Something Going Around

From the Hugo-winning, bestselling author of The Guns of the South, a tale of love, parasitism, and loss.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

It’s twenty minutes, maybe a half hour, from my office to Mandelbaum’s. My office is in the Languages Building—excuse me, the Randall J. Simonson Foundation Languages Building. You lose points if you forget to name the benefactor. The university knows which side its bread is buttered on. Oh, you bet it does. When there’s butter. Hell, when there’s bread.

By the time I got to the bar, I needed a beer a lot more than I had when I set out. Somebody a couple of blocks from the campus side of Mandelbaum’s had walked in front of a car. Not just any car, either. A Lincoln Navigator. Dead, of course. Never knew what hit him, I hope.

Cops and paramedics couldn’t have pulled up more than half a minute before I walked by. They’d thrown a sheet over him, but it was still pretty bad. Worse than you see on the news, ’cause the news cleans up the gore or cuts away. You didn’t only see it there. You could smell it, all thick and rusty. Made my stomach turn over.

A couple of little animals or birds were scurrying around the edge of the pool. I couldn’t tell what they were up to—maybe scouting for chunks of meat in the soup. Believe me, I didn’t check it out too close.

The woman who’d been driving the Navigator was talking to a cop. She was sleek and blonde and middle-aged: plainly part of the one percent, not the ninety-nine. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen to people like her. But one had. She still sounded stunned, not horrified. “I couldn’t do a thing, Officer,” she was saying. “Not a thing. He didn’t even look. He just walked out in front of me—and bam!Bam! was right.

When I walked into Mandelbuam’s, Victor drew me a Sam Adams and slid it across the bar. Then he eyed me and said, “You okay, Stan? You’re kinda green around the gills.”

So I told him why I was green around the gills.

“Oh, Jesus!” He pointed to the beer. “On the house, man. That same thing happened to me last month. Still creeps me out—I’ve woke up from nightmares in a cold sweat, like, two or three times. Mine was a gal.”

“Makes it even worse somehow,” I said.

“It totally does.” Victor nodded. Then he did it again, in a different way—toward the pint of beer. “So get yourself outside of that right away. It’ll take the edge off. Then have another one, slower, and you oughta be good to go.”

“Sounds like the right prescription, Doc,” I said, and set to work on the first part of it.

There were only a couple of other people at the bar, but it was early yet. Things would perk up. They always did. Mandelbaum’s is a good place. It’s half town, half gown, you might say. Not a meat market bar, though there are a gay one and a straight one within a few blocks. Mandelbaum’s is more like a permanent floating cocktail party. You run into all kinds of people there, some fascinating, some . . . well, not so much.

But you do hear some out-of-the-ordinary answers when you get around to asking, “So what do you do, then?”

I started talking with somebody who came in a little while after I did. By then, I was halfway down the second Sam Adams. I definitely had a little buzz. I wasn’t smashed or anywhere close—I’m a big guy (six-three, two-twenty—oh, all right, two-forty, but I am gonna start working out again RSN). Still, the alcohol put a transparent shield between me and that poor damn fool dead on the asphalt. Smashed on the asphalt. Puddled on the asphalt. I might need one more to firm up the transparent shield a bit.

“So what do you do?” he asked.

“Germanic languages at the U,” I said. “Specialize in Gothic.”

“In what?” he said.

Which was the same thing everybody said, including my mother. Well, except for a few who said Never heard of it. But the ones who came out with that were usually less interesting than the other kind.

“Gothic,” I said again. “Oldest Germanic language that got written down. Bishop Ulfila translated the Bible—most of it—into Gothic in the fourth century A.D.”

“That’s a while ago now.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Anybody still speak it?”

“Not since the eighteenth century,” I told him. “Some of the Goths settled in Italy. The Byzantine Empire conquered them in the sixth century. Some settled in Spain. The Arabs conquered them in the eighth century. A few stayed behind in the Crimea. They were the ones who lasted longest.”

“If no one still uses it, what’s the point to studying it?” he asked.

That was the other question everybody came up with—also including my mother. But he didn’t ask it in a snarky way. He sounded as if he really wanted to know. So I answered, “You can learn a lot about how the younger languages grew and changed if you compare them to one that didn’t grow and change so much. And I have fun doing it.”

