Fruiting Bodies

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An alien fungal infection has ravaged a faraway planet, turning all but six of the
colonists into ravenous arinkiris. Inyama, a mycologist, is her species’ last hope. But it’s not
expertise her fellow survivors want from her.

 

 

For every civilization, for every species, for every being, there is an end—an insurmountable challenge from which there is no escape without some exceptional change. Ancient Earth scientists called this the Great Filter. It was an explanation for why, when we cried out into the stars in the hope that intelligent life would sing back, the stars remained silent. The end of humankind was supposed to be fire and brimstone raining from the polluted skies of Earth. What happened was far, far worse. 

Today the sun blazes through the dark clouds, a circle of burning white in the shadowed sky. The rock around me gleams in a thousand shades of black and vermilion, volcanic peaks sticking into the firmament like needles. Only a few scraggly esoberi bushes, and the dust-hoppers that pollinate them, are able to eke out a living in this barren land. I watch the gray-black clouds drag by for a moment as I chart my course in my head. The terrain is treacherous; one misstep could see me trapped in a pit of poisonous volcanic fumes even I cannot survive.

Not long ago, I thought our death would be Kushisha, the molten rock that pulled our generation ship into its orbit and refused to let go. But now, those of us still living call our species’ Great Filter the arinkiri—the night walkers. When the two moons rise and the temperature plummets, the arinkiri crawl up from the boiling rock of our new home. 

Then they hunt, crawling across the smoking expanse in search of warm bodies.

I wake with them. I must, for Morayo. My beloved. My home, my heart. 

A sharp, sweet smell fills my nose with the abruptness of a punch. My senses lead me forward, step by step, until I find the source. A tiny drop of blood on a stray chunk of igneous rock, baked by the heat into an ochre spot. It’s not hers, thank the stars. 

It’s one of theirs.

Almost all of us are lost now, but those who survived took Morayo. They want a future, and they know that I am all the future that there is. Or my genome is, at least. But the greatest of our reproductive technology died with the Before, so I suppose it would be more accurate to say that only a piece of me is their future to them. They certainly don’t need my mind. They know that I am coming, that I have been coming for them for a long time. The only thing left for them to do is wait for me. The blood is only a week old, perhaps. My hands curl into fists. I’m close.

“Hello, Inyama.”

Though the voice is horribly familiar, a wave of panic crashes down on me anyway, sending my heart slamming into my ribs. I haven’t heard another voice, seen another being, in months. Out on the flats, there’s nothing to hear but the thick bubbling of lava, the whisper of sulfuric wind. 

“Eranko.” I turn toward him, running a tired hand down the round curves of my face. My fingers move freely, unobstructed by metal or mesh. I don’t need a respirator. My lungs are different; they’ve adapted to Kushisha. So have I.

Eranko looks worse every time we meet. His tattered ash-coated clothes, his shriveled skin faded to a jaundiced yellow-gray. His lips and half of his left cheek have rotted away, revealing cracked, yellow molars. 

He wags a scolding finger at me. “You’ve forgotten the most important rule, Inyama.”

I say nothing. I’ve forgotten how to laugh. Back when there was still a colony, back when the proud walls of Apogee still gleamed under the dim sun, the first edict was that no one was to ever, ever venture outside alone. But now Apogee is the domain of the arinkiri. Everyone that’s still someone is outside now, and most of us are alone. 

“How long?” Eranko asks after a moment.

“Turn around.”

He does as I ask, and I carefully pull aside the few lank bits of reddish-blond hair he has left. I run my fingers over his skull—there. A round, almost imperceptible bump. The pileus of a fruiting body preparing to pop his head open.

I was a mycologist, Before. The transmission and development of the contagion are quite similar to those of the entomopathogenic Earth fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, only differing in minor ways. The zombie ant fungus, it was called. The colonists had hoped I would be able to save them, given my expertise.

“A fortnight, at most,” I tell him.

Eranko gives a shallow, croaking sigh. The infiltrating mycelium has begun to decompose his lungs. Less than a week, then.

“Does it still hurt?” he asks, gaze lifting to my right bicep.

“No,” I lie.

“I’m sorry for biting you.”

“I’m sorry I startled you.”

When the arinkiri are around other humans, they’re little more than gnashing mouths, clawing fingers. With me and with each other, they’re themselves. Until the fungus consumes them completely; then they’re just dead. 

I was leaving Apogee when Eranko bit me. He was still riled up from the family he’d just chased down. I lift a hand to the mottled scar on my arm. He stopped chewing once he tasted my blood.

