Low the Ascomycotan Sky
Tazim shoved her way past the secretary who was trying to bar the door.
Arabesque Fintrar, the vanguard master, continued to write as Tazim stormed into the room, as if her entry was of no large consequence.
"What were you thinking?" Tazim slammed a pamphlet onto his desk. The secretary, who'd followed her into the room, tugged at her arm. But Tazim, fresh from six months of agoge training, couldn't be moved.
Fintrar took a few more moments to finish writing. He rolled the paper into a tube, placed it in a cylinder and added it to the pneumatic comm tube attached to his desk. He looked up. He smiled. "Ah, Driver Hari. I didn't realise you had an appointment." He picked up the pamphlet. "News travels fast in the Five Cities. Faster than the official channels, I see."
"I'm sorry sir," said the secretary. "Shall I call for security?"
Fintrar shook his head. "No. Thank you, Cyrus. I think I can handle this."
Tazim reached for a chair. She took a seat. She glared at Fintrar.
"You were to get the official assignment this afternoon," he said. Behind Fintrar wooden shelves displayed obscure antiques, mechanical artefacts from centuries of human culture, their purpose long forgotten. It was a display meant to impress, to remind the visitor of Fintrar's importance.
Tazim was not impressed. "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that you're the best driver I have, Hari. I was thinking that you'd be honoured to be amongst the ten per cent of your graduating class who was assigned active duty."
"On the Lady Bug? I don't think so. You need to reassign me."
"You, Hari," said Fintrar, punctuating his words with a jab of his long index finger, "are in no position to demand anything. You will serve the vanguards as I see fit. You are young," he said. "You are attractive."
Tazim laughed. "Who told you that?" Fintrar was well known for his disdain of sex. Mocking songs were sung about him in the recreation hangars of the Five Cities. It was said that his years exploring the valley wall had sucked all passion out of him.
"I'll ignore that, Hari. But that's the last piece of insubordination I'll tolerate."
"I am not a joke."
"The crew of the Lady Bug aren't a joke. I find it insulting to their service that you suggest such a thing. The Lady Bug is one of the seven land ironclads patrolling the valleys. I've studied history, Hari. Currently, we are a democratic society. It's inconvenient, but it is a workable system - if you know how to appeal to the popular vote. There are factions within the Five Cities who would reduce the vanguard's budget. You know that. The isolationists. People are weary after the long descent down the West Valley. They say we're safe here. And perhaps we are, for now. But I take the long view in such matters. The Lady Bug with its all-female crew may be a novelty, but it does important work. And it has the popular vote behind it. You will go where you're needed. This is an honour for you."
"It doesn't feel like an honour."
"Yet, you will accept the position. There's no other for you."
"I will not."
"What do you think your father would want you to do?"
"I wouldn't know, sir. He died on vanguard duty when I was a small child, following your orders."
"He did his duty, Hari. I suggest that you do the same."
Tazim's room in Thalathah City was small, but she paid a premium for the view of the final pylon, the monument to the long descent, an obelisk against the copper bowl of the sky.
Jakes was waiting for her.
"They're sending me to the Ascomycotan Fields. I'm going to be a mushroom gatherer in the east," she told him.
Jakes traced a lazy hand along her arm. "The photo reels say that we need to look for more food, if we're going to expand the Five Cities."
"That's true." Tazim didn't tell him that the agro-scientists were worried about failing crops. Some things were not for civilian consumption.
"Anyway, I'm glad you're going somewhere safe," he said.
"Safe? Do you think I want to be safe?" She pushed his hand away.
"I bet your mother's pleased. I'll keep my eye on her if you want. I heard she was a little..."
"Don't bother. She's living in a Heliomancer cooperative. They look after her." Tazim thought of her last visit to Khamshah City: the chanting, the tattoos, the low red circles of fire, the worshipping of a long dying sun, the atmosphere of complacency.
"You should go and see her before you go," said Jakes. "Family is important."
"Yeh." Jakes lived with his four unmarried sisters. He was devoted to them. But Tazim's relationship with her mother had always been...complicated.
"So, if you didn't want to be assigned to the Lady Bug, what did you want?"
"I wanted to be assigned to the Cicada." The Cicada was the oldest iron clad, the most heavily armed.
"Where's that?" asked Jakes. Jakes was blonde, beautiful, easy-going and only tangentially interested in the exploration of the valleys.