“There you go!” he said. “If you can get paid for what you get off on anyway, you’re ahead of the game. I do it, too.”

“Do you?” He’d listened to me. The least I could do was pay him back. “How?”

And it turned out he was a farrier. I found out more about shoeing horses and horseshoe nails and trackside gossip than I’d ever imagined. He didn’t just work at the track. He had a regular business with the horsy people in Woodlawn Heights, which is where the horsy people mostly lived.

After we’d talked a while longer, it also turned out he’d watched somebody get clobbered by a car—by a pickup, as a matter of fact. He’d seen it happen, poor guy. I told Victor. By then, I was most of the way down my third beer, so letting Victor know seemed uncommonly important.

He clicked his tongue between his teeth. “Must be something going around,” he said. And he also let the farrier—whose name, I haven’t told you, was Eddie—have a free one. Mandelbaum’s is a class joint.

Victor was behind the bar when I came in again a couple of weeks later. “How you doing, Stan?” he asked.

I kind of waggled my hand. I’d had a couple of nightmares of my own. You see something like that and you can’t get it out of your head no matter how much you want to. The more you try, sometimes, the harder it sticks.

Later on, after I’d drunk a couple, I got to talking with an Indian woman—East Indian, I mean, not American Indian. Her name was Indira Patel. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous or anything, but she wasn’t bad. Hey, I’m not exactly drop-dead gorgeous myself. But I was unattached just then, so I entertained certain hopes, or at least a certain optimism. Mandelbaum’s isn’t a meat market, no, but you can make connections there. They may not be as young or as bouncy as they would be at the places a few blocks away. Chances are they’ll last better, though.

After a while, she got around to asking me. I told her. She didn’t ask the whys and wherefores the way Eddie had. She nodded seriously and said, “This Gothic is the Sanskrit of the Germanic languages, then.”

“Pretty much,” I said, “except it’s more like the weird great-uncle to the languages we have now than the grandfather. There’s a much smaller, much poorer sample of it, too.” Details, details. “How about you?” I asked. How many people know there even is, or rather was, such a thing as Sanskrit? Sure, her background gave her a head start, but even so . . .

“I am a parasitic ecologist,” she answered.

So she was from the university, then. No surprise we hadn’t noticed each other before. The humanities types hang out on the east side of campus; the west side is for the science people.

“You . . . work on how parasites operate in the ordinary world?” I tried to translate what Indira Patel had said into ordinary English.

She smiled and nodded, so I must have done it right. “That is what I do, yes.” She smiled some more. I’d scored a point or two, all right.

“Sounds . . . complex,” I said.

She nodded again. “You have no idea. No one has any idea. The more we learn, the more complex it seems, too.”

“So tell me,” I told her. “Can I buy you another drink while you’re doing it?”

“Thank you,” she said. The mating dance, Mandelbaum’s style. Not so blatant or quick as it would have been at the meat-market places, but it was. Well, we weren’t so blatant or quick ourselves, either. Things did happen there, though.

Victor built her a fresh scotch over ice. I got myself a new brew. Indira and I sat there and we talked. Not just parasites and beastly irregular Gothic verbs (the first-person plural past subjunctive of the verb to have is habeidedema in Gothic; in English, it’s had). I found out she’d been married once before; she found out I’d been married twice before. She had a son and a daughter. I had two sons. Her boy and my older one were both in college out of state. We bitched about how too expensive that was, and how we’d have to declare bankruptcy when our younger offspring started chasing sheepskins.

As a matter of fact, I wasn’t so broke as all that. I strongly suspected Indira wasn’t, either. She talked like someone who took money seriously. If you take it seriously, odds are you don’t run out of it. That isn’t a sure bet, but it’s a good one.

I have to think she picked up the same vibe off me. We smiled the kind of smiles at each other that meant Yeah, you’re complaining, but you don’t have it so bad. Truth to tell, I didn’t. If she did, I would have been surprised.

We did talk shop. What else are a couple of academics going to do? I went on about how the Gothic alphabet took characters from Greek, Latin, and the old Germanic runes. I told how Bishop Ulfilas translated the New Testament very literally from the Greek. I may have gone on too long; Indira listened well.

