Chapter 1: Never the investigated phenomena themselves but always their consequences

Niirs was sitting under a tree in the park catching a smoke before heading into what turned out to be his last day on the job when he first met Keyes.

 never the investigated phenomena themselves but always their consequences

Niirs was up on a hillside and had a good view of the field where an old man was lying in the sun when a patrol cop came out of nowhere riding one of those armored motor scooters at top speed. This cop, in full dress blues, rode right up to the old guy and started hassling him something fierce. This was just some ancient loafer dude and the cop was acting like the guy was a criminal for lying in the grass under the sun and having a smoke. The officer insisted on seeing the old guy’s pack of weed cigs to prove it wasn’t homegrown, and wanted to know the guy’s address, why wasn’t he at work, where was he at eight o’clock last night, anything to harass the guy.

Niirs was wearing his glasses so he zoomed in on the cop, started streaming video live for all to see. But there must havebeen a seriously sophisticated drone backing this patrolman up because all of a sudden he forgot about the old guy and started looking in Niirs’ general direction, intently scanning the hillside. He met Niirs direct in the eyes, then hopped back on his scooter and gunned it across the field toward Niirs.


Niirs got to his feet. Could that cop really have singled him out of the crowd that quickly? He wasn’t sure if he should run. He didn’t want to stand there like a chump and get busted for filming a cop, but he also wasn’t about to make a cop chase him through the streets of Austin. Those scoots looked ridiculous, but they were military grade. They could move a lot faster than Niirs could pedal.

The cop wove his scooter through the trees until they became too dense, then dismounted about 20 feet from where Niirs was sitting. He pulled his gun and aimed it at Niirs.

“Come out with your hands up,” Keyes said.

Niirs was scared of the gun, of course, especially since it was such a disproportionate response. It wasn’t the first time Niirs had had a gun pointed at him, but the absurdity of the situation made it hard to predict the outcome. Niirs had no idea how to respond. So he just said, “Uh, well, what seems to be the problem? Officer?”

“You were filming a cop. You think you could get away with it?”

Niirs had indeed thought he could get away with it, since he was way up there on the hill, in amongst the trees.

“Well, I was just filming the field, sir,” Niirs said. “And then you rode into it. I didn’t mean to film you.” He generally found that what a cop wanted most was not to enforce the law, necessarily, but to make sure that you respected his or her authority. Most of the time he could get out of any serious trouble by acting stupid and making the cop feel superior.

“Come out here to the clearing, now,” the cop said. Niirs complied. “Take off the glasses and drop them at your feet.”

Niirs hesitated, wanting to protest. Glasses were by no means against the law, in and of themselves, but the cop was acting like they were a lethal weapon. Niirs dropped the glasses mostly because he was hoping there might yet be no fines or jail time in this. This guy seemed to have watched way too many old cop movies—he had the act down, even had a badge with a number and name on it and everything, just like back in the day, before cops stopped wearing badge numbers “for their own safety.” His badge said his name was “Officer Keyes.”

“I could take you in right now,” Keyes said, holstering his gun. “The fine for filming a cop is way more than you have. No way you could pay your way out of jail. I’d have you working at a McTacoShack for eight months at least.”

“I realize that, sir,” Niirs said. “But I really didn’t mean to film you.”

“Bullshit,” Keyes said. “Go back there and get your bike and get the fuck out of here, and if I see you in this park again, I’ll arrest you. You got that?”

Niirs bent to pick up his glasses.

“Did I say to pick those up? Go get your bike and get out of here. Now.”

“Why do I have to leave my glasses?” That almost certainly meant the cop planned to steal them—which would be kinda funny because the glasses were still streaming video live to the net.

Keyes didn’t answer, just stared at Niirs, who finally turned and went back into the trees.

When he was hoisting his bike up onto his shoulder, Niirs heard Keyes gun up his scooter and drive over the glasses. Niirs turned around to yell, but Keyes was already scooting away.

That was just a week before he and the rest of the Companions hit the road.

€€€€

“That’s just about enough for me,” I said, scowling and passing the bottle. We were gathered around a campfire a few hours’ bike ride from Austin.

