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New York Times Bestseller
From Neal Stephenson—who coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel Snow Crash—comes a sweeping, prescient new thriller that transports readers to a near-future world in which the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.
“Stephenson is one of speculative fiction’s most meticulous architects. . . . Termination Shock manages to pull off a rare trick, at once wildly imaginative and grounded.” — New York Times Book Review
One man—visionary billionaire restaurant chain magnate T. R. Schmidt, Ph.D.—has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?
Ranging from the Texas heartland to the Dutch royal palace in the Hague, from the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas to the sunbaked Chihuahuan Desert, Termination Shock brings together a disparate group of characters from different cultures and continents who grapple with the real-life repercussions of global warming. Ultimately, it asks the question: Might the cure be worse than the disease?
Epic in scope while heartbreakingly human in perspective, Termination Shock sounds a clarion alarm, ponders potential solutions and dire risks, and wraps it all together in an exhilarating, witty, mind-expanding speculative adventure.
Release date: November 8, 2022
Publisher: William Morrow
Print pages: 896
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Houston’s air was too hot to support airplanes. Oh, the queen’s jet could have landed there, given that, during the flight from Schiphol, it had converted ten thousand kilograms of fuel into carbon dioxide and dumped it into the atmosphere. Refueled, though, it could not safely take off until the heat wave broke. And what was going to break it was a hurricane.
Under the direction of air traffic controllers, Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia—for that was the queen’s given name—and her co-pilot, a Royal Dutch Air Force captain named Johan, began to drive the jet through a series of maneuvers that would culminate in Waco.
Now, maybe Waco was not the optimal choice for them. But there was no point in quibbling over it. The business jet, slightly crowded with seven souls aboard, flew higher and faster than airliners. It had been slicing through the lower stratosphere at better than six hundred miles per hour, almost ready to begin its descent into Houston, when they had gotten the news about the insufficiency of that city’s air. A decision had to be made. It didn’t have to be the best possible decision.
As she was informed by Texan voices on the radio, as well as Willem coming up to the cockpit with whatever he’d gleaned over the jet’s data link, a thunderstorm had swept over Waco in the last few hours, dropping the temperature to a mere 45. Or 113 as they measured things in the States. Low enough, anyway, that they could at least look it up in the tables of important numbers that the jet’s manufacturer had calculated three decades ago, when this design had been certified. It had never entered those people’s minds that it would get as hot as it was today in Houston, so the tables didn’t go that high.
Waco’s airport would give them everything they really needed. It had two runways arranged in a V. Current winds dictated that they should land on the more westerly of those, southbound. The air traffic controllers told them what to do. They did it.
Those controllers had their hands full juggling a large number of planes—mostly airliners—that had likewise been disappointed in their hopes of landing in Houston. Most of them needed larger airports and so it didn’t seem right to argue with them about whether Waco was perfect. These transmissions could be heard by anyone with a radio. They were being recorded. It was of some importance that they not make waves, not draw attention to themselves. The queen had been raised from infancy never to seem as though she were arrogating royal prerogatives. For to do so would be un-Dutch. It would merely give ammunition to anti-royalists. Lennert, her security chief, was coming around to the view that Waco would be fine. There was a hangar suitable for jets like this one. Willem had already reserved hotel rooms and worked out how to rent cars.
All she had to do was get the jet on the ground. She was good at that. Even if she weren’t, Johan could do it with no help from her.
Along with royalty and wealth, she had inherited from her father this strange pastime of piloting jet airplanes. Despite being a king, he had moonlighted as an airline pilot for KLM—Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij—Royal Dutch Airlines, whose logo was actually a crown. As Papa had explained to her long ago, there was a reason he had become a pilot. It was that when he was at the controls he had not merely the opportunity but the sacred obligation to focus solely on the machine that was keeping him and his passengers alive.
There were two things about this statement that little Princess Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia hadn’t fully understood at the time.
One (more obvious): because Mama and Papa had tried to raise her as some semblance of a normal human being, she hadn’t understood until much later how many demands the crown placed on one’s attention. Now she knew this very well.
Two (which had only come to her recently): “the machine that was keeping him and his passengers alive” was a metaphor for the Netherlands: an engineered contraption that would kill a lot of Dutch people if they didn’t keep pushing the right buttons.
She felt a sense of freedom and clarity of mind while at the controls of an airplane during the descent and the preparations for landing. It was all a matter of operating the controls so as to keep certain numbers within certain ranges. By the time the jet was skimming the runway at Waco, its speed needed to have been reduced to a figure denoted VREF. This varied with such conditions as temperature, weight of the aircraft, and runway conditions; but anyway it could be calculated from those thirty-year-old tables and there were known procedures for getting the plane’s speed down to that number.
At the same time they needed to pass vertically downward through the entire troposphere—the shell of air surrounding the earth, where weather happened—until the number on the altimeter matched whatever the altitude of Waco was. Again there were known procedures for achieving that, all of which needed to mesh with the series of turns dictated by those harried Texan air traffic controllers. The operation of the jet’s controls toward the systematic achievement of those objectives, the terse, pithy, but utterly calm exchanges with Johan and with the voices on the radio, all combined to put her into a state of being that the Dutch referred to as normal with the accent on the second syllable. A different thing altogether from the English “NORMal.”
To explain “norMAL” fully would fill a book, but the most important thing about it, if you happened to be a member of the Dutch royal family, was that “norMAL” was exactly what royals were forever under suspicion of not being, and so anything you could do that made you norMAL was desirable; and since that could easily be faked, it worked best if it were some activity that would get you killed if you did it wrong.
If you rode your bicycle to school, as she had famously done when she had been a little girl, haters could and would claim it was a publicity stunt and scoff at anyone naive enough to fall for it. But even the most frothing anti-royalists could not deny that the king or queen had actually landed that plane, and that, had they just been faking it, they’d have ended up dead. Moreover, it was not something a monkey could do. Even a royal could not get certified for it until she had taken in a fair bit of mathematics, physics, engineering, and meteorology. In the distant past, kings had shown the world that they meant it by strapping on a sword and riding into war, putting their lives on the line. Getting behind the controls of a plane and pointing it at a runway was as close as one could reasonably come in the modern world to the same public blood oath.
Her staff were thinking of details she wouldn’t have—and ought not to, given her present responsibilities. It was a natural mistake to think of Waco as cool, simply because it wasn’t as hot as Houston. But in truth the plane would become an oven the moment it touched down. Getting out of it wouldn’t much improve matters; inside or outside, it was only a matter of time before they all succumbed to heatstroke. So a plan needed to be in place to get the plane and its occupants at least under shade and preferably into air-conditioning within minutes of touching down. They had earthsuits in the cargo hold, of course, charged and ready to go, but the idea of breaking them out this early felt panicky and amateurish.
