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Insect Aside

July 18, 1993|Will Baker | Will Baker says that his short stories, criticism and novels usually take place "in real-life territory." "Insect Aside," however, is a chapter in his latest novel, "Shadow Hunter," an eco-sci-fi "speculative" adventure set in the 22nd Century. In the book, Baker, an English professor at UC Davis for 24 years, acknowledges generations of students "who persistently ignored my prejudices against the fantastical and outlandish . . . and thus tempted me into writing such a book." Raised in Idaho, Baker now lives on a 13-acre farm 40 miles from Davis with his wife and two children. "Shadow Hunter," published this month by Pocket Books, has been excerpted by permission

"AND WHEN THEY STRIPPED OFF THE WALLBOARDS . . . our home , our own living room , where I picked out all the patterns and had drapes made. . . ." The woman sobbed, poked at one eye with a folded tissue and then managed to go on, though her voice wobbled up and down over a good octave. "There were jillions of them, just jillions , crawling and swarming out of these holes, like little caves, everywhere in the insulation and everything. And we had to move. Had to leave our home , because it had gone too far. Earwigs. I mean, earwigs ! I don't understand how they could . . . I mean, our government. . . ."

The sobs overtook her again and she sat down abruptly. Her husband encircled her with a protective arm and looked almost accusingly at the young man standing behind the podium at the front of the room. There was a chorus of sympathetic murmurs from the crowd and a man called out, "Us too. They ate the place up, from the inside."

Baxter did not join this chorus, though he shifted his feet in discomfort. All through the evening's presentation, the charts and holograms and the young man's smooth commentary, he had become increasingly uneasy. For some time he had known things were not going properly in the world at large, but he had always been able to count on himself at least, on his own standard of excellence and performance.

Now there were these interior . . . disturbances. Random thoughts that upset him. A vague but ghastly little mood. So he had come to this meeting as a concerned citizen, wanting a credible account of what was going so wrong with everything. Instead people were stirring up unhealthy ideas with their silly tales of earwigs and ants.

It was a neighborhood meeting at the Olive Terrace Community Center, sponsored by the campaign committee of the Progressive Party. The young man, in a sport suit with no tie, had presented the party's views on the big issues of 2131, as outlined in an hourlong holo. Baxter watched colorful electronic models of new virus strains as they learned to enslave the antibodies hurled against them, saw crops seared by blight that originated in the untended Preserves and the irradiated Wastelands, heard alarming statistics on mutant species.

But the good citizens of Olive Terrace were stuck on bugs. During the question period after the holo, story followed story about the ravages of algae, termites, flies and moths. The most modern exterminators and sterilizers seemed to work for six months or a year and then signs of diabolical insect presence turned up again.

"It's an epidemic," the young Prog spokesman said knowingly. "Nobody knows how big." He explained swiftly how termite populations had taken to building superfluous queen chambers even in soft plastic, and other species--earwigs and roaches most particularly--had quickly occupied these spaces. He hinted that the problem was the flawed Conservative policy of laissez-faire, the idiocy of setting aside Preserves and cultivating "unplanned diversity." An attempt, Baxter could see, to segue back to the main subject--helping the Party of Tomorrow.

Glancing about the room, feeling furtive, Baxter became aware all at once of a barely perceptible change in the level of available light. His own eyesight was not good, yet he preferred old-fashioned rimless spectacles over contacts or implants. He believed the beveled thick glass transmitted and amplified peripheral light. He was thus, he felt, more sensitive than most to subtle alterations in ambient illumination.

Automatically he looked at the indirect light wells in the ceiling and saw that one of them had gone out. He blinked at this small inlet of shadow, then blinked again. A few motes of dust were now visible against this bit of darkness, caught in the rays from adjoining lights. One of these motes did not swirl and float like the others. A bit larger, it swayed in a long arc and then all at once dropped a few inches.

Baxter looked away abruptly and sat up straighter in his chair, trying to concentrate on what the speaker was saying. Instead he thought once more of his wife's dog, Lancelot. A sprawling heap of fine, pale hair with two sad and rheumy eyes. Scrumptious Toodlums to his wife, but something far more sinister to Baxter. His discontent veered suddenly in the direction of dread.

For the third (fourth? fifth?) time in the last week an awful thought surfaced: Perhaps he should seek medical help. He'd already gone so far as to look up the name of what his problem could be. Saprophagy. His mind recoiled from the word and he shook himself. In the chair next to him a woman turned with a modest, encouraging smile.

"I know how you feel," she said. "It makes my flesh creep too."

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