Everyone nodded or grunted, but no one moved. Quyn took the bottle as readily as ever and knocked back a healthy dose. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “As long as the bottle isn’t empty, I’m staying up. Tired be goddamned.”

We Companions may have been exhausted, but we were, as ever, in good spirits. Ojos was tucking into the bottle like he meant it, and Bo was obviously enjoying himself, as he’d turned bright red. Bo took a mighty wallop off the bottle and passed it to Gritch along with a hearty smack on the back and a “There you go, Lad. Drink and be merry! Plenty of time to sleep in your grave.”

Gritch laughed his nerdy laugh and took a sip.

Niirs reached over and grabbed the bottle by the neck, took a reckless slug. He’d intended for the whiskey to slide right down his throat, but his throat malfunctioned. Peristalsis was arrested: the whiskey wouldn’t go down.

He winced and passed the bottle to his left without looking, trying to relax while sending the “swallow” command again.

Still no luck. Swallowing system offline.

He tried again, still couldn’t make his throat obey.

He tried to force himself to stop thinking about swallowing. Sometimes, when he was getting really drunk, he would forget how to do something that it was really stupid to forget how to do, like swallowing. The more he fixated on trying, the harder it got. That can be a bad scene when you’ve got a mouthful of whiskey.

He tried again without success. He waited a bit, focused on staying calm. The fourth attempt at last proved successful.

He knew he should stop drinking, go climb in his tent, and pass out. They’d ridden all day and he was tired. Plus he’d already drunk enough to be thinking of peristalsis—and they had to get up and ride again tomorrow.

Instead, Niirs got up to take a piss. No one noticed his slight hesitation as he paused to take measure of the darkness beyond the campfire.

There were creatures out there, crawling around in the dark, waiting for a flesh feast. He thought he could see them. He knew his sense that the darkness would be thick with slavering mandibles was irrational. But no—he thought he could see them buzzing through the blackness, milling up and down the tree trunks. It looked to him as if the trees themselves were writhing around, pulling up their roots, slithering out of the ground so that with a great shake of their leaves they might launch themselves into orbit.

It was just the booze thinking for him. He staggered out of the light and around to the vestibule on the dark-facing side of his tent. He zipped open the door and grabbed his canteen, then stumbled out a suitable distance from the fire and did his business. He was unable to stand without swaying back and forth, as if he too planned to burrow an escape tunnel into the night air, just like the trees. He had a hard time standing still enough to piss into the canteen’s small, funneled opening. As he walked back to the circle around the fire his legs wobbled from both fatigue and alcohol.

“I’m not going to sleep until the rotations cease,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear. No one signaled in any way that they had.

He didn’t mind. His journals are full of repeated phrases like that, they’re like his personal catechisms. He ends many of his journal entries with “I’m not going to sleep until the rotations cease” or “I am finite and grappling with infinity.” But the most frequent is “I am an unbroken circle.” Sometimes he would just write that out over and over again—whole entries in his journal, pages and pages, filled with just “I am an unbroken circle.” Some times the phrase was written once and then embellished to the point that it filled a page. I used to find him sitting by himself, sometimes chanting in a low, droning voice. I never paid attention to what he was chanting, but the first time I read “I’m not going to sleep until the rotations cease” in his journal, I knew I’d heard it before.

We had all heard Niirs, actually, but no one had the energy to respond, or do anything but stare at the fire, mesmerized. The day’s ride had been harder than it should have been because of the heat, which weighed down on us as we rode. Our silence had an intoxicated joy, though, born of being out in the middle of nowhere, together, sitting by a fire under the night sky and stars, passing a bottle.

As he lowered himself back onto the rock he was using for a seat, Niirs thought about how good it was going to feel to stretch his legs out and lie down. His sleeping bag was already set up and ready to go inside his tent, which was tucked between the roots of a tall live oak half in and half out of the glow of the fire.

“Ny!”