She just had to land the thing, and there was no particular reason why this should be difficult. The hurricane menacing Houston was hundreds of kilometers away over the Gulf. Air was choppy in the wake of that earlier thunderstorm, but nothing she hadn’t flown through many times in Dutch skies. It was broad daylight, about four in the afternoon. The spiraling oblong descent dictated by the air traffic controllers gave her a good look at the greater Waco area. It was flat and green. Not as flat as home. But this was a landscape that as far as the eye could see was uncomplicated by anything resembling a hill. The green was darker than the Netherlands’ pastures and croplands—lots of forest and scrub.
Slowly her view zoomed in. They got lined up on the runway, which was still too distant to be clearly visible. Beyond the airport was the city itself, only a few buildings and towers raising their heads above what looked to be a well-tended canopy of shade trees. It had a lot of parks. The city’s outskirts faded to a grayer shade—newer developments, perhaps, with less mature trees? Just to the right of their projected course was a big lake, buffered from the open greensward of the airport by a nubby carpet of vegetation so dark green it was almost black. She could tell from the lake’s shape that it was artificial. Dutchwoman that she was, she couldn’t help tracing its shoreline until she identified the long straight section that had to be the dam. It was a low earthen structure pierced by a spillway, not far beyond the end of the runway.
These impressions were all gathered in an almost subliminal way over the ten or so minutes it took to bring the jet down. During that time there was surprisingly little to do. She and Johan had trimmed the plane so that its weight exceeded the lift produced by its wings; in accordance with the laws of physics, this caused it to lose altitude in a steady and predictable manner. Airspeed slowly declined through two hundred knots, headed toward VREF, which today was 137 knots. Soon they would deploy the flaps. Her eyes glanced in a circuit among several key indicators. It was an old jet. Many of the controls were mechanical switches set in black Bakelite panels with embossed white letters, very old school. But the important stuff in the middle was “all glass” in pilot-speak: glorious jewel-colored screens with virtual instruments, retrofitted into the old dashboard. Her eyes knew where to find the really important data—airspeed, altitude, roll, pitch, yaw.
But looking out the windscreen at the real world was important too. A small single-engine plane landed far ahead of them and taxied out of their way. The land flashed unpredictably here and there. They saw this all the time at home. There was local flooding. Not enough to submerge vast areas but enough to strew patches of standing water, glazing the flat landscape where drainage was slow and soil saturated. When one of those puddles caught the sun, light skidded into her eye. The airport, though, seemed to be well drained—the tower would have warned them of puddles on the runways. The runway was easy to see now, dead ahead, right where it ought to be, splotched with damp but not wet. Final approach took them low over a subdivision. Most of the airport spread away to their left. To the right of the runway was just a narrow strip of grass running between the tarmac and a security fence. Immediately outside of and parallel to the fence was a two-lane road. This bordered dark forested land that extended for a kilometer or two to the lake’s convoluted shore. The woods were speckled in some places with little eruptions of dark red earth and in others with blue rectangles—tarps pitched over makeshift camps.
Always fascinating to her was this slow inexorable zooming in. Twenty minutes ago she’d have found it difficult to pick out the greater Waco metropolitan area below the black-blue vault of the stratosphere, but now as they dropped through a hundred meters of altitude she could see, in the backyards of houses, blue swimming pools—a lighter tint of blue than that of the tarps in the woods. Children—presumably much better off than the ones under the tarps—were cooling off after school by jumping into them. Her thoughts strayed momentarily to her own daughter, but she put Lotte out of her mind for now and instead checked the instruments for the hundredth time. Movement to the right of the runway created a moment of anxiety until she saw it was just a pickup truck driving down the cracked and water-splotched two-laner outside the airport’s perimeter fence. Its brake lights came on for some reason. No concern of hers.
They cleared the fence at the near end of the runway. Any anxiety she might have felt in the last seconds of the flight as to whether speed, altitude, angle of attack were correct was dispelled by the fact that Johan was perfectly relaxed. They were as one. It was just a matter of waiting for the moment, any second now, when the tires would touch the tarmac and the jet would become a really expensive and unwieldy car. The high placement of the windscreen, combined with the jet’s slightly nose-up attitude, made it impossible to see the runway directly ahead of them. But this jet was fitted with a video camera in its belly, enabling them to see what was below on a small screen set into the panel between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s chairs. Normally she ignored it while landing, since it never showed anything except clean unobstructed pavement. But she was hearing shocked exclamations from people back in the cabin, on the right side of the plane, who had apparently just witnessed something incredible. Incredible and not good. She liked to leave the cockpit door open so that curious passengers could gaze up the aisle and see out the front; but now it sounded like they were seeing something she couldn’t.
She was just beginning to wonder if they might need to abort the landing when unusual movement caught her eye on the belly camera screen.
She glanced at it just long enough to see a sort of dark churning mass of four-legged creatures directly below the plane, moving from right to left across their path.
The jet jerked powerfully rightward. The right landing gear, under the wing, had struck something that wasn’t supposed to be there. They had not touched down yet and so the tires had no purchase on the ground. The nose swung hard to the right while plunging downward, smashing the front landing gear into the pavement at an awkward angle—not before it slammed into additional obstacles on the runway.
They were traveling at VREF, which as Texans measured such things was about 160 miles per hour. Pavement came up toward her. The jet was moving at least as much sideways as forward—skittering so violently that her eyes could not focus on the instruments. The belly cam screen had gone largely red, the camera’s lens spattered with either blood or hydraulic fluid. Where it wasn’t red it was blurred, hurtling green. No, it was the color of the sky. No, green again. She was flung forward against her safety harness. The interior of the plane was a thumping cacophony of flying luggage. Some bit of the jet—a wingtip?—must have dug into the sodden ground. There was nothing for it now but to shed those hundred and sixty miles per hour by damaging the landscape.
Pigs. It had taken her mind a few moments to identify the four-legged animals that had made a momentary appearance in the belly cam as they had boiled across the runway. They were pigs. More like wild boars than domestic farm animals. This was a now totally useless fact supplied by her brain as they tumbled and skidded diagonally across the grass and entered into a complicated relationship with the chain-link fence.
And then blessedly the jet had stopped. Hot air spread across her face; the hull of the plane had been breached. It smelled like jet fuel. This gave her a powerful incentive to unbuckle her safety harness. Gravity then caused her to end up on top of Johan, who was slower to move. Blood was running down his face and dripping from his ear. It originated from a laceration clearly visible through his reddish-blond eyebrow. That eye was closed, but the other was open and tracking, albeit drunkenly. His arms and legs were moving. Almost certainly a concussion. She undid his safety harness.
Getting out of the cockpit was diabolically hard because gravity was the wrong way. She had to think like a rock climber and find hand- and footholds. A strong hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her out of a tight spot. Lennert satisfying himself that his queen was alive. That accomplished, he turned his attention to the door, which was basically above them. Gravity again was not his friend, but braced on one side by his queen and on the other by his deputy Amelia, Lennert was able to reach the lever that was supposed to open it. She was worried that it would be too damaged to work. But the doorway, which almost cut the plane in half structurally, had to be ridiculously strong and stiff. Lennert was able to operate the lever and get the door moving with one good foot stomp. It fell open to reveal a partly cloudy blue sky. He got both hands on the door frame and pulled-pushed himself up and out, then squatted on the fuselage next to the aperture for a look around. The sun was on his face, which was suddenly wet. The human body couldn’t sweat that fast—this was moisture from the air condensing on his relatively cool skin.