I tried my best to do the same. My first ex would laugh her head off if she heard me say that. She’d have her reasons, too. I hope I’ve grown up some since then. I don’t know what I saw in her. Mm, yes I do—I was getting laid regularly for the first time ever. Which was fun while it lasted, but not, it turned out, a rock to build a lifetime on.

My second ex? Different story. Not a happier ending, but different. Cyndi and I wrangled about money and about her brother. Malcolm is into crank. I don’t need to say any more than that.

But Indira was talking about parasites that don’t walk on two legs. A lot of parasites, it turns out, infest different critters at different stages of their life cycle. “Like malaria,” I said.

She beamed at me the way I’d beamed at her when she compared Gothic to Sanskrit. You always feel good when the person you’re talking with knows something about what you know a lot about.

“Malaria is a very important one,” she agreed. “Various strains infect birds and mammals, but they mate in a mosquito’s gut. And, to some degree, they influence the behavior of their hosts. This is what interests me most—how parasites influence hosts to act in the parasites’ benefit and not their own.”

“How does malaria do that?” I’d had some beer by then, but I know a cue when I hear one.

Turns out that a mosquito with baby malaria parasites (Indira told me the name for them, but I’ve forgotten it) in its gut bites less than one that’s clean. When they’re in its gut, they can’t spread, so the mosquito doesn’t risk getting squashed. When they’ve moved up to its salivary gland, though, they make it produce less anticoagulant. That means it gets less blood every time it bites, so it bites more—and spreads the parasites far and wide. And mosquitoes suck up more blood from people with malaria because, in people, the parasite interferes with clotting and the insects get more blood—and pick up more malaria organisms—with every bite.

“Makes me never want to go outside again,” I said.

“It is more dangerous in India than here,” she said, “but malaria used to reach as far north as North Dakota. Global warming and easy travel may bring those days back.”

“Something to look forward to,” I said.

Indira sent me a measuring stare. Some people who’ve gone through a couple of divorces, or even one, get too cynical for normal, less scarred, human beings to stand. But she had a scar or three of her own. I must have passed the test. She went on talking and drinking with me—no Oh, I have to run. Gotta steam-clean the tropical fish.

I mentioned the cognates that Gothic and English share. The Gothic word for “he, she, or it said” is qath. Looks ugly, doesn’t it? Looks even uglier if you use the thorn character to represent th, the way most printed texts do (in the real Gothic alphabet, the letter for th looks like a Greek psi). But open the King James Bible anywhere. How often will you see quoth in there? Gothic may be a crazy great-uncle, but it’s part of our family, all right.

And Indira talked about sticklebacks. You can find them in ponds and creeks around here. They don’t get much longer than your finger. In spring, which is their mating season, the males go from silvery to orangey-red. It’s what they do instead of trolling in bars.

They have parasites. Everything has parasites, from what Indira said. Even parasites have parasites. I started to quote that bit from Swift about smaller fleas preying on bigger ones. She laughed out loud and finished it for me—a good thing, ’cause I would have messed it up. Her lilting accent turned the doggerel to music.

But anyway, sticklebacks. Like I said, they’re little. They eat things like mosquito larvae and the eggs of other fish. Anything that’s bigger than they are eats them. Sticklebacks in their right mind will dive deep to get away from the wading birds that think of them as sardines minus the olive oil.

Sticklebacks in their right mind, yeah. But sticklebacks get flatworms. When they have them, they grow more buoyant, so they can’t dive so well. And they turn fearless. They don’t run—well, swim—away from herons. Sometimes they even change color, as if they’re breeding. They do everything but carry an EAT ME! sign.

Do those flatworms need the wading birds for the next phase of their life cycle? Does Sam Adams make pretty decent beer? Kind of tough on the sticklebacks, but no flatworms show up on Dr. Phil’s show to talk about how guilty they feel.

“These worms fill the sticklebacks’ intestinal tract,” Indira said. “They take most of the nourishment from what the fish eat. No wonder the sticklebacks grow desperate. Other parasites are more subtle. Toxoplasma is one.” My face must have twisted, because she stopped. “You know about Toxoplasma?”

