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Paul McAuley has worked as a researcher in biology at various universities, including Oxford and UCLA, and for six years was a lecturer in plant science at St Andrews University. His first novel won the prestigious Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and his fifth the Arthur C. Clarke and the John W. Campbell Awards. He lives in North London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Nicholas Hyde is working late and alone when Tremaine Thompson comes up the hill to ask his question. The setting sun throws Tremaine's shadow ahead of him as he climbs through strip fields on the slope above the shallow tributary of the Congo River and the ruins of the village. The day's stored heat beats up from the red African dirt. Dry stubble crackles under his boots. In the gallery forest at the edge of the fields, mobs of butterflies, their wings printed with the blue, red, and white logo of a famous soft drink, are love-bombing flowering vines, as indifferent to what happened here as to what has been done to their genes.
Fourteen months ago, a ragged gang of armed men burst out of the forest and seized control of the village. They were soldiers loyal to Sergeant Samuel Nyibizo's military dictatorship, in headlong retreat from the victorious forces of a democratic coalition supported by Obligate, the biggest and brashest of the new wave of environmentally conscious transnationals. The soldiers shot two men who tried to resist, and rounded up the rest of the villagers and forced them to undress. They killed the village's pigs and chickens, set fire to the huts and the little tin-roofed schoolhouse, smashed the solar-powered water pump and the satellite dish. Then they marched the naked men, women, and children up into the fields.
A young woman who had been collecting wild ginger in the forest saw something of what the soldiers did before she lost her nerve and ran away. She said that they killed the women first, because they had been making the most noise-because they had been pleading for the lives of their children. She said that the soldiers raped the women and hacked them to death, and then they started to kill the men and the children.
"It was like they were butchering animals," she told one of the debriefing officers of the War Crimes Tribunal, in Brazzaville. "They took turns to kill. It was hard work."
Tremaine is in charge of the forensic team that is investigating the massacre on behalf of the humanitarian charity, Witness. The strip fields have been cleared of weeds and scrub, a grid of white tape has been strung from aluminium stakes, and little red flags on weighted wires mark the position of each scattering of bones. More than half the remains have been photographed, documented, and removed; those left are covered by sheets of green plastic. As he walks up the hill, Tremaine thinks that the red flags and pegged green rectangles scattered across the white grid have the look of a half-finished board game.
Nicholas Hyde is working near the top of the slope. Like Hell's own gardener, he's kneeling on a silicone pad, using the ceramic blade of his Emerson folding knife to tease up and cut away fibrous roots that have knitted themselves through the skull and ribcage and backbone of a woman's skeleton. He's so intent on his work that he does not look up until Tremaine Thompson's shadow falls across him.
"Man, how I hate that climb," Tremaine says, reaching into his day bag. He's seriously out of breath. Sweat maps dark continents across the front and back of his Philadelphia Police Department T-shirt. "Here you go. I thought I'd bring you a beer, seeing as it's the cocktail hour."
Nicholas Hyde fields the cold can and sits back on his heels and holds it against the back of his neck; Tremaine fishes out another, cracks it, and takes a long swallow. He's heavy man with a broad, pleasant face and a shaved head. He has degrees in pathology and forensic anthropology, and took a leave of absence from the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Philadelphia to work a tour as Witness Green Congo's Chief Forensic Investigator. He has three children and two grandchildren, a wife of thirty-one years he phones every night, a five-bedroom suburban house, and membership in two golf clubs: an ordinary life that's as far removed from what happened on this African hillside as the sunlit surface of the sea is from benthic trenches populated by pale, crawling flowers and transparent nightmares all maw and stomach.
"I see you're working up here without a gun," Tremaine says.
"It didn't seem necessary."
"As if you didn't carry one while you were doing your biodiversity work, way out there in the woods."
"Actually, we were usually escorted by soldiers."
"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out without a gun."
"Why is it that every American I meet has to prove that they can mangle the first line of that song?"
Nicholas Hyde says this without a trace of a smile. A lean, self-contained young man in running shorts, long-sleeved T-shirt, sneakers and Kevlar gloves, his complexion burnt nutbrown by the African sun. Giving Tremaine a deadpan stare, like Buster Keaton, or that little Japanese guy who used to make those weird gangster movies. He pressed hard to be transferred from lab to fieldwork, and has proven to be a good worker, dedicated, meticulous, and uncomplaining, although he's neither a mixer nor a team player. He always seems to be on the edge of things, quiet and watchful, the epitome of the infamous reserve Tremaine has consistently failed to detect in any of the other Brits, from irreverent journalists to sardonically weary aid workers, he's met out here. Perhaps that's why he keeps trying to get a rise out of the guy; perhaps that's why he's come up here now.
