4,600 Words

He slowed for a feathered corpse in the middle of the road. Up above, the local troop of macaques shrieked at a flock of gene-crafted micro-raptors. He rounded the blind curve and jerked the steering wheel back to avoid a washout from last night’s thunderstorm. The truck bounced across broken asphalt, and the steering wheel twisted out of his hands. From the corner of his eye, he saw a man emerging from the woods. He jammed the brakes and his truck left the road, plowing to a stop into the soft red dirt undercut from the crumbling asphalt.

Not a man, but a shroom. The figure staggered, hands outstretched, and pressed its naked body against the side glass. He could see the delicate snowflake tracery of white rhizome fibers under its skin. The shroom’s eyes glinted clear and blue. Its slack mouth drooled. The creature broke away, leaving a moist trail across the car. Its eyes turned skyward and fixed on a power pole draped with broken electrical lines and wild jasmine. It stepped away towards the pole, cast a look over its shoulder at him, almost as if it was still a person, and climbed.

He took his phone from his pocket and dialed 911.

“Gulf Breeze 911, where is your emergency?

“Yes, this is Major William Jackson, 3rd Florida Infantry, Retired. I need to report a shroom on Soundside Drive.”

“Okay,” said the operator. “Are you sure it’s a shroom?”

“Yes, it’s a shroom. I know what one looks like.”

“Of course, Major. Has it fruited yet?”

“No, not yet. It just started climbing.” The former human, infected with a weaponized version of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, clawed its way up the pole with fierce resolve.

“Can you show it to me?”

“Yes, hold on.” He tabbed on the camera feature of the phone and spun it to face the shroom.

“We have your location. Can you vacate the area?”

“I ran off the road. I thought I was avoiding a person, and my truck is stuck.”

“Do you have personal protective equipment?” Her voice took on a new urgency

“Yes, I do. I think.” He opened up the glove compartment and took out a government-supplied filtered hood. Three of them crowded the glove box.

“Major, we have a hazmat team on the way. We would like you to stay in your car and put on your personal protective gear. I’ve sent out a cellular warning to all citizens in the area. We want you to stay connected and keep us informed of the shroom’s status.”

“I think I can get upwind.”

“Are you sure it’s the only one?”

“No.” It was a good question of the 911 operator to ask. There was rarely just one shroom. Infections typically occurred in clusters.

“Best if you stay in the car.”

“Okay, I can do that.” He leaned forward to get a better view. The shroom had climbed three quarters of the way up the pole. He propped his phone on the dashboard. “Can you still see it?”

“Yes, we can. We don’t want you to worry. The hazmat team will decontaminate your vehicle should the shroom fruit before we get there, but if you have any powered ventilation we would like you to turn it off. Would you like me to pray with you?”

“No, I’ve already prayed, but you could pray for me; I don’t mind listening,” he lied. He behaved with enough piety to not arouse suspicion and used his combat-wounded veteran status to excuse the acts of contempt that he could not hide.

He opened one of the filter hood packages and pulled the battery lanyard. The filter pack hummed. He put it over his head and cinched it down around his neck. The hood fogged around his mouth and nose with every exhalation, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable.

The shroom reached the top of the pole and checked its grip, tightening and loosening its limbs. A mockingbird, unaware of the danger, harried the creature. The shroom shuddered, going through the terminal phase of its design.

Then he remembered his only neighbor, the Dog.

The wind was blowing from the west. If the shroom fruited, its spores would drift over the Dog’s homestead. Even if they didn’t, the decontamination team would fog the area with caustic chemicals.

He decided.

He stepped out of his truck, abandoning its relative safety, and ran farther up the road. He took off his hood to breathe more easily and turned up the narrow dirt path that led to the Dog’s home. Branches whipped at his face, and twice he ducked under immense dewy spans of banana-spider webs. He broke out into a clearing and slowed to catch his breath. It had been a long time since he had run. The emergency hood hummed in his hand.