"It explores the north. They've seen a lot of action." Tazim rubbed her face. "I shouldn't really complain. Not everyone gets assigned active duty," she said. "Anyway, don't say anything to your sisters." Jake's sisters were notorious gossips.
"I won't. I'm just glad you're going someone safe." Jakes rubbed her shoulder. "You leave tomorrow for six months. Six months," he said with a grin. "No men, for six months."
"Don't you think you're being a little insensitive?"
"Six months, Tazim." His hand moved lower, tugging at the fastenings of her tunic.
Tazim smiled. She reached out to stroke Jake's face, his throat, feeling the rough texture of his skin. Six months was a long time.
Tazim took the magnetic shuttle to Khamshah City. Each of the five cities had developed its own flavour. Khamshah City was a temple for the faithful. The dome was etched with a mirror symbol reflecting the static red sun. The homes and building in Khamshah City were decorated with red, amber, copper silks. The residents wore their faith inscribed in scarlet ink upon their skin. The air was full of smoke from burning wheels of incense wood and full of the low droning songs to praise the oldest god at eventide.
Mother's eyes were fever bright. "Augurs were in my dreams, Tazim. But when I woke, I couldn't remember them."
Tazim bit back her response. Mother's augurs, her sibyl-shadows of the future, had haunted her childhood. It was best to smile and say very little.
"So, I read your future in the ash." Mother led Tazim to the tephromancy globe. With a touch of a button the bronze cover retracted, revealing the cold ash on the mirrored surface. Tazim stared at the ash, pushed into ridges by Mother's fingers. She saw the burnt fragment of a five thousand city note, the charred remains of an old school essay, written by Tazim years ago.
"See the patterns, Tazim?" said Mother, pointing with a trembling finger. "You'll try to be a hero, just like your poor father. But you'll fail. You'll walk low the red sky all alone. You should not venture into the valley, Tazim. You should stay here, within the boundaries of light Helio has marked for us."
"The Earth is tidally locked to Sol," said Tazim. "There's no meaning in that." Just as there was no meaning in the tephromancy that Mother so passionately believed in.
Mother's eyes unfocused. She looked beyond into something her daughter could never see. Her fingers trailed lightly through the prophetic ash, forming new patterns. "Helio's red light bathes you, Tazim. Do not venture far from it."
The Lady Bug took its own sweet time as it maneuvered into the hanger of Wahid City. The engine fumes were strong in the enclosed space. All the bugs were powered by biofuel-electric engines. Fractionally distilling the bio-soy fuel to a high cetane quality was a complicated process. The restricted supplies of fuel kept the fleet number limited to seven massive, power-hungry vehicles. Everyone in the vanguard service hoped that the newly discovered source of energy, the Earth Current, could be developed to power the iron clads.
Master Fintrar stood in the hangar ready to welcome the Lady Bug's commander back into the city. A cadre of vanguard cadets stood in rapt attention as an honour guard. A batch of white-haired children stood rather less quietly to welcome the Lady Bug home.
The Lady Bug, like all the iron clads, was massive, a long and narrow fortress, a segmented vehicle with heavily weaponized head and tail segments and a variable number of cargo units and living quarters. In extremis, the head module could disengage and use all six distillate engines to accelerate away from danger. Today the Lady Bug had five ten-metre long modules hooked between the head and the tail segments. Each segment ran on six pedrail wheels, adaptable to the irregular landscape of the valley floor. Each sturdy wheel bore a dozen rubber-shod pod feet which could negotiate even the steep decline of the valley wall. They traversed the uneven valley terrain with ease. The feet of each wheel was covered in dirt. They thumped onto the hangar floor leaving a pattern of muddy track marks.
The large calibre electrochemical fragmentation gun, the multi-purpose subsidiary guns and the flame throwers were retracted into the rotating turrets of the bug's head and tail. The Lady Bug was a death machine designed to explore the hostile territory of the valley. She was streamlined, sleek, covered in iron armour, but painted red. The red paint was a defilement, a mask to hide the bug's true nature, to make her appealing to the public.
The bug maneuvered into position, the pedrail wheels clanked to a halt, as the final foot pods fell into position.