She was already fighting an urge to vault through that doorway. She’d have to be the last one off the plane, though. Johan was going to be slow getting out, and others in the back might have suffered even worse injuries for all she knew.
But Lennert was uncharacteristically slow to make his next move. He did not like what he saw; it was by no means clear to him that getting out of the wrecked plane was an improvement on staying in it. His right hand glided back along his belt line, then faltered. When they were walking around in public, he kept a pistol holstered at the small of his back, covered by an untucked shirt. Some instinct had led him to reach for it. But it wasn’t there. “Get my bag,” he said to Amelia. He meant the little shoulder bag that would contain his gun and other tools of his trade. “I’m just going to look around, mevrouw,” he explained. “There is no sign of fire but you should be ready to get out in a hurry.” He then receded from view as he tried to work out a way to let himself down the curved side of the fuselage.
Amelia was rummaging through spilled luggage for Lennert’s bag. That was slow work because the door in the back, which led to the luggage hold, had broken open at some point and stuff was all over the place. For example, a blue bundle, roughly the size of a typical airline rollaway bag, was getting underfoot. This was one of the earthsuits. The queen heaved it up over her head and got it out the door and onto the fuselage. Then she did the same thing with someone’s rollaway bag. Someone’s knapsack. A second earthsuit. She did not see Lennert’s shoulder bag, though, and neither did Amelia.
There were three others. Willem was comforting Fenna, whose job was to make it so that the queen never had to think about hair, makeup, or clothing and yet look good enough not to become the object of ridicule. Fenna was personally responsible for the fact that, in the tabloid press, Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, at the age of forty-five, was from time to time described as being hotter than was actually the case. And (given that she was a widow) “eligible,” whatever that was supposed to mean. So Fenna was good at her job. Being in plane crashes, however, clearly was not for her.
And finally Alastair, the one non-Dutch person here. Scottish, but based in London, where he did some kind of math-heavy risk analysis. He was seated askew toward the back of the cabin, still belted in, gazing absentmindedly out a window. What an interesting situation for a risk analyst to find himself in.
Alastair turned his head to follow some development outside, then looked about at the others. The only one who met his eye was the queen, and so he cleared his throat and said to her, matter-of-factly: “There’s—”
“Pigs,” she said. “I know.”
“I was going to say an alligator.”
“Or perhaps crocodile? I don’t—”
They were interrupted by Lennert making a sound somewhere between a roar and a scream, but trending toward the latter. If any words were in it, they might have been something like “Get away!” or “Get back!” in the way that humans spoke to animals. But then he howled in some combination of astonishment building to horror and pain.
Amelia had found his bag finally and got his pistol. She staggered up the canted, luggage-strewn aisle. But just as she was getting to the door, gunfire sounded from outside.
The queen, as part of her royal duties, had spent enough time around weapons to know that this was not a pistol. It had the shockingly impressive punch of a rifle and the shots came rapidly enough to indicate that it was semi-automatic. So, an assault rifle.
Amelia’s family had come over from Suriname. Various of her ancestors had been African, Dutch, West Indian, and East Indian. She had been on the Dutch Olympic judo squad and had a burly physique sometimes likened to that of the American tennis player Serena Williams. She seemed to take up a lot of space in the jet’s cabin. Yet she now projected herself up through the door like a twelve-year-old gymnast and found a perch on the fuselage where she could see what was going on. The pistol was in her hands and she was gazing over its sights as she swung it this way and that. But after a few moments of taking in the scene she lowered it and looked every bit as taken aback as Lennert had been before her.
A man’s voice spoke at Amelia from not far away. “Y’all got a first-aid kit in there? He needs one.” Then, after a brief pause, “Hang on.”
Two more rifle shots sounded.
“Damn ’gators,” the man said. “Damn airplane. Excuse my language. I got a score to settle with ol’ Snout over there. If I was you I’d keep an eye out for any more hogs, they’ll be drawn to the blood.”
Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, during this curious discourse, had dragged another earthsuit pack into the vacancy beneath the open door and used it as a stepping-stone so that she could at least get head and shoulders above the doorframe.
There was a lot to see. She tried to focus on what was closest. Directly below, Lennert was reclining against the airplane’s fuselage, alive and conscious but probably in shock. Next to him was a dead boar—a true wild boar, probably Lennert’s equal in body weight, with bloody tusks jutting from the sides of its jaw. Blood pulsed weakly from what was presumably a bullet hole in its rib cage. A lot of blood also had come out of Lennert, who had suffered a grievous wound on his inner thigh. Above which, practically in his groin, the man who had been doing the talking and the shooting was in the late stages of applying a tourniquet. From his drawling, twanging way of speaking English, she had expected him to be a white man, but he had brown skin, with dark hair and eyes. The sides of his head glinted with stubble, but salt-and-pepper dreadlocks sprouted from a wide strip running down the midline of his scalp. He had a few days’ growth of beard, and he seemed hot and tired. Slung over his shoulder was an AK-47. Until recently he’d had a Bowie knife sheathed on his belt, but he’d pulled the belt off to make the tourniquet and was using the sheathed knife in lieu of a stick for tightening it. He met her eye and nodded. “I’ll be back for the knife, ma’am,” he said, turning away from them to survey the overall scene.
Another pig—not as large or as toothy—came oinking and snuffling around from the other side of the plane, seemingly drawn—just as this man had foretold—to the blood. The man began to unlimber his Kalashnikov but then there was a bang that made the queen go deaf in one ear. She looked up at Amelia in time to see her discharge a second round at the pig. The pig fell over and stopped moving, apart from some jerky nervous system mayhem about the legs. The man turned half around and favored Amelia with a nod. “Double tap was definitely your correct move, sister,” he remarked in a world-weary but agreeable tone, and once again turned his back on them. But then noticing something off to his left he turned back again long enough to point out “Yonder engine’s on fire.” His easygoing way of proffering this observation, the pronunciation “fahr,” somehow made it seem less alarming.
She followed his gaze and saw a disembodied jet engine with some metal origami jutting from one side. Flames were indeed coming out of it. Which might have been the most remarkable thing she’d seen all day were it not for the fact that close to it was a dead alligator twice its size.
“Fire brigade, they ain’t coming,” the man said. He was trudging away right down the center of the wide gutter of churned earth, aerospace technology, and dismembered swine that they had left in their wake. “’Cause they seen this, you know.” He indicated the Kalashnikov. “Ambulance? Ain’t coming neither. Cops, maybe. Regular cops? I don’t think so. I gotta finish my business with ol’ Snout ’fore the hard men show up in armored personnel carriers and all that. Look out for the scavengers! They gonna get here a lot sooner than SWAT!” He glanced back to make sure that they were paying attention to him, which they were. He then waved his arm in the direction of the forest across the road. People were coming out of it with long knives.
