(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Bruce L. Priddy. Story illustration by Nick Gucker.)
Annika held her breath as she worked her pick in the lock. It yielded all too easily–a certain sign of the mushrooms’ vanity. If the intel was right, behind this door lay a trove of ancient records, the history of the Unraveling, a resource the mushroom-men simply left protected by a mere pin-tumbler lock. She didn’t spare a glance over her shoulder to see if any mushroom-men saw her push open the door. If anyone was curious enough to follow her, she’d be happy to kill them. It was that kind of mission today. Catman artillery fire, still distant, rattled the university’s windows as she swung the door shut behind her.
Narrow stairs greeted her, and she padded down them. The air smelled of ancient fungus, the kind that lurks quietly in the basements of the world instead of taking it over. It was a bitter smell and strange in these times. If she’d had more fur, her whole body would have prickled. But of course, her near-human appearance was what had gotten her started in the business of spying and sneaking in the first place.
She crept down, down, down. She kept count of the flights like a good recon kitty. Three, then four, then another, shorter and broader, the stonework changing to the coarse pebbled stuff she’d seen in some of the abandoned cities of the mountain. The Elders called it concrete. It didn’t last long under the onslaught of wind and fungus; its appearance had to be a good sign that she’d found the bowels of history. The explosives in her pocket felt suddenly much heavier.
The concrete steps ended at a silver-colored door, rust staining the rivets along its seams. Red letters spelled out: “Fire Door.” She touched it with cautious fingertips, but no alarm gave her away. She pushed harder and shook her head, disgusted when it opened. That kind of security would never pass in a cat town.
A rush of air, cool and musty, pushed out through the ancient door. It stirred grit on the stairs behind her, little scrabblings like feet sliding on stone. She glanced over her shoulder, just in case. Just grit. Just air. The cold pale light ahead called her forward.
She’d never seen light like this, steady and strong without any flickering. Even the gas lamps the mushroom-men used to light their palazzos didn’t shine like this. Annika leaned against the door and let the blue tones wash over her. It was as cold as snow down here, like the deep caves where the ice stayed year-round. And the dry stink of the place stung her nose.
No one had ever imagined the records room would look like this, bright lights and glass cases and neatly lettered signs everywhere just begging to be read. The room reminded Annika a bit of a project Lenya the Eldest had begun this spring, her museum of the cat-people. All those paintings and journals arranged and tagged on shelves. But everything here was much shinier. Annika crept forward to read the first sign.
“Doctor, hero, savior,” she read. It marked a glass case full of white suits and photographs of a man wearing them. A black two-headed eagle stood out on the pocket of the suit. A stethoscope gleamed on a tiny glass shelf within the case. “Doctor,” she repeated. There were few catman doctors. Most of the missions she’d run down here in the city were medicine runs, although how the mushrooms still had medical reserves was a mystery. They didn’t doctor their own. Mushroom-men rarely sickened, and anyone hurt in an accident was quickly set outside the city walls to rot away. Cruel people, if they could even be called people any longer.
Annika shook her head and examined the next case, full of newspaper clippings and more photos. A ribbon for Lifetime Achievement in Biochemistry. Nothing that explained the Unraveling, nothing that could be used to fight the wave of fungi.
“Lady, thanks for opening the door. You here to slake your curiosity, too?”
She spun with her claws at full extension, facing down a gray creature half a head shorter than herself. It cringed backward, and she hissed with revulsion.
“You’re one of those cat people,” the mushroom whispered. Its lips were like two motile flaps in its featureless face; no nose or cheekbones bent the flat expanse. Two shining black beads blinked back at her, the closest thing to human in its appearance. It was hard to believe her father had loved one of these monsters. This one’s limbs looked lumpy and malformed beneath its loose garments. Its hand, made of three spongy grippers, stretched out to her.
She swatted it away.
“Hey, be gentle!” It stared at her. “Whoah. You’re a hybrid. Catshroom. But you’re built like a real human. I bet you get lots of looks.”