Niirs realized it was his turn and half stood up to take the bottle from Ojos. Instead of drinking, though, he stared into the fire and wondered what their campfire looked like from above. He pictured it as a tiny pinpoint of light in the middle of the darkened Texas countryside. He pictured the cone of light emanating from their fire, this tiny point of light on the rolling pastureland they were camped in shining up into the night sky, light waves rippling out into the atmosphere and dissipating into near-nothingness as they reached higher and higher.

“Ny-Eers Tuh-Lah,” Quyn said using his “interrogating council for Podunk County Courthouse” drawl that was a sure sign he was going to fuck with you. “Would you care ta tell us what is so import’nt in that thar fahr that you cain’t even take a second to drink? Shit, man, you’re holdin’ that bottle!”

“Yeah man, keep it movin. I need at least a couple more shots before going to bed,” Gritch said, looking up from the tablet he was fidgeting with. 

Niirs managed to get a small swig down on the first try.

“Don’t get too drunk,” Niirs said to the rest of us Companions, passing the bottle. “We gotta get up early tomorrow and make up time.” That morning it had been close to noon before we had led our bikes out of the clearing we camped in, picked up the trail, and pedaled the rough mile or so back to the highway.

Niirs estimated that we had traveled thirty or forty miles that day, at most. That wasn’t as far as we’d planned to ride, but we hadn’t factored in the extreme heat. We could literally see the sun’s rays bouncing off the highway, rising up to surround us and our bikes like some kind of mirage, thick sheets of humidity wavering back and forth that we had to push our way through.

We had started late the day before, too. So that put us less than halfway to Houston. Niirs was not pleased with their lack of progress.

The bottle continued making its rounds.

“Remember that guy back in Giddings, Ny?” Bo asked.

“Yeah, Mearle,” Niirs said.

“I was so ready to break for lunch, and when we finally did, this guy comes right up to me and Ny—we’re looking at the beer in that shop back in Giddings—and tells us that he makes his own pree-mee-yum grade moonshine, right there in the fine township of Giddings, and we shouldn’t throw our money away on ‘That mass-produced donkey piss!’”

“I would probably drink actual donkey piss before anything that guy made,” Niirs said.

“Yeah, the guy was covered with grease,” Bo said.“Told us he worked in a garage, rebuilding classic gas cars, guzzlers. He had his name right here on his nametag. Mearle.” Bo paused to chuckle. “Man, I’d be willing to bet he doesn’t even make any moonshine. I bet he was trying to rip us off.”

“What the hell you think Mearle’s moonshine would consist of, I wonder?” Ojos asked. He was always looking for new ways to be self-reliant. “He got some kind of homemade pot still?”

“It’s a highly involved process, I’m sure,” Bo said. He was on a roll. “Take two parts raccoon asshole, some fresh sun-ripened road tar, and equal parts cow piss and dip spit, bring to a slow boil in a watering trough specially modified for the purpose, then sit back and wait until the smell becomes unbearable. That’s how you know it’s ready.” He went on in Mearle’s voice, telling us exactly how he got that eau du piss into the moonshine, while we cracked up. He didn’t just tell the story, he became the redneck covered in grease trying to swindle a bunch of city-folk.

The bottle made its rounds, pausing only with Gritch, who was next to Bo and didn’t want to interrupt the telling of the tale. Gritch was also busy DJing, playing a steady stream of raw beats over a pair of wireless speakers he’d set on a flat rock by the firepit. Both of the speakers could fit in the palm of one hand, and they could deafen every animal within a 10-mile radius if Gritch were to really crank it up on his tablet. He claimed that with the mods he’d made, the amp in his tab could easily push 100 watts. He was keeping it low now, just barely audible, not trying to compete with the sounds of the night and the hiss of the vast, rolling distances that stretched out on all sides of us—just laying down a little urban ambiance beneath it all, soundtracking our treck.

“Check it,” Gritch said, looking at Mat and Niirs. “This is the new beat I wrote for the Inspired Idiots.” That was the band us Companions were all going to form some day, just as soon as we all learned how to play an instrument. Gritch queued up a sharp, insistent beat overlaid with a simple, plodding bass line.

“Send that to me,” Niirs said, nodding along. “I can hear a guitar loop over that.”

The handle was about two-thirds gone.