Snout was a cutesy name for a monster, but Adele had been a girly girl, with cute names for everything. When she had started calling him that, she of course hadn’t known that one day Snout was going to eat her.
In those days, some five years ago, Snout had merely been one piglet in a herd of feral swine that came and went across the stretch of central Texas where Rufus and his lady, Mariel, were trying to make a go of it on fifty acres. Snout had been easily identifiable to little Adele because of a distinctive pattern of spots on his nose, and, later, because he was bigger than the others.
The reason Snout was bigger—as Rufus and Mariel found out too late—was that Adele had got in the habit of feeding him. Snout, no idiot, had got in the habit of coming around to be fed.
Rufus blamed the situation on Charlotte’s Web, a work of fantasy literature to which Mariel—as always with the best and purest of intentions—had introduced Adele before she was ready for it. Though to be fair there was a lot of related material on YouTube tending to support the dangerous and wrong idea that swine were cute, not anthropophagous, and could be trusted. From time to time a moral panic would arise concerning the sort of online content to which unsuspecting children were being algorithmically exposed, but it was always something to do with sex, violence, or politics. All important in their way, but mostly preoccupations of city dwellers.
Things might have turned out differently if Rufus had been able to shelter Adele from juvenile pig-related content during that formative year when she had learned her ABCs and Snout had grown from a newborn piglet—basically an exposed fetus—to a monstrous boar weighing twice as much as Rufus, who had once played linebacker. Sometimes at breakfast Adele would complain that in the middle of the night she had been awakened by gunshots in the neighborhood. Rufus would lock eyes with Mariel across the table and Mariel would say “It must have been hunters,” which was not technically a lie. It had been Rufus, out at three in the morning with an infrared scope, blowing away feral hogs. And if it wasn’t Rufus, it was one of the neighbors doing the same thing for the same reason.
These pigs were an unstoppable plague, to the point where they were actually taking back Texas from the human race. It was sparsely populated territory to begin with; you could only wrest so many dollars out of an acre of Texas ranchland no matter how hard you worked. Anything that reduced your income made the whole proposition that much more sketchy. Rufus and Mariel had put off having a second child for money reasons, so that, in a way, was already a reduction of the human population of their fifty acres by one.
They had decided they would try to make a go of it after Rufus had got out of the service at Fort Sill, up north across the Oklahoma border, and decided that greener pastures might be found elsewhere. He had grown up in Lawton, which was the town adjoining Fort Sill, and the surrounding mosaic of 160-acre land allotments that were largely owned by Comanches. Despite having an ancestry that included Black, white, Mexican, Osage, Korean, and Comanche, he had an ID card identifying him as an official member of the Comanche tribe. For Indians in general and Comanches in particular were a lot less interested in chromosomes and such than mainstream Americans with their 23andMe.
Rufus had met Mariel when he was in the service, doing a stint at Fort Sam Houston, where she had been working as a civilian. Turned out there was this patch of land in her family, this fifty-acre plot a few hours’ drive north of San Antonio, and no one was doing anything with it. The proverbial greener pasture, or so they supposed. Her uncle let them live on it provided they kept the place up and paid him enough rent to cover the taxes and such. They pulled a mobile home onto the property and began to live. There was an old infested house that Rufus tore down for the lumber, and from that he knocked together outbuildings: a tool shed, a chicken coop, later a shelter for goats.
Until then Rufus’s life had followed a trajectory that was run-of-the-mill in that part of the world: grew up in a broken home, played some football in high school but not at a level that would get him a college scholarship or a wrecked brain. Joined the army. Became a mechanic. Fixed elaborate weaponry in some of the less good parts of the world. Ended up close to home at Fort Sill. Was surprised to discover that twenty years had gone by. Honorably discharged. Had a vague plan to get a college degree on the GI Bill, which was the usual way up in the world for people like him. Put that on hold to embark on this Texas ranch project with Mariel. Her family was from farther south, a classic Texas blend of German and Mexican. Various uncles and cousins and whatnot drove up from time to time to help them get started and, he suspected, to evaluate Rufus’s fitness as a man. He did not in any way resent it. For all they knew, he might have been beating her. They needed to satisfy themselves that this wasn’t the case. He respected them for their diligence in the matter.
There was an odd bending around in back at the extreme limits of culture and politics where back-to-the-land hippies and radical survivalists ended up being the same people, since they spent 99 percent of their lives doing the same stuff. You had to have a story you could tell yourself about why living this way made more sense than moving to the suburbs of Dallas and getting a job at Walmart. The hippies and the preppers had different stories, but in practice it didn’t come up very often. Mariel tended more toward hippie but Rufus had never picked sides.
In trying to make the ranch add up as a financial proposition, he over and over found situations where putting in a heinous amount of brute physical labor might, luck permitting, increase the productivity of the land by a tiny amount. Rufus found himself, as years went by, asking whether it was worth it. Even setting aside the whole GI Bill option, he could simply get a job fixing cars anywhere but here. The cost of living would go up but at least he’d be able to get a good night’s sleep instead of setting his alarm for 2:30 A.M. so that he could go out shooting feral hogs.
He left them where they fell, and other hogs ate them. This was just one of the many ways in which it all began to seem futile. Hogs ate everything, including other hogs. Grazing animals would eat grass but leave the roots in the ground; hogs tore up the ground and ate the roots. Erosion followed. Only ants could live in what the hogs left behind. Rufus couldn’t kill these things fast enough, and the ones he did kill only became food for the ones he didn’t. They forbade Adele feeding Snout or any other wild pig, but by then Snout had already got the head start he needed; he’d come to associate humans with food, and Rufus began to suspect that he was drawn to the sound of rifle shots in the night, as he’d worked out that it usually meant a dead cousin lying on the ground, free for the eating. So Rufus’s nocturnal shooting only led to Snout’s getting bigger.
A lot of that was hindsight, after what had happened had happened. Just Rufus torturing himself. He should have marked out Snout as a special threat. Should have killed one hog as bait and then lain in wait for Snout to show up. Years later he was haunted almost every night by the possibility that he might once, back in those days when he still had a daughter, have had Snout in his infrared sights, one white silhouette among many, and refrained from pulling the trigger, just because Adele had a soft spot for him and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to look her in the eye over breakfast.
More recently he had learned the trick of sticking out his tongue when the bad self-torturing thoughts began to creep into his mind. He would open his mouth wide and stick out his tongue as far as it would go, almost as if he were gagging the bad thought out, refusing to let it in, and somehow this worked and got his mind back on the track it should follow. It made people look at him funny, but he didn’t spend that much time around people.
His only consolation, and a very meager consolation it was, was that the incident—which took place while he was in town picking up a load of drainpipe—had been a sudden invasion of the property by two dozen or more feral hogs. Snout was the ringleader, but he had so many accomplices that even if Rufus had been at home standing there with a loaded gun he might not have been able to save Adele.
He and Mariel broke up, and she wandered back down south to live with family. Rufus devoted his life to killing feral hogs. He literally made it his business.
