collected their cadavers and dissected them by the dozens. The man McKenzie has not graced us so far with his grim reaping, despite Peter’s assurances that he would.
Evening approaches, and my hosts must be preparing dinner. I am out for an evening walk after one of this dissecting sessions, trying to regain my appetite with some much-needed fresh air. Almost by impulse I turn at the last moment in a two-way path and venture into Red Castle’s abandoned grounds. I reach the structure, inspect the plaque on the wall, inscribed with the date 1641, and I look over the Bauly Firth, the bay in front of me in its formidable vastness. I admire the Castle’s formidable defensive position. I decide to push into the extensive woods and to come out on the other side of my hosts’ home. I trust my instinct not to get lost, and to cross eventually into the area of the old farmlands, now covered in decorative crops.
Barbara would have liked this contrasting landscape. I bury the thought as deep as possible.
Something is shinning blue on the Castle’s grounds. It’s a hare, or a rat. It is difficult to ascertain, as all there remains is a furry wet pulp of flesh, and something that looks like a strange bluish-green gelatine.
I pack the remains of the animal into a sample bag, and carry it back home with me.
I am in bed when I hear a dry bump against the main door. I look out of my window but see nothing. The next morning Anita shows me a robin, dead from the collision with the door of Pier Cottage. Inside his breast a bluish heart is shining. The right leg displays its whitish plastic tag.
My notes from the previous trip to Black Isle are little more than useless. Apart from the observations of the releasing day proper, they contain nothing helpful. The acquired wisdom of observations relating to the weather. Indications for sowing the seed, for when to begin harvesting. Customs outmoded now, since we have completely eradicated hunger with our genetically engineered crops, destroyed death and illness with the widely available re-juvenating processes.
I remember those nights in which Anita explained these wonders to me: that tomorrow’s weather starts to be foretold the previous evening, that if swallows fly high in their search for insects, there will be good weather. If the cattle bunch together in a corner of the field, rain may be expected.
There is only nice weather now; it was one the first things man learnt to interact with. Our satellites, strategically placed around the globe, provide a never-ending provision of cloudless skies, mild temperatures, constant and bright sun.
If the lights of the Aurora Borealis, or Merry Dancers, sweep across the sky, and Scottish countryfolk can see them from their homes, disturbed weather is on the way. I do not know very well what the Aurora Borealis is. Must find records on the company hive; I remember clearly making the same promise to Anita fifteen years ago, while I noted down all these. I obviously wasn’t interested enough, and only took notes on these useless bits of local information as a means to flirt with her.
Fifteen years ago, Barbara waited for me back home. There had not yet been any renal failure, no transplant from the genetically-engineered pigs, performed strictly against her religious wishes, and no final rejection of the animal’s harvested organ by her body. Fifteen years ago we had not managed to crack that side of our business, I’m afraid, and Barbara was little more than an experiment for Philip, a stoat, small but vicious, a little guinea pig.
Red rowan berries protect against witches. Some flowers (broom, hawthorn, foxglove) should never be taken into the houses. Robins have a drop of God’s blood in its veins. It is unlucky to hurt one of them for that reason.
Barbara would have said that God himself was angry with us, producing the blue viscous liquid. Was Jesus’ blood meant to be bluish? Or was that what was said about kings and queens in the tales of the old days? I wish I had kept the old meaning of these things buried in some field notebook, I wish I had my own archive, my own private hive, my personal stack of useless knowledge from past days.
When I see him is too late to hide. The stone circle, in the middle of a round, dark meadow, half covered by the treetops falling on it from its side, offers no other hiding place than the actual cairn that I have come to visit, which turns out to be a mound with a little excavation entrance. I glance over it; it seems blocked, or rather leading nowhere. It is too late anyhow to escape. Are the Neolithic tombs also a decoration, perhaps? No time to muse about it.
‘Morning’ I say.
‘Morning’ he answers. He stops in front of me, and says nothing else. He has his hands on his pockets.
Attack is a good defence and, since I’ve got the notion that he considers me the enemy, I waste no time:
‘I guess you know who I am, and what I am doing here.’