“Ah jes live right yonder, won’ take a minute t’run home and grab y’all a bottle. Won’trouble me none, neither. Ah’s fixin’ to go home an’ eat lunch anyhow…”

“Rule number one,” Bo said in his own voice, “as far as I’m concerned, is never give money to a guy who says he’ll be right back with the stuff. So I told the guy: ‘Look, man, I’m riding my bike from Austin to Houston. Do you think I can drink liquor in this heat and not pass out?’ Of course, I was looking at the beer at the time. Mearle just stood there, looking at me, then at my handheld where I’m making my beer selection. It got real awkward. So I told him: ‘I just want a cold beer for the road, man.’ He stood there trying to convince us that his moonshine was better than mass-produced-donkey-piss for at least ten minutes. He said: ‘Beer’s got fish guts. Ah don’ put no fish guts in mah whiskey.’”

“Ny told him that he likes fish guts more than he likes elephant nuts,” Bo said as the others laughed. “That stumped Mearle for a minute, but not for long. We tried convincing him that we weren’t buying, but I guess he thought he could smell a sale.”

“Y’all shoulda bought some. I woulda drank his moonshine,” Gritch said. He was the adventurous drug user of the group, ready to partake of anything that could reasonably be classified as a stimulant, depressant, intoxicant, or psychedelic. “I’ve always wanted to try moonshine—real homemade moonshine. I say we go back in the morning.”

“I’ll go with you. I’ll drink some moonshine,” Ojos said, smiling. “I’ve always wanted to find some real moonshine. I’d go,, even if it is twenty-five miles behind us.”

“That’s way too far back,” Niirs said. “We’re making bad enough time as it is, getting drunk every night. Not to mention having to wait for Quyn to wake up.”

“What? You talkin about me?” Quyn roused himself from his stupor. “How am I supposed to ride my bike all day if I don’t get any sleep at night?”

“I’m just saying we can’t go back to Giddings.”

“We’re talking about moonshine here!” Gritch said. “I’ll ride all the way back to Austin tomorrow if there’s going to be real moonshine there.”

“What do you even know about moonshine, Gritch?” Quyn said. “You gonna trust this Mearle guy? What if you go blind or some shit? Or what if he lied? What if there really are fish guts in it?”

“I doubt the guy even had any moonshine,” Bo said. “Anyway, the point is that the guy acted bizarre, kinda jittery, like he was hopped up on something. Probably a jackhead, or a tweaker. I don’t think you’d want to drink his moonshine, Gritch. I doubt he uses a highly-regulated process. He was like some guy in a movie.”

“He’s probably some small-town hick avenger, using his moonshine to poison city folk who pass through,” Niirs joked.

“Or maybe he’s just pissed that all his neighbors are moving to the city,” Quyn said. “He’s watching his town empty out and resents it, thinks everyone should buy more guns and stick it out like him. I’d be pretty pissed if I was roughing it in the country—no water, no electric grid, the roads are going to shit and no one fixes them, the only stores that are still open are convenience stores along the highway, all the local businesses are gone, all your friends are gone, even the government has pretty much given up on you. He works in that garage. Who do you think his customers are? Not locals. He’s not working on guzzlers. He has to deal with city folk all day when their nav systems are on the fritz.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t make fun. He’s fighting a one-man war on behalf of real country folk everywhere, that Moonshine Mearle,” Bo said.

“He was so out there he was practically a caricature of himself,” Niirs said, taking it a little too seriously, like he often did. “Definitely like someone out of a movie. A fuckin horror cliché, the completely insane simpleton everyone ignores who turns out to really be a homicidal mass-murdering killer redneck.”

Gritch took another tack: “What’s the big deal? I’m not in any hurry. Are we running from something?”

The words floated out into the night air, unanswered, mixing with the smoke from the fire as it curled upward and dispersed. Niirs stared up at the stars, as if he was watching Gritch’s words go, pretending not to have heard the question.

The bottle, all the while, was passed round and round.

When no one said anything else, Gritch said, “Well, fuck it. I guess I’m definitely not trying to add twenty-five extra miles to this trip.”

