Writing Exercise

This is a writing exercise I wrote a few years ago in a writing group. We were assigned to write on the subject of smell. It didn’t turn out too bad.


Smells. That was what Presley missed most about his new body. It couldn’t smell. Oh, the lump on his face that passed for a nose had sophisticated sensors, all right, but knowing the chemical makeup of the atmosphere wasn’t the same as smelling. Nowhere near.

All of Presley’s other senses worked fine. Wonderful in fact. His new eyes could see colors no human eye had ever seen. He could see in infrared, ultraviolet, microwave, and even x-ray frequencies. Just for fun as he stood in the star light, he used his telescopic function to peer through the dim forest and pick out a sleeping bird he had been watching in its nest. Even in the dim light, every feather was clear. He checked the range. A little over 1,400 meters. 1,412.618 meters, to be more precise. Nearly a mile, and he could see the bird’s eyelids and watch it breathe. If he had been closer, he could have used his microscopic function to see the bird’s cells and even sub-cellular structures. That was cool.

He thought his other senses were pretty cool, as well. He could hear bats chittering and chirping as they swirled around the yard lights back at the barracks, and could even distinguish the individual chirps from specific bats. He touched a leaf on the tree he was leaning against. The nanoparticles on his fingertips could feel the minute pores on the back of the leaf, and a quick map of the veins in the leaf flashed on the inside of his left eyelid.

And sex! Presley laughed aloud when he remembered those last three days of leave in Augusta. He had never in his wildest dreams imagined it could be like that. It had only been a little over three weeks ago, but he struggled to remember the girl’s name. Sonia – or Tonya – or something like that. He grinned. She probably wouldn’t have any trouble remembering his name.

Just then, Presley heard a rustling in the bushes on his left that brought him back to what he was supposed to be doing. He cursed silently to himself and focused on the sound. It was only his second night on watch, and he was lost in lurid fantasies about a strip club dancer. A moment later he heard the sound again. It came from between two bushes about twenty yards to his left. Whatever it was was very small and low. Probably a mouse. He shifted his right eye to infrared and saw it. It was a mouse all right, under the dead leaves. It was scratching with its front paws. Digging a nest, probably.

Presley stayed more alert for the last three hours of his watch. The bats kept on chittering, the bird kept on sleeping, and the mouse made innumerable trips back and forth from various trees and bushes to the nest she was making under the leaves. And through it all, Presley couldn’t smell a thing. These woods should be filled with rich, earthy smells, and he missed them. He missed the smell of dew on the sagebrush along the Teton River in the morning. The smell of a campfire. The mossy smell of the river and the piney smell of the woods. He missed the smell of bacon frying and the smell of his daughter’s hair when he dried her off after a bath.

He was surprised to realize that he didn’t especially miss flavors. His new body didn’t need to eat, so there really wasn’t anything he ought to taste. But here in the dark woods at night, there were lots of things he ought to be able to smell, and he couldn’t.

Presley was in a pretty gloomy mood when 0300 came and he heard the crunch of boots coming through the night. It would be his relief, but he crouched down behind a tree and shielded his heat signature. The watchstanding manual called for precautions when approached by an unidentified. About 200 meters out he could see an unshielded heat signature coming toward him from the direction of the barracks. He shifted to normal light and recognized Sergeant Jackson.

Jackson had a square, craggy face and a nose that looked as if it had been broken. More than once, probably. Even though their faces were synthetic, most soldiers chose to have faces patterned after their old biological faces. It was easier in many ways. It was impossible to tell how old a face was, since it would never wrinkle and the hair would never go gray, but Jackson looked to be close to thirty. Old for a foot soldier, but Presley knew better than to ask too many questions.

Jackson was about fifteen meters away when he said, “You might as well unshield, Presley. I can see you behind that tree.” He wasn’t grinning exactly, but the corners of his mouth had a wry little quirk to them. That was about as close to a smile as Jackson ever got.

“How do you do that, man?” Presley asked.

“You gotta know what to look for. Anything happening out here?”

“Oh, yeah, lots. Mrs. Mouse over there is building herself a nest, Mrs. Bird is still asleep, and them damn bats aren’t eating anywhere near enough mosquitoes.”

“Whaddya care about mosquitoes for? They can’t bite you.”

“Yeah, but I can hear them whining around my ears and feel them crawling on me. I know they can’t bite me, but I’ve been slapping them all night anyway.” Presley was still for a moment and then said, “I think half of it is that I’m pissed that I can’t smell anything.”

Jackson raised one eyebrow. “Something wrong with your olfactory sensors?”

That seemed like an odd thing to say. “Nothing’s wrong with them, but you can’t smell through them. All you can do is get a list of analytes.”

Jackson smiled. A real smile this time. “Sure you can smell with them, newbie. You just gotta know what to look for. Pull up your list.”

Presley closed his left eye and blinked on the “Olfactory” button. “Okay.”

“See down there at about 40 ppb, where it says alpha-terpineol? And then a little lower where it says to 4-2-methylcyclohexanol?”

Presley looked through the list. “Mine says 42 ppb,” he said.

“Well, that’s the signature of pine pitch. You’re smelling 42 parts per billion of a pine tree.”

“Wow. I’m thrilled. Not quite the same, is it?”

“Not quite, but you’ll get used to it. Now look down a little lower, down where you see that cluster of multicyclic peptides.”


“That’s mushrooms. There’s some amanitins in there, so it probably isn’t something you’d want to eat. But with a little practice, you’ll be able to follow that smell right back to the mushroom. There’s probably a whole patch of them, and you can find them with your eyes closed if you know what to look for. Now, you ready to stand relieved, soldier?”

Actually, Presley wasn’t particularly eager to go back to the barracks. His new body didn’t get tired, and after his long night of solitude he was enjoying the conversation. But he said, “Yeah” anyway. “I guess so.” Just then he saw two new entries show up on his list of smells. “What’s that?” he asked.

“What’s what?” Jackson responded.

“Those new chemicals in the list. Methylphenol – ” Presley struggled with the pronunciation of the chemical, “and buta-. . . buta-something acid.”

Jackson laughed. “Butanoic acid,” he said. “That’s sweat. You need to go back and take a shower, kid. You’re smelling your own B.O.”

Presley shook his head. “I don’t think they were there a minute ago. They just popped up just now.”

“Then get down, kid. There’s somebody out there.” He pushed Presley toward a tree and fell to the ground.

Suddenly Jackson’s voice sounded in Presley’s ear. He was transmitting on an encrypted wireless channel. “Wind’s out of the east, kid, so that’s where they have to be.” He was silent for a moment, and then the voice said, “Turn your list to a chart, Presley. See that little cluster of sharp spikes – all those hydroxyl radicals and ketones?”

Presley did what he was told. On the left side of the chart were about a dozen little spikes. “Yeah, I see them.”

“Well, that’s female sex hormones. At least one of those people out there is a woman. Those spikes are what the scent of a woman looks like, kid.”

Presley looked at the tiny green lines and suddenly he remembered something. Her name had been Dawnya. He smiled. Maybe this new body of his wouldn’t be all that bad after all.

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