Tremaine says, trying to justify his little joke, "There are plenty of people who think we're the bad guys, Nick. Plenty who don't like that we're disturbing the dead, usually because they've got something to hide. They had themselves a nasty little civil war in the Congo. There were atrocities on both sides. Obligate tolerates what we do because it's good PR and even better politics--they believe that the atrocities we're documenting will eventually help indict Nyibizo and his Loyalists for war crimes. But that doesn't mean they feel they have to take care of us. Also, do I have to mention the wild animals? You're walking down some little jungle path and you come across a bull buffalo, you'll be sorry if you aren't carrying."
"I don't think you'd want to shoot at a forest buffalo with a handgun, Tre. They're pretty hard to kill."
"One shot through the eye will do it, or better still, between the front legs into the heart," Tremaine says, thumping his own chest and spilling a little beer on his sweat-soaked T-shirt. "No problem."
"Even if you do make the kill shot," Nicholas Hyde says, "forest buffalo generally travel in groups of three or four. And they're quick, too. They can easily run a man down. If you ever shoot one, Tre, you should make sure you're near a tree that you can climb, and get as high as you can before its friends come at you."
"I'll keep it in mind. But you know what we mostly have to worry about are bandits, gangsters, Loyalists...anyone who sees charity workers as easy targets, or wants to take us hostage, or blames us for the Black Flu, or wants to hack us open to get at our magic bullets. Twenty-five, thirty years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation because we wouldn't have needed to carry guns, but now the world's in such a sorry state we can't afford not to."
"I'll be sure to bring a gun along with me next time," Nicholas Hyde says, and sets the unopened can of beer on the ground and turns back to the scatter of half-excavated bones.
"When you decide to work all alone up here, you have to remember to be super-careful." Tremaine Thompson finishes off his beer, suppresses a belch. "How's she coming?"
Nicholas Hyde is using his knife to scrape away the hard dirt that cups the face-down skull. He works with finicky care, his thumb close to the tip of the serrated blade; after a year in the sweltering rot of the swamp forest, the skull is porous and fragile, stained orange-brown by the iron-rich laterite clay. He says, "She had both her arms hacked off below the forearms, and there are deep cuts in her shoulder blades and arm bones."
"On the outer edges?"
"How did you know?"
"Defence marks. Someone swings at you with a machete, you lift your arms to protect yourself."
Tremaine demonstrates by wrapping his left arm over the top of his head. He has been in-country for five months, has worked two dozen sites like this. Body dumps on back roads; burnt-out buildings with walls bullet-pocked at heart height and floors ankle-deep in human ash; mass graves in churned fields; a church full of butchered skeletons; bones scattered in dry grass, in quiet forest clearings...And back in Philadelphia, of course, he has stood over more dead citizens than he cares to remember. But despite his intimate acquaintance with the dead, he still can't imagine what it must have been like to hack to death more than forty men, women, and children in one long, hot, bloody afternoon. It was hard work. The soldiers taking turns, making sure that they were all implicated in the atrocity. Taking no pleasure in the killing, working steadily until it was done. A grim but necessary job. Hard work. He catches between two fingers the wire planted beside the skeleton and squints at the number on its little red flag. "Gordy finished up the mitochondrial DNA comparisons just an hour ago. Twenty-three here was the mother of two small boys we found down where they killed the men and the children."
Nick doesn't look up from his work. "You came all the way up here to tell me that?"
"Don't forget that I also brought beer."
"We still don't know her name. We don't know any of their names."
"We've DNA-fingerprinted every one of them, and scans of the skulls will give us approximate facial reconstructions. Maybe the woman who survived the massacre will be able to recognize her family and friends. Or maybe some of the young men who were away at war when this happened are still alive. Maybe someone will come forward when we post everything we've found here."
"But that doesn't happen too often."
"You have to understand that things got pretty messed up here. Two-thirds of the population died of the Black Flu, and half the survivors were killed by starvation, or by the military dictatorship, the civil war..."