He had seen the Dog twice before, and they had acknowledged each other at a careful distance. As veterans, they shared the bond of war, but whereas he had emerged from conflict a respected soldier, she had come out as an illegal gene splice, a piece of dangerous biological equipment.

A neat, wood-shingled house sat in the clearing. The Dog stood up in the midst of her garden with a small hand shovel held like a weapon. Leaf mold flecked the velvet gray fur of her arms.

He felt her fear, surprise, and anger. Dogs were focused telepaths by design and imprinted on their handlers at an intense and intimate level, but an unbonded person in close proximity could still feel strong emotional bleed-over. He imagined the Dog deciding whether to kill him or not. In the CSA, the Christian States of America, she was an abomination and regarded as military property to be neutralized by an ordnance disposal team, but he had known about her presence for almost a year and had not reported her. He hoped that that would work in his favor. He could see her muscles tense as she decided the best course of action.

“Shroom,” he said. “You are in the dispersal range.”

<Immune> he felt. The word filled his head and popped like a soap bubble. Her voice was soft and feminine and un-doglike. Her design was mostly human, so much so that she was inter-fertile with baseline humans, but that held little weight in the CSA. “Still, they’ll decontaminate the whole area. You know what that means.”

<Despair and sadness>, he felt. Hard work had built her hidden homestead in the middle of a blight zone.

“The hazmat team will arrive in a few minutes. Once they secure the scene, they’ll disinfect with an aerial attack.”

She bolted for her house and retrieved a military pack designed for her body. Like a good soldier, she was ready to bug out at a moment’s notice. She surveyed all that she would lose, came to him, and hugged him. Her body, taught and muscular, smelled like warm sun. He could not remember the last time he’d been hugged.

She stepped back.

<Thank you>

“Be safe,” he said.

She ran towards the edge of the woods, and, just before reaching it, dropped to all fours and moved with the grace and power of a cheetah, her spine curling and springing open, covering ground in twelve-foot leaps. She vanished into the brush.

He returned to his truck, winded from the exertion and wet with sweat. He put his hood back on. Military vehicles circled the shroom’s pole. Amber strobes flashed, and men in hazmat suits set up decontamination gear. He looked up in time to see the shroom convulse. Ropey pink antlers burst out of its skull. The shroom swung its head, rattling the antlers and releasing a pink mist of spores that caught the wind and drifted. The shroom shuddered again, and more thick antlers erupted from its back, growing and branching with astonishing fungal speed. The yellow-suited hazmat team finished their setup, and a jet of flame erupted from the fire gun’s nozzle to engulf the shroom. The antlers crisped, turned black, and broke away.

“Did you call this in?” asked the supervising officer.

“Yeah.”

“Good job. Is your hood cinched down tight?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Okay, as soon as we clean up the scene we are decontaminating the area. You know what that means.”

“I do.”

The shroom fell from the pole, hitting the ground with a wet, hissing splat. Broken pieces rolled away, and the team hosed it down with more fire until the thing turned into a pile of ash. They worked the surrounding area with chemicals. Leaves dissolved and dripped under the chemical attack.

“Fruiting bodies visible upon arrival,” said the supervising officer into his radio. “High concentration of spore release. Wind speed is light and variable. I’m recommending immediate chemical decontamination.”

“Roger that,” squawked the radio. “Chopper is on the way.”

“This is going to be inconvenient,” said the major to himself.

§

In the hospital isolation ward, he breathed the acrid chemical mist to purge his lungs of any shroom spores that might have infiltrated his lungs. Ventilation fans whirred for a few minutes. He dried himself as best as he could with the paper towels. The sealed door opened.

“Major,” said a nurse. She handed him a paper hospital smock and watched as he dressed. “Would you follow me?”

He followed her, and she drew back a curtain.

“In here, please,” she said.