The door of the head command unit snapped open. A metal walkway unfurled. When Commander Zeenat emerged, the children cheered and the cadets broke a smart salute. A small boy ran to the commander and presented her with a bouquet of coloured grasses. Zeenat smiled and ruffled the boy's hair with her electronic hand. The boy squeaked. Zeenat held out her hand for the boy to examine. Such elaborate prosthesis were rare. The hand was the Five Cities' gift for Zeenat's many years of service.
Tazim waited while the commander walked over to the class and exchanged words with the children and their teacher. Zeenat then made her way to Fintrar.
Finally, Commander Zeenat made her way over to Tazim. "You the new mate?" she asked. The doorways to the cargo units opened and metal ramps slid onto the hangar floor.
"Good. Get your gear stowed. This is a quick visit to deposit cargo. We leave in three hours."
Zeenat moved closer to Tazim and whispered, "You want to be here, mate? Because I don't want anyone on my crew with reservations."
"Good." The Commander nodded and strode out of the hangar.
Tazim watched as the crew emerged in the doorways. The Lady Bug had five personnel: Commander Zeenat, Gunner Sharp, Loader Sharp the scientist N'rell. Tazim would take on the role of driver and mechanic.
The Sharp twins guided robotic arms, loading large boxes onto the ramp rollers. When a couple of cadets came over to help them, the twins shook their heads. The twins were the darlings of the underground pamphlets. It was said that they had tele-hearing, that they could tell what each other was thinking.
"Hey! You're Hari, aren't you?" said one of the twins, shouting over.
"Come and give us a hand. You might as well start earning your pay."
Tazim stood at the bottom of the ramp guiding the boxes onto robotic pallets. The boxes were packed with meaty fungus. The known edible strains would be consumed. But more important were the new samples. It was hoped that new strains could be added to the Five Cities growing fungi-culture fields.
"So, you glad to be aboard?" asked Mona the red-headed twin.
Abra grinned. "Only we heard a rumour. We heard that you ripped Fintrar a new one when you found out that you were to be assigned to the Lady Bug."
"Oh. You heard about that? I could have been more discreet," said Tazim.
"Don't worry about it. Virtually every cadet wants to be assigned to the Cicada. But you're lucky to be here, you know."
"I know," said Tazim. "I was an idiot." To change the subject, she asked, "Is that true that you can tell what each other is thinking?"
"No," said Mona
"Yes," said Abra.
"Only Abra thinks it's true."
"Take the seat, Driver," said Commander Zeenat.
Tazim nodded, biting back her unease. She thought that the Commander would have given her a few days to acclimatise to the Lady Bug. She had hours of immersive experience, but only a couple of hours driving the real thing. That had been on the Weevil two years ago.
"Once we're out, we on our own," said Zeenat. "The geomagnetic interference will usually prevent communications with the Five Cities. Occasionally they'll be soft spots in the field and we might receive communications from the Cities and the other bugs. Please follow voice procedure at all time."
Tazim slipped into the driver's seat, feeling the touch of the brakes, the whisper of the gears and throttle. The Lady Bug was a finely tuned instrument. She felt different subtly different to the simulations.
"Setting the heading east," said Zeenat. "There's a proposed route from the vanguards in the database."
Tazim pulled up the drive screen. Heading east past the Jagged Massifs, the Cerulean Labyrinth, towards Diayta's Ocean, and in sight of the eerie, seemingly Endless Canyon. The route turned south to the Ascomycotan Fields. These were the places she'd studied all her life. Now she would see them.
"South of the Diayta's Ocean are the Ascomycotan Fields," said Zeenat. "But the route's up to me. If I take a diversion," she shrugged, "well, what of it?"
Mona and Abra entered the drive room.
"I'll rotate the crew, stationing them in the drive room. It's important that you get to know us as quickly as possible," said Zeenat. "To be effective, we must be a family. We need to think each other's thoughts."
"And drive slow when you pass the Cerulean Labyrinth."
"Yes, Commander." The Cerulean Labyrinth was where they'd lost the last driver to an abhuman attack.
"I'm hoping to see the clan again. With a little luck they'll engage us," Zeenat flexed her hand. "We don't attack unless we've been attacked. Vanguard protocol. Let's give them plenty of time to attack."
