They didn’t allow us to know much about Site 03 or the two expedition teams who are there now. Somewhere near Whistler, British Columbia, there’s a forested valley about two miles in diameter, with a half-mile long clearing including a meadow and a small infrastructure zone—a defunct ecological research station. There are three main buildings encircling a paved courtyard and roundabout: a lab where the Teams established their camps, a ten-story mass of apartments and offices, and—believe it or not—a thirty-story skyscraper that was partially built into a sheer mountain range behind it. Our employer had given each of these simpler terms: The Labs, The Lodge, and The Spire, respectively.
But the vast meadow, or The Fields, is where I would be spending most of my time; I was the botanist on this expedition. Every scientist I know dreams of a trip like this. Dark verdant forests, wildflowers, cool mountain air, unlimited research time. I guess I wasn’t the best judge, though; my friends are all reclusive green thumbs with eight pairs of hiking boots incrementally better than the last. This green thumb had applied the moment I saw the posting. It didn’t hurt that the pay was astronomical compared to what I had been making at the Conservatory, and that I wouldn’t be the only woman going.
And God, did I need to get away. We left San Francisco two days after the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death. All I could think about these past few months was his head hitting the kitchen table, his body slamming the floor, and never hearing him speak again.
The drive from Vancouver took about two hours. I already knew EverRain was one of those avant-garde progressive companies when my interview had taken place in a giant, glossy marshmallow building. But that was just the iceberg’s tip; we were currently being hauled up B.C.’s route 99 in a huge six wheeler with a hull as thick as a submarine, or so it felt. They called it the MARV, or Multipurpose All-Range Vessel. You can’t get more expedition-y than that. The orange and black beast turned off a beaten exit that went underneath a concrete tunnel. We emerged onto a rutted road in a forest of firs. The tracks had become overgrown, the dirt lines barely visible.
There were six members of Team Gamma, including me. The others were a geologist, hydrologist, radiobiologist, microbiologist, and a security detail. EverRain kindly forbade us from meeting each other before the expedition, aside from a quick debriefing, which I’ll admit is a little odd. The job posting had shown there would be governmental clearances, and we signed an NDA. But truth be told, none of it bothered me. I was easy to convince these days. Just ask my recent string of bar hookups. My career really needed a jumpstart, and I definitely needed a reset.
From what I could tell from the ride, the geologist was going to be a pain in the ass.
“We’ll be mostly in the mountains, the other geologists and I,” he was saying to the entire cabin in a raised, arrogant voice. He was a middle-aged man with a wisp of blonde hair on his head and a pair of thin sunglasses that seemed glued to his face. “EverRain said the minerals here have unusual properties. Spikes of elements that shouldn’t be there. The other teams better have taken detailed notes. People don’t like to follow protocol much, I’ve found. Not for long, anyway; I’ll have this place meticulous when I’m done with it.”
The sounds of the MARV crunching its way up the incline made me shudder. Thick trunks being snapped in half and pulverized to splinters. We stayed in this cycle for about an hour and a half, heading deeper into the forest, until we stopped at the Halsee Gate, an old security entrance. Pieces of the broken gate arm lay scattered. The personnel booth had cloudy windows and a blanket of greens growing up its sides with what looked like White Mountain Heather—little white teacup petals.
Renée Auclair looked at me from across the seat divide as the rest of the scientists unbuckled their restraints. “You’re the botanist, aren’t you?”
I nodded eagerly; no one had said a word since leaving—me included—so I was a practically bursting. “Yeah. Specialize mainly in plant pathology, bryology, and dendrology—mosses and trees and their diseases. But ecology saturates so much of the field these days, I’ve had to apply that to everything, really.”
“That’s good. I’m guessing that will come into play with what we’re doing.” Renée had a kind, yet serious face, with blonde hair fastened into a ponytail and gelled to tamp any strays. She probably wasn’t much older than me, but she appeared collected enough to lead our team. “Tell me your name again?”
“Priya Khatri,” I said. “And you’re Renée? Microbiology?”
She nodded. “I think we’ll be comparing notes a lot. Where you from?”
“Philadelphia,” I said. “You?”
I pulled my tall hiking backpack from the receptacle above my seat and shouldered it. The thing weighed about twenty-five pounds. “Not much of a trip, then?”
Renée smiled, thank God. “No, not much of a trip.”
I know it sounded silly, but I got a warm feeling from Renée. Maybe “safe” was the right word—safe to be myself. Not sure the geologist would let me do that, what with not being meticulous enough.
We exited the MARV, and I took in the first full breath of mountain air. The forest smelled of pine mixed with the MARV’s malodorous hot engine. There was an intense choir of birdsong above us, and I could see long distances through the trunks on either side, vaults of untouched, pristine forest. Most trees had fuzzy green lichen or moss growing up their bark. The ground was teeming with shrub and brush mixed with a lot of heather. Joy surrounded me; the past year melted away in a memory, absolved by the ferocity of nature.
We stood together at the rear, waiting for Lewman, the security detail, to unload the plastic tub of supplies and lock up. He was a six-foot-plus balding man with some extra weight, wearing a tight black uniform and utility vest. He pulled on an orange beanie with the EverRain insignia, a rain cloud designed to represent an infinity symbol. I couldn’t help but stare at his drooping eyes, which reminded me of that unsettling toy baby head from Toy Story, the one spliced onto an erector set. He wore a belt with a handgun, and I frowned. I’d forgotten about the wolves and bears. It was the Canadian wilderness, after all.
Renée zipped up her parka and buckled her backpack across her chest. “What made you decide to become a botanist?”
“Wanted to be a painter, actually,” I said, smirking. Maybe that had been too congenial. Leave it to me to ruin a relationship for being too engaged. “But obviously, that didn’t pan out.”
“What did you paint?”
I sighed. “Flowers.”
“Actually, my . . .” I caught the word before it left my mouth. It had been involuntary. I couldn’t even have a simple conversation, could I? I wiggled my fingers at my sides. “Sorry. My dad was the one who sort of pushed me into it.” There. I said it. God.
“I’m . . . glad he did. Is everything all right?”
The dreaded question. “I’m all right. My dad passed away last year.” I shrugged, trying to convey that I had no control over what triggered me. But not in an “aww take pity on me” way.
“I’m sorry,” Renee said. “That’s really heavy stuff.”
I gave her a half glance, checking to see if her reaction was genuine. “Yeah. It is. Thanks. I’m just glad to be here, away from it all.”
Renée flicked her eyes behind me. I turned. Jaala Okoro was hefting her backpack onto her shoulders. The radiobiologist. Tall, braided black hair, immaculate white teeth. She wore a fitted, black down jacket and black pants. I turned back to Renée. “Do you know her? Jaala, is it?”
Renée shook her head and smiled. “Why don’t we get a head start? I’m sure you’ve been dying to get right to work, being enveloped by all this.” She gestured to the forest.
“I did put my kit in the outside pocket,” I said.
Thank you for reading this little preview of Enervation! The full audiobook and text are coming very, very soon!