He sat at the edge of the examining table. The curtain was pulled aside, and the Sisters of Eternal Grace stepped in to pray over him. One of the crones put her bony, knuckled hand on his forehead and tapped him. They rattled their donation can in front of him when they finished. He looked down at the hospital smock.

“I don’t have any pockets.”

The lead sister frowned at him and rattled the can again.

“I don’t . . .”

Her face twisted into an uncharitable grimace of disgust.

The doctor entered. “Get out, hags.”

The sisters scowled in unison but turned on their heels and left in a whirl of gray skirts and sensible shoes.

“You know they are going to bill you for that prayer. The VA will cover their costs, but you should be nice to them; they’re connected like the mob,” said the doctor. “Are you feeling okay? You look like shit.”

He coughed. “I’m okay. Does that stuff work?”

“The shower washes off any spores on your skin, but the mist? No, it just scorches your lungs. The spores are encysted. The prayer is the best treatment.”

“Great.”

“I’ve got something for you.” He reached into his lab coat pocket and took out a bottle of pills, migraine medicine.

“Where did you get them?”

“There are ways, and then there are ways. People need things, and I can get them. How do you think I can help so many?”

“I can’t pay for them.”

“I still owe you.”

“That debt was paid a long time ago.”

“That debt can never be paid, but let me try. You need to be careful.”

“About what?”

“The sampler found chimera hair and skin cells on your cloths.”

“I was wearing old clothes from the war.”

“Yeah, you can try that excuse, but the sampler is more sophisticated than that. It’s the best piece of equipment we have in this hospital, and it is hotwired to the DOFF. They’ll be watching you. You know how they love rooting out heretics and atheists.”

“Yes, and Zionists and Papists and Colored.” Every society needed an underclass to absorb injustice and excess force.

“Do you need a ride home?”

“No, I’ll walk. I need the exercise.”

“You also need some clothes. It’s a long walk.”

“We’ve walked farther on less.”

“Yes, we have. You’re good to go. I’ll have the nurse bring you some clothes. The reverend-director of the hospital will want to stop by and pad your bill with another prayer or two.”

“Prayer is the best medicine.”

“I thought that was laughter.”

“Not anymore.”

§

Raindrops pummeled the road. He walked into a nightmare landscape of dripping, gray-green slime that coagulated in puddles and ran across the road in sticky, mucosal sheets. The aerial decontamination spray had turned the surrounding woods into a melted, Dalí-esque landscape. The larger trees resembled wilted saguaro, bent and sagging in graceful, boneless curves. Whip-thin branches of heartwood dripped to the ground. The delicate gray bones of small creatures caught in the dissolving spray littered the sticky ground. His truck remained in the washout. With a jack and boards pulled from the bed of the truck, he managed to extricate it from the ditch and drive home.

Inside his home, he wedged a two-by-four into the cleats to bar the door shut. He showered off the slime of the melted forest. As he dressed, the wind shifted with frontal passage, and the house rocked in another direction. The temperature dropped as the cold front engulfed the house. Bizarre weather typified the new normal. He started a fire in the stone fireplace and hung a battered teakettle over it. Thunder boomed. Hailstones pummeled the roof. The ghosts of his family, trapped and framed above the fireplace, regarded him from a world before the I-War and the Second Civil War.

Another roll of thunder shook the house, and he popped two of the doctor’s pain pills to break up the loci of pain that accreted around his Yankee shrapnel whenever the weather turned bad. After a few moments, the white-hot dots of agony abated. He closed his eyes and listened to the crackle of the wood fire and the hiss of boiling water from his kettle.

Someone knocked on the front door. He roused to awareness and fetched his shotgun. He chambered a shell and peered through the glass peephole.

The Dog.

He unbarred the door and held it open. She was soaking wet, shivered in the unseasonal cold.