Tazim drove away from the Wall of the World, the snaking pathway that the people had descended over generations. The road cut through miles of subsiding rock, canyons, crags, fields of ash. Sometimes the road diverted to avoid an uncrossable chasm or a smouldering plain of lava. From time to time the road was punctuated by habitations cut into the rock face to make a temporary home, for five, or ten or twenty years. Each resting place was marked with a pylon. But the road always headed downwards, always led by the vanguards. And after thirty generations, they had reached the valley floor and laid the Terminal Pylon to mark the end of their long descent. And now they said that the upper lands were unlivable, blankets of dirty ice and frozen carbon dioxide.
The city domes were covered with solar panels to grab every photon of the sun. Tall spirals of wind machines turned in the roiling winds. Tazim drove past vast fields of rice, the orchards and the newly made fungi fields where men and women drove armoured harvesting machines and ploughed the carbonised soil.
When passed the Terminal Pylon, Tazim sighed.
"It's quite a moment, isn't it?" said Mona.
"It is." Tazim had been outside the Five Cities on training missions, but she'd never gone beyond the Terminal Pylon.
"The Wall of the World is like history froze into stone, isn't it?" said Mona.
"That's exactly what I was thinking."
"There are good things to see beyond the pylon," said Mona.
She'd been born for this. Traversing the land below the wine dark sea of air, Tazim felt intoxicated by the landscape, by the sense of vastness.
The Lady Bug travelled all day and night. The terrain was uneven, but the Lady Bug handled well. Each wheel had its own suspension to cushion the ride as smoothly as if the iron clad was traversing along its own track. Although the bug could easily handle slopes, it was often quicker to divert around obstacles. It was Tazim's responsibility to negotiate the most efficient route. The journey would take ten days. The crew slept in hammocks in a communal room in the living module. The commander had her own room, which doubled as her office.
Such a small crew meant that everyone needed to be skilled in all tasks. Tazim's days were busy. When she wasn't driving, she worked to enhance her skills in gun loading, tactics, comm protocols. Zeenat expected every member of the crew to be interchangeable.
Additionally the crew were expected to make detailed observations of the landscape.
"Of course, the Lady Bug has automated sensors," explained N'rell, the scientist. "But it's often our impressions that have been the most valuable. Only mind can see mind. We can see the strangeness of the valley and the opportunities. We collect as much information as possible."
Past the lower reaches of the jagged Jagged Massif, in sight of the lights from the Cerulean Labyrinth, Tazim threaded the Lady Bug through pillars of land coral. Land coral was a valley creature, stone convoluted as brain tissue, laced with blood-red capillaries. The stone pulsed in the light of the red sun.
N'rell sat next to Tazim discussing the land coral. "Animal vegetable and mineral," she said. "You find that a lot in valley creatures. It's as if traditional distinctions have broken down here as life seeks to adapt to changed conditions." N'rell liked to speculate on valley life-forms. The creatures were of intense interest to her, but she discussed them in a measured manner, devoid of emotion. It was an attitude that Tazim had noticed in other scientists.
Tazim found the pulsing brain coral repellent. She stared at the landscape, half-listening to N'rell's discourse. Animal, vegetable and mineral seemed an unlikely convergence of life forms. It was as if the creatures of the valley had transgressed wholesome boundaries into something dubious and repugnant.
From behind the coral corridors something clearly animal emerged. "Abhumans!" said N'rell.
Tazim slowed the Lady Bug to a crawl. She activated the comm bug wide. "Abhumans spotted at 30 degrees."
"Acknowledged," replied the Commander instantly.
The abhumans were naked, small humanoids with eyes too large for their heads glittering like the faceted eyes of a dragon-fly.
Zeenat ran into the drive room followed by the rest of the crew. Zeenat looked through the telescopic periscope even though the abhumans were clearly displayed on the drive screen.
"Lock dispersal gun."
"Aye, Commander," said Mona.
The laser finders and low intensity vision targeted the abhumans, taking into account data thermocouple, anemometer and wind vane data. The green outline haloed the abhuman screen images, projecting the gun's dispersal fragments.
"Dispersal gun locked."
"I think they're going to attack," said Zeenat.
As if they sensed her, the abhumans, of one accord, retreated, disappearing behind the coral.
"Curse the sun!" muttered Zeenat. "Resume course, Driver."
"Shall I pursue?" asked Tazim.
"Negative. The bug's too big to negotiate the coral corridors quickly. They can out pace us," said Zeenat.
