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“Seeds?” Neil asked.


“Thousands of millions of tiny seeds,” Derek said, “microscopic seeds and spoors, plus the nutrients necessary to nourish them and the beneficial bacteria needed to sustain them—all washing down across the world, on every continent, every mountain and valley, into every river, lake, and sea.”


In a near whisper, his voice thickened by a fearful awe, Neil said, “The entire spectrum of vegetation from another world.”


“Trees and algae,” Derek speculated, “ferns and flowers, grasses and grains, fungi and mosses, herbs, vines, weeds—none of them ever before seen by any human eye, seeded now ineradicably in our soil, in our oceans.”


Shiny black with yellow spots. Glistening. Fecund. Infinitely strange.


Had this unwholesome thing indeed grown from a spoor transported with much planning and purpose through the dark cold and the empty desolation of interstellar space?


The chill that spread through Molly was different from any that she had experienced previously. It was not a quivery thing localized along the spine or the nape of the neck, did not shiver through her like a vagrant breath of eternity, but lingered. A coldness seemed to be spawned in the very cavities of her bones, in the red-and-yellow mush of marrow, from which it spread outward to every cell in every extremity.


Derek said, “If these extraterrestrial plants are aggressive—and judging by this creepy specimen, I suspect they’re going to be relentlessly incursive—then they will sooner than later crowd out and perhaps even feed upon every species of flora that’s native to Earth.”


“This beautiful world,” Molly murmured as the chill spreading through her carried with it a piercing grief, a sense of loss that she dared not contemplate.


“All of it will vanish,” Derek said. “Everything we love, from roses to oaks, elms and evergreens—eradicated.”


Black and yellow, the plump fungi coiled upon one another, tubular mushrooms nestled in the form of an eyeless snake. Smooth, glistening with an exuded film of oil. Luxuriant. Proliferous and merciless.


“If by some miracle,” Derek continued, “some of us were to survive the initial phase of alien occupation, if we were able to live in primitive communities, furtively, in the secret corners where the world’s ruthless new masters wouldn’t see us, how soon would we be left without any familiar food?”


Neil said, “The vegetables and fruits and grains of another world wouldn’t necessarily be poisonous to us.”


“Not necessarily all of them,” Derek agreed, “but surely some would be.”


“And if they weren’t poisonous,” Molly wondered, “would we find them palatable?”


“Bitter,” Derek guessed. “Or intolerably sour, or so acidic they would sicken us. Even if palatable, would they nourish us? Would the nutrients be in chains of molecules that our digestive systems could break down and utilize? Or would we fill our stomachs with food…and nevertheless starve to death?”


Derek Sawtelle’s cultured voice, reverberant by nature, rich with dramatic technique polished by decades in the classroom and on the lecture-hall stage, had half mesmerized Molly. She shook herself to shed the bleak spell that his grim words had cast upon her.


“Damn,” he said, “I talked myself sober, and I don’t like it on this side of the gin curtain. Too scary.”


Desperate to refute Derek’s vision of their future, Molly said, “We’re assuming that this thing, this fungus, is from another world, but we don’t really know that. I’ll admit I’ve never seen anything like it…but so what? There are lots of exotic funguses I’ve never seen, some probably stranger-looking than this.”


“I’ve another thing to show you,” Derek said, “something much more disturbing—and unfortunately more sobering—than what you’ve seen so far.”


22


ON ONE KNEE IN THE JANITORIAL CLOSET, with Molly crouching more at his side now than behind him, and with Neil standing over him, Derek withdrew a Swiss Army knife from a pocket of his tweed sports jacket.


Molly could think of no one less likely to be carrying a Swiss Army knife than this bow-tied academic. Then she realized that among the tools included in that clever instrument were a corkscrew and a bottle opener.


Derek employed neither of those devices but instead extracted the spear blade. He hesitated with the point of the knife above one of the clustered fungi.


His hand shook. These tremors weren’t the consequence of either intoxication or alcohol withdrawal.


“When I did this before,” he said, “I was pleasantly soused, full of the giddy curiosity that makes dipsomania such an adventure. Now I’m sober, and I know what I’m going to find—and I’m astonished that I had the courage to do this the first time.”