He smiles crookedly but says nothing, taken aback by my forwardness no doubt.
‘Oh yes, I know who you are,’ he says at last.
‘And how can I help you?’
‘Oh, no, you cannot help me… You cannot help us.’
This is leading nowhere. I start again:
‘Look, man… McKenzie, isn’t it?’
‘I just want to show you something.’
I am not surprised by his offer. I had expected something similar to these: proofs of the company’s mismanagement of the environment, threats of dismal intensity, perhaps just expecting some kind of compensation, maybe in the form of re-juvenating credit.
‘Very well,’ I say at last. ‘I’ll come.’
We head deep into the woods, leaving the quarry behind. Very soon there is no sight of the sea, although it can clearly be heard from practically everywhere in Black Isle, due to the lack of animal noise I have already noted. The sound of the water makes me feel strangely at ease.
His cabin is quite well kept, a fresh lick of whitewash on the walls, recently fixed wooden fences. A kingfisher hangs by the door, dead and somehow preserved, to ward off the strong sea winds.
He takes me towards the back, into a small working hut. I wonder who this man is, why he is allowed inside the dome, what role he performs, if any, on Black Isle. I gather that he has what are called ‘historical rights’, that is to say, that his family has always belonged to the area, and therefore he can stay. A controversial idea. But I cannot imagine any other way in which he would be allowed to be here.
He opens the door and then I see it.
There is absolutely no smell, but the animals, of all sizes and shapes, are the bluish mash I have half expected. I am in shock. There are not only birds here. A bucket is filled with what looks like different kinds of insects and rodents. The birds are hanging upside down. At the back of the hut there is a dead blue-sheep lying on a worktable. I have no idea such large species have also been affected. I turn round in disbelief.
‘Where did you find her?’ I asked.
‘She was mine, my sheep.’ That is all the information he offers.
When I leave I am asking myself what have we done here, and what we should do next.
My report concludes: the experiments I have conducted with Anita’s help have formulated no final theory, although I am still waiting on the samples I have sent Philip’s way. But I really see no way to stop this extravagant virus which is not a virus, but which seems nonetheless to be spreading all over the area, at a level I could not have anticipated. The animals themselves seem to be carrying this possibility of de-continuation. I offer no possible solution. There is none until we look more in detail into the issue. I recommend the creation of a research team back in XenoLab to start working with immediate effect. Secretly, of course. I understand the sensitivity of the topic. My final prediction is to expect more cases outside of this particular dome, quite soon. I fear that all our product will eventually de-continue itself, everywhere. This possibility is too horrible to contemplate.
The cat is staring at me with his ‘evil’ fake red eyes. He comes and rubs himself against my leg, and I shudder. I go to sleep and my mind is uneasy, heavy images of what I have been shown hanging on me. I dream of Barbara, of the days prior to her operation.
I was privately offered another option before that fatal day: a experimental dose of proto-phomaldeion to keep her in animated suspension, living eternally, until the xeno was not experimental anymore, and we had better results with the harvesting of organs from animals. I never got to see the huge capsule where the substance would be provided, but in my dream a blue syrup is injected into her small arm, and Barbara cries blue tears as the liquid fills her up.
Philip is also crying blue tears while his face, no longer treated with the re-juvenation process, collapses into old-age all of a sudden, in front of my very eyes, while he communicates to me her passing.
I wake up covered in cold sweat, and wet with tears, thinking about xeno-suspension, xeno-cloning, and other rapidly progressing issues I simply cannot cope with, but which nonetheless are under way, even in the minutes of the Scottish parliament’s Bio-Regulation Commission’s latest meetings. I lie in bed thinking that, perhaps, Philip has been right to cast me away from the front line of things. I am an old-fashioned man, typing these notes with my fingers on my computer instead of talking into it, collecting field notebooks written with ink, or rather a succedaneum of ink manufactured by myself, since it is impossible to find where to buy it. A man unable, as it were, to accept the realities that surround me. Perhaps I should commission a shiny red goat as a pet, and snap out of it once and for all.