“Fifty round trip,” Niirs corrected.

“So how far did we come today?” Quyn asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and passing the bottle.

“About forty-five miles, I think,” I said.

“Tomorrow, if we get a good start, we could be camping by the Brazos River,” Niirs said, eyeing the remaining contents of the bottle before slugging down a large gulp.

Ojos, saying nothing, got up and wandered off. He liked to do that. He was always searching for something, but you never got the impression that even Ojos knew what it was.

I sat contemplating the bottle in my hands. “I think I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to bed,” I said.

“Night, Trec,” Quyn said, taking the bottle from me.

Everyone present muttered some form of “good night” as I headed into the darkness. Niirs watched me go, imagining that there were hundreds of bloodsuckers silently attaching their proboscis to my exposed flesh. Then he reassured himself that this was just hyperbolic, drunken thinking, and passed the bottle.

“Who’s first on watch tonight?” Gritch asked.

“Me,” Niirs said.

“Good, I’m going to bed, too,” Gritch said. He left the circle, taking his beats with him. The party was over for the night.

That leaves three, Niirs thought. He watched Bo take his turn with the bottle, and as Bo passed it to Quyn, Niirs saw the firelight gleaming through the whiskey that remained. He measured it out for three people in his mind, four if Ojos came back. Niirs wanted plenty left for himself while he sat up on watch. He’d need to get pretty damn drunk if he had any chance of sleeping that night, which he decided was more important than not having a whiskey hangover.

“I better not drink any more of that stuff,” Bo said. “Not if I’m getting up tomorrow to ride.”

Niirs readjusted his assessment of the bottle as he bid Bo goodnight.

“Me too,” Quyn said. Then he took one last big swig for good measure.

Niirs felt so tired he didn’t know if he could stay up long enough to cover the whole shift, but he was still glad he’d pulled first watch. He’d passed out for only a couple hours the night before, then awoken in the middle of the night, alert and sober. He tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t, which made him frustrated and even more alert. He gave up trying and went to relieve Bo, kept watch the entire rest of the night, not bothering to wake Gritch or me either when our turns came up. He felt almost a desperate need for sleep, but trying to force it was impossible. If he kept himself up to the point of complete and utter exhaustion, though, then got drunk enough on top of that, he might be able to crash hard enough to sleep until morning.

As a boy, Niirs had raged against the nights when he couldn’t sleep, sometimes yelling and kicking in his bed. He would get the angriest on nights when he had to wake up early for school the next day. He’d obsess over trying not to look at the clock to recalculate how many hours of sleep he would get if he could fall asleep right then. As he got older he learned to rein in the anger, keep his mind calm and his body relaxed. But even still, the best he managed on nights when sleep wouldn’t come was zoning out, a trance-like state during which he was only semi-conscious, some times even able dream. Eventually, though, he would become aware of his foot tapping a beat that his mind was hearing, or he’d fall in his dream and jerk violently, and would be wide awake.

He had come almost to relish the high produced by lack of sleep. “Less tangible than a high—more of a buzz,” he wrote in his journal that night while on watch. “It gives me an empty feeling in my chest and stomach, but also makes me strong somehow. I feel as if I can ride for miles on that buzz alone.”

Now that Niirs’ Companions had left him alone with the whiskey, he lay down next to the fire with one arm under his head, looked up at the night sky, watched the smoke drift up into the atmosphere, and held the bottle close. The fire was down to just lazy tongues of flame licking up out of a bed of coals. He could see some stars between the treetops, and felt thoroughly at peace, though he remained vigilant against mosquitoes landing on his face or hands.

He took another deep pull off the bottle and watched the embers. He loved watching fire as it forever assumed new shapes, found new ways of striving upwards despite being anchored to its earthen fuel.

