The burn was the first rite of passage. The brochures had warned them about this much.
It was Day 1 of the three-week training camp, 6:00 a.m. sharp, and Edie sat with Jesse on the gymnasium floor among a circle of sleep-slurred bodies, all of them clad in the regulation black athletic suit, their names piped across their hearts in silver-threaded cursive.
At a minute past the hour, according to the clock above the door, a man entered the gymnasium. He infiltrated their circle with the casual authority of someone in charge, pulled off his T-shirt, and lifted his arms above his head like a boxer who’d just knocked out his opponent with a single right-hand hook.
“Take a look at me, you dumb rich fucks,” he said. Jesse leaned forward with bright-eyed interest, giddy, lapping it up, but a middle-aged Japanese couple, wearing matching fleece vests over their gym suits, flinched in affront. The man’s stomach and back were polka-dotted, the marks perfectly round, perhaps a centimeter in diameter. The skin on his shins was tight and shiny, and the hair on his scalp grew in only sporadically. “I see some pretty ladies in the room.” He looked at Edie for a moment, and she recoiled, as though her beauty were a thing to be ashamed of. “I see a lot of soft-looking men. I see a bunch of people with more money than sense, who think they’re buying themselves some adventure, some street cred.”
The speech had the cadence of spontaneity, but Edie could tell that it was one he’d delivered many times. Jesse’s fawning acceptance surprised and disappointed her. He wouldn’t like it if she rolled her eyes right now; he wouldn’t mime laughter and nod knowingly, as he usually did.
“My name is Andy, and I’ll be your guide and your coach and your shrink and your goddamn messiah for the next eight weeks. I have fifty-seven burns on my body. Each one hurt like a motherfucker.” He stopped in front of a silver-haired woman wearing diamond earrings and held out his arm. He pointed at a thick red weal with a blunt forefinger. “Some of the burns are keloids, which means that they can grow into healthy tissue. I don’t know why some turn out this way. Most of us have only the faintest notions of how our bodies will react to trauma. I imagine that goes double for a bunch of people who are willing to pay good money to put their lives at risk.”
The man in the fleece vest was red-faced. He looked around the circle, hoping to find another person who shared his anger, but no one accommodated him.
“The average traveler will arrive at Quarantine 1 with at least one of these scars. I know you think you understand what this means, but let me make this very real to you.” A projection appeared in the air to his left, dust winking in the column of light. The light coalesced into the shape of an insect, which rotated slowly. “The dread miner tick. You’ve lived your life in fear of it. Miner ticks are resourceful and very, very difficult to kill. Some scientists claim that they are capable of strategizing. This one time”—he was almost smiling now; he obviously liked telling this story—“I woke up, unzipped my tent, and saw something hanging on one of the seams. I thought a leaf had snagged on it, and I reached to pull it off, and that’s when I saw that the leaf was actually a cluster of miner ticks.” He paused so the significance of this could settle upon the ten people sitting on the floor around him like children at story hour. “They had chosen a spot—someplace where there was a tiny fault in the material, not even visible to the human eye—and joined forces to work it open. Another couple of hours, and they might have.”
Edie grabbed Jesse’s hand before she could stop herself. He gave her a reassuring squeeze.
The projection zoomed in on the tick, so that the three-dimensional image hanging in the air was a couple of horrifying feet tall.
“An adult male miner tick will attach and feed but not burrow. A male tick bite will become inflamed, and there is some risk of disease, but male miner ticks weren’t what drove us behind the Salt Line. Now females—”
The image changed, grew. A barbed protuberance extended from the head.
“The females are real bitches.” There were some nervous titters. “The bite of a pregnant female miner tick releases a numbing agent, which allows her to work without detection. The burrowing appendage, which is called the horn, is corkscrew shaped. The female essentially drills into your skin, pulling her body behind her into the opening. This takes less than half a minute.