“Afraid I do,” I said. “Back in the Eighties, three or four friends of mine died of AIDS. Two of them got brain abscesses from toxoplasmosis. It was like they were going nuts. No, not like—they were.”

She nodded. “People with normal immune systems can carry Toxoplasma their whole lives and never know they have it. Millions of people do, especially people with cats. Malaria breeds in a mosquito’s gut. Toxoplasma lives in a lot of animals, but it needs a cat’s gut to breed. And it makes sure it gets there.”

“How do you mean?” I asked. I’ve had cats; I’ve got one now. I like them better than dogs. Come to think of it, my friends with AIDS who came down with toxoplasmosis had cats, too. I took care of one of them for a while when the guy it owned was in the hospital.

“Rats and mice carry Toxoplasma, the same way we do,” Indira said. “It doesn’t make them sick, either. But if normal mice or rats smell cat urine, they show fear. They run. They hide. They know that smell means danger. Rats and mice with Toxoplasma aren’t afraid of cat piss. Which rats and mice do you think the cats eat more often? Where does the Toxoplasma need to go?”

I thought about that for a little while. I imagined the poor, damned mice and rats as marionettes, with invisible strings connecting their arms and legs and twitching noses to an even more invisible puppeteer. Mandelbaum’s isn’t one of those bars where the AC tries to turn it into Baffin Island in January. I shivered anyhow.

“Does Toxoplasma do anything like that to people with working immune systems?” I asked. All of a sudden, I didn’t want Alaric—yes, my lazy, fuzzy beast is named for a Gothic king, not that he cares—getting the drop on me.

Indira sent me another one of those . . . measuring looks. “You do find the interesting questions, don’t you?”

“Well, I have a cat.” I told her about the predator infesting my condo. Alaric is the deadliest hunter his size. He is if you happen to be a kitty treat, anyhow.

“I see,” she said. “The answer is yes. Toxoplasma doesn’t turn people into cat food. It does influence their behavior, though. It makes men more suspicious and less willing to accept social rules. Women, by contrast, become friendlier. The effects aren’t enormous, not in people. But they’re measurable. Parasites have evolved the ability to influence their hosts over millions of years and millions and millions of generations.”

“How about that?” I said. Especially after a few beers, it seemed very profound. Here were these things inside bigger creatures, things without any brains in the ordinary sense of the word. But they got the bigger creatures to do what they wanted—no, what they needed—one way or another, with or without brains. “I can see why all this intrigues you so much.”

“The deeper you dig, the more you see you’ve only started to scratch the surface,” Indira said. “When I was born, we didn’t know any of this. I’m sure researchers will be learning surprising new things about parasites and hosts two hundred years from now.”

I was a long way from sure philologists would be learning surprising new things about Gothic two hundred years from now. I had some major doubts, as a matter of fact. To learn more about the language, we’d have to come up with new texts. Maybe the Great Gothic Novel—mm, more likely the Great Gothic Saint’s Life or the Great Gothic Chronicle—would turn up in some monastery in Italy or Spain or even the Crimea. Maybe, sure, but I wasn’t holding my breath. Neither were the few dozen others scattered across the world who could get through Ulfilas’s Bible with gun and camera and lexicon and patience.

Something else crossed my beady little mind, probably because I’d soaked up all those beers. “Suppose there’s a parasite that can live in people but needs some other host to mate in,” I said.

“All right. Suppose there is.” Indira sounded as if she was humoring me. No doubt she was. She’d made a career of this. I was making conversation in a bar. She’d put away a fair bit of scotch, too. “What then?”

“What I wondered was, how would the parasites get out?” I said. “People would be inconvenient to them, wouldn’t they? Uh, wouldn’t we? We live too long, and the parasites in us would just be sitting there twiddling their thumbs waiting for us to die. If they had thumbs, I mean.”

“You are not including an insect vector, like the mosquito for malaria.” Even with the scotch she’d taken aboard, Indira was very precise. To go into a line of research like hers, she’d have to be.

And I said, “No, I didn’t have anything like that in mind. Too easy.”

“Too easy.” Indira made a little clucking noise. “I said before that you found interesting questions, didn’t I? That one . . . I don’t know the answer to that one yet. I wonder if I ever will. We are harder to influence than rats and mice, thank heaven. Whether we’re impossible, I also don’t know.” She glanced down at her glass, and seemed amazed to see only a few melting rocks in there. “I do know I’d like another drink.”