Having steeled himself, he poked the blade into the tubular cap of one of the fattest of the fungi.


The entire colony, not just the pierced specimen, quivered like gelatin.


From the wound, a puff of pale vapor escaped with an audible wheeze, suggesting that the interior of the mushroomlike structure had been pressurized. The malodorous vapor reeked like a concoction of rotten eggs, vomit, and decomposing flesh.


Molly gagged, and Derek said, “I should have warned you. But it dissipates quickly.”


He slit the membrane that he had already punctured, revealing the inner structure of the fungus.


The interior was not solidly meaty, like that of an ordinary mushroom, but a hollow chamber. A graceful architecture of spongy struts supported the surface membrane that Derek had slit.


A wet mass, the size of a hen’s egg, lay at the center of this chamber. At first glimpse, Molly thought of intestines because these looked, in miniature, like ropey human guts, but gray and mottled as if corrupted, infected, cancerous.


Then she saw that these coils and loops were slowly moving, sliding lazily over and around one another. The better comparison was to a knot of copulating earthworms.


The reeking vapor lost, the black-and-yellow membrane slit, these worm forms continued their sensuous writhing for only three or four seconds—and abruptly disengaged, bristled to every curve of the chamber. They became a dozen questing tentacles much quicker than worms, connected to something unseen at the bottom of the hollow, as quick and jittery as spider legs, frenziedly probing the knife-torn edges of the ruined canopy.


Molly tensed, shrank back, certain that the repulsive resident of the fungus would spring out of its lair and, loose, would prove to be faster than a cockroach.


“It’s all right,” Derek assured her.


Neil said, “The fungus is a home to something, like the shell of a conch.”


“No, I don’t think so.” Derek wiped the blade of his knife on his display handkerchief. “You can strain for earthly comparisons, but there really isn’t one. From what I can tell, this squirmy little creepshow is part of the fungus itself.”


The frenetic lashing of the small tentacles subsided. They continued to move quickly, but now in a more calculated manner.


Molly sensed that they were embarked on some task, though she could not at once discern their purpose.


“The rapid movement,” Neil said, “the ability to flex at will and manipulate appendages…those things indicate animal life, not plants.”


Molly agreed. “There’s got to be muscle tissue involved, which plants don’t have.”


Discarding his soiled display handkerchief, Derek said, “On the planet they come from, there may not be as clear a division between plant and animal life as we have on this world.”


Beginning at both ends of the torn canopy, the tentacles had begun to repair the gash.


“I’d need to look more closely than I care to,” Derek said, “and perhaps with a magnifying glass, to be able to tell exactly how they knit the wound shut. The tentacles appear to be exuding a bonding material…”


Molly could see a pinkish ooze seeping from the tips of some of those busy appendages.


“…but I think I also detect microfilaments, as well…as if the damn thing is stitching itself shut much the way a surgeon might close an incision.” He shrugged. “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”


With a fascination equal to her disgust and dread, Molly could not look away from the self-repairing fungus—if that was the right name for it.


“Imagine,” Derek proposed, “a world filled with a variety of hideous plants that all present a still exterior…but teem with secret internal life.”


Molly knew that on the distant world from which it had come, this fungus had been as natural and unremarkable in its environment as a dandelion in an earthly field. Reason did not allow her to attribute a moral value to it any more than she could rationally ascribe conscious intention to a carrot.


Nevertheless, judging only by the evidence of her eyes, she felt that this thing was profoundly malignant. On an intuitive level, she knew that it harbored malice, that in some strange way it dreamed of violence, as a trap-door spider might dream of sucking the juices from the beetle that sooner or later would fall into its lair, though this thing dreamed of cruelty with a glee that no spider could ever experience, with a ferocity that transcended nature. On a level even deeper than intuition, in that realm of belief that is of the heart rather than of the mind, and might be called faith, she had no doubt whatsoever that this life form, whether fungus or not, whether plant or animal or something between, was not just poisonous but evil.


As the repulsive thing finished sewing itself together from the inside, as the squirming gray tentacles disappeared behind the glossy black-and-yellow-spotted skin, it seemed to have no rightful place in a universe created by the God of light, but belonged in another universe than this one, where the divine impulse had been dark and twisted, the divine intention cruel beyond imagining.