<Nowhere to go>

Desperate and intimate and voiceless thoughts flowed through his mind like sound. Her camouflage T-shirt clung to her shoulders. Blood oozed from a hailstone cut above her left eye. She wiped rain from her face, and he caught sight of the razor-sharp dew claw on her forearm. If she wanted the house, she could take it from him. He stepped back, swinging the door wider.

“I’ll get you some dry clothes.” He put the gun down and went into a backroom.

<Thank you>

He felt her gratitude and uncertainty follow him.

The Dog knelt in front of the fireplace and held her hands spread-fingered toward the fire. She turned to look over her shoulder. He handed her some old clothes that had belonged to his wife, and a towel. She stripped in front of the fireplace with immodest military efficiency. Soft velvet fur thinned on her breasts and thickened somewhat at the swell of her vulva. She dried herself with the towel and dressed. The remains of her home stained her feet milky green.

<Nothing left>

“I’m sorry. Are you hungry?’

<Yes>

He opened a packet of dehydrated chicken soup and dumped it into the tea kettle.

“It will take a few minutes”

<Smells good>

He added another log to the fire and stirred the soup mix. Ants boiled from the log and stepped into a miniature hell. They crisped in the embers. The Dog sat on the threadbare couch and curled her legs under her and tucked her hands between her thighs. He was not afraid even though there were strong reasons for baseline humans to fear Dogs. They were stronger and smarter, exotic and dangerous, beautiful, and, above all else, different. She was typical of her kind.

<You have mods?> she asked.

“Yes, I was a soldier once.” Most soldiers of the old USA featured some viral-delivered enhancements. He saw pretty well in low-light conditions, couldn’t run to fat even if he wanted to, and healed a bit faster than before. The processes that modified him had created her from scratch.

<Maybe you’re a Dog>

“Maybe you’re a woman.”

She smiled against the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm her. Her canines protruded a bit from her lips. He served the soup.

“You’re safe here.”

<I know>

She finished the soup and set the bowl down on the end table.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

<M’ling> She slouched down on the couch and closed her eyes to sleep.

He waited for the fire to burn down to a safe level. He pulled down a comforter from the back of the couch and covered her. He curled on the adjacent sofa and fell asleep.

§

Under M’ling’s ministrations, the backyard bloomed with fruit and vegetable and flower. Low-level agents of the Department of Faith Formation intruded several times, but each time she sensed their presence and vanished. At night, when the air cooled, they talked. She told him how a sniper killed her handler in Venezuela, and how she ripped the sniper’s throat out with her teeth. She told him how she battled back from the psychic shock of his loss, her inability to accept another handler, and her escape from the decommissioning facility. In turn, he told her about fighting in Taiwan during the I-War with China, and later in Virginia, during the Second Civil War. They slept together, at first for companionship, and then for something more. At night he stroked the length of her body, soft velvet over hard muscle.

Stories of handlers that slept with their Dogs were ubiquitous in rocket-shattered Taiwanese cities. Contemplating bestiality with manufactured creatures of ethereal beauty was the least of sins in that brief and violent war. Handlers and their Dogs returning from long-range patrols self-segregated at the firebase, and it only added to the mystery and speculation. Once, on a mission, his fire team found a handler carrying the long, lithe frame of his Dog, not over his shoulder, but in his arms like a bridegroom carrying his bride. The handler, agonized with fatigue, refused to let anyone else touch her. He fell to his knees and then collapsed from exhaustion over her body. They convinced him to bury her. Over the grave, the handler cried and murmured gentle words, and when he had finished he said, “I can’t.”

“Can’t what”

“I can’t. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“You can’t.”

When they looked away the handler shot himself in the head and they dug another grave.

At the time he could not understand the connection, the powerful bond between Dog and handler, each devoted to the other so intimately that the descriptive terms ascribed to the connection were meaningless. It was what made them such a terrifyingly effective weapon system.

Now he thought they worked well together, in a way in which he never expected to do again.