I wasn’t sorry to have another one myself. We talked some more. We gave each other cell numbers and e-mail addresses that didn’t belong to the university system. Yes, the modern mating dance. After a while, Indira checked her iPhone and said something about how late it was getting.

When she stood up, I did too, though I wasn’t planning on leaving quite yet. She wore sparkly shoes. Before long, I found out she did that all the time, even when she exercised. She never met footwear with sequins or sparkles or rhinestones that she didn’t like. It was part of her style, the way gaudy bow ties are with some men.

“I enjoyed talking with you,” I said.

“And I did, with you,” she answered.

“I’ll call you,” I said. If she decided she didn’t feel like going out with a random professor of Germanic philology she’d met in a bar, she’d let me know. Even if she didn’t want to, I doubted she’d be mean about it. The way things are, you can’t hope for more than that. Too often, you don’t even get so much.

Call her I did. She didn’t pretend she had no idea who I was. We went to dinner a few times, and to plays, and to a folk club I like. We went to each other’s places and met each other’s children. All the kids got that their parents had lives of their own. They weren’t always thrilled about it, but they got it.

We talked more about languages, and about parasites, and about other things, too.

Yes, we arranged some privacy. That was private, though, so I won’t go on about it. I know—my attitude is old-fashioned these days. Everyone puts everything online as soon as it happens, or sometimes even before. But if someone who specializes in Gothic isn’t entitled to be old-fashioned, who the devil is?

After I finished the last blue book of finals week and e-mailed grades to the registrar’s office, I headed over to Mandelbaum’s to celebrate my liberation. I heard the sirens while I was walking, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. You do hear sirens every so often in the city. People rob other people, or whack them over the head with fireplace pokers, or shoot them. Cars run lights and smash each other. Sirens are part of life.

They’re part of death, too. This time, the accident had happened only a few doors up from Mandelbaum’s. It reminded me too much of the other one I’d seen. Another humongous set of wheels with a stove-in front end. Another body on the street with something covering up the worst of things. Another goddamn enormous splash of blood with nasty little critters licking or drinking or nibbling at the edges.

This time, the driver was a man. He sounded just as appalled, just as stunned, as the blond gal had the last time. “Oh, my God!” he told the cop with the notebook. “She just sailed out in front of me like she didn’t have a care in the whole wide world. I couldn’t stop—no fuckin’ way. Oh, my God!”

She. Yes, those were a woman’s legs sticking out from under the tarp. The feet were bare. She’d got knocked clean out of her shoes. You don’t like to look at death up close and personal. You don’t like to, but sometimes you can’t help it. I noticed her skin was brown.

One of her shoes lay on the hood of a car a startlingly long way down the street. It glittered under the streetlamp—it was sequined to a fare-thee-well.

Now I was the one who choked out, “Oh, my God!” I started to turn to the cop, but what could I have told him? Nothing he’d believe. Nothing I even knew, not really.

I went into Mandelbaum’s instead. Excuse me—I ran into Mandelbaum’s instead. Yes, Victor was behind the bar. “Hey, Stan,” he said, and then, “Stan? Are you all right?”

“No.” I bolted into the men’s room at the back. In there, I knelt down in front of the toilet and gave back everything I’d eaten for the past week and a half. I haven’t heaved like that since I don’t know when. Somehow, I was very neat. It all went into the bowl. When the spasm finally passed, I stood up and flushed it away. I washed my face at the sink. Half a dozen different kinds of tears were streaming down my cheeks. I dried myself with paper towels.

Then I rinsed my mouth again and again, for all the good it did. The taste doesn’t go away so fast. You only wish it would. And after that, with soap and the hottest water I could stand, I washed my hands and washed them and washed them some more. Lady Macbeth would have been proud of me.

Of course, blood wasn’t what I was trying to get rid of. And I had no idea whether breaks in the skin there were what might let it in to begin with. But all you can do is try.

Wish me luck, Indira.

 

“Something Going Around” copyright © 2014 by Harry Turtledove

Art copyright © 2014 by Greg Ruth

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