Business, by that point in his life—he was forty-four—was a thing he was finally coming to grips with. In the army he’d never had to think about profit and loss. He’d assumed that duty on the farm because Mariel was so manifestly hopeless at it. Over those years he had watched, staring into his QuickBooks late at night, as the numbers had gotten worse and worse and more and more of his army pension had been siphoned off to cover the shortfalls. In all honesty it had become a hobby farm. But it was all neither here nor there since these financial signals were drowned out by the emotional side of things: the story that he and Mariel were telling themselves, and increasingly telling Adele, about why they were living here.
Once Adele was dead and Mariel gone, the story was over. Matters became very clear and decisions easy. Rufus sold what he could and sent half the money to Mariel. He drove up to Fort Sill, where, as a retiree, he still had access to the auto shop, and fixed up his truck: a dually, as people around here referred to pickups with double tires at each end of the rear axle. His grandmother and some of his cousins had gone into the RV business. From them he got a used camper trailer that he could tow behind the dually. He moved all his tools, guns, and personal effects into that. He made up signs and business cards saying FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES and he just started driving around and parking that rig, with those signs on it, in places such as livestock auctions and county fairs.
Without the army pension he might not have made it through the first six months, but slowly business picked up and Rufus found himself driving his rig along the seemingly infinite network of farm-to-market roads that like capillaries infused every part of Texas—a state with which Rufus, an Oklahoman, had a stranger-in-a-strange-land relationship. He would set up operations for a spell on this or that ranch where the owners had decided they needed some additional firepower in this one area. He was not the only person doing it. Far from it. But he was able to compete with bigger outfits on price. The competitors had mouths to feed and equipment to maintain. Some used helicopters. Others shot hogs at night from all-terrain vehicles. Flashy but expensive. Rufus worked by himself. He didn’t have to make payroll, didn’t have to cover medical and dental. His method was to go out by himself with a rifle on a tripod and an infrared scope and just wait for the white silhouettes to show up against the dark background and then start picking them off, starting with the biggest ones and then working his way down to the juveniles as they scurried around in a panic.
The first six months of slow to nonexistent work had got him down in the dumps, but as he later came to understand, the time had been very well spent. He would sit at the little table in his trailer, running the AC off the generator, reading websites and later books about wild pigs. This was fascinating. For starters he learned that pigs, like white people, were an invasive species from Europe. In conquistador times, the 1500s, Spaniards had brought them across the Rio Grande. Probably before the water of the river had evaporated off their bristly pelts, they had got loose. Many such “introductions” (as these events were denoted in the literature) had taken place over the half millennium since. But none of them, taken alone, could explain a Snout. For that, you had to factor in the wild boar introductions, which were more recent. Some people liked to hunt these animals. It seemed to be a particular obsession of the Germans. There were a lot of those in Texas and they had money, as well as large tracts of land on which to stock game. Apparently in Germany there was a place called the Black Forest. Stories were told of it no less harebrained than the ones that hippies and survivalists favored. What these German-Texans were convinced of was that their ancestors had, since long before and continuing long after the Romans, roamed noble and free in this Black Forest killing wild boars with lances, and that to do so was to partake of their ancient heritage, just like the Indians with their drums and their dancing. So they got hold of the biggest and meanest wild boars that could be obtained in Europe, even sending parties into the hinterlands of Russia to find unspoiled stock, and they brought these things to Texas. Usually some effort was made to fence the land, but hogs could root under fences, ford rivers, and wade across tide flats, and so the boars had got loose in the wild almost as easily as their domesticated cousins had done hundreds of years before, and got busy having sex with those.
Rufus lacked a lot of formal education but he certainly knew how to read and he had been a very good mechanic in the army largely because he had had an ability to focus on abstruse maintenance documents to a degree exceeding that of his fellow soldiers. He had a knack for zeroing in on the key fact or figure jutting from a paragraph like a snag from the murky water of a bayou. It came in handy when tackling some of the more academic wild pig literature. For example, breeders of domestic swine aimed to make them as big as possible. The words “in excess of 700 kg” jumped out at him. This had to be wrong. He did the math: it was more than fifteen hundred pounds. Wild boars were smaller by far; the biggest ever recorded was “only” half that weight. But what would happen when a wild boar, carefully selected for ferocity and cunning, hybridized in the wild with a monster domesticated specimen?
The same names kept turning up in the literature. One of them was Dr. I. Lane Rutledge of Texas A&M University. A slight amount of googling revealed that this individual was female, first name Iona. She had made a lot of headway using genetic sequencing to untangle the situation that had developed over the last five hundred years from all these different kinds of pigs having sex in Texas. She turned out to be surprisingly easy to reach on the Internet. She returned his emails. Tersely, but she did return them.
Rufus had learned that people in general were more approachable if you could offer them something and so he began sending her data: samples that she could DNA-sequence, combined with geo-tagged photos of the deceased swine that had provided those bodily fluids. That got her attention and made Rufus feel better about requesting a face-to-face meeting.
He left his trailer on a client’s property about twenty miles outside of College Station and then drove into town and found his way to the campus. Google Maps was all wrong about how to get there because there was a big protest underway and a lot of streets had been blocked off. Rufus had to probe from multiple directions, then park as close as he could and walk. At first the protesters gave him mean looks for driving a huge gas-guzzling dually until they saw through the glass that he was a person of color and then they didn’t know where to direct their moral indignation.
It was hot as hell in College Station despite it being November. Rufus broke a sweat immediately and hoped that Dr. Rutledge wouldn’t turn out to be squeamish about such things. He wondered if in his middle age he was losing some of his tolerance for heat. He rarely ventured out of doors during daylight hours anymore. One of the very few genetic weaknesses of pigs was that they couldn’t sweat, which was why they wallowed during the day and did the hard work of rooting out food at night. Rufus had accordingly become nocturnal.
As he cut across the grain of the crowd, headed for Dr. Rutledge’s office, he got a good look at the signs the protesters were carrying. A lot of them had to do with the notion of humans as an invasive species, a topic that was very much on point as far as Rufus was concerned.
It would have been easy enough, and satisfying in a certain way, to make the comparison between what Rufus was trying to do to the pigs now and what the Comanches had tried to do to white people two hundred years ago. But you had to be careful. The Comanches themselves were invaders from the north who had “displaced”—a euphemism if ever there was one—the Indians who had been in Texas before them. And they’d been able to do it because they were early and enthusiastic adopters of the invasive species known as the horse.
Some of the other protest signs, he couldn’t help noticing, were on the theme of extinction: a fate that all humans were facing if we didn’t get a handle on climate change. So by the time Rufus finally got to the front door of the building where Dr. Rutledge worked, he was thoroughly confused. Did these kids hate humans because they were an invasive species that should be eradicated? Or did they love humans and not want them to become extinct? Imponderable questions, these, which perhaps college sophomores stayed up all night hashing out over pizza and beer while Rufus was out alone with a tripod and a rifle hunting a demon.