§

She stood and looked to him. <They’re here again>

He heard a vehicle pull into his drive. He walked to the front door and waited. A man wearing a modified roman collar, a badge, and a sidearm walked towards his porch. Two other men scanned the area. He opened the door before the man knocked.

“Major Jackson, I am Reverend-Inspector Carlyle.”

“In what capacity are you here today?”

The man looked perplexed. “What do you mean?”

“Are you here as a reverend or as an inspector?”

“Both. Always.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I have traces unexplained by your statements. Where is the abomination?”

“On my front step.”

The reverend-inspector grinned with professional malice and indignation.

“Right. Harboring an abomination is a capital offense.”

“Every offense is a capital offense these days.”

“The purest metal comes from the hottest fires.”

“Clever.”

The reverend-inspector was the worst kind, a thick layer of true believer over a core of bully, the type to shout damnation on the street corners yet never lift a finger in a poorhouse or soup kitchen.

“May I come in?”

He stepped forward and was pushed back.

He moved his hand to draw his sidearm

“Do you think that you can draw that weapon before I do something about it?”

The reverend-inspector moved his hand away from the weapon. Confusion and genuine fear crossed his face. He was unaccustomed to resistance.

“I have full authority . . .”

“Major”

“What?”

“Major. What you want to say is: Major, I have full authority. You will address me by my military rank. I’ve earned it, and you are not coming in my house without a warrant. This isn’t the United States. Are you a Yankee?”

The reverend-inspector’s face darkened at the insult. “Major, your story to my associates was unconvincing. There were no squatters in the woods. And I found these.” He held up silver dog tags that flashed in the sun. “When I come back it will be with a warrant.”

He stepped onto his porch, and the reverend-inspector stumbled backwards down the two steps.

“If you come back, we will duel over any further insult. Do you accept? I’ll register our intent with the county.”

The inspector flushed red, unprepared for the personal challenge. Duels were rare, but permitted between CSA landowners and military officers.

“I, I . . .”

“I thought not. Get off my property.”

The reverend-inspector turned, stalked to his county car, and drove away.

M’ling emerged from the other room and pressed her body against his back. She wrapped her arms around him, and leaned her head on his shoulder.

“He will come back.”

<They always come back>

§

He locked his desk drawer and stepped into the hangar. The helicopters inherited from the USA were slotted in their spaces but immobile for a lack of spare parts. All the mechanics he supervised had already left for Friday services, a euphemism for drinking moonshine in the back room of the local roadhouse.

He drove past a chain gang of un-saved and un-white conscripts supervised by mirror-shaded, shotgun-toting deputy-deacons. He stopped at the toll bridge and honked his horn for the attendant to lift the reflector-bedazzled log gate that blocked his way. The attendant came out of the booth and walked away from him.

“Hey, I need to get home,” he yelled to the attendant, but the man entered the tollhouse and closed the door.

“Under new management, Major,” said a voice from behind the driver’s window. His door was wrenched open and a gun pressed against his temple.

He reached for his own gun in the glove box.

“No you don’t, Major. No you don’t. Please step out.”

The pressure from the pistol barrel eased and he unfastened his seatbelt. He stepped out and recognized the highwaymen, a former military unit that did the unchristian work it took to enforce a Christian state. The man with the gun to his head pistol-whipped him, and he dropped to his knees. Two more heavy blows pounded on his head. Stars exploded, but he held to consciousness.

Rough hands grabbed him and dragged him into the surrounding woods. Twisted hemp rope secured him face-down over the hood of a car. They were strong and fast and, like him, ex-military.

“Major, what is good?”

He spit blood out of his mouth. Some of his teeth felt loose.

“I said, what is good?”

A fist punched him in the back of his head, bouncing his face against the hood of the car. ’19 Mustang, he thought. The last year they made them.

“I’ll tell you. Good is that which pleases God, and what pleases God is what I have to do. To the matter at hand: There is an abomination in our midst, and it needs to be purged. Fire has to be fought with fire, an abominable act for an abominable act.”