The sudden absence of his friends’ voices made Niirs aware of how quiet the night was. He lay in a meditative state, listening to every tiny sound of the night in turn. He didn’t hear any bugs other than crickets chirping. He heard tires hissing softly on asphalt as cars drove their human payloads down the highway. From out of nowhere he heard a guzzler going by, roaring through the calm night, loud and full of spite. It wasn’t that rare out here in the country, where people still identified with combustion engines in deep and meaningful ways and were willing to dedicate the enormous personal resources it took to maintain a gas-guzzling mode of transportation. Niirs knew plenty of people in Houston who were members of the cult of the guzzler too. But having lived in Austin for three years, Niirs hadn’t heard a guzzler in such relative quiet for a long time. The Companions were camped a ways back from the highway, but it still sounded like the guzzler was headed straight for them. He could hear it howling through the night for miles and miles after it went past, too.

Once Niirs’ ears readjusted to the silence he could hear every pop from the coals, every tent flap being zipped or sleeping bag being settled into, just as loud as he’d heard that guzzler engine. He could even hear Ojos making his solitary way through the night somewhere farther off.

Niirs tried to quiet his mind and let these sounds inhabit all of his consciousness, but he couldn’t help noticing the way the deep orange-red glow of the coalbed shone off of the bikes. He kept finding himself mesmerized by it, which he would then become conscious of. Once that thought intruded, it led to a whole bunch of others and he had to try to refocus on nothing all over again.

Also distracting was the fact that Niirs had no idea what good he could actually do as the nightwatchman if the owners of this land spotted the cone of light from our fire in the trees, or had a security drone patrolling their land that alerted them to our presence. Gritch had launched his own drone, Snagglepuss, and scouted the area when we’d first arrived. The farmhouse was almost a quarter of a mile away and on the other side of a low hill, so it wasn’t likely they’d see our campfire from there. Niirs wished Snagglepuss could keep patrolling all night, but its battery would only last a couple hours at most. A good security drone would be able to avoid detection, anyway—a really good one would be able to fly right into our camp without anyone noticing. It could be flying around the camp right now, Niirs thought. The landowner could know exactly how many of us trespassers there were, how we got there, what we had with us. Hell, they could already be sending our photos over to the police.

Cunning landowners would wait until all of us Companions had bedded down for the night to move in. Which would make right about that very moment the optimal time to attack. Niirs could raise an alarm, roust his friends, but to do what?

None of us were the type to carry guns, as fashionable as it may have been to do so, meaning an angry Texas rancher-type would have the advantage. We had nothing but our bicycles to escape on, so the rancher would have the advantage there as well. Even if the landowner didn’t have a car or truck of any kind, the cops could already be on the way in their cruisers. If we were just facing a landowner on a horse, if this guy was one of the rural folk who, rather than being forced to suffer the indignity of driving an electric vehicle, went back to riding horses and other draft animals (or at least the ones that wouldn’t be worth eating) when they were priced out of the gas market, then maybe we would have had a shot. If the landowners had called the cops, though, it was all over.

We all knew the risks when we agreed to come on this trip. Cops would definitely be driving guzzlers—they could afford to with all the federal money they got after they were made part of the AmeriCorp military following the food riots of ’41. The cops would just bring in a chopper drone to track the six of us on our bikes fleeing down the highway and pick us up one by one. But most of us probably wouldn’t even make it that far because if we were surprised in the night we’d never be able to get up, pack our gear, get on our bikes, and pick our way through the trees back to the highway in the pitch blackness before being caught. If the landowners had sent our pictures over, it wouldn’t take the cops long to match them to our mugshots in the police database—all of us have been ticketed or arrested in the past. The cops could already know all of our names and addresses and have issued arrest warrants for us before they even arrived on the scene.

If we were about to get busted, hiding was pretty much our only viable option, Niirs realized. That was all the good his watch could possibly amount to: giving the Hide command, delaying the inevitable. We would all be hauled to jail, or worse, sentenced to “public service” in a QuikeePizzaKing, which is what would happen to me.

Better to just hope we don’t get caught, Niirs realized, throwing a small piece of wood on the coals, not trying to start the fire back up but just hoping for a flame or two. He went to his tent and got his tablet. It was several years old. He’d gotten it with his student loans when he first got to college and its operating system was now years out of date. He mostly used it as a flashlight when he was writing in his journal at night.