He noticed a few of the protesters toting, or rather wearing, odd getups that in retrospect were the early prototypes of earthsuits: garments that looked much too heavy for such a hot day, because underneath they consisted of networks of cooling tubes against the skin. Those were connected to backpack units with lithium battery packs driving a refrigeration system. Heat had to be got rid of eventually, so the backpack had a chimney projecting straight up above the wearer’s head, shooting hot air that was visible from the heat waves coming off it. Those who wore them tended to be heavyset nerds.
“Something like ten thousand years ago, people, who were always on the verge of starving to death, noticed that pigs could eat things they couldn’t,” Dr. Rutledge said.
“They can eat anything,” Rufus said, and then drew back, worried that he might have been too vehement.
But she was a cool cat. “Right, and my point is that humans can eat them. And we are just slightly smarter than they are.”
“Not by much,” Rufus scoffed, and he couldn’t restrain himself from glancing toward her office window, through which protest chants were dimly audible. Though he had to admit that those personal refrigeration systems were pretty clever.
“They are very intelligent,” she agreed, with a glance toward the window that made it somewhat ambiguous. “Anyway, that’s how they—pigs—got domesticated. We have genetic data on many domesticated breeds, of course. Getting data on the Eurasian wild boar is harder, but we have plenty of that too. That’s the source material. Where it gets fun is seeing all the combinations that emerge among the several million wild pigs running around Texas.”
Rufus was pulled up short by her use of the word “fun” and so spent a few moments taking stock of things. He’d never before set foot on a university campus. Some of his expectations had been correct. Lots of young and startlingly attractive people with protest signs: check. But her office wasn’t paneled and book-lined like professors’ offices in movies. The walls were reinforced concrete, and it was small, with cables and computers all over the place.
Not a bad fit overall with Dr. Rutledge, who was a reinforced concrete kind of gal, lacking in the far-fetched adornments that Rufus was used to seeing on females of the species Homo sapiens. Photographic evidence pointed to the existence of a husband and at least two children. Medium-length hair held back out of her face by a pair of laboratory safety glasses pushed up on top of her head. Middle American way of talking—either she was a transplant from out of the north, or one of those Texans who somehow grew to adulthood without picking up a Texan accent. A little prickly and short with him until he showed that he respected her. Reminded him in that way of some female army officers.
“Speaking of fun,” he finally said, “the Eurasian wild boar introductions were—”
“For sport.” She nodded. He felt he might have scored a point by his use of the word “introduction.”
“They’re more fun to hunt if they’re harder to kill,” Rufus said.
“I’m not a hunter but that sounds like a logical assumption to me.”
“Wily, fast, vicious.”
She raised her eyebrows and turned her palms up.
“A boar like that, crossed—hybridized—with a domestic variety that was bred up to be just huge—it could . . .”
He trailed off. She broke eye contact and let out a long breath she’d been gathering in as he circled closer and closer to his point.
“You’re talking about the animal that killed your daughter,” she said, in a tone that was quiet and sad but firm.
Of course. She would have googled him, just as he had her. It had been all over the papers.
She waited for him to nod before she went on.
“A hybrid of unusual size is plausible. Common sense really. But I would just caution you that the larger these animals get, the more food they have to consume to stay alive.”
Rufus was taken aback by her use of the word “caution,” which he was most accustomed to seeing on labels attached to crates of ammunition. She seemed to be warning him against falling into some kind of intellectual or ideational risk. Which would make sense, for a professor.
“So if your Hogzilla, your Moby Pig, weighs two hundred kilograms? I’ll buy that,” she continued. “Three hundred? I’m becoming skeptical. Beyond that I think you are in the realm of fantasy. Just going full Ahab. The enormous size that you are attributing to this animal is a reflection of the size of the role that it plays in your psyche. It’s just not a scientific fact. Are you about to throw up?”
“Beg pardon, ma’am?”
“You stuck your tongue out. Like you were gagging.”
“It’s a thing I do. Because of my psyche. I’m fine.”
“I want to help you,” she said. “I mean, if you want to devote your life to hunting down one hog out of several million and killing it, fine. It’s a man-eater. Getting rid of it would be a public service. But my role, if I have one, is to keep you grounded in scientific reality. So, fact number one is that it probably doesn’t weigh more than two hundred kilograms. Certainly not three hundred. Point being that if you’re confining your search to fantastically enormous animals that you heard tell of from some cholo in a T.R. Mick’s, you’re just chasing folk tales and you’ll never find him.”
That stung a little because it was true. But Rufus was used to being stung. He shook it off and nodded. It made sense. Explained a thing or two.
“Fact number two is that, by your own reckoning, this animal is already three years old. In another three years it’ll be dead of old age. She frowned at him. “You don’t believe me?”
“Huh, of course I believe you. Ma’am.” People were always saying to Rufus variations on this. It was rarely the case. This had led him to understand that his face, in its natural resting state, conveyed a sense of skeptical disbelief. He guessed it was something to do with his forehead, which had developed prominent horizontal creases. “It’s just how I look when I’m thinking.”
She turned her palms up again. “Well, this age limit is a good thing. Prevents you from going full Ahab.”
“You mentioned him before but—”
“Whaling captain who was obsessed with finding and killing one sperm whale. Problem being, sperm whales live a long time. Longer than humans. So there was never a point in Ahab’s life when he could say”—and here she whisked her hands together—“well, that’s that, time’s up, Moby-Dick must have given up the ghost by now, I can get back to—”
“Living my normal Ahab life?”
“Mariel—the girl’s mother—said ‘This thing with Snout is ruining your life.’ You know what I said?”
“I sure don’t.”
“It is my life.” He stuck his tongue out.
“Well, it’s none of my business,” she said, regarding his tonsils with cool scientific detachment, “but do you have a plan for what your life might consist of three years from now when Snout is definitely no longer around?”
“It’s not gonna take three years.”
So that was the conversation that really launched his operation in what he would call its mature form. He obtained a copy of Moby-Dick and kept it around for occasional check-ins as to whether he had truly gone off his rocker. He got an audiobook of it too so that he could listen to it on headphones while he was sitting in the dark. Ahab didn’t show up until pretty far into the book. He didn’t out himself as an obsessed maniac until some little while after that. And then, of course, it was completely obvious why Dr. Rutledge had drawn a parallel between Rufus and Ahab. But, for Rufus, that analogy didn’t really “take” because by that point in the novel he had already become interested in the harpooneers: the tattooed cannibal Queequeg, the “unmixed Indian” Tashtego, and the “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” Daggoo. The most interesting thing about these characters was that they all made more money—a larger share of the ship’s profits—and enjoyed higher rank and status than anyone else on the Pequod save Ahab and the three mates. According to Rufus’s calculations, which he worked out on a spreadsheet in his trailer, Queequeg made 3.333 times as much as Ishmael, the book’s narrator.
So the immediate effect of Rufus’s perusal of Moby-Dick was a renewed emphasis on making his business more shipshape, as whaling captains such as Ahab, Peleg, and Bildad would have construed it. For all the complicated operations described in the book, the basics were as simple as could be: they rowed out in a boat so that a guy could chuck a spear into the whale. Guys who were good at chucking the spear made bank. Boat-rowers were a dime a dozen and had to supplement their measly income by going home and writing huge novels.