Annika said nothing. It was true. She had her father’s cat eyes and cat claws, her mother’s tough gray skin, but more than anything, she looked human.
“Wow,” it murmured. “A real throwback.”
Annika lashed out at its head, missing as it ducked with surprising speed. The glass case behind it cracked.
“Sludge!” The mushroom fumbled in the pocket of its coat and drew out a roll of duct tape. Annika knew it from the books in Lenya’s library. “I’m going to be in big trouble. No one’s supposed to come down here unless they’ve been given clearance. If spores get in here, this is all going to fall apart.”
She backed away from the creature busily taping up the front of the case. She still had a job to do, and no awkward mushroom could be allowed to interfere. She should have killed it already. It turned back to look at her, blinking its brightly gleaming eyes. There was something endearing about its soft face, something childlike, she realized.
“You’re a kid, aren’t you?”
“I’m no kid. I’m a free-moving fruiting body, aren’t I? A fully adult man.”
“When did you fruit free? Must not have been too long ago.” Annika moved steadily around the corner of the exhibit, putting the bulk of a display of medical equipment between her and the mushroom. She’d seen adolescent mushrooms before, their legs still freshly uprooted from the subterranean mycelia. The mushroom-men’s lives were short, twenty-five to thirty years as autonomous structures. Then they spored, and died in puddles of black slime.
This one must be very young still. His legs wobbled beneath him, new and spindly.
“Look, I just thought I’d see the historical records with my own eyes. It’s so different from the shared memories…” It brushed its fingers across the glass case, its lips stretching in something close to a human smile. “Being aboveground is remarkable. This way of living is thrilling.”
Annika studied its face. It wasn’t as hard to read as she had thought. “You’re afraid of the fight out there, aren’t you? You’re too young yet to have weapons training. And losing this body so soon frightens you.”
“I’m not afraid of anything!”
The charge took her by surprise. The mushroom boy launched its full weight at her, throwing her backward and toppling the cases at her back. Glass crunched and tinkled as the pair hit the ground. Snarling, she clawed and bit her way free. Her mouth filled with the dirt-taste of mushroom flesh. She’d tasted it enough times to appreciate the flavor.
The mushroom boy groaned. Annika ignored it, checking the explosives in her pocket for damage–there was no reason to be blown up with this mess, not if she could help it. But the charges looked fine. She used her teeth to pull a chunk of glass out of her shoulder and then licked the wound clean. Over the scent of blood, both cat and mushroom, the smell of age and mildew had gotten stronger.
“Hey, what did we ever do to you?”
She eyed the mushroom boy. It panted as it struggled to sit up, black blood trickling from cuts and bites. Glass bristled from its gray hide.
“Besides running my people out of our city? Besides taking all the supplies and all the books and leaving us to rot? Besides all that?” She spat a glob of bloody spit. “My mother was shroom. She looked more human than me, but she was still one of your people. And for having a catman’s baby, they put her out on the mycelium fields and spored her. Just staked her out and let the wild fungi eat her. You bastards deserve to die.”
Even this far down, she felt a shock wave as cat artillery fire struck something massive and shook the earth. The mission was progressing nicely. She grinned at the battered creature.
“Now if you excuse me, I have some intelligence to collect. But it doesn’t look like you’ll be moving much, anyway.”
She spared the thing no further glances as she picked her way around the last remaining glass cases. Her attention was held by a massive display on the back wall, a montage of old photographs stretching from floor to ceiling. Imposed above it all, a larger-than-life-sized image of the doctor man holding a naked baby. The doctor’s white coat could not compete with the blinding paleness of the child.
“The first of us.”
She jumped. Despite the damage it had taken, the mushroom boy had found its feet and joined her. It wrenched a piece of glass from its cheek and pressed its palm to the wound to hold back the black blood.
Intrigued by his claim, she studied the picture of the baby. It looked as fully human as the doctor holding it. “It doesn’t look like a mushroom.”