Eranko turns around to face me, bending his triple-jointed limbs at unnatural angles as he crawls. And yet, on the whole, he moves like water, his re-formed flesh made inhumanly flexible.

“They’re fools,” he growls.

“They are.”

“You’ll find her.”

“I will.”

Eranko grins with all his sharp, sharp teeth and nods as if satisfied with my answer. “This will be the last time we meet, I suppose.”

“You could come with me,” I say. “There’ll be . . . food.”

“Oh, no.” Eranko lets out a harsh bark of laughter. “No. I think I’ll spend my last days pretending to be human.”

“Then I hope that the end, when it comes, is painless.” 

Eranko reaches out a hand, only to retract it before his fingers brush against mine. “Will you mourn for me?”

Something between resignation and pity fills my throat as I gaze down at him. 

“No.” I place my hand on his shoulder to soften the blow. “When I walk into the days ahead I will not look back.”

Without another word, I turn on my heel and set off into the broken land before me. As I walk, I think, and as I think, I remember. Walking into the provisional quarters of the last surviving physician, a month after we crashed, for my injection of the serum that was supposed to save us all. Seeing her for the first time in a very long time. I hadn’t known she’d joined the mission. I hadn’t known. . . .

A syringe. Later, agony. A scream, clawing its way out of my bloody mouth. Nothingness, as dark and empty as the expanse of space. And then light. Morayo. Morayo greeting me with a joyous cry, showering me with a thousand apologies. Morayo dragging me into her arms, pressing a cool kiss to my forehead.

I reach Hope the next day. Not New Hope, not Second Hope. Just . . . Hope. From my vantage point atop a boulder, I glimpse the four round, hut-like structures of the new settlement. They’re enclosed by a thick wall of volcanic rock. Slumped against the side is the crumpled chassis of a rockrover, one of the cumbersome transport vehicles we used to haul equipment from the crashed ship to Apogee. Rockrovers have a top speed of a measly fifteen kilometers an hour, and yet, that was more than enough to take Morayo from me.

Something twitches at the bottom edge of my vision, and I twist to get a better look. Portable frames of sharpened plastic and metal stick up from the ground at random intervals around the other side of the wall. There are arinkiri stuck on two of the frames. One still twitches, moaning. Her arm is outstretched toward the settlement, even as dark blood oozes from her skewered chest. 

As I watch, the gleaming, bone-white pileus of a fruiting body bursts through her skull with a sickening crunch I can only just hear. The sound reverberates in my chest nevertheless, as does the arinkiri’s pitiful shriek. Scraps of skin and splinters of skull paint the ground beneath her as she writhes in torment.

A flat gray stone at the base of the wall shifts, sliding aside to reveal a small tunnel, just wide enough for a person. A man steps out, and then another. The second reaches back into the darkness to pull out a pair of makeshift spears. Lips curled in disgust, the first settler spears the convulsing arinkiri through her mycelium-softened head. She lets out a wretched whimper and goes still. The other man stabs the dead arinkiri—they’re known to play tricks—before dragging him off the metal spikes.

There’s a deep pit a few hundred meters from the settlement, and the men throw the arinkiris in. Even lifeless, their bodies fall gracefully through the air, like raindrops cutting through the atmosphere. Oh, how I missed rain during the first few years here. When we were still on Earth, when we were just children, Morayo and I would climb up to the top of the air recyclers and watch the sky bleed.

My gaze jerks back to the stone as the men head back toward Hope. That’s my way in. I watch the settlement for the rest of the day, trying to get an estimate of the inhabitants. By the time the sun dips below the mountains, I’ve counted four men in all. The others must be dead.

When night falls, I rise. A soft wind blows over the flats, a hot hiss of breath over the cracked skin of the planet. The esoberi bushes rustle loudly, whispering to each other like old friends. Moonlight leaps through a gap in the clouds, dancing over the glistening skin of a cluster of wrinkled seedpods. Soon, it will be harvest time. The settlers will never see that day come.

The full moons light my way as I run over the parched stone and to the entrance. I drag the flat rock aside and slip into the shadows below. Unlike the scorched surface of the planet, the tunnel is cool. Moist, even. When I drag a hand over the stone and dirt, it comes away slick. I creep forward until I can do so no longer; my fingers press against a rough wall. I feel around myself in the swirling darkness, running the tips of my boots over the ground—nothing, but there must be something.

I lift my arms. Sure enough, the ceiling gives way. I climb up the tunnel wall and push aside the woven covering.

