𝗚𝗼𝗲𝘀 𝗚𝗼𝗼𝗱 𝗪𝗶𝘁𝗵
𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘺 𝘚𝘢𝘯𝘷𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘦
After a 500-light-year journey, the fleet of ships shaped like mushroom caps slipped from hyperspace, lowered their landing stems, and came to rest on the dark side of the Moon. No one on Earth noticed since humans were too busy recovering from World War I and the Spanish Flu. The Fleet Commander opened a com channel to all ships.
“You have your assignments. You will have one chance to achieve our goal, one pass, then return to these coordinates. Make no mistakes. Dismissed.”
Like bees leaving a hive, the scores of ships lifted off then flashed into hyperspace and seconds later appeared in Earth’s atmosphere, unlit, moving silently at supersonic speeds. At their appointed locations, each opened its pod bay doors. Clouds of blue and black particles escaped and drifted to Earth, invisible to human eyes.
In less than an hour it was over. The Fleet Commander scratched the warts above his sound hole with a wrinkled tentacle and opened the com channel. “Congratulations, Fungalians. We have successfully sown the seeds of our survival here. After roughly a hundred orbits of this blue planet around its star, it will be ours for the taking. For now, set course for Kepler and engage on my count: 1, 2, 3.”
With the fast flip of a tentacle, the Fungalian ships disappeared into the cosmos.
“What do you make of this?” Ethan asked his managing editor.
“Whatcha got?” Gloria answered via Zoom.
“AP is reporting some sort of outbreak in Missoula. And there’s another in Boise.”
“What kind of outbreak?”
“They don’t know. But animals and people are dying of something pretty gruesome.”
“Get on it. We’re close enough to be in danger. Christ, we’re barely over Covid.”
This could be big, Ethan thought, my first major assignment with High Plains. Let me check the other wires.
Ethan scanned national and global news services then social media chatter. Whatever it was, the outbreak seemed to be everywhere, starting slow with a few deaths, then growing into hundreds, maybe thousands, with no signs of the death curve flattening or descending. Video clips flooded the Internet, showing streets in Los Angeles littered with corpses, tourists and locals slumped over blood-stained café tables in Paris, crowded hospital hallways with doctors looking green-faced and clutching their chests, Indonesian ferries drifting with the currents, their decks crowded with the dead, and in Moscow, bodies lining the streets outside the Kremlin.
Ethan’s email to the CDC went unanswered. But in two days, the President had established a press envoy and appointed yet another taskforce to study the outbreak. In North America alone there were 235 reported death clusters with new ones developing.
At first, most health agencies suspected yet another virulent virus to be the culprit. But no one could determine the source of the problem and treatment with anti-viral drugs proved ineffective. Something terrible dissolved the lungs of those afflicted and they collapsed and bled out within hours of showing symptoms.
God, what a horrible way to go, Ethan thought. I’d rather shoot myself.
As the days passed, the outbreak dominated all news. WHO, the CDC and all other health agencies worked feverishly to try and identify the pathogen responsible for the mounting deaths of humans and animals of all species, both wild and domestic. And the ranks of scientists working on the problem shrank as they too became stricken.
In a clean room at CDC headquarters, a bunny-suited Dr. Anthony Tao stared at the output from his electron microscope of samples taken from the lungs of a deceased male. The images showed fuzzy-edged structures coating the entire respiratory system.
He immediately called in his supervisor, Dr. Julia Valdez. “Look at this. Don’t these look like fungal spores?”
“Yes, maybe. But we need to confirm with other samples.”
“Will do. I’ll also try and identify which fungus they come from.”
Dr. Tao spent an afternoon comparing the foreign bodies in the lung sample with references but failed to find a match.
“I’ve tried all known sources,” he complained to Valdez. “This may be some new mutant strain. I’ve also tried to isolate any toxins that the spores may release into the host’s system, mostly looking for alkaloids. This is one weird fungus. I’ve never seen any toxins like these. And I’m afraid, like death cap amanitas, there’s no cure.”
“But why did this fungus appear now, a worldwide bloom?”
“Good question. Maybe the changing climate activated something that’s lain dormant for eons. Maybe space aliens are trying to wipe us out.”
Dr. Valdez chuckled. “Yeah, I’ll have the Space Force check their satellite feeds for grays dropping mushrooms.”
“I do have a few more things I need to check out and there’s a guy in northeastern Oregon I want to consult.”
“Nobody knows Charley, he’s a mycologist who’s completely off the grid. But he knows his fungi, been studying them all his life. We met in university years ago when he was giving a lecture on how to develop mutant strains of Hypsizygus marmoreus.”
“Well, be careful. I don’t want to lose another scientist to this... this whatever it is.”
“Fortunately, he lives in a rural area that hasn’t been impacted... much.”
Dr. Charles Swimmer shoved logs from diseased fir trees into his wood stove and sipped his second cup of boiled coffee. Outside his generator put-putted away in the frigid morning air, providing electricity to his cabin and tiny laboratory. Charley had lived in a remote section of northeastern Oregon’s Melhaur National Forest for ten years, making the torturous drive to tiny Prairie City once a month for supplies and to pick up mail. His wife had endured the isolation for less than six months before she left him and returned to Seattle. But as far as Charley was concerned, he lived in mycologist heaven, just down a gravel road from the “Humongous Fungus,” a massive patch of Armillaria ostoyae that covered 2,385 acres—the world’s largest organism that might be as old as 8,600 years.