A knife sliced open the back of his pants and eager hands jerked his trousers down. He breathed in fast, fearful pants.

“Where is the abomination?”

He remained silent.

“When we are done you know what you must do.”

When they finished taking turns, they cut him free, and he fell to the ground. They left him alone and walked back to their camp behind the tollhouse. Darkness fell, and he pulled himself up and limped to his truck. Warm blood dressed his legs and back.

He drove home naked and broken.

§

He did not need to explain.

She knew.

He radiated humiliation and pain.

She reached for him, but he kept walking through the house to the backyard. He stepped into the small pool converted into a fishpond and sat in the water up to his neck. Carp and brim nibbled at him. In time, he went to bed, and she lay next to him, her hand on his chest. Between them, in the still of the night, thought and feeling ebbed and flowed in a gentle tide.

He awoke alone, his throat raw, his insides dirty. In the bathroom, he looked in the mirror and saw a small snowflake tracery of white on his cheek. He drank tepid water until he gagged. She was not in bed and he went in search. The backdoor to the living room lay open to the night. Dark clouds scudded across the full moon. M’ling stood on the steps in the pool that he sat in earlier. She glowed ghostly in the pre-dawn light, a specter worthy of darkest fear. The water lapped at her ankles. Naked and alien, she washed shadowed blood from her forearms and chest and mouth.

The highwaymen did not know what they had unleashed.

Predatory eyeshine regarded him with love. She stepped from the pool and embraced him. Retractable-clawed hands caressed the fibrous cluster at his cheek. Her dew claw rested across his throat. She would do it if he asked.

“No,” he said. “I want every minute.”

§

He made arrangements. The doctor visited him and injected him with an expensive antifungal that slowed the progression but could not stop it.

Long ago, the doctor, then a medic, paralyzed with fear over the onslaught of incoming artillery rounds, had curled into an exposed fetal ball in the open battlefield. The major, then a captain, had dragged the doctor into the shelter of the root ball crater of a fallen tree. Anti-personnel shells burst overhead, filling the air with white-hot blades of Yankee metal. They outlasted the fierce barrage and survived the night and spoke no more of it.

The doctor owed him.

“Do this for me and our debt is settled.”

“I will.”

§

The thirty-foot-long speedboat rolled under the topside weight of three big outboard engines and six fifty-five gallon drums of fuel on the aft deck. Big men dressed in night camouflage unloaded alcohol, pornography, medicine, and other hard-to-find necessities. The run back to Cuba would take twenty hours, but in less than two they would be beyond the decrepit CSA Coast Guard.

By the light of the half moon, the fungal rhizomes luminesced. The fibers spread across his face and neck and reached for the thoughts in his head. The smuggler crew kept their distance. As she embraced him, his hand drifted to the swell of her belly. He pressed, feeling for a kick, but felt none. Maybe it was too soon.

<It’s your daughter>

“Our daughter.”

She kissed him one last time and boarded the boat.

As the boat receded into the night, sadness attenuated. His connection grew weaker and weaker until he could no longer feel her. He dropped to the wet ground, empty and hollow.

§

By unthinking instinct, he selected a dead pine that offered unobstructed access to the wind. Compulsion drove him to the topmost reaches, and he swayed in the amber morning light, rocking to-and-fro in the breeze. He thought his last thoughts of love and war before bizarre biological processes bundled his memories into microscopic spores that erupted from him in a pink haze to be scattered on the winds.

Originally appeared in War Stories: New Military Science Fiction edited by Andrew Liptak & Jaym Gates (Apex Publications, 2014)
Mike Barretta is a retired U.S. Naval Aviator who currently works for a defense contractor as a pilot. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Planning and International Negotiation from the Naval Post-Graduate School and a Master’s in English from the University of West Florida. His stories have appeared in Baen’s Universe, Redstone, New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and various anthologies such as War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Military Scifi and Space Opera, and the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide.

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