"Why didn't they attack? I thought they always attacked," Tazim asked once the Commander had left.
"Those ones are too smart," said N'rell.
"Are they human?"
"An interesting question." N'rell tapped her teeth. "We descended the Great Wall very slowly, others did not. The atmosphere of the valley contained factors encouraging mutation. We had time to adapt to the changing environment, their ancestors did not. This is how evolution works, adapt quickly or die. The abhumans adapted quickly and they are very different. The Cataclysm is what's known as an evolutionary significant event. Unless..."
"Unless there is another aspect of work, some factor which encourages mutation and difference."
"So is there a danger that we'll mutate?" asked Tazim.
"Change is not always for the bad," said N'rell.
"You can't mean that. You saw those things." What strange vistas did the abhumans see with their dragonfly eyes?
"Abhumans are perfectly adapted to living in the valley," said N'rell. "If we're to build homes here we must adapt, too."
"That's an unorthodox opinion," said Mona.
N'rell laughed. "I like being unorthodox. Just being here makes me freer. I think different thoughts outside the Five Cities. Can you understand that, Tazim?"
"The road led to the West," said Mona.
Tazim was surprised. "'The road led to the West' was an isolationist slogan.
"You're scaring the new crew mate."
"Not at all," said Tazim. "Do really think that we shouldn't be outside the Five Cities, Mona?"
Mona winked. "I only say it to annoy N'rell. What do you think, Tazim?"
Joke or not, 'The road led to the West' was a strange thing for a vanguard to say. Tazim had an uneasy sense that she was being tested. "Some should go," she said, "but only those who are prepared." It's what she'd always been taught.
There was palpable increase in tension within the bug as they drove closer to the Cerulean Labyrinth. Tazim could understand that. They wanted payback for their lost crew mate. The woman whose place she had taken.
"Drive carefully," advised N'rell. "The lights can have a distracting effect."
"I will," replied Tazim. She concentrated on the terrain, making sure not to venture too close to the flickering, mile high lights that marked the boundary of the labyrinth. She knew that the Cerulean Labyrinth was a dangerous place.
"There!" said Zeenat, who was scanning the landscape. "At 300 degrees."
Tazim had overlooked them. A group of abhumans stood watching the bug. They stood still as stone, bathed in blue light shadows. They were a different group from the abhumans they'd encountered in the land coral. They were taller than a normal human, but well-fed without the look of emaciation. They carried tall spears, crackling with static electricity
"The same type who attacked us a month ago." The commander leant forward staring intensely at the drive screen. "Come on, my beauties. Come on. Attack us again. You know you want to."
A spear arced through the sky. It clattered impotently off the iron clad armour.
"Lock the dispersal gun," said the commander.
A few moments later it was over. Shreds of white flesh lay in the fields.
"Shall I continue?" asked Tazim.
"No. All-stop," said the commander. "Let's root out the nest of them. Be wary, Tazim. The lights can have a hallucinatory effect."
They took hand armaments from the locker. They said little, but Tazim could sense the crew's eagerness. She shared their excitement. She stepped out of the bug, for the first time walking on valley land beyond the Final Pylon.
She'd been well warned. The Cerulean Labyrinth was disconcerting: the myriad columns of light overwhelmed her senses. Somehow, Tazim felt as if the lights were singing, although they made no noise. They followed the abhuman tracks though the labyrinth of blue lights. There was no vegetation here, only overwhelming light and the shadows. Comms were impossible. The group moved forward, led by Zeenat's hand signals. Tazim concentrated on the task, trying to avoid the pathways of light that opened up before her. Her suit was slick with perspiration, her mind intensely conscious of the fact that this was her first opportunity for face-to-face engagement with the enemy.
A spear landed at Tazim's feet. She span around, but she could see no attacker. Tazim moved a few paces forward and stepped into the pathway of a flashing light. She lost all sense. The light was singing, singing to her, in some ancient song that throbbed to the heart-beat, pulse-back of her blood. Beautiful, alluring, mesmerising. She knew that it was wrong and somehow she managed to break the spell. She turned away. How much time had passed? The crew were gone. Fear flooded her mind, until she saw a dark shape. Not knowing if it was human, she ran towards it. It was N'rell, standing helplessly in front of another hypnotic light. Tazim reached out her hand. Out of the forest of lights came a worm, silent, gliding, massive. The blue lights playing off its velvet skin, off its massive, misshapen head.