Outside, the grinding of tires and the rumble of an SUV’s engine broke his reverie. Who the hell can that be? There’s still snow on the ground for Christ’s sake. Charlie grabbed his squirrel gun, opened the cabin door and stepped outside. The vehicle quieted, its engine ticking in the cold. A slight man pushed open the car’s door and stepped out. He looked familiar, but Charley couldn’t be sure.
“Charley, is that you?” the man called.
“Yeah. Who the hell are you?”
“Tony Tao. Remember me from the University?”
“Tony. My God, man. It’s been forever.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The two men shook hands and stared at each other.
Tao grinned. “It’s been a dozen years since that conference in Chicago.”
“I’m sure you’re not here to reminisce about boring conferences. You still work for the CDC?”
“So I know why you’re here. Come inside.”
Over bitter coffee the two scientists discussed the worldwide pandemic. Tao shared images of the killer fungus and a synopsis of all lab studies done to date.
“I can tell you right now, this thing is nothing I’ve ever seen,” Charley said. “But then there are probably hundreds of jungle species that have yet to be discovered and keyed out.”
“We know that. I’m here to talk about what to do with this thing. We’ve tried every known fungicide and created new ones. It’s so damn hardy. Nothing touches it and new clusters are occurring daily.”
The two scientists talked throughout the day. By late afternoon they had made inroads into Charley’s stash of cheap booze and paced the cabin’s floor, shouting with excitement, and firming up plans to return to CDC headquarters in Atlanta to begin work on solutions.
A convoy of National Guard trucks moved down the potholed gravel road toward the edge of the Humongous Fungus, then stopped. A swarm of masked humans dropped from the trucks and spread out into the dying fir forest, each carrying a backpack and wearing a belt holding garden tools.
Almost immediately the fungus felt the invasion and the chatter increased across its intricate web of underground tendrils.
What are those idiots trying to do? They can dig up a few of our rhizomorphs but that won’t do jack!
Yeah, but what are they gonna do with them?
Maybe they’ll take us to some other spot where there are more trees to infest.
Forget that. These guys are lab rats of some sort. Maybe they’re gonna try and change us so that our shrooms taste better and aren’t mildly toxic.
You’re dreamin’. There’s something out there that’s killing humans and animals and somehow we’re part of it.
Beats the bear poop out of me. But whatever they do they can’t hurt us; we’re too big.
Yeah, the buffalo herds that used to move through these valleys thought the same thing.
At the end of three days thousands of samples had been taken, and the trucks full of collectors disappeared. Quiet returned to the forest. The chatter throughout the fungal web died down as the Humongous Fungus continued its job of infesting conifer trees and growing bitter mushrooms. But it was still curious.
Say, has anybody seen Charley?
You mean that old guy who’s been studying us for years?
Nah. He locked up his cabin and disappeared with some other guy.
Maybe now we can infest that grove of juicy DF that surround his place?
Nah, he’ll be back. Let him keep his shade. We have enough downed timber to munch on.
Hope he comes back. It’s kinda nice to be studied.
Throughout the world, armies of bunny-suited volunteers moved into the identified death zones, each carrying trays of hybrid fungi that Doctors Swimmer and Tao had designed and bred en masse. The work took several weeks and it would be months before it could be determined if the fix worked. The trick had been to develop a hybrid that would invade and breed with the death fungus and neutralize its toxic alkaloids. It had worked in the laboratory. Now it needed to work in the field.
The worldwide death toll climbed to 215 million, with the highest mortality rates in Third World countries, especially in jungle areas where it proved difficult to reach all clusters of the invading fungus. In the U.S. and Canada, surviving residents walked around in clean-room suits, worked and shopped remotely, and wore masks when they slept.
Gradually, the death toll dropped and after eight months, WHO, the CDC and other health agencies made all-clear declarations.
Doctors Tao and Swimmer sat in Charley’s cabin in the woods and poured hundred-dollar-a-bottle Champagne into crude clay mugs.
“We did it, Charley,” Tao said.
“Yeah, who would have thought that a couple of shroom-heads would save the world? And the hybrid that replaced the death fungus is a real winner.” Charley grinned. “Its shrooms have none of the bitter taste of the Humongous Fungus and no toxic alkaloids.”
Tao raised his mug in salute. “And best of all, sautéed in butter with a little white wine, they go good with steak or scallops. A great cash crop.”
“The only thing I’m dissatisfied with is not knowing where the death fungus came from. It had chemical elements that, so far, have not been found on earth.”
“Maybe it came from a comet or asteroid that crashed into earth’s atmosphere eons ago and is just now blooming.”
Charley smiled. “I still think my idea of an alien invasion is plausible.”
“Yeah, sure,” Tao cracked. “Try convincing the U.S. Space Force of that.”
“You know, I think I might have.”
Several dozen ships crammed full with squirming Fungalians jumped from hyperspace and hovered above Earth. The young Fleet Commander scratched his posterior with a sleek tentacle and opened the com channel.
“All right, Ship Captains. You have your assigned landing coordinates. Proceed to the surface.”
The executive officer frowned. “But sir, our sensors are picking up evidence of mass populations of Earthlings.”
The Commander harrumphed. “That can’t be. Our death fungus was foolproof.”
“Evidently, the Earthlings are far from fools. You’d better come look at this.”
The commander slid from his perch and joined his exec at a monitoring screen. “Look at all those rockets coming toward us—and fast. Doesn’t look like a welcoming committee to me.”
The commander whirled around. “Com Officer, order all ships back into hyperspace, on my count: 1, 2…” ✦