The settlement seems even smaller from within than it does from without. Baskets of bits of wood and preserved seedpods take up much of the space. They’ll make excellent hiding places. I scramble all the way out of the tunnel and behind a stack of baskets. I make my way along the round edge of the wall, tiptoeing toward the central hut, where I pray she’ll be.

I leap from the wall to the side of the hut, throwing myself against the warm stone. Then I shove my way through the curtains covering the entrance and burst inside. Four glassy-eyed men. And Morayo, my Morayo, crumpled in the corner. Rough-hewn rope binds her wrists and ankles.

Relief floods my lungs, a sweet gulp of air for a drowning woman. The sound that leaves my throat is half a joyful sob at seeing her whole, half an enraged growl at seeing her bound and bleeding. 

Her head jerks up at my entrance, tears immediately coalescing over her eyes. Moonlight creeping in from cracks in the ceiling illuminates her face. Her cheeks are sunken, and her skin, once a warm brown, looks almost drained of color. 

“Inyama,” she croaks.

She sounds so terribly small. Anger boils in my veins like magma. My heart beats as though for the first time, as if to escape the heat of the rage engulfing my chest.

One of the men lurches to his feet, a spear already in hand. “We don’t want you anymore, woman.”

A flush of anticipation skitters over my skin. “I know.”

“Leave us now, while you can,” he warns.

I stay where I am. “Let her go.” 

Another man takes one halting step toward me. It’s his last. I pull my knife from under my sleeve and stab him in the chest. Once, twice. He stumbles back, arms wheeling for balance that will never come. 

The three remaining men circle me, their starved bodies forming a shrunken triptych. In the months it has taken me to find them, they have grown thin and brittle, while I’ve grown stronger. They’re not made to survive here. I am.

Time splits into discrete moments, bound by the hammering of my heart as I shoot forward. I knock a spear from one man’s feeble grip as I duck below the sharpened point of another’s weapon. I grab the shaft of the spear as it whistles through the air and pull, guiding its path to a new target: the second settler’s stomach. I whirl around just as the third man pulls his spear from his comrade’s gut with a broken cry. I spin, driving the heel of my foot into his side. When he doubles over, my knife finds his neck. Blood sprays across my face.

Before I can turn around, rough fingers curve around my own throat. The fourth man grabs my skull and slams my forehead into the wall. The world flashes black, only to burst with stars as he does it again. My teeth sink into my tongue. The tang of copper fills my mouth.

“You should have stayed away,” he growls.

“You should have left us alone,” I grit out, gasping for breath as blood trickles over my lips. Blood roars in my ears, howling to the beat of my pulse.

I drop the knife. And then I move like water, slipping out of his grasp and catching the hilt just before my weapon hits the floor. 

A roar of surprise flies out from between the settler’s lips. “We thought you were immune! But . . . you’re one of them!” 

A chuckle, sharp and foreign, bubbles out of my throat. “Not quite.” The serum I received worked. Mostly.

My right arm whips through the air. My fingers latch around the man’s throat, and we both go down. My fingers press into the pulse at his neck, just to feel his heartbeat before I end it. 

“P-please,” he spits out, phlegm studding his thin lips. “You have to understand why we took her, she . . .” He wheezes when my grip tightens. “She started this. She created you—you monsters, but perfected the serum just in time to inoculate herself. Don’t you despise her?” 

I bring my face down to his, so close our foreheads touch. “No.”

He spits out a choked laugh. “You’re deluding yourself. You know she deserves to die.”

“Our species as it was could not survive on this planet,” I snarl. “But now there is a future. You just won’t be part of it.”

When I swing my arm, the blade comes with it. A hot gush of blood, scarlet and stinking. I push myself off of him and turn to Morayo—my light, my life. My beginning. I cut away her bindings, and she takes my hand.

She opens her mouth, her gaze sliding to the dusty ground. “I—”

“Don’t.” I pull her to her feet. “Don’t say what you’re about to say. I don’t blame you. My love, you saved me.”

Her gold-flecked eyes meet mine. “You are everything that will ever be,” she says, some of her old strength seeping back into her voice.

“No.” I lace our fingers together, letting my eyes drift closed as I concentrate on our heartbeats: mine, hers, and just under that, a tiny flutter. A flicker of life, flaring bright in Morayo. “We are. All three of us.”

Together, we walk into the days ahead.

 

“Fruiting Bodies” copyright © 2022 by Kemi Ashing-Giwa
Art copyright © 2022 by Reiko Murakami

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