DENDROS • by Sheryl Normandeau

Bill couldn’t breathe. The heavy, wet body of the helicopter pilot crushed painfully against his chest, lolling over his neck in a grotesque hug. Bill swung helplessly at him as the aircraft groaned and lunged in its perch. All Bill could see was the blur of tree branches below them, solid ground fifty feet down. The chopper shuddered again, and the pilot dislodged from his torn harness, falling through the smashed door frame. Bill heaved for air, and discovered his own body was studded with chunks of glass and metal. Something was wrong with his knees, and he couldn’t feel his feet. He was bleeding everywhere, dizzy and sick with pain, but he was alive.

Red conifers. It was all they had seen as they flew over the Peace River Valley. It was the same all over northwestern B.C. and Alberta. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was beautiful.

But for Bill, all that blazing red meant that they were too late. Dendroctonus ponderosae, the dreaded mountain pine beetle, had bested them again. It wasn’t difficult to wrap your head around: the beetles ate and the trees died and turned red.

Bill’s job was to inject the trees with poisonous Monosodium methanarsonate, which was supposed to kill off the invading beetles and their larvae and save the trees. But the beetles kept coming.

They had been hit outside the East Sector, above a tract of land bumped up against the Peace River, miles of muskeg to the north. Bill knew it was crazy — how could a bunch of beetles take down a helicopter? — but he remembered the words of Dr. Ellis Frey, a scolytid specialist who had lectured on beetle evolution just a few short weeks ago: “We’re now seeing targeted beetle swarms. As you know, they send out a female scout first and then follow up with reinforcements when the tree seems a likely candidate. Now they’re descending in hordes, with no scout. And they’re taking any tree they see.”

The swaying of the wreckage made Bill reconsider his frantic attempts to move. His legs seemed to be fused into the control panel, and pain knifed up into his torso. For few seconds, his world darkened again. He groaned loudly, despairing.

Radio static suddenly filled the cockpit, and Bill snapped to attention, scrabbling for his headset. It had been knocked off his head during the crash, but was still connected to the cockpit radio by the audio plug. A reassuring voice from the control tower confirmed his location and asked if he and the pilot were okay.

The microphone had been disconnected and needed to be reinserted into the jack before Bill could respond. He struggled painfully to reach the cord. There was a crack as loud as thunder against what was left of the roof of the chopper. Bill jumped, his upper body convulsing. The noise came again, accompanied by a sound Bill knew well: the thrum of fast-beating wings, but this time so many it seemed he could hear nothing else, and suddenly there were Dendroctonus everywhere, blasting at him from all angles, filling the ruined aircraft as a black, writhing cloud. The horde slapped against him, inserting millions of piercing mouthparts, taking up epidermis and blood, pricking down deep into muscle and nerves. Bill screamed, clutching at his thighs, trying to free himself from the wreckage.

He tore at his useless legs, plucked at his chest and face as the beetles sought the skin beneath his clothes, wingblades slicing the fabric, hard bodies rattling and scraping against him as they ate. Despite his wild panic, Bill knew Dr. Frey would be excited by this new development: changing diets was obviously another effect of the beetles’ rapid evolution, and they were no longer strictly vegetarian.

Bill strained through the onslaught to connect the microphone to the radio and shriek out an SOS.

The response from the tower was immediate. A rescue crew had already been dispatched, but Bill knew what they would find when they arrived.

Cambium, xylem, tongue, spleen — it was all the same to Dendroctonus.

Sheryl Normandeau is a Calgary-based writer. She spends an inordinate amount of time at the public library (mostly because she works there). Her work has appeared in several North American publications.

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