“By the time you feel the itching, the female miner tick has created a tiny cavity under your skin and settled into place. I cannot stress to you enough the importance of quick action here. Within a few minutes, the female will start releasing eggs into the cavity. The eggs are each the size of a pinprick. They can’t move on their own, but they’re covered in a fibrous coating, which makes them exceptionally sticky, like burrs. They spread out quickly and can even enter the bloodstream.”
The woman with the diamond earrings had gotten very pale.
“If the itching stops, you’re fucked. The female has died, and the eggs have scattered. Over the next several hours, the area around the bite will erupt in hundreds of pustules. Depending on where the eggs traveled, and if evacuation occurred near a vein, eruptions can occur all over the body, and even in vital organs. The itching will return and become almost unbearable. If you don’t scratch the pustules open yourself to try to sooth the itch, the miner ticks will eventually tear their way out.”
The giant tick vanished, and a time-lapse video took its place. There were a couple of gasps, though this was nothing most of the travelers hadn’t already seen in their secondary school health classes or on internet shock feeds. There was a forearm with a single red bump. Then little bumps started popping up all around it, spreading down to the wrist and up to the bend in the elbow, the red heads turning taut and yellowish and then bursting open. Out of the oozing fluid crawled hundreds of tiny miner ticks. The arm never moved. Edie realized that the host must be sedated.
There was the unmistakable sound of someone’s rising gorge, and then a young man—maybe even Edie’s age, unlike most of the other people here—shot up from the circle and fled the gymnasium.
“Such infestations can be survived, and in fact, the infestation itself is painful and disfiguring but not necessarily life-threatening, unless eggs hatch in vulnerable tissue, as I mentioned before, or if there are multiple infestations that result in significant blood loss. The problem is that the female miners often carry blood-borne diseases. Ten percent of them have a juiced-up version of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is unpleasant but mostly treatable.
“But it’s estimated that between forty and forty-five percent of female miner ticks carry Shreve’s disease, which you’ve no doubt heard enough about to last you a lifetime. Shreve’s is the big bad wolf in our story. Symptoms manifest within forty-eight hours of a successful infestation and include blurry vision, nausea, and loss of feeling in the limbs. The disease is fast and deadly. Total paralysis, then death. All in a matter of days.”
He stopped and made another full circle, connecting eyes with each of the twenty travelers. “That’s why we have the Stamp. Some say it’s archaic, or barbaric, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve not been able to eradicate these goddamn ticks from the face of the earth, and we still haven’t been able to create some kind of a foolproof defense against them, either, or an inoculation against Shreve’s. The microsuits help but have a five percent failure rate. Lotions and sprays have minimal to nil effect.”
He pulled a device out of his pocket. It was about the size of a cigar but stainless steel, with a little glass lip on one end and a button on the other. The projected image shifted into an animation of the device. “The Stamp is the single most effective tool we have against female miner ticks and miner tick infestations. As soon as you feel the itch, you place the mouth of the Stamp on the affected site”—he mimed on his own arm—“and depress the button.” He made an exaggerated motion of his thumb but didn’t press down. “You’ll hear a click, like a flint getting struck. And then you’ll feel some of the worst pain of your life. The Stamp thrusts a barbed hook through your skin, skewering the female miner tick, and then retracts it, capturing the tick in a chemical solution. Then a burner brands the wound, cauterizing it and killing any of the eggs in the perimeter, as well as disinfecting the blood-borne contagions the bitch might have left behind. The Stamp, my friends, has a ninety-nine-point-eight percent success rate if used within sixty seconds of initial burrowing.”
He stopped, letting that last statement linger. Edie knew what was coming next, and she swallowed hard, feeling as if her windpipe had constricted to a mere thread of opening.
“You will have to use this device if you go on this journey beyond the Salt Line. The question isn’t ‘if’; it’s ‘when.’ And that’s why Outer Limits Excursions requires each of its travelers to submit to the Stamp before beginning training. We don’t want to waste your time. And we don’t want you wasting ours.