There is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. Rufus heard that! He pared back, got rid of some superfluous equipment. His primary weapon was a long rifle on a beefy tripod with a fairly expensive infrared scope. Against the dark (once it had cooled off at night) backdrop of Texas, pigs flared Moby-Dick white in the optics. He was able to observe them and satisfy himself that they were swine—not livestock or, God forbid, humans—before calmly blasting them to kingdom come. When the big slugs hit home you could see the giblets flying out of them like sparks from a welder. When Big Daddy or Big Momma went down, legs jerking stiffly into the air, the herd would always panic and scatter, but he could usually pick off several more before they got out of range. The customers, viewing the carnage the next morning, didn’t see how many had got away. So the big weapon accounted for 90 percent of his business. But he kept an assault rifle handy when tooling around in the open, engaging in swine killing of a more extemporaneous, short-range nature. It would give him more options should he ever find himself surrounded. In all honesty an AR-15 type of rifle would have served the same purpose and been easier to buy parts for, but the Kalashnikov was a fine conversation starter. Putting a 7.62-millimeter slug into a hog just seemed like a better idea than a 5.56. The AK’s brute simplicity, its ability to keep firing after he had dropped it into a wallow, fascinated him as a mechanic. It was the feral hog of guns. ARs, on the other hand, reminded him overmuch of the army. On the civilian side of things, he had come to associate them with kids at the shooting range wearing overpriced wraparound sunglasses. Bros in tactical trousers who were evidently in it because of some story they were telling themselves.
Beyond just the guns it was pretty high tech. He was sharing Google Earth files with Dr. Rutledge and her grad students, FedExing them blood swipes, checking his email all the time for anything useful they might have turned up. During the investigation of Adele’s death, the sheriff had gathered what was politely called physical evidence and used DNA testing to establish that what had happened had happened. Mixed in with Adele’s human DNA there was swine DNA from the perpetrator, and Rufus was able to get that information over to Dr. Rutledge. The odds of a smoking gun genetic match were minimal, but she was able to feed him some “you’re getting warmer/colder” hints that shaped his peregrinations around Texas.
He got good at drones. It was a great day and age to be a retired but still healthy mechanic with no family to distract him. What with the availability of tools, YouTube videos, and Amazon lockers, he could learn how to do anything he wanted and get the stuff he needed to do it. Piloting drones through a VR headset from the air-conditioned comfort of his trailer, he followed the hogs to their wallows and guessed where they would be rooting around for food tonight, then used Google Earth to figure out where he’d set up his tripod to best advantage and how to get there without spooking them.
The business would have been sustainable anywhere in Texas—for that matter, anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Pecos. So he had the freedom to direct his operation toward areas where, according to the data coming from Dr. Rutledge’s lab, the pigs he was killing bore the strongest genetic resemblance to Snout. Generally speaking this seemed to be the watershed of the Brazos, south of Waco and north of where it meandered into the suburbs of Houston. Heat, he suspected, was driving hogs in general and Snout in particular toward rivers, where they could always find a way to cool off.
A big meandering river like the Brazos could be a troublesome thing to approach in a wheeled vehicle. The road network petered out as it got closer. You were always having to take the long way round so that you could find a bridge. Having crossed over, you’d inevitably find yourself wishing you were back on the other side. He needed a boat and he had never been a boat kind of man. He ended up forming a loose partnership with one Beau Boskey, a fellow from Louisiana who was to alligators what Rufus was to hogs. Beau was as boaty a man as you could ever hope to find. Rufus had met him at a conference on invasive species management. When Rufus needed boat-related help he would try to reach Beau on his cell phone, and when Beau thought Rufus might help him out with his drones and his infrared gear, he would do likewise.
It was this that brought them together in Waco during the Summer of the Great Relay Shortage.
The three factors that entered into it were pigs, gators, and fire ants. In the winter and spring, East Texas had seen an unusual pattern of weather (if anything could be considered unusual nowadays) that, to make a long story short, had apparently been perfect for fire ants. In all honesty, conditions always seemed perfect for fire ants, but, according to people like Dr. Rutledge who really knew their stuff, this was the best ant year ever.
The water had then got higher. Not in a single convulsive flood that would have drowned the ants in their burrows, but a little at a time. The ants had edged toward higher ground, which was where people tended to build houses. Houston was the third-largest city in North America. So the result was what Dr. Rutledge dryly called human/ant encounters on a scale never before seen, with thousands of emergency room visits not just from ant bites but collateral damage such as Texans setting fire to themselves when trying to burn ant nests with gasoline.
Fire ants answered to weird signals that humans could only guess at. One of them, apparently, was that they were drawn to the smell of ozone. Ozone could be produced in a lot of different ways, but a very common one in that area was relays in air-conditioning units. A relay was a big electrical switch with mechanical parts that actually moved—the thing that made an audible click when it came on. Most everything else now had gone to solid state, but for some reason known only to electrical engineers, relays on air-conditioning units had to have actual pieces of metal that came together to establish contact, or pulled apart to turn it off. Whenever that happened, there was a little spark that produced ozone. In this part of the world it was typical for air-conditioning units to be installed on concrete pads external to the house. Ozone-seeking ants could easily get in through the ventilation slots and seek out the relays. There, the fate that awaited them was to be electrocuted or mechanically smashed the next time the relay cycled. Remains of dead ants built up on the contacts and fouled them to the point where the relay had to be replaced. The supply chain for these relays extended back to China where one company had come to dominate the market. It could not produce and ship them at anything like the pace needed to replace the units being destroyed by fire ants in East Texas. People came up with various jury-rigged workarounds but the upshot was that over a short span of time the places where hundreds of thousands of people lived became uninhabitable. Some folks could tough out a Houston summer with window fans, but most looked for alternatives. Just for starters this meant filling every hotel room in greater Houston. RVs—already at a premium because of COVID-19, COVID-23, and COVID-27, and the general inability of Americans to travel outside of the Lower 48—spiked in price as people snapped those up and parked them in their driveways. People went full nomad and began to occupy every legal campsite they could find, and when those were full they began to park illegally. The thing was that these people had resources. They all owned houses, after all. So they were affluent nomads.
For Rufus, that was all just background noise, explaining why it was suddenly difficult to find a place to park his rig or to buy replacement parts for his generator. Overwhelmingly more important was the call he received from Dr. Rutledge in the middle of July.
Over time, indigestible stuff accumulated in a hog’s stomach. Eventually they would vomit it up to make room. Anyone who tracked wild pigs would encounter spews from time to time: a patch of glazed ground where the liquid had dried in the sun, littered with the skulls and jawbones and hooves of lambs, kids, calves, piglets, dogs, cats, as well as dog collars, sticks, stones, chunks of plastic, and so on. Rufus never looked too closely out of a fear that he might see human remains.
