The truck bounced along the track towards the woods, leaving a gradually thinning mist of dust in the air behind it. The trees on either side occurred more and more frequently, narrowing the road they travelled. Eventually, inevitably, the call came from the cab. “Too narrow. Get out and we’ll go on foot.”
They piled out of the back, hosting rucksacks onto their backs and grouping together by the driver’s door. “You all need to stick together for this one. We’ve already got the co-ordinates so let’s make this quick. Walk in, walk out, OK?”
There was nodding and a few “yeahs” from the group.
“Good. Everybody be sure to grab a spade from the back and, if I see anybody so much as touch their water, bottle they’ll be sent straight back to the truck and they’ll never be out on field work again, no matter how dull it turns out to be, got it?”
“How far is it from here?”
“Not too far. We should be there in under two hours and the forest is a tidy one.”
They set off through the trees, some using the spades as walking sticks, some with them strapped to their rucksacks. It was warm and clammy, but nobody seemed to be sweating much. Luce saw a bead develop on the back of Jackman’s neck.
“Sneak in a glass before we left?” she said, moving up next to him.
“Huh?” He looked up from the ground, “sorry?”
She waved at the back of his head, “you’ve got a…”
“Oh! Shit,” he wiped his hand around his neck and held it in front of his face. “Think I’ll get away with that?”
Luce shrugged. “I didn’t see anything.”
“I didn’t have anything to drink. I’ve always been sweaty.”
“Nice,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “have another salt pill.”
“If Whitake sees you dripping he’ll send you right back and it’ll go down as a failure to participate.”
“That’s such bullshit. Why do we even need so many people?”
“You ever tried to dig an eight foot hole in sand and not break a sweat?”
The forest was clear of undergrowth, as Whitake had said, and the group made good time. They meandered around trees following his lead as he periodically checked his GPS unit. After they’d been walking for an hour and a half he stopped. “Should be just up ahead now,” he said, “spread out in a line, call out if you see something and stay alert. I don’t want anybody blundering into it because they’ve got their eye on the sky or are chatting or whatever it is you lot do.” He switched off the GPS and put it in his rucksack.
Five minutes later, a shout went up from somebody to Luce’s left. Whitake marched off towards the shout. “You got it?” he yelled to them as he approached, “definitely?”
Luce couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but Whitake and a few others went off ahead whilst the line waited. It was less than a minute before they heard a shout calling them to head after Whitake, which everybody dutifully did.
The clearing was about thirty metres across. “Not a big one,” said Whitake. Luce looked around at the trees along the edges. Some of them were already showing signs of withering away, just like the trees which must have been here before. The ones on the edge would have already had half their roots destroyed by the circle of dust that was spreading out.
“Right,” said Whitake, “I want the centre marked. Jackman, Isere, get the rope out.”
Luce and Jackman dragged the thin rope from their back packs. They took Luce’s first. She held it coiled in her arms whilst Jackman walked around to the opposite side of the clearing with an end. When she no longer had to reel it out and it started going slack, she called to him to stop. He tied it to the nearest tree trunk. Luce did the same. “Want to try throwing it across?” she called across to Jackman.
“Don’t even think about it,” said Whitake.
Jackman grinned at Luce as he walked to meet her. She headed around the edge towards him, ready with the second rope.
They repeated the exercise, making the two ropes from a cross in the middle of the clearing.
“And there’s your dig site, people. Right, I want teams of four. One digger, three blockers. Got that?”
The chorus of murmurs and nods rang out again.
“Sorry, this is more important than that. Are you going to organise yourselves or do I need to act as your wet nurse?”
People started moving that time, forming into groups of four, assigning one a shovel, whilst the others took out sheets of hessian and long nails that looked more like small grappling hooks. After a minute, there were five teams ready. Luce and Jackman found themselves together again. Jackman was digging.
“Three minutes per team to start with. Don’t leave anything back there or we’ll lose it as soon as the thing realises what’s going on. Roberts, take your group and get to it.”
Whoever had the shovel dug and threw the dirt as far away as possible. They started by forming a wide circle under where the ropes crossed, only digging half a foot down. Once that was done, the ropes were taken down as the first team moved back from the dust. The second team began digging down, the blockers pinning the hessian against the sides of the pit as it got deeper and deeper, making sure the dust didn’t spill back in to the hole.
Every three minutes Whitake would call out and the teams would change places. Once they’d reached four feet down, the hessian started developing small holes, dust spilling through them. “It’s sped up!” called out one of the blockers.
“Alright,” said Whitake, “you guys get back. Two minutes from now on, people.”
Jackman and Luce’s group was up next. Jackman jumped into the hole whilst Luce and the other two blockers begin pinning fresh sheets of hessian over the disintegrating ones. “We bring enough sheets?”
Luce nodded, “normally we’d be through half of them by now. This one was slow. Didn’t realise what was going on for ages.”
“That good or bad?”
Luce shrugged. “Dig. Don’t start sweating because of idle chat.”
Jackman had got another half foot of dust out before the two minutes was up. As the blockers were dragging him up, he kicked a hole in the hessian. “Fuck!” he shouted, and turned around, scrambling on his knees, trying to hold back the spilling dust with his hands.
“Leave it, Jackman!” yelled Luce, pulling him up. “Let the next group deal with it. It’s not much.”
They ran back to the edge of the clearing.
“Don’t cut it so fine,” said Whitake.
The next three groups took the hole down to six feet and hit something. “Found it!” one of them called out.
“Right! Get back! One blocker per group grab a knife!”
The next group went in, the digger moving the dust from around the swollen, black lump that they’d uncovered. It looked like a rotting head, something that had lost all but the resemblance of the features it once possessed, something that had been festering beneath the ground for uncounted years. The group got called back, but they’d removed enough dust to reveal the thick, snaking vines which ran out of it into the dirt.
Luce’s group was up. She held the knife and jumped into the pit. Jackman remained up top, holding his shovel uselessly. Luce began cutting, slicing through the vines which oozed black onto the dust. It didn’t dry up or seep into it, it just lay on the surface, clotting.
“Time’s up, get back!” shouted Whitake from out of sight. Luce carried on dragging the knife back and forth across the final vine.
“Come on, Luce,” said Jackman, holing his hand down to help her out.
“One second. I’ve almost got it,” she replied. She could feel the vine giving, see the knife almost through it. She watched as each slice spilt more ooze onto the dust. Her hands caught her eye; they were withering. She grunted and aimed a final hack at the vine. It split in front of her and she dropped the knife, grabbed the bulbous, bloated head and threw it out of the pit before grabbing Jackman’s hand.
“Jesus Christ,” she murmured, “Get me some water.”