Folding the blade of his knife into the handle, pocketing it, Derek looked at Molly. “You still think it might be just an exotic mushroom you’ve never happened to run across before?”


“No,” she admitted.


23


AFTER MOLLY AND DEREK HAD RETREATED from the janitorial closet, Neil took one last look at the fungus before switching off the light in there. Closing the door, he said, “If we explored Black Lake right now, we’d find those things all over town, wouldn’t we?”


“Those and God knows what else,” Derek replied. “Fast-track terraforming. The growing cycle has begun. In the streets and parks, in backyards and alleyways, in school playgrounds, out there in the forests, at the bottom of the lake—oh, everywhere, everywhere—we will find a new world growing, a botanical wonderland of things we’ve never seen before and that we’ll wish we’d never seen at all.”


With sudden, devastating understanding, Molly said, “The air.”


“I wondered when you’d think of that,” Derek said.


Trees, grasses, the vast floating fields of algae in the seas: The flora of Earth filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As a by-product of photosynthesis, they pump out oxygen. Vital, life-sustaining oxygen.


What process, similar to but different from photosynthesis, might this alien vegetation employ? Instead of oxygen, might it produce another gas? The current equation could conceivably be reversed: oxygen in, carbon dioxide out.


“How many days before we notice that we’re suffering from oxygen deprivation?” Derek wondered. “If we even do notice. After all, one of the symptoms of oxygen deprivation is delirium. How many weeks before we suffocate like fish flopping on a beach?”


These questions staggered the mind and so oppressed the heart that Molly felt prescient when she remembered how she had earlier thought of Derek Sawtelle as the embodiment of the mortal temptation to despair.


The astringent piney scent of the deodorizing cakes and the more subtle but repugnant effluvium of stale urine seemed to burn in Molly’s nostrils and throat. She inhaled shallowly to avoid those unpleasant smells. When that didn’t work, and when she found that without conscious volition she had suddenly begun breathing more deeply and rapidly, she recognized an incipient panic attack and strove to repress it.


“Perhaps we should hope to suffocate sooner than later,” Derek said, “before the beasts of that other world are set loose among us.”


“If news reports can be trusted, they’re already in the cities,” Neil reminded him.


Derek shook his head. “By ‘beasts,’ I don’t mean the invaders themselves, but all the many animals of their world, the beasts of their fields and forests, the predators and the serpents and the insects. I suspect some of them are going to be more vicious and terrifying than anything the poor damn science-fiction writers have ever dreamed up in their darkest stories.”


In a voice thick with sarcasm, Neil said, “Gosh, Derek, I never realized what a fountain of positive thoughts you are.”


“It’s not pessimism. It’s simply the truth,” Derek said. “Too much of the truth is never a good idea.” He led them out of the men’s room, into the hallway. “Which is why I’m inviting you to my table. Cast your fate with the tipplers, the tosspots, and make the best use possible of what time we have left. Come pour down a few glasses of anesthesia. We aren’t the cheery lot we usually are, not quick to laugh at all tonight, but shared melancholy can be comforting, even sweet. In place of anxiety and grief and anger, we offer you a great warm gently rolling sea of melancholy.”


When Derek tried to take Molly by the arm and escort her back to the main room of the tavern, she resisted him. “I’ve got to use the rest room.”


“You’ll forgive me if I don’t wait for you,” Derek said. “But there’s perilous little gin oiling my system at the moment, and I’m afraid that if I don’t quickly pour a pint of Gordon’s best in my crankcase, this old machine is going to stutter to a stop.”


“I wouldn’t want to be responsible for your crankshaft freezing up,” she said with a thin smile. “You go ahead.”


They watched the professor make his way back toward oblivion, and when they were alone in the short hallway, Neil said, “You look…gray.”


“I feel gray. Dear Lord, can it really be as grim as he’s painted it?”


Neil had no answer for her. Or perhaps he preferred not to put into words the only answer that seemed honest.


“I wasn’t just trying to be shed of him,” Molly said. “I really do need to use the bathroom. Wait here for me. Stay close.”

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