"N'rell!" Tazim drew her gun. The worm slid closer to N'rell. The lights were dazzling, yet Tazim realised the beast was mutated, a horror, a three headed thing. "N'rell!" In the flashing light Tazim wasn't sure of the shot. She might hit N'rell. Tazim half-glimpsed it's central head. Its maw was a vicious thing, lined with concentric circles of teeth. Tazim's gun was fully charged. N'rell wasn't moving. She had to take the shot. "N'rell!" she shouted a third time. The worm whipped its ancillary heads towards Tazim. She froze at the sight of the human faces buried in the flesh of the worm's heads. Human faces moving their mouths as if in silent supplication. Abomination. It hypnotised her, but there was no mind power here, only the fact of it, its unconscionable existence, that froze Tazim into immobility.
Zeenat ran towards them. "Kill it, Tazim. For Road's sake. Kill it."
But Tazim was helpless. Zeenat fired her gun in an arc of plasma. The smell of ozone and burning flesh assaulted Tazim. Zeenat moved in for the kill, severing the worm's three heads.
Tazim had failed. Just as her mother had seen in the ash. Overwhelmed, Tazim fell into darkness.
N'rell dissected the worm beast in the small science room in the Lady Bug. "This is symbiosis," she said, "or mutualism of some form."
"Nasty thing," said the commander.
"I'm sorry, N'rell," said Tazim, walking into the room. "I'm sorry, Commander. I expect that I'll be replaced when we return to the Five Cites."
The commander laughed. "That was your first face-to-face encounter with an abhuman, wasn't it?"
"Not quite what you expected?"
"That's the fear, the feeling that it was wrong crawling in your skin. You'll get used to it."
"Thinking that you don't want to get used to it? Thinking that if you do get used to it, it might make you something less than human?"
"This land will change you, Hari. But congratulations. You've just lost your cherry."
"You did okay," said Abra. "Hardly anyone manages to do anything the first time. I turned tail and fled."
At times the movement of the passing landscape was entrancing. All the strangeness seemed to blend in a continuous stream viewed through the safety of the Lady Bug. Onwards and onwards and onwards. Yet the sight of the impossibly steep-sided Endless Canyon broke Tazim's reverie. This was another oddity, another discordance in the valley, this time rendered in the fabric of the valley's geography rather than flesh.
"We cannot measure its depth," said N'rell. "And the strange thing is that our surveys tell us that this canyon is an older than the Cataclysm. I think it waiting under the earth, waiting to be revealed. What lies in its depths, I wonder?"
A grey chill glanced Tazim's spine. She felt that, too. That something loitered at the bottom of the canyon, waiting.
"Reports from the Weevil have told of hooded figures walking this area."
"I think I dreamed of this canyon, when I was a child," said Mona.
Tazim shuddered. What a nightmare for a child. "Do you still dream of it?" she asked.
Mona shook her head. "Now I only dream of the Ascomycotan Fields. Do you dream, Tazim?" she asked.
"No," said Tazim. Thinking of Mother's countless dreams. What use were dreams or patterns in the ash?
"Of course she doesn't," said the Commander. "Tazim's a soldier, not a dreamer."
"A pity," sighed Mona. "I would have liked someone to share my dreams with."
They drove along the shore of the Diayta's Ocean. This was the beginning of the Ascomycotan Fields.
"The fungal filaments grow for tens of miles," explained N'rell. "The main fields lie south of the Diayta's Ocean."
Tazim had a growing sense of unease. The crew was quiet, as if inhabited by some malignant silencing principle. Tazim felt isolated. She wondered if the crew regretted her assignment. It's early days yet, she told herself. There's time enough to fit it. Yet the few days travelling in the bug seemed a lifetime. She understood what N'rell meant when she said that Tazim would need to change to be part of the crew. The crew seemed to work together so seamlessly, anticipating each other's requests with never a word spoken.
One more day of travelling took them to south of Diayta's Ocean and into the fields. The camp was set up in silence, the habitation unfolding like origami. At least they would leave the confines of the Lady Bug, for a time.
"We're home now," said N'rell. "This is where we'll be spending most of our time."
"Show Tazim the fields," said the commander, "while we finish up here."
