My feet were steeped in cloying mud, the colour and consistency of wet clay. The earth sucked my Chukkas into the ground. I pulled them free with a shlock. The filth on my hands penetrated deep, and clung, no matter how hard I flicked my fingers. I yanked the boots off, lashed them together and draped them round my neck. The sodden ball in my pocket was once a pair of socks.
“Wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” a muffled voice said. “Thousand mSv down there. Have you retching your guts up before sundown, it will.” So spoke the Soil Scraper. Around the edges of a full-face leather mask, he was all cropped hair, wrestler’s neck and plumes of laboured breaths, leaking through an air filter. “De-contamination bath’s what you need.”
He stiffly shook his head. The mask’s straps squeaked. “Full immersion.”
On the basis I had no other options, I ascented to his proposal. But I still had work that needed to be done. In another world, a deadline was waiting. I asked the man to explain his job.
“I make bad land good.”
If I was going to detoxify my feet before the onset of PACZ sickness, I needed this man to be rather less enigmatic. I urged him to elaborate.
“I survey the land, mark out the bad,” the Soil Scraper said. “Then I call a gang and get them to make it good again.”
“Scrape away the bad. Go deep enough, you reach the good.” He held up a long-handled tool, rather like a garden hoe, but wider and with a blade sharpened to a hair’s width. “Sometimes they turn the soil on the good land too.”
“Because good land always turns bad…eventually.”
By then, the socks were leaking down my leg. “There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “How can you hope to find any uncontaminated land amongst all…this?” I wrung out the socks and gestured at a corrosive nightmare of naked trees, caught in the jagged death throes of traumatic seizure.
The Soil Scraper returned the hoe to a wheeled trolley and hauled out the next device in his arsenal. At first, I took it to be an Old World walking frame, but then he held it suspended over my feet. Accompanied by a tirade of loud clicks, a needle swept across a dial and surged into red. Even through his goggles, I could see his eyebrows arching.
The taste of bile rose to the back of my throat. “Shouldn’t we be getting back?”
“Don’t you want to know about the counter?” he said. “Thought your readers might be interested in a bit of tech?”
I didn’t like to tell him my readers were the type who preferred to hear all the horrors others had to put up with, ideally from the comfort and safety of their own cosy little homes.
“Well now, let’s see,” I said. “You have it mounted on a frame, what—to keep the counter a fixed distance from the ground?”
The Soil Scraper hoisted it into the trolley. “Got a bad back, see. Don’t have to keep bending over with a frame.” He pushed a reel of tape into my hands. “One last thing to do.”
“But my sickness—”
“You’re not the only one with work to finish.”
We left behind us a cordoned off oblong, quivering with red and white tape, which strained to withstand a freshening easterly.
“Sorry if it’s been awkward,” the Soil Scraper said. “In my line, you don’t get much company, not out in the field.”
I assured him there’d been no awkwardness.
His goggles misted a little. “Come back and visit. This time next year, we’ll have potatoes.”