He wrote about picturing the campfire on a 3D graph:

“It would be two cones meeting at their points. The very tip of the past-cone would be us collecting the rocks and building the fire-pit, then collecting firewood, constructing the fire and setting it ablaze. But all that’s just the tip: the rest of the past-cone would be the universe creating this solar system, then this planet filled with molten rock, which 34 

heaves up massive mountains and cliffs and escarpments that crumble into rocks that become our fire stones. And from the collected organic detritus that eventually litters the rock, trees heave themselves up too, and eventually they drop their limbs so we can collect them and burn them up. Creation leading to dissipation leading to new structures, new lives, new deaths.”

When the bottle was gone he thought perhaps sleep would not elude him that night, so he woke me up to take over as watchman and crawled into his sleeping bag, making certain that the zippers on his tent were fully closed before settling in.

Drunk and exhausted as he was, Niirs passed out so thoroughly that he doesn’t seem to have dreamed too much that night. At least, he didn’t record his dream in detail, just noted that he dreamt of a mountain. There was something on top of the mountain—it had a name in his dream, but he couldn’t recall what it was.

He drew a little alien-man stick figure next to the dream entry, meaning he had encountered the “Whitish Figure,” so named because of the ghostly white light that seemed to emanate from it. He sketched it in his journal once, and it was a pretty conventional alien, no extra rows of teeth or tentacles or gelatinous body parts. But in his dreams, whenever he saw the Whitish Figure’s pale body, he was filled with a dull, throbbing dread. In one of his journal entries, he compared the dream dread to the pain of a rotten tooth: “Constant and impossible to ignore. Try to ignore it, but you know it must be torn out, roots and all. No other way of dealing with it.”

€€€€

Niirs woke with a start the next morning, as if lunging for a finish line. He propelled himself a full inch off the ground.

No one seemed to be up and about the camp. It was early, he could tell, because it wasn’t that hot yet. Still, the heat was intense enough inside his tent that there was no way he was going back to sleep.

For a minute, while all was still calm and it was still the coolest part of the day, he wanted to lie there, spend a moment at peace, and be thankful that no angry redneck landowner had gunned him down in his sleep.

Their camp was protected from the direct rays of the sun, which was still deep in the East. But if the sun was rising then it would soon be too hot in his tent to stay in it. It didn’t help that his was a four-season tent, designed to retain enough heat for sleeping outside in the winter. The term “winter” is relative in Texas, by which I mean that central Texas doesn’t have anything like winter. Niirs’ choice of tent was overkill, but he thought that if it was designed to be secure against harsh weather then it was a stout enough barrier between him and the insect world.

Niirs had slept fully clothed, in case he had to get up in the middle of the night to evade capture. That meant that he’d slept on top of his sleeping bag, which was damp anyway from him sweating through his clothes overnight. He felt as if he could sleep for hours more. His legs were sore, his head hurt, and he needed to cough up some serious phlegm. Though it was still relatively cool, Niirs knew it would soon get up to the type of heat people call ungodly, and then it would just be gross and suffocating. He unzipped his tent, breaking the protective seal that kept him safe from being eaten alive by bugs, and looked out at the world.

It had been dusk already when we arrived the day before, but now, in the light, he could see the land in shocking detail. He sneezed three times in quick succession as the various fluids filling his head reacted to the sudden change in gravity’s pull. He checked his shoes for snakes and rodents, then slipped them on. He zipped his tent closed as soon as he was out. Everything in its right place.

Bo, who’d relieved me on watch, was sitting cross-legged against a tree, arms folded, when Niirs emerged from his tent, rubbing crust from his eyes. They waited for the rest of us Companions to wake up, which happened soon enough. The heat roused us one by one, until Quyn was the only one still sleeping. He was also the one with the stove for cooking breakfast, so the rest of us busied ourselves with packing up.

“Damn, it’s already hot as hell!” Niirs said. It was only 9:30 in the morning and he was already drenched in sweat.

“It’s not hot yet. Wait till afternoon, when we’re out on the asphalt. That’s when it’s hot,” Gritch said, squinting up into the sky. The landscape around the camp looked parched, as if the foliage was painted with the driest of whites.