Under the red sky, the ascomycotan fungi thrived. The fields were abundant, lush with life. Some specimens grew three fathoms or more above the ground. A monstrous forest of flesh, layered with the lace of white hyphal threads. Many fungal trees were heavy with solitary or clustered fruits: cup-shaped, club-shaped, spongy, seed-like, oozing, coral-fronded, feathered, plated, a myriad of variety. Red, orange, yellow, brown, black, the Ascomycotan Fields mirrored the colours of the sky.
Scorpions, land crabs, centipedes, clasp worms, ants, lobopods, moss piglets crawled on the floor and over the fungus. A beetle covered in red fungus seemed particularly prevalent.
"A mushroom beetle," said N'rell. "It has a symbiotic relationship with the fungus. Glorious isn't it?" she said. N'rell's hand swept to encompass the vast fungal fields.
Glorious wasn't the word Tazim would have used.
N'rell looked like a wraith moving through the pale forest of trees. "The ascomycotans are the dominant species. They've adapted well to the limited sunlight. In time, this fungus will feed the Five Cities."
"They look unappetizing," said Tazim. She touched a leathery fruit. To her disgust it split at her light touch to reveal a gelatinous inner flesh. .
"Be careful what you touch," said N'rell. "Some of the fungi secrete power enzymes. Touch this one and it will dissolve your skin-suit. It's likely that many of these fungi have medical properties.They give us penicillin and all its derivatives, immuno-suppresors. We grow insulin, human growth hormone, and Tpa in fungal cells."
"What's that awful smell," asked Tazim.
N'rell pushed back a curtain of mycelium. "It’s a great slow river."
The festering stench was overpowering. "What is it?"
"The mushrooms are voracious. They can feed on almost anything organic by secreting powerful digestive enzymes. This river runs through the fields. It's the partially digested bodies of dead mushrooms and all the animals that feed on them."
"It's disgusting," said Tazim.
"To the mushrooms it's a river of ambrosia," said N'rell.
They took it in turns to work the fields. N'rell showed Tazim how to harvest the fungal spores. Other times, Tazim spent in the bug, working on maintenance, especially in cleaning the fuel system where degradation sludge from the bio-fuel tended to accumulate. All the new samples of fungi needed to be indexed. The worst times for Tazim were spent in the silent company of the twins and the commander.
At least N'rell liked to talk. She spoke endlessly about the adaptability of the fungus. The relationships it grew between animal and plant life. "These are the fungal gardens of leafcutter ants. These are the bark beetles carrying the fungal spores in tucks in their skin. The beetle larvae feed on the fungus. These sheets are lichens, a relationship between the fungus and algae or cyanobacteria. Lichens are an ancient symbiotic relationship. They can grow in the most extreme environments. For all we know, the world above the valley is awash with lichen fields."
"I've always been taught that there is nothing above, everything is cold and dead. That's why we descended."
"Maybe, said N'rell. "But life is tenacious."
N'rell delighted in the vitality of the mushroom fields. She seemed keen to share her finds with Tazim. She had a kinship with the land, which Tazim did not share. But Tazim was grateful for the sound of N'rell's voice.
The days seemed endless under the red ascomycotan sky. Tazim did her duties well, but she felt alone. Conversations died when she came into the room. She felt she had been judged and found unworthy. Was this mother's prophecy: she was alone and isolated under the red sky.
Tazim was cleaning the bug's recuperator filters when the voice broke into the silence like a ghost. "Distress. Unknown attack. Co-ordinates. @alpha z, 56. Point 7. Grey Attack." Tazim grabbed the radio. "This is Hari of the Lady Bug, come in. We are eight hours away, come in. We will..." The message repeated itself and only then did Tazim realise that the distress signal was on an automated loop. She commed the commander and quickly appraised her of the situation. The commander lost no time in gathering the crew. "The Cicada has been attacked." The commander checked the logs. "We're closest. Suit up. Driver, set course to the co-ordinates" "Yes, Commander." This was what she was here for, not for gathering mushrooms, but to fight. They would rescue the crew of the Cicada. She felt it, like a precognition, although she had never had anything but the weakest of night hearing. Tazim knew that the next few hours would define her career.
It was a long journey. Five hours south at maximum speed, with Tazim concentrating furiously trying to calculate the most efficient route amongst the fungus covered crags.
They found the Cicada immobilised in a field of black shoots. It was covered in fungus.