A few weeks earlier, while doing a job on a property between Waco and College Station, he had come across the biggest hog spew he had ever seen. He had scraped up a sample and sent it in.
By the time the results came back and he got The Call from Dr. Rutledge, weeks had passed and he was several hundred miles away. That huge spew had been made, not just by a hog that was genetically similar to Snout, but by Snout himself. It was a perfect genetic match.
After that phone call Rufus spent an hour or so just snapping out of a profound daze. You’d think he would have become excited, but instead he actually went to sleep for a few minutes. That, he reckoned, was him prepping himself. Putting body and mind into cold shutdown, then rebooting the system for what was to come. As Ahab remarked on the last day of his epic pursuit of the White Whale: I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm—frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turn to ice, and shiver it.
He Google Earthed the location of the spew, just to remind himself of the particulars. It was on the banks of a good-sized tributary of the Brazos, next to a wallow he had noticed there. Since that day the temperature in that area had never dropped below a hundred degrees. If Snout were as big as the spew indicated, he’d be forced to exist as a semi-aquatic mammal—he simply couldn’t shed heat fast enough to stay alive. Crossing from one watershed to another over open country was unlikely. He’d use the rivers like an interstate highway system. Rufus reviewed photos he’d taken of the spew and noticed a detail that had passed him by before: a number of turtle shells. Even some fish bones. Snout lived in the water.
He called Beau Boskey, who answered on the first ring. Beau was finishing up some gator work in Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston, on the lower Brazos. He had his pontoon boat. He said he’d trailer it up to a put-in place he knew of on the Brazos south of Waco. He said he had business up in that part of Texas anyway, “on account of the mefcators.” Or at least this was what Rufus thought he heard, in Beau’s heavy accent, filtered through a less than ideal cell phone connection. A mispronunciation of “malefactors”? It made no sense, but he did not care; all that mattered to him was that he would soon have a whaleboat.
Rufus drove east and tried to re-visit the site of the spew, but it had been covered by rising water. Probably just as well. He had a nightmare vision of discovering a small human skull in one of those and no amount of sticking his tongue out would drive it from his mind. While he was waiting for Beau he burned a lot of gas driving up and down both banks of the river. It tended to be hemmed in by dense vegetation. Under Texas law, the river and its immediate banks were public land. Adjoining landowners had no incentive to keep them clear. On the contrary, the proverbial largeness of Texas meant that they usually had a surplus of land elsewhere on which to concentrate their brush-clearing energies. Clearing the economically worthless river frontage would just make it easier for boat riffraff to come up and trespass. So in general the banks of the Brazos were a strip jungle of overgrown scrub, perfect habitat for wild hogs who could wallow in the river to cool down, rub their bodies against tree roots to scrape off parasites, and raid adjoining farms at night. All of which activities left behind a trail of property damage, feces, spews, tracks, and enraged farmers that Rufus had learned how to monetize. The main question he had to answer was: Had Snout traveled upstream or down from that point?
By the time Beau made it up to Travis—the closest town of any size to the spew—Rufus had satisfied himself that the answer was upstream—so, generally northward in the direction of Waco. So once Beau’s pontoon boat was in the water, that was the direction they moved. It was an ungainly style of travel, putt-putting a few miles at a go up the meandering river, shadowed by Beau’s son-in-law Reggie driving Beau’s pickup truck ten miles for every one that the boat covered. When road and river came together they would stop and Reggie would drive Rufus back to the starting place and they would move all the vehicles up and park them. It felt agonizingly slow. But all they had to do was move faster than Snout.
A few days of that got them into the heart of Waco. There the river forked in the middle of a park where a smaller tributary, the Bosque, spilled into the main channel. A few miles upstream of that confluence, right next to the airport, the Bosque had been dammed to form Lake Waco. The Brazos for its part wandered off into the heart of Texas. So this was literally a fork in the road for the Snout expedition. There were good reasons to devote some time and some care to making sure they didn’t now take the wrong turn.
They had this embarrassment of huge vehicles. In open country this was fine, but in the leafy neighborhood of Waco where the river split, there was no place for them. Around the shores of Lake Waco, however, were a number of campgrounds with spaces for RVs. In any other year some of those would have been available, but now they were all full because of the problem with the fire ants and the relays. “Relayfugees” had set up unauthorized campsites along the roads that snaked through the wooded land between the lake and the airport, and they encroached on patches of open ground where those were to be found. As in every other human settlement there was good real estate and bad. Good was a legal campsite along the lakeshore, high and dry. Bad was illegal, marshy, and in the woods. With a combination of hustle, social skills, and bribery, Beau was able to secure a place that was only semi-terrible, large enough to create a little compound consisting of Rufus’s dually, Rufus’s trailer, Beau’s pickup, and the flatbed he used to transport the pontoon. Beau’s wife, Mary, flew up from Lake Charles, which was the Boskey clan’s home base, and they hunkered down on the site for a couple of days while Rufus probed up both branches of the river on an inflatable that Beau usually towed behind his pontoon.
Beau was everything Rufus wasn’t: comfortable on the water, interested in large reptiles, gregarious, cheerful, diurnal, and married. He and Mary had raised three kids on the edge of what most people would consider to be a swamp outside of Lake Charles. Their oldest daughter had married this Reggie, who looked to be the heir apparent to Beau’s gator mitigation business. Not that Beau seemed of a mind to retire any time soon. He seemed more the type to keep going until he dropped dead from cardiovascular issues related to his diet (pretty much what you would imagine) and sedentary (sitting in boats all day) lifestyle. But he would do so cheerfully, surrounded by photographs of his grandkids. Three of those were Reggie’s, and Reggie seemed like he was on the phone to them fourteen hours a day. Sometime he would aim his phone at Rufus, and Rufus would flinch as he came in view of some number of kids and the kids would call out, “Howdy, Red!” and he would be forced to answer. He could infer from what they said to him that Beau had spoken of Rufus respectfully and even affectionately. Mary, for her part, once she had shown up and taken over the operation of the compound, seemed unduly open-minded and tolerant of Rufus’s determination to find and kill Snout. Rufus wondered what was considered normal where she came from.
An interesting thing about campgrounds was the way that a little temporary society would spring up, complete with the social hierarchy and attendant drama of more permanent settlements. This place was more complicated than most. Some people were towing palatial trailers behind gleaming Escalades—these tended to be your fire ant relay refugees. There was a middle class of snowbirds who had migrated away from the Mud Bowl—the vast, sodden triangle of former heartland along the Missouri and Mississippi valleys that seemed to be flooded all the time nowadays. The lower class were people of various backgrounds, but quite often Spanish-speaking, living in tents in the woods, blue tarps thrown or pitched over those to provide some additional shelter from sun and rain. Many of them seemed to have found work cooking, cleaning, and doing handyman work for the more upscale trailer dwellers. So, past the Rufus/Beau compound, there was a regular flow of foot and bicycle traffic as such people went to and fro between their camps deeper in the woods and the better-drained sites where the mega-RVs resided in a purr of generator exhaust and a nimbus of light thick with bugs. ...
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