We travel north to study the newly discovered insects. Kyle Borrowman is assigned to us, and we respect him because the dossier says that he can survive. He's not an entomologist, of course -- there's enough of us here already! -- but he understands how to climb hilltops, and how to find fresh water on the top of the hilltops he climbs, and he can also make a special kind of dirt-food that is edible if not always tasty. Kyle Borrowman has ensured the survival some very important people, says the dossier that we pass around, disinterested. OUR survival is not the first thing on our minds.
We have never learned to preserve anything larger than a bug. We're accustomed to sterile conditions where food and water are always available, sometimes fed to us automatically when we're busy. Apparently, for this journey, we NEED somebody like Kyle Borrowman, and since most creatures are in some way dependent on others we like to imagine that he needs us too.
We're not sure of that, we've done no studies.
The north is a difficult environment and our research skills are not very useful. As we travel, Kyle Borrowman saves each of us in turn from a rock slide, a flood, and an infection which spreads from foot to shin. Doctor Feeler almost dies from a snake that she tries to investigate with a stick. Borrowman sucks the venom out and says crude things about her leg.
In light of this we recognize our collective debt to him, and we decide unanimously that Kyle Borrowman is the only member of our party who actually deserves a name. He disagrees, brandishing his handmade axe, and says we're being darn foolish. If we don't stop doing this stuff, he says, he'll go back south and leave us here alone, damnit.
We reclaim our names and we acknowledge that there are certain things we do not understand. Kyle Borrowman approves and offers us tobacco, which we decline because it hurts our lungs. He says "What a bunch of pussies!" and spits.
Researchers are too weak and impractical to survive in the wilderness. Even amongst peers we have trouble with things like public transportation and grocery stores. Some of us have gotten lost in hallways while trying to locate the researchers from other facilities, and even stairways of more than one storey give us trouble.
Kyle Borrowman tends us with a down-home type of tough love; he's dependable but sometimes frightening. The songs he sings have uncouth lyrics and he uses the fat of still-living mammals to waterproof his canoe. Every time we set up our campsite he stores our food high up in a tree, and then he hollers that he's not coming back down to give us any until one of us manages to hit him with a rock. He's the only one who's really good at throwing rocks. Maybe this is his way of encouraging us to try new things. We are never sure when Kyle Borrowman is joking or when he is trying to tough-love us.
He has a sensitive side that is not always apparent. During restful times he listens to waves sloshing against the shore, and he says they remind him of his home by the Lake Of No Name. We, by comparison, listen to the quiet buzzing of microscopic wings in our specimen jars. Kyle says that small things like that are not worth listening to, he is more interested in The Large.
Our camp is scattered with jars made of crystal, and each jar holds something that's very, very small. In a rare mood, far north of the timberline, Kyle Borrowman asks us what all of our junk is for and we don't really know what to say, but after a bit of discussion we try to explain it to him.
"Studying the insects is exciting," one of us says, and the rest of us applaud him. When Kyle Borrowman looks unimpressed, Doctor Feeler reads him some untranslated excerpts from her research notes. "This is what we do," she says. "We study."
Kyle Borrowman doesn't care. "That's fine," he says, "but can any of you do this?" He takes off his shirt and flexes his biceps, which are so massive and hairy that we can't believe we have similar biceps of our own. He turns around and flexes again so we can see him from the back. Doctor Feeler says that she doesn't think she could do such things personally, but she can't speak for anybody else. We agree.
His laugh is meaty, like his smell and like his hands. We can only keep his attention for a short time and we worry that he'll grow bored of us, forget the contract he signed, and leave us in the north to die.
He goes hunting with his axe and brings back rabbits, otters, and bears, all dead. He can drag a monster home by its antlers without sweating more than he usually does. We appreciate the effort but we insist on eating dry rations out of ziplocked bags, and he grunts, annoyed. He has begun brewing his own beer with cheesecloth, tinfoil, and tiny pieces of moss. Sometimes he looks at us and we wonder what he's thinking about.
It becomes terribly hot and the trees are poor shelter. Our little crystal jars reflect light-beams. Our tents steam, the beer ferments with a rich dungy odour, Kyle Borrowman sits drunk and naked on the rock which he calls his throne.
His torso is covered with mosquitoes but this doesn't seem to bother him. When he stares at Doctor Feeler like a lascivious killer, her sunburned face turns perceptively redder and she devotes extra study to her insects.
Our anxiety increases as the heat gets worse. Unable to look directly at our bright thermometers, we estimate the temperature from the oscillations of midges. The radio transmitter no longer works, but on cloudless nights we can hear German opera, and Doctor Pop sings along.
We run out of dry rations but we are afraid to ask Kyle Borrowman to bring some down from the tree-top, which for days has been surrounded by eagerly-fighting crows. We have heard about hunger before, but we have never known it personally. This is not within our realm of research and it is experienced without first setting down a proposal.
"So," says Kyle Borrowman one morning, addressing Doctor Feeler as usual, "you ever DONE IT with a mountain man?"
Nobody answers. It's terribly hot and we stare at our ragged shoes.
He points to the mound of mosquitoes on his crotch. "We gotta get it on."
That night we gather in Doctor Feeler's tent and hold a vote: we will no longer answer any questions which make us feel uncomfortable. We pack the delirious Doctor Pop in formaldehyde put him to bed, and in the morning he dies.
Our weaknesses infuriate Kyle Borrowman, who rarely stirs from his mosquito blanket. He says that Doctor Pop was a useless man who should have drank more fluids to prevent dehydration. He threatens us in a fuzzy voice and his threats, as always, are effective. By simply sitting on his throne and waving his axe around, Kyle Borrowman is more powerful than the rest of us combined.
That afternoon the heat breaks and a downpour floods our tents. We run to Kyle Borrowman for help and we discover that he is gone, and so is Doctor Feeler. She left her notes behind.
One day our savage children see an equally wild old woman stalking our burrow. The woman's lab coat is patched with fur and she is holding a knife in her hands, something tough and made of bone. Instead of fighting, our children jump and holler, and eventually the old woman goes away.