“Not us. The first Unraveled Ones. Dogmen. Sheepmen. Catmen. Mushroom men. All of us.”
Annika wondered if he was right. She wrinkled her nose. The stink of the room had worsened. The hair on her body prickled. But she had a job to do, information to bring home. She crept closer to the display. Beneath the photos, a glass plinth protected a book, richly bound, the color of old earth.
“Don’t touch it!” The boy stopped her hand with his lobster claw.
“I can’t remember.” He screwed up his eyes. “Sometimes the memories are absorbed in pieces. We all get them, we all try to fill in their gaps. But the oldest memories are too broken to fix. Too human.”
“You all have the same memories?” She couldn’t keep the horror out of her voice. She’d thought that the fruiting bodies, at least, were individuals, like children born from the mycelia. Not part of it, roaming free for a time.
But it explained so much: the casual carelessness with individual bodies, the remarkable organization that had conquered all the other peoples of the earth. She’d never known a dogman or a sheepman, although she’d seen a few mushroom folk whose long tails or curly hair had suggested the lost species. She looked at her own hand, still stretched toward the plinth. The gray hide was a close match for the mushroom boy’s.
A breeze rippled the fuzz on her wrist. She stiffened. “There’s another entrance.”
“No, of course not.” The boy shook his head. He opened his eyes and frowned at the pictures. “I don’t understand what all this has to do with us. The doctor, these men–” he pointed out a photo of men in white hoods, and then the mass of pale-face figures in black uniforms. Then at the baby. “The shared memories are all focused on the color white. Maybe it has something to do with the doctor’s jacket.”
Annika pivoted, remembering something in one of the display cases. Despite the rumble of the artillery, and her discomfort over a second entrance to the museum, her mission demanded she figure this out. “Here,” she called.
The boy bounded to her side. “White race saved,” he read. “What does that even mean?”
She shook her head. The photograph in this case showed the doctor again, standing before a snow-covered pyramid. He held the book over his head, his face triumphant. The design on the book seemed to leer out at her, the patterns in the leather like an evil face beneath ropy strands of hair.
The boy skimmed out loud: “Antarctic Aryan city discovered …secret of purity in ancient DNA … race-inhibiting serum developed … I don’t get it.”
Annika scanned the display for more clues. “God Serum?”
“It says he found the final clues to this serum in this ancient religious text, kept here in this museum.” He followed the text, his claw pressed to the glass. “Administered by secret operatives in the water supply? Oh, sludge. This is starting to make sense.”
Behind them, something grated, rock on rock.
“Someone’s in here!” Annika drew her gun from her holster. She’d taken an automatic stance, her shoulders and hips squared, her body blocking the boy’s. Stupid. She should have taken him as a shield.
She could feel him shaking even though only their arms touched.
“What is it?” He barely whispered.
She eased forward, peering around the case. A black seam ran down the edge of the photo montage, and something long and ropy wriggled its way through the narrow gap. Annika gagged on the stench seeping out of the opening.
Steeling herself, she peeked again.
She whipped back behind the case.
“It’s going for the book. Some kind of tentacle or something.”
A clatter of glass breaking warned that the tentacle had succeeded. The mushroom boy shook his head. “We can’t let that thing get the book. Don’t you see? The book is what started the Unraveling. We have to get it back!”
Annika stole a look around the corner; the tentacle wriggled back toward the gap in the wall, the book firmly wrapped in its grasp.
“It went back in the wall!”
“Then hurry!” The mushroom boy scrambled over Annika and debris, wedging itself into the crack. “I think this is meant to open. Help me.”
She dug her claws into the cement of the wall and wrenched backward. Her feet skidded on the cold floor. A huge crash overhead shook the ceiling, and a tile smashed on the ground, just missing Annika. She braced her leg against the motionless side of the wall and pulled harder.
“It’s working!” The boy wriggled deeper into the crack, adding his weight to Annika’s. With a puff of dust and rank stench, the panel swung open wide enough for both of them.
