I hate hiking. I hate the outdoors. I hate being sweaty, dirty, bored, and nowhere near a good WiFi signal. Yet there we were. Hiking. And I was sweaty, dirty, bored, and nowhere near a good Wifi signal. Life was unpleasant.
Dad said it would be good for us to get out of the city for a while. He didn’t say why. It was obvious work was getting to him; stress always makes him want to run away from the situation until he can figure a way to manage it. I figured that’s what we were doing out in the woods. Running away – one sweaty step at a time.
Every night, he’d make me do my homework by the fire while he sat at his laptop with the satellite internet connection I wasn’t allowed to use. I didn’t really think much of it. I know he does important stuff that other people can’t look at. Those aren’t his rules. Still, I wish I could have gotten online for a little while.
After we’d been hiking for four days, Dad started to take unusual interest in the plants we were passing. He’d pull off scraps of leaves and vines and roots and put them in bags. Later, when we’d set up camp in the evenings, he’d pull out the little microscope he’d brought and take notes on his laptop. I didn’t ask questions. It was obviously work related.
On the fifth day, after Dad collected his samples and looked at them under the microscope, he seemed to get pretty excited. He didn’t jump up and down or anything, but his mood went from his brooding, no-nonsense default to something kind of like a kid. It was weird. And a little annoying. I could tell he wanted to talk to me about some of the stuff he found, but had to keep his mouth shut.
Then I got a surprise. He started talking. And not the normal Dad stuff, either. About his work. About his projects.
I’d always known he was one of the top guys at a place called Applied Dynamics and that the company was huge. I never knew what he really did, however. If someone asked, I’d just say “biology stuff”. Turns out I wasn’t wrong.
Dad talked about “samples” that were turning up on the plants around us. Samples that, according to him, were getting denser and denser as we made our way through the woods. When I asked what he was talking about, he just told me to wait. He didn’t say he wouldn’t tell me at all, but only that I had to wait. Even though I didn’t know what he was talking about, for the first time, I started to get a little excited.
On the morning of the sixth day, he told me we needed to pick up the pace. He’d been studying his laptop since before I’d woken up and there seemed to be some urgency in his voice. I didn’t argue. I helped him pack up the campsite and we headed off. He was moving at a good clip all day, and when I wanted to stop for lunch, he said to eat it while we walked. Even when I had to duck behind a tree for a few minutes, he just kept walking and yelled for me to catch up. I did.
When the sun began to set, we entered a clearing at the top of a hill. Dad stopped walking. He put down his backpack, pulled out the laptop, and sat in the grass.
“Are we here?,” I asked.
“Yeah,” Dad replied. “We’re here.”
I set up the tent while he typed and complained about how the solar charging thing for his laptop hadn’t done a good job over the course of the day.
It grew darker and stars dotted the sky. I’d never seen the stars so clearly. There were so many.
I heard rustling in the bushes to our left. I started but Dad put his hand on my arm and said not to worry. I stared at the bushes. A deer peeked its head out and looked around. I sighed with relief.
“Why don’t you look for constellations?,” Dad asked.
With nothing better to do, I took his advice. I saw a few.
“How much longer will–,” I started to say, but was cut off.
“Look up there,” Dad instructed, and pointed.
I followed his finger and saw a black dot forming over the stars. It grew larger as the seconds passed, blocking more and more of them. I couldn’t tell what it was.
The bushes rustled again. I glanced over. It was the same deer. When I looked up again, I yelped. The stars were gone. No, not gone – blocked entirely. There was something hovering over the clearing. It was massive and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. In the faint light coming from the crescent moon, I could see it was fleshy and pockmarked with tightly-grouped holes that made me feel intensely uncomfortable.
Dad said something that sounded like, “go ahead, Aida.” He pulled a flashlight out of his bag and illuminated the ground beneath the object.
The deer disappeared from the bushes and instantaneously reappeared at the center of the clearing. Three more deer joined it, along with countless squirrels, birds, woodchucks, and a bear. They didn’t move.
“Dad, what–,” I tried, but was cut off again.
“At your own pace, Aida.”
A dark, orange smoke began to pour out of the hovering object and descended on the group of animals. I instinctively drew a breath of clean air and held it. Dad shook his head.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
I exhaled and watched.
When the smoke touched the animals, their fur or feathers or skin began to move. Then split. Blood coated the grass. I felt severe revulsion but didn’t turn away. From the fissures, long, stringy objects erupted. They looked like mushrooms.
“Remember when I was looking in the microscope, Mo? There were spores on the plants. All the plants and animals around here have them. It’s working.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about and I was paying him very little attention at that moment. The tips of the stringy mushrooms ballooned and dropped off, leaving baseball-sized pieces in the bloody grass. The animals continued to disintegrate as more and more of the fungus burst forth and dropped off.
I blinked and the hovering thing was gone. The animals were nothing but pulp now. A thick bouquet of mushrooms grew in their place.
“Watch,” Dad whispered.
The round bits that had fallen off the mushrooms had started to wiggle. Then shudder. Tubes about as long as my fingers slid out. They slapped and writhed around in the gore, but then they went rigid. With a final wiggle, the pieces turned on top of the tubes. The tubes were legs.
The pieces skittered off in every direction with delicate streams of orange smoke leaking from holes in their bodies.
“We’ll stay here for three more days,” Dad informed me. “And when we get back, everything’s going to be a lot different. You’ll see.”
Flies buzzed over the animal remains.