"I've seen the mass graves," Nicholas Hyde says. Dry as a bone.
"Tens of thousands of people buried in them, no one knows how many, no one knows their names," Tremaine says, watching as the young Englishman jabs and scrapes at the hard red dirt around the skull. "Just like every town and city in Africa, all over what they used to call the developing world. We try to make sure that it doesn't happen again, that everyone who dies or was killed has someone who'll know who they were, who'll speak for them. Something like this, it might be a couple of years before we can put names to these poor people, find their relatives and let them know what happened. And yeah, there's always the possibility that we never will find out who they were. But we do what we can, and if you keep at this, Nick, you'll learn that's enough."
"You came to Africa because you think that's important."
"Sure. And I guess because I feel guilty because the States got off so lightly," Tremaine says, remembering people on the streets wearing all kinds of gas masks, drugstores rationing stocks of antibiotics, soldiers and National Guardsmen outside every public building, and lines waiting to pass through security checks. The media hysteria about bioterrorism, demonstrations outside research labs; the friend of a friend, a biochemist, who lost the fingers of her right hand to a letter bomb. The President addressing the nation the day after cruise missiles were launched at targets all around the world, making that speech about sterilizing the breeding grounds of evil, old enmities flaring into countless little wars and skirmishes all over the globe, and the self-perpetuating rounds of rumour, counter-rumour and black propaganda that ran on long after it was definitively proved that the Black Flu was not after all a bioweapon released by fanatics, but an entirely natural plague.
Tremaine says, "It wasn't the best of times, but it wasn't anything like as bad as it was here. Back in the States, there were basically two kinds of reaction to what happened in Africa and the rest of the Third World. The first, you saw on the news a shot of bulldozers pushing hundreds of bodies into a pit, and you thought, it's nothing to do with me, they're just Africans, and you switched channels. The second, you thought, those are human beings, someone's daughter, someone's son...You felt what the Germans call Weltschmerz."
"World sorrow. It touched you or it didn't touch you. I guess it touched me. Hey, I think you've got it."
Nicholas Hyde lays down his knife and gently tugs the skull from its matrix and turns it over in his gloved hands. Jaw and cheekbones and eye sockets are stained black by tissue decomposition. A fringe of hair still clings to the forehead.
"Take a look," he says, and Tremaine leans closer, the two men caught up in this intimate moment.
There's a neat hole drilled into the brow of the skull, just above the gaping nasal cleft.
"Someone took pity on her," Nicholas Hyde says.
"Probably with a .22 or some other small-calibre pistol," Tremaine says.
"There doesn't seem to be an exit wound. The bullet might still be in there."
"This isn't a murder investigation," Tremaine says as Nicholas Hyde sets the skull down and takes a series of photographs with a tiny camera. "We're not here to bring anyone to justice. All we can do is speak for the dead. Document how they were murdered, try to find out their names and their stories, and if nothing else give them a decent burial. Maybe someone did take pity on her. Or maybe they were pissed off because she was screaming too loudly, or because she spoke back. Or maybe it was just an impulse. Someone had a pistol in their hand, and here was this woman looking at them; they shot her to see what would happen, or to cap a joke, or just because they could. You can go crazy trying to figure out the how and the why, Nick, and it isn't why we're here."
A beat of silence. The sun has gone down with its usual lack of ceremony. The air is darkening all around the two men. Insect orchestras are tuning up for their nightlong mass concert. Lights burn inside the half-dozen tents pitched at the river's edge; they look like a cluster of festival lanterns, like a brave little fleet of UFOs from a kinder, better world.
Tremaine says, "You've been with us something like six weeks?"
"Something like that."
If Nicholas Hyde resents Tremaine's little lecture, he doesn't show it. He tucks the camera in his shirt pocket and strips off his gloves, cracks the tab on his can of beer and daintily sips the spill of foam that wells up.
Tremaine says, "You like working out in the field?"
"I don't know if I like it. But it feels right. I feel as if I've found something I can do well. Something I didn't know I was looking for."
"You ever find yourself liking digging up the bones of murdered people, liking seeing what was done to them before they died, you know it's time to get out. Anyhow, the reason why I came up here," Tremaine says, "wasn't to give you a pep talk. I've got another job. A hot scene, just called in. We're the nearest team, and they're sending a helicopter to pick me up sometim...
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