Kraken - By China Mieville Page 0,1

“This is called the dermestarium.” Through interior windows there were steel containers like little coffins. “This is where we clean up skeletons. Get rid of all the gunk on them. Dermestes maculatus.”

A computer screen by the boxes was showing some disgusting salty-looking fish being eaten by insect swarms. “Eeurgh,” someone said.

“There’s a camera in the box,” said Billy. “Hide beetles is their English name. They go through everything, just leave bones behind.”

The boy grinned and tugged his father’s hand. The rest of the group smiled, embarrassed. Flesh-eating bugs: sometimes life really was a B-movie.

Billy noticed one of the young men. He wore a past-it suit, a shabby-genteel outfit odd for someone young. He wore a pin on his lapel, a design like a long-armed asterisk, two of the spokes ending in curls. The man was taking notes. He was filling the pad he carried at a great rate.

A taxonomiser by inclination as well as profession, Billy had decided there were not so many kinds of people who took this tour. There were children: mostly young boys, shy and beside themselves with excitement, and vastly knowledgeable about what they saw. There were their parents. There were sheepish people in their twenties, as geeky-eager as the kids. There were their girlfriends and boyfriends, performing patience. A few tourists on an unusual byway.

And there were the obsessives.

They were the only people who knew more than the young children. Sometimes they did not speak: sometimes they would interrupt Billy’s explanations with too-loud questions, or correct him on scientific detail with exhausting fussy anxiety. He had noticed more of such visitors than usual in the last several weeks.

“It’s like late summer brings out the weirdos,” Billy had said to his friend Leon, a few nights back, as they drank at a Thames pub. “Someone came in all Starfleet badges today. Not on my shift, sadly.”

“Fascist,” Leon had said. “Why are you so prejudiced against nerds?”

“Please,” Billy said. “That would be a bit self-hating, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah, but you pass. You’re like, you’re in deep cover,” Leon said. “You can sneak out of the nerd ghetto and hide the badge and bring back food and clothes and word of the outside world.”

“Mmm, tasteful.”

“Alright,” Billy said as colleagues passed him. “Kath,” he said to an ichthyologist; “Brendan,” to another curator, who answered him, “Alright Tubular?”

“Onward please,” said Billy. “And don’t worry, we’re getting to the good stuff.”

Tubular? Billy could see one or two of his escortees wondering if they had misheard.

The nickname resulted from a drinking session in Liverpool with colleagues, back in his first year at the centre. It was the annual conference of the professional curatorial society. After a day of talks on methodologies and histories of preservation, on museum schemes and the politics of display, the evening’s wind-down had started with polite how-did-you-get-into-this?, turned into everyone at the bar one by one talking about their childhoods, these meanderings, in boozy turn, becoming a session of what someone had christened Biography Bluff. Everyone had to cite some supposedly extravagant fact about themselves—they once ate a slug, they’d been part of a foursome, they tried to burn their school down, and so on—the truth of which the others would then brayingly debate.

Billy had straight-faced claimed that he had been the result of the world’s first-ever successful in vitro fertilisation, but that he had been disavowed by the laboratory because of internal politics and a question mark over issues of consent, which was why the official laurel had gone to someone else a few months after his birth. Interrogated about details, he had with drunken effortlessness named doctors, the location, a minor complication of the procedure. But before bets were made and his reveal made, the conversation had taken a sudden turn and the game had been abandoned. It was two days later, back in London, before a lab-mate asked him if it was true.

“Absolutely,” Billy had said, in an expressionless teasing way that meant either “of course,” or “of course not.” He had stuck by that response since. Though he doubted anyone believed him, the nickname “Test-tube” and variants were still used.

THEY PASSED ANOTHER GUARD: A BIG, TRUCULENT MAN, ALL SHAVED head and muscular fatness. He was some years older than Billy, named Dane Something, from what Billy had overheard. Billy nodded and tried to meet his eye, as he always did. Dane Whatever, as he always did, ignored the little greeting, to Billy’s disproportionate resentment.

As the door swung shut, though, Billy saw Dane acknowledge someone else.

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