“The Root Canals of Mars” by Robert Bagnall

“My name is Cernow.  I represent a federal agency of the United States Government.”

It isn’t one thing in particular, but a combination of a really good black suit, mirrored shades, and Texan drawl.  By the time I’ve got to ‘federal agency of the United States Government’ they’re quiet.  Eyes front, like a deer in headlights.  They weren’t expecting this.  They weren’t expecting me.

“I will say this only once.  You will only ever see me… once.”

The name’s important too.  I pronounce it with a soft ‘c’.  It sounds a bit like ‘so now’, and with my honeyed good ‘ol boy tones nobody’s really sure what I said my name was.  I see one or two of them in the lecture hall lean across to their neighbors only to be met with a shrug.

Sometimes I use a different strategy and I’m Carlos Manuel Iniaga Santos Cruz Batista Torres in a baroque rolling Hispanic.  Too much information to process.  They won’t recall all my names or, even if they did, the order I used them in.

“As US citizens we all have duties to protect the country we love.  But as future dentists, you carry with you an additional burden.”

I usually have less than five minutes.  Get in just before the lecture starts.  Lock the door or wedge it shut.  If there’s one of those little porthole windows in the door I rapidly tape a piece of card over it.  Stride to the front and launch straight in.  By the time I leave the professor has gone to get maintenance.  Or security.  One time in North Dakota I had to jump out the window.  It was on the second floor.

“Soon after you receive your license to practice, soon after you get to call yourselves dentists, you will be sent…”

And that’s when I hold up Exhibit A.  A small tube of, well, nothing much.  Just looks like red beads, not much bigger than the balls at the business end of a biro.  From where they’re all sitting it looks like nothing at all.  I love to watch them squint and frown.  There are always one or two who are still taking notes as if this is part of the curriculum.

“Do not be tempted to subject the objects in the phial to any form of scientific analysis.  Such tests will merely demonstrate that the objects are solid, inert beads made from a generic plastic which is, for all the world, what they have been made to look like.  However, it will alert us to the fact that you have attempted to tamper with government property.”

I like the ‘government property’ bit.  Gives it gravitas.  Heft.

“Whenever you carry out a filling you will insert one of these beads into the amalgam.  Each of you, if you have had a filling performed within the United States or any of our allies, will be carrying one of these.”

At that moment anybody with a filling unthinkingly touches their jaw.  Every time.  Bet you did, too.

“You do not need to know the information it collects, the technology that powers it, or the means by which it transmits its data.  Your responsibility as Americans is to ensure that every man, woman, and child who has receives a dental filling also receives…”

And I hold up the phial of funny little red beads one more time.  Reinforcement.

Actually, the more I think about my recruitment the less I remember and the less sure who it is I am working for.  The word that goes through my mind is ‘otherworldly’.  Not like John Travolta or Tom Cruise are otherworldly.  No, I mean literally otherworldly.  Think glowing.

But I know that can’t literally be the case because the packages that contain the little tubes of red capsules are always franked Boise, Idaho.

“Your course director will deny all knowledge of this.”

There’s usually someone, usually lank-haired, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of some sweaty raucous guitar band, leaning on one elbow, who raises a tired hand at this point.  I know the question before it’s even been asked.

“No, there will not be any questions on this in your exam.”

And then I’m outta there.

“He went that-a-way.”

There’s a feeling you get as an observer within an organization in panic.  A maelstrom that doesn’t know which way to spin.  Heady, like night-blooming jasmine.  They know they’re looking for a tall Texan in shades and a suit, but little more.  But when they see me they see a petite black woman in heels and a dress best suited to a barbeque party set some time during the Carter presidency.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m in disguise.

But maybe I was in disguise before?  Did you think of that?

I totter off towards the nearest bus stop.  I always drive there but take the bus back.  It’s getting expensive.  I’ve asked for a claim form, but one has yet to arrive.  I always check the packages.  I check my neighbor’s mail too, in case it crept in there.  I think he’s beginning to suspect.  You can only blame foxes so often.

“How much more do I have to do for you… things?”

Sometimes the glowing creatures appear in my dreams to give me further assignments, sometimes in my utility room when I’m dealing with the laundry.  Never anywhere else.  Come to think of it, that’s quite odd, isn’t it?

As the bus pulls up I can hear sirens in the distance.

“To the university.  No, the other university.  Well, I don’t know… either.”

Quite often they expect me to visit more than one college in a day.  They’re slave-drivers.  But I sometimes stop and wonder: if I wasn’t doing this, what would I be doing?


Robert Bagnall lives on the English Riviera, within sight of Dartmoor.  He has completed five undistinguished marathons but once held a world record for eating cream teas.  The two may be related.  

He has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1990s.  His words have also cropped up on radio, in newspapers, and out of the mouths of UK government ministers, for whom he was briefly a speechwriter.  

He has appeared in ‘The Best of British Science Fiction’ twice, and his novel ‘2084’ is available from online booksellers or via the publisher, Double Dragon.

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