Philip has read my report, and demands to talk with me through HiveCam, but I do not have my profile active anymore, although that small act of rebellion on my part comprises a breach of company regulations. I then receive a strange message through an encoded email provider, contracted during the early days of the company, and which we used to communicate highly delicate issues. We have not used it to talk in years. I am confused when I see the red flag on my screen, until I suddenly remember what it is.
I command the computer to open the message. I am even more confused after reading it: ‘Code Z-666’. Get out. Leave. Abort operation. I’ve always prized myself on knowing the company’s code-protocols by heart. I helped write them after all.
I trust I’ll find the cabin of the man McKenzie. I trust that I will not get lost. I reach without problem the stone circle with its Neolithic tomb, and from there I try to re-orientate myself. I do reach the cabin, and the hut, eventually. I hardly notice the twilight, which is nothing more than a pale-grey sky miles higher, beyond the distant dome.
It’s a statement, and affirmation. I walk in the direction of the strange man.
‘What do you want?’
‘Talk, just to talk.’
I am not sure which kind of help I expect to get from him, but if nothing else I want his assistance to conduct a larger survey of Black Isle. I’m also carrying the digital camera, and want to ask permission to photograph the animals in his hut. For now, I let myself be led into the cabin, where the man flicks on the electric kettle.
The man rinses a few herbs and puts them inside a teapot. He pours the water.
‘Do you take sugar?’
I say no. He puts some in my cup anyway. The infusion is still acidic in my tongue.
‘Do you want any of this?’ he says holding a small bottle of whisky. I say no, wishing it was vodka instead.
‘What do you think is happening here?’, I ask.
He shrugs for an answer, but says:
‘Nature will re-conquer, will she not?’
I am startled for a second. Something unexpected has happened: the way he has spoken has reminded me of Philip.
‘She will battle back,’ he continues, in his dark Scottish drawl.
I look into his eyes, and then I see it. Philip’s eyes, his nose. In a body twenty years his senior. I consciously wonder what the hell is going on here.
I get up and go towards an old-fashioned static-photograph on the wall, where two children are showing the animals they’ve hunted to the camera, each of them holding a huge bird by the legs. The Bauly Firth’s mudflats shine behind them.
I turn to say something more, but I feel unexpectedly dizzy. My vision blurs, and I try to find something to grab.
The herbs. I am a biologist. I suddenly recognise the herbs he has made me drink. I think I’ve seen a hedge of it outside, with its horny stems and foxglove-like flowers. Datura stramonium.
Thorn apple, devil’s apple, devil’s trumpet, feuille du diable, herb du diable, green thorn apple.
I fall to the floor at last. I look up, and a blurry image walks in my direction. McKenzie. Or rather a re-imagined version of the man McKenzie, completed with hooves and horns and the face of a sheep.
I close my eyes to the hallucination, and doze happily into oblivion.
I wake up cold, uncomfortable, wet. It takes me a few seconds to understand where I am lying, at the very end of the pier. The tide is coming in, in full spate. I notice that there is water all around me. Only the rounded end where I have been dropped is not covered by it. There is no escape now until the tide goes down.
I see them then: hundreds and thousands of dead fish, floating over the grey-bluish water.
It is at this moment that I understand Philip’s strange message. But I understand its meaning from a distance, far away, impossible. Through the clouds of my sleepy and confused mind.
Then the birds start falling from the sky, hundreds of them.
Behind me, a huge roar announces that the trees in the Castle’s grounds are collapsing.
Everything is dying, at the exact same moment. As if someone had orchestrated it all, or pushed the required button from a safe and distant location.
I notice the sea is exploding now: here, where it has always been an unmoving mirror of greyness.
From the sea, an enormous whale is coming in my direction. Only it doesn’t look like one. It looks like a shapeless monster, bleeding its blue foam as it advances into the pier.
I try to remember a prayer, but I can’t.
I close my eyes and think of Barbara.
The whale opens her mouth and swallows me up.