“If you walk out of here today, you can still get a ninety percent refund of your package price. The penalty covers Quarantine cancellation fees and the time it took me to give you this entertaining presentation.” A few people smiled halfheartedly. “And if you decide you regret it down the line, you can reapply for a future excursion at a five percent discount.” The projection disappeared, and Andy crossed his arms. “There’s the door. The lovely Jessica is waiting in the front office with your paperwork, and she’ll even make you a cappuccino for your drive home.”
Edie sneaked a glance at Jesse. He was still hunched forward, still beaming. The Japanese couple in the matching vests had an intense whispered exchange.
“You may be wondering right now why you even came here in the first place,” Andy said. “You may be thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, why didn’t I just buy that condo at the beach, or book a week at Casinolake? What in the hell was I thinking?’ ” He placed his hands on his hips, emanating a cocksure vigor at odds with the ravages of his many scars.
“Here’s why.” Now he put his palms together as if in prayer, and Edie had a fleeting impression of a dance, as choreographed as his speech. “You know there’s a whole world out there we’ve run and hid from, because the going got a little tough. You know, for a few scars and a big wad of cash, that you can go see the things your great-great-grandparents took for granted, that are available to you now only in photographs or simulations. Sunrise from a rock precipice. A hawk circling over your head. Trout bellies in a mountain stream. You can listen to cold water dripping from the ceiling of a cave, and you can see deer flipping up their white tails at you before dashing between trees and out of sight. Right now, on this Fall Color Tour you’ve each paid a premium for, you can hike across hillsides covered in reds, golds, and oranges, the scale of which—I promise you—is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
“I’ve risked my life and defaced my body because I believe those sights have value, and that connecting with nature—however dangerous it can be—is essential to the experience of being human.” Edie, despite herself, felt a stirring of tender pride, so acute that tears prickled her eyes. “But this isn’t for everyone. That’s a fact. So please, if your instincts are telling you to take off, take off. No judgment here. I like people who know their own minds and their own limits.
“If you’re ready for an adventure, though—if you want to know, for the first time, what it really means to be alive—stay.” He held up the Stamp, wagged it a little. “There is no pleasure without pain.”
Jesse started to clap. An excruciating second passed in which no one joined him, and then Edie remembered to move her hands, and most of the others followed suit.
Andy nodded along with the sputtering of last claps, then leveled his gaze, standing very still. There was a moment—a dozen seconds, twenty—of perfect silence.
“Anyone leaving?” he asked.
The travelers looked around at one another. Edie stared at the couple in the vests, then the young man who had run out of the room to throw up (he had returned, almost endearingly shamefaced, as Andy was finishing his demonstration of the Stamp), hoping—she realized—that someone would raise a hand, would declare “This is insane,” and then maybe the rest of them would have the courage to stand up and agree. Maybe even Jesse could be convinced. But no one moved.
“Well, then.” Andy grinned, brandishing the Stamp. “Who’s first?”
This time last year, Edie was sleeping on a cot at her mother’s bedside during the daylight hours—catching naps between nurse’s visits and her mother’s scattered moments of lucidity—and bartending each night from seven to three. The cancer’s attack had been swift and ruthless: one day her mother was finishing another ten-hour shift at the industrial laundry facility where she worked, suffering from nothing more than low energy that she had understandably attributed to working long hours and getting older; a month later, she was bed-bound and guzzling bag after bag of “blood product,” as the nurses always called it, the disease a web of secret insults in her middle—breast, lungs, lymph nodes, bones. Her insurance didn’t cover generated tissue transplants, which were still deemed “experimental.” So she lay in a hospital bed and suffered. “Don’t let me die,” she told Edie some days. “Take me home,” she said on others. Edie, in a fog of exhaustion and grief, didn’t know which version of her mother to trust. So she blinked as the doctors explained options to her, nodded along, approved each suggested procedure. Thinking: I’ve got to give the universe time to fix this. Thinking: Every day I get with her is better than nothing. Thinking: I can’t be the one to finish things. That can’t be on me.