"A fungus has attacked them," said Tazim.
They were all suited. Tazim waited for the command to go outside. "Commander?" she asked.
Zeenat stood gazing at the fields.
"Commander, we should leave," said Tazim.
"Look," said N'rell. "They're beautiful, aren't they?"
"We need to rescue the crew of the Cicada," said Tazim.
"They are where they should be," said N'rell
"They are..." said Mona.
"They are..." said Abra.
"Commander?" said Tazim fearfully.
"They are...with the all in one," said Zeenat.
Commander Zeenat, N'rell, the twins. "You've been infected with something." Tazim took her knife from her belt.
"The mother fungus," whispered N'rell. "We hear her when we are close. We are...gestalt, with a common purpose, a symbiotic fungal/human mind. Growing and reforming, endless and splendid, but not human, more than human. We are the spore to the new life."
Outside, the door of the Cicada slammed opened. A dozen men and women emerged, covered in black fungus. They walked slowly, shambling things. Their movements choreographed in alignment.
"We must go back to the Five Cities for treatment."
"Don't fight it," said Zeenat, quietly. "It's worse if you fight it. I fought it very hard."
"What do you choose, Tazim?" asked N'rell. "Will you be part of the land are will you fight against it?"
"What do you choose?" asked the twins. They were swaying slightly, in one accord.
Tazim raised her knife. "I choose the Five Cities," she said, ripping her knife like a scream through the fabric of her wrist.
"She's killing herself," said Zeenat. "We must be quick."
"Even if she dies, the mother fungus will revive her," said N'rell.
"No," said Tazim. "It's not my death here. I am sorry."
Spores clouded the air. A derivative of ergot implanted in capsule under the skin of Tazim's wrist. It caused paralysis and death. For a moment Tazim feared that the fungal nature of their infection would give them immunity. But, no. Zeenat, N'rell, Mona and Abra fell to the floor.
Tazim stood for a long moment over the bodies. She was immune to the airborne poison, following months of incremental exposure to the spore. Fintrar had prepared his agent adequately.
The crew of the Cicada advanced upon the Lady Bug. Tazim targeted the dispersal gun upon them. Afterwards she turned the flame throwers upon the Cicada, upon its dead crew, and upon the mother fungus. She consigned the bodies of Zeenat, Mona, Abra and N'rell to the cleansing flame.
It was fine to ride under the wine dark ocean of sky. Fine, but not safe. In that matter the isolationists of the Five Cities were correct. The valley was a dangerous place.
Tazim drove the Lady Bug back west, searching for a soft stop in the geomagnetic current so that she could make her report.
"The channel is secure," said Fintrar. "You may speak."
"You were correct, sir. The crew of the Lady Bug was compromised. Additionally the crew of the Cicada. I had to take extreme action."
"I see. What was the nature of the compromise?"
"A fungal infection, a mind-altering parasite." Briefly Tazim outlined what little she knew.
"So there's a danger that you're infected?"
"That possibility can't be discounted, sir. Although it may be that physical contact with the mother fungus is needed for infection."
"You will remain in the valley for six months under quarantine condition. Then we will examine you."
"I will destroy the fungus fields in the Five Cities. I will investigate this mother fungus. This matter is not to be discussed, Hari. As far as the public are concerned, the crew of the Lady Bug and the Cicada died as heroes."
"In my opinion, that interpretation is valid, sir."
"And they didn't suspect you?"
"No, your plan of making me reluctant to board the Lady Bug was an effective ruse."
Fintrar smiled. "The reluctant spy. You must have played your part well."
"What made you suspect them, sir? Close to the Five Cities they appeared normal. It was only when they approached the mother fungus that their behaviour changed."
"I suspect everyone, Hari. That is the burden of war." He sighed. "But you have done well. A new driver of the Cicada will be needed. There will be a position for you."
"You have done well, Hari. You have done your duty."
"Thank you, sir."
Tazim signed off. She opened the turret hatch and looked out into the land. The valley was a hard place, hostile to human life. Any home they found here would be hard fought.
"I have done my duty," she said quietly, the words snatched by the relentless wind. She felt stripped. Duty had diminished her. And the land had changed her. She lifted her face to the touch of the eventide wind. She had done her duty, a solider alone, low under the red ascomycotan sky.
So be it.