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Fiction

Welcome, Alyson

By J. D. Kurtness
Translated from French by Hannah Allen-Shim
In this short story by J. D. Kurtness, a middle-aged woman in Quebec becomes the first victim of a global catastrophe.
Sunlight illuminates a forest
Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash
Listen to J. D. Kurtness read from "Bienvenue, Alyson" in the original French
 
 

Once upon a time, there was a social science student at the Cégep d’Alma named Bastien. He’d chosen the general “Human Interactions” program because it seemed like his easiest option.

Bastien rarely attended his classes. He preferred spending his time playing games on PlayStation and chatting with his friends on social media. Bastien was also a heavy consumer of THC and CBD, which he incorporated into a beverage of his own creation that everyone but him found disgusting: a mixture of spruce beer, cannabis oil, and tonic water with quinine.

One morning, Bastien came down long enough to think about the fact that his mother hadn’t wired him any money. Usually, Francine transferred between three hundred and three hundred and fifty dollars at the beginning of each month to bail her son out since student financial assistance wasn’t enough. It was June 11. What was she waiting for? Did she think he’d finally found a summer job? He hadn’t even started looking.

***

The first victim was initially treated as a fait divers. A fiftysomething woman from Larouche was missing. Her son was the one who reported her disappearance to the authorities. No one knew where she was. The last person who had spoken to her was a certain Jean-Pierre Nault, owner of God Almightea, a craft store that doubled as a tearoom. God Almightea was visited by tourists on their way to the Pointe-Taillon beach, looking for a tasteful vacation souvenir. Jean-Pierre kept Francine’s ceramics in stock in exchange for half of the sales proceeds. Their last exchange dated back to May 18, or nearly a month before the Sûreté du Québec finally took up the case. Francine had enthusiastically described her new collection to Jean-Pierre: a series of gray-blue bowls crossed by a somewhat wide brown band. 

Francine had vanished. When Bastien reported his mother missing on June 13, the investigator who received his complaint by phone assured him that there was nothing to worry about. At the midpoint of their lives, people became impulsive and adopted new “behaviors.” Could this be a sign that it was time for Bastien to stand on his own two feet? A patrol was nonetheless sent to Francine’s dwelling. They found the doors locked and the car parked in the gravel driveway—no sign of a break-in. The large windows revealed clean, tidy rooms. Francine could have gone out for a walk. Since no crime had been committed and people were free to move around as they pleased, the authorities could do nothing else for the moment. They would have to wait. A two-day lack of communication between mother and son could not be considered synonymous with disappearance. Call us back in a week or two. Bastien hung up, depressed and feverish.

He did what young people today do: he logged into the Discord channel he shared with his friends and turned on his camera and microphone. LeBastouche spoke at length before bursting into tears before the bewildered eyes of JigglySauce01 and Kingcan_Roy, who recorded the scene. This cri de cœur spread like wildfire in the region, initially because everyone sort of knows each other, and especially because someone uploaded the video onto “Spotted Alma,” the local Facebook page. The poor boy seemed sincere. He was looking for his mother, his eyes wet and his hairless cheeks red with emotion. If he weren’t missing the white spots along his flanks, you might have mistaken him for Bambi. Radio and television stations took up the torch. Since it was summer and the news flow was thin, all of Québec wondered where Francine Hamel had gone.

Stung by commentators’ accusations of inaction and incompetence, the Sûreté du Québec opened an investigation into the fifty-four-year-old woman’s disappearance. The Independent Investigations Office followed suit and opened its own investigation into the SQ’s practices. Several people’s vacations were canceled. Everyone was still getting organized when citizens decided to take matters into their own hands.

A volunteer search was organized on June 20. It was a radiant day, with all the birdsong and tender green leaves you could ask for. At 6:30 in the morning, the sun was high and beating down strong on the pale skins of early summer. The participants proceeded in silence, scanning the ground and pressing the long grass at the bottom of the road with their walking sticks or cross-country ski poles. Another group dealt with the forest behind Francine’s bungalow. Several trails led to her backyard full of hummingbird feeders and dried-up birdbaths. Had they really known Francine, the patrollers sent a week earlier would have noticed the empty feeders. Francine would never have left her hummingbirds without sugar water.

They found her four hours after the search began. She was lying on her back, eyes closed and features relaxed, on a bed of green moss. Tall pine trees towered all around, and if you had lain down exactly where Francine was found, you would have seen the tips of the slender trees dance in the cool, late-morning breeze. A falcon circled above the scene in silent contemplation.

Though the corpse must have been there for at least two weeks, it didn’t give off a nauseating odor. Quite the contrary—a subtle and delicious fragrance floated in the air. Some found it had a lemony aroma. For others, it brought to mind the freshness of cold winter days. Since everyone was too embarrassed to comment on the pleasant smell of what was considered a crime scene, no one brought it up. It was as if Francine had lain down there and never woken up. Her clothes were neatly folded on a mushroom-studded stump. The gray body showed no trace of violence. Instead of being swollen from the pecking of vultures, Francine, or what remained of her physical envelope, was intact. The coroner would write “mummified” in his preliminary report.

***

The investigator responsible for the file had a habit of drawing the crime scenes he worked on. In his opinion, photos didn’t do justice to a site’s distinctive ambience: overexposed to bring out every detail, they came in handy but lacked soul. Sketches helped Gauthier organize his ideas and take in the space. He preferred looking at the bigger picture and observing how natural light affected each scene.

He slowly walked around the undergrowth where the body lay before sitting on the stump where the clothes had been left. The good Samaritans who found Francine had been dismissed. There was no one around other than his colleagues, who spoke in hushed voices. The scene was peaceful, with the song of chickadees and white-throated sparrows to accompany his thoughts.

He bent over to admire the mushrooms. He found them beautiful, even exceptional, with their delicate yellow stems crowned by bulbous hats. They grew in clusters all around where he was sitting. He wasn’t familiar with the species. He had a firm intuition that the fungi were important for the case, but at this stage, mentioning them would be absurd. Yet, as soon as the idea popped into his head, the cause of death became clear:

The mushrooms had lured Francine here. Knowing she regularly walked in this undergrowth, