From the Hugo-winning, bestselling author of The Guns of the South, a tale of love, parasitism, and loss in this Tor.Com Original Something Going Around, by Harry Turtledove.
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About the Author
The author of many science fiction and fantasy novels, including The Guns of the South, the "World War" series, and The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Harry Turtledove lives in Los Angeles with his wife, novelist Laura Frankos, and their four daughters.
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Something Going Around
By Harry Turtledove, Greg Ruth
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
It's twenty minutes, maybe a half hour, from my office to Mandelbaum's. My office is in the Languages Building — excuse me, the Randall J. Simonson Foundation Languages Building. You lose points if you forget to name the benefactor. The university knows which side its bread is buttered on. Oh, you bet it does. When there's butter. Hell, when there's bread.
By the time I got to the bar, I needed a beer a lot more than I had when I set out. Somebody a couple of blocks from the campus side of Mandelbaum's had walked in front of a car. Not just any car, either. A Lincoln Navigator. Dead, of course. Never knew what hit him, I hope.
Cops and paramedics couldn't have pulled up more than half a minute before I walked by. They'd thrown a sheet over him, but it was still pretty bad. Worse than you see on the news, 'cause the news cleans up the gore or cuts away. You didn't only see it there. You could smell it, all thick and rusty. Made my stomach turn over.
A couple of little animals or birds were scurrying around the edge of the pool. I couldn't tell what they were up to — maybe scouting for chunks of meat in the soup. Believe me, I didn't check it out too close.
The woman who'd been driving the Navigator was talking to a cop. She was sleek and blonde and middle-aged: plainly part of the one percent, not the ninety-nine. Things like this weren't supposed to happen to people like her. But one had. She still sounded stunned, not horrified. "I couldn't do a thing, Officer," she was saying. "Not a thing. He didn't even look. He just walked out in front of me — and bam!" Bam! was right.
When I walked into Mandelbuam's, Victor drew me a Sam Adams and slid it across the bar. Then he eyed me and said, "You okay, Stan? You're kinda green around the gills."
So I told him why I was green around the gills.
"Oh, Jesus!" He pointed to the beer. "On the house, man. That same thing happened to me last month. Still creeps me out — I've woke up from nightmares in a cold sweat, like, two or three times. Mine was a gal."
"Makes it even worse somehow," I said.
"It totally does." Victor nodded. Then he did it again, in a different way — toward the pint of beer. "So get yourself outside of that right away. It'll take the edge off. Then have another one, slower, and you oughta be good to go."
"Sounds like the right prescription, Doc," I said, and set to work on the first part of it.
There were only a couple of other people at the bar, but it was early yet. Things would perk up. They always did. Mandelbaum's is a good place. It's half town, half gown, you might say. Not a meat market bar, though there are a gay one and a straight one within a few blocks. Mandelbaum's is more like a permanent floating cocktail party. You run into all kinds of people there, some fascinating, some ... well, not so much.
But you do hear some out-of-the-ordinary answers when you get around to asking, "So what do you do, then?"
I started talking with somebody who came in a little while after I did. By then, I was halfway down the second Sam Adams. I definitely had a little buzz. I wasn't smashed or anywhere close — I'm a big guy (six-three, two-twenty — oh, all right, two-forty, but I am gonna start working out again RSN). Still, the alcohol put a transparent shield between me and that poor damn fool dead on the asphalt. Smashed on the asphalt. Puddled on the asphalt. I might need one more to firm up the transparent shield a bit.
"So what do you do?" he asked.
"Germanic languages at the U," I said. "Specialize in Gothic."
"In what?" he said.
Which was the same thing everybody said, including my mother. Well, except for a few who said Never heard of it. But the ones who came out with that were usually less interesting than the other kind.
"Gothic," I said again. "Oldest Germanic language that got written down. Bishop Ulfila translated the Bible — most of it — into Gothic in the fourth century A.D."
"That's a while ago now."
"Anybody still speak it?"
"Not since the eighteenth century," I told him. "Some of the Goths settled in Italy. The Byzantine Empire conquered them in the sixth century. Some settled in Spain. The Arabs conquered them in the eighth century. A few stayed behind in the Crimea. They were the ones who lasted longest."
"If no one still uses it, what's the point to studying it?" he asked.
That was the other question everybody came up with — also including my mother. But he didn't ask it in a snarky way. He sounded as if he really wanted to know. So I answered, "You can learn a lot about how the younger languages grew and changed if you compare them to one that didn't grow and change so much. And I have fun doing it."
"There you go!" he said. "If you can get paid for what you get off on anyway, you're ahead of the game. I do it, too."
"Do you?" He'd listened to me. The least I could do was pay him back. "How?"
And it turned out he was a farrier. I found out more about shoeing horses and horseshoe nails and trackside gossip than I'd ever imagined. He didn't just work at the track. He had a regular business with the horsy people in Woodlawn Heights, which is where the horsy people mostly lived.
After we'd talked a while longer, it also turned out he'd watched somebody get clobbered by a car — by a pickup, as a matter of fact. He'd seen it happen, poor guy. I told Victor. By then, I was most of the way down my third beer, so letting Victor know seemed uncommonly important.
He clicked his tongue between his teeth. "Must be something going around," he said. And he also let the farrier — whose name, I haven't told you, was Eddie — have a free one. Mandelbaum's is a class joint.
Victor was behind the bar when I came in again a couple of weeks later. "How you doing, Stan?" he asked.
I kind of waggled my hand. I'd had a couple of nightmares of my own. You see something like that and you can't get it out of your head no matter how much you want to. The more you try, sometimes, the harder it sticks.
Later on, after I'd drunk a couple, I got to talking with an Indian woman — East Indian, I mean, not American Indian. Her name was Indira Patel. She wasn't drop-dead gorgeous or anything, but she wasn't bad. Hey, I'm not exactly drop-dead gorgeous myself. But I was unattached just then, so I entertained certain hopes, or at least a certain optimism. Mandelbaum's isn't a meat market, no, but you can make connections there. They may not be as young or as bouncy as they would be at the places a few blocks away. Chances are they'll last better, though.
After a while, she got around to asking me. I told her. She didn't ask the whys and wherefores the way Eddie had. She nodded seriously and said, "This Gothic is the Sanskrit of the Germanic languages, then."
"Pretty much," I said, "except it's more like the weird great-uncle to the languages we have now than the grandfather. There's a much smaller, much poorer sample of it, too." Details, details. "How about you?" I asked. How many people know there even is, or rather was, such a thing as Sanskrit? Sure, her background gave her a head start, but even so....
"I am a parasitic ecologist," she answered.
So she was from the university, then. No surprise we hadn't noticed each other before. The humanities types hang out on the east side of campus; the west side is for the science people.
"You ... work on how parasites operate in the ordinary world?" I tried to translate what Indira Patel had said into ordinary English.
She smiled and nodded, so I must have done it right. "That is what I do, yes." She smiled some more. I'd scored a point or two, all right.
"Sounds ... complex," I said.
She nodded again. "You have no idea. No one has any idea. The more we learn, the more complex it seems, too."
"So tell me," I told her. "Can I buy you another drink while you're doing it?"
"Thank you," she said. The mating dance, Mandelbaum's style. Not so blatant or quick as it would have been at the meat-market places, but it was. Well, we weren't so blatant or quick ourselves, either. Things did happen there, though.
Victor built her a fresh scotch over ice. I got myself a new brew. Indira and I sat there and we talked. Not just parasites and beastly irregular Gothic verbs (the first-person plural past subjunctive of the verb to have is habeidedema in Gothic; in English, it's had). I found out she'd been married once before; she found out I'd been married twice before. She had a son and a daughter. I had two sons. Her boy and my older one were both in college out of state. We bitched about how too expensive that was, and how we'd have to declare bankruptcy when our younger offspring started chasing sheepskins.
As a matter of fact, I wasn't so broke as all that. I strongly suspected Indira wasn't, either. She talked like someone who took money seriously. If you take it seriously, odds are you don't run out of it. That isn't a sure bet, but it's a good one.
I have to think she picked up the same vibe off me. We smiled the kind of smiles at each other that meant Yeah, you're complaining, but you don't have it so bad. Truth to tell, I didn't. If she did, I would have been surprised.
We did talk shop. What else are a couple of academics going to do? I went on about how the Gothic alphabet took characters from Greek, Latin, and the old Germanic runes. I told how Bishop Ulfilas translated the New Testament very literally from the Greek. I may have gone on too long; Indira listened well.
I tried my best to do the same. My first ex would laugh her head off if she heard me say that. She'd have her reasons, too. I hope I've grown up some since then. I don't know what I saw in her. Mm, yes I do — I was getting laid regularly for the first time ever. Which was fun while it lasted, but not, it turned out, a rock to build a lifetime on.
My second ex? Different story. Not a happier ending, but different. Cyndi and I wrangled about money and about her brother. Malcolm is into crank. I don't need to say any more than that.
But Indira was talking about parasites that don't walk on two legs. A lot of parasites, it turns out, infest different critters at different stages of their life cycle. "Like malaria," I said.
She beamed at me the way I'd beamed at her when she compared Gothic to Sanskrit. You always feel good when the person you're talking with knows something about what you know a lot about.
"Malaria is a very important one," she agreed. "Various strains infect birds and mammals, but they mate in a mosquito's gut. And, to some degree, they influence the behavior of their hosts. This is what interests me most — how parasites influence hosts to act in the parasites' benefit and not their own."
Excerpted from Something Going Around by Harry Turtledove, Greg Ruth. Copyright © 2014 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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