The lights flickered once and faded to black.
“We don’t have much time,” Annika growled, pulling an emergency flare from her pocket and striking it on the wall. The boy nodded. A pattern of glowing green dots showed around his eyes and the hand-claw he held to the wall. Annika resisted an urge to touch it. The cold glow of bioluminescence was beautiful.
Ahead of them and behind them, darkness pressed down with a palpable weight. Annika’s flare barely stirred it.
The boy pointed out a trail along the floor, dark, tacky, damp. “I think that’s its trail.” He moved ahead, staying within the circle of Annika’s light, his own glow too faint to reveal the ground ahead.
She breathed as shallowly as she dared. The hideous smell, the weight of the darkness, the sense that somewhere something waited: it was far more terrifying than any raid she’d ever led on a mushroom city. She hoped she didn’t tremble like the boy did.
The passage took a corner. Annika grabbed the boy’s jacket, pulling him backward before he plunged onward.
“Are you crazy? You can’t just dart ahead or you’ll get killed!”
He stared back at her, his round eyes reflecting back at her the pale glow of her own eyes. For a second she was back on the mountain, training new scouts. They always had attitude, newbies. She narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on his shoulders.
He looked away first. “Thanks.”
“Okay. Let’s do this my way.” Annika handed him the flare and felt for her back-up chem flash. She snapped the glowstick and tossed it around the corner. “Watch.”
They knelt and leaned around the corner. The glowstick filled the hallway with green brightness.
“Where did you get this stuff?”
“Raided an old warehouse. Amazing the things humans kept handy.” She squeezed the mushroom boy’s arm to warn him to silence. Something moved at the edge of the glowstick’s range of light.
The tentacle wriggled forward, its edges limned in a faint yellow light like a sick cousin of the boy’s glow. It circled the edge of the glowstick’s range and then shot forward, snapping the stick. Green spattered everywhere.
In the darkness, something shrieked.
The tentacle shot backward as if burned.
Annika yanked the boy around the corner. “It’s fast,” she breathed.
“It didn’t like the chemicals in the lightstick. Or maybe just really sensitive to light.”
“Right. If we’re going to sneak up on it, we’re going to have to leave the flare.”
The boy raised the flare to eye level. He met Annika’s eyes. “I think I’ve worked it out. The serum that doctor made, using what he learned from that book? The God Serum? It broke down the stuff inside each kind of creature that made it unique. That stuff made us mix.”
Annika nodded. It made sense. Once there had been many kinds of creatures. Now, there were still birds and fish, but of the creatures that roamed the land, there were mushroom-men and catmen. No humans. No mushrooms. No cats. Just their strange hybrids.
“Did you look at the picture of the doctor, holding the book?”
She nodded her head. She didn’t like all this whispering. They should be moving in silence, not giving that tentacled thing any chance to find them.
“Did you see the face on the book’s cover?” The boy swallowed, Annika close enough to hear the movement of his throat. “It was a face surrounded by tentacles.”
Annika stiffened. “That thing has something to do with the book?”
“We’ve got to get it back. What if–”
The boy’s face trembled too much to let the words out. He held up his three-fingered claw, with its softly glowing spots. Annika didn’t want him to say what she suddenly knew he was going to say.
“What if we’re turning into it?”
But she thought of the strange ugliness of the mushroom men, their ability to absorb and assimilate every species they’d ever confronted. She thought of their misshapen bodies. Weren’t they monsters of a kind?
And yet here she was, in a tunnel with one she’d saved. She had to admit it. The mushroom would be dead if she hadn’t pulled him back. She’d protected the enemy.
In the pink fizzing glow of the flare’s light, she saw something change in the shape of the boy’s eyes. Even with his flat foreign face, she knew he’d made some kind of decision.
He jumped to his feet.
He still had the flare. She bounded after him, but too late, there was already roiling at the end of the hall, dabs and splatters of green paint marking dark flesh. The flare reflected off a huge pair of eyes.
He skidded, throwing himself under a pair of darting tentacles. He rolled under them, snatching the book from the thing’s grasp. Annika’s mind could barely fathom what he did. She could only stare, stare at the huge eyes, the dozens of wriggling tentacles, the leathery wings stirring clouds of rank air. The stench of rot, of old drains and corpses nearly brought her to her knees.
The mushroom boy jammed the flare into the tender darkness beneath the tentacles.
She stretched her hand to the kid. He was somehow, improbably, ducking beneath the flailing tentacles, on his feet, the green lights around his eyes flashing like stars. He stopped. Jerked. Staggered backward, like a fish hitting the end of a line.
Annika grabbed his hands. Pulled him free with a horrible pop and squish. His hot blood soaked into her jacket as he fell against her.
She squeezed him tight and ran. The creature shrieked and screamed, but it didn’t follow. The kid’s attack with the flare had hurt it, bad.
It was too dark to see now, but Annika kept running. The stink at her back was her guide. The mushroom boy hung limp in her grasp, but she could still feel him breathing. She realized that her lips formed the same words over and over again, a silent plea come on, come on, come on …
And then she hit the door panel, still ajar but opening onto darkness. The wall shuddered and she nearly toppled over. The cat attack still shook the city.
She still had a mission.
One-handed, she found the charges in her pocket and pieced timer to plastique. She flung them behind her, into the tunnel. The thing might not be dead, but she could bury it alive. Her breath sounded in terrified gasps as she crunched through broken glass and the treasures of history.
And then the heavy fire door. The kid felt hot and soggy in her grip.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, throwing open the door and stumbling up the uneven old stairs. “Come on, you can make it. Come on.”
She kicked open the door to the outside world. There was still sunlight, a faded afternoon glow. A sweet breeze cleared the haze of smoke, and Annika could see a clear path to the city gate. The gate stood tall and intact between heaps of smashed rubble. She stared around herself.
The cats had clearly exhausted the stockpile of artillery rounds. Craters pockmarked the cobblestoned streets; the wall of a nearby shopping center lay in broken blocks. This side of the city was nearly flattened.
Annika swung the mushroom boy up over her shoulder and ran for the gate. She didn’t want to get caught in any kind of crossfire as the catman and mushroom soldiers took to the streets. The cats might have crushed the city’s structures, but they still faced the might of the mushroom army as they finished their looting. Once the human weapons had been depleted, the cats’ advantage was over.
She hopped over the remains of the wall. The point of the attack had never been to win. She’d helped plan it herself; she knew. It was all a cover for her mission; the devastation just a beneficial side-effect. A terrorist strike and recon mission, not a pitched battle. She laid her burden down on the trampled grass.
“Hey, kid,” she whispered. His face was gray and pale, the luminous green spots invisible in the daylight. “We made it.”
He shook his head. “No.” His teeth were black with his mushroom blood.
“Come on, kid. Hang on!”
He opened his black bead eyes. “It’s Fanjaa, lady. And I’m not a kid.”
Something prickled on her cheeks, and she realized she was crying. She swiped at the drops, angry. “Don’t give up, Fanjaa. It’s just a shoulder wound; I’ve seen plenty worse.”
“I spored it. When I stabbed it. With any luck, it’ll be mycelium by morning.”
She stared at him. The skin on his head looked dark and soft. Rotting away like a mushroom once its spores have flown. “But you’ll die.”
“We don’t really ever die,” he whispered. White tendrils uncurled from the back of his head, sinking into the soil. “Take the book, lady.”
“Annika. My name’s Annika.”
His lips twitched. Then a white film covered his eyes, and he was gone.
She let herself cry then, hunched over his body. She didn’t try to quiet the tiny mewls of pain. He had killed himself to save her, and maybe all of them. Whatever the book had to say, she hoped it was worth it.
Annika backed out of the Chamber of Elders and made her way to her own quarters. Down here in the caves of the people, sweet smells of mint and roasted meat soothed her nose, but she passed by the kitchens, hurrying toward the bathhouse. The stench of the tentacled creature clung to her skin. She itched all over.
No one else waited to use the baths, and she was glad of that. She needed quiet right now. Maybe silence could scrub Fanjaa’s blood from her soul. Lenya the Eldest had praised Annika’s efforts, thrilled to see the book and hear its story. But Annika could not take any pleasure in her work. Perhaps it was time to leave fighting behind. Become a soapmaker or a teacher or a cook.
She sank into the hot spring-warmed water and hissed as the mineral waters hit her cuts and scrapes. She waited for the itching to fade as the water sloughed the dirt and grit of her underground passage. Humming a little, she reached for the soap, but couldn’t find it with her eyes closed.
The song, she realized, was one her mother had sang when she was small. There was so little she remembered about her mother, it startled her to find this tiny fragment of memory, this snippet of song. Something about cake. And horses. Annika had never seen a horse. Their species unraveled long before she was born.
She couldn’t help but think of the doctor who’d held the book. He’d made some kind of medicine, something that would what? Inhibit race? She couldn’t remotely imagine what that might mean. She remembered from her lessons that humans came in different colors and varieties. Had that been his goal, to get rid of human differences?
She shook her head and opened her tired eyes. The mineral water stung their corners. The soap sat on the other side of her, and she stretched out her arm to grab it. In the dim light of the bath house cave, green dots shimmered and glowed along her arm.
Her breath caught in her throat. She scrubbed the dots with her bar of soap. They grew brighter as her fur rubbed off in her hand.
I spored it, she heard again, in Fanjaa’s tired voice. With any luck, it’ll be mycelium by morning.
She’d carried a spore-spewing body in her arms, breathing them in, her cut flesh opening her whole interior to colonization. And she’d carried the spores back with her, on her clothes and in her hair. In her rush to give Lenya the book, she’d never thought to clean herself.
She held her hand up and stared at the blinking green lights. This is how it begins, she thought. How one species is absorbed by another. How differences fade.
Annika thought of the creature with the twisting tentacles, ugly and stinking inside the dark cavern. She thought of the book she’d just given her people.
She sank beneath the surface of the water and hoped that Fanjaa had been wrong.
Far below the city, our mycelia strands pulsed as they absorbed new memories. A new strand wriggled up from an area so deeply buried in the cold earth we’d forgotten its existence. We curled around it and digested it, reminding us of our grandfathers’ grandfathers, fruiting and sporing in a place far from this sweet yellow sun.
We turned our attention to our soil, so recently clawed by the catmen. It would not take long to heal. And from the chemical messages borne on the breeze, we no longer had anything to fear from our furred children any longer. The first mycelia were sending us messages.
There are no differences.
We are all one.
Wendy N. Wagner grew up across the street from a cemetery, which may have colored her interests in life. Her short fiction has appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Armored and Rigor Amortis. Her first novel, Dark Depths, is due out this summer from Dagan Books. To keep up with her preparations for coming apocalypses and future fictional creations, visit her website.
Story illustration by Nick Gucker.
If you enjoyed this story, let Wendy know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
I want to read more of her work! Brilliant!
Really liked this one
wendy, i love this so much! Now I want to go wash my hands REALLY WELL ::shuddering:: ❤
Wonderful story. The concept of ‘unraveling’ is marvelous.
Great story. And that Fanjaa character sounds like a really fun guy! 🙂
Something about the idea of sentient mushrooms gives me the serious creeps. Well done!
The story immediately drew me in, very impressive!
Heh, very entertaining, reminded me a bit of VanderMeer’s stuff. Great characters–nice to see fleshed out personalities in a Lovecraftian piece.
Great story, Wendy. I think it deserves a second reading to absorb all its complexities…which is a good thing. I am looking forward to reading more from you.
Pingback: Free SF/F/H Fiction for 5/12/2012 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog·
Incredibly innovative. Loved the premiss of “The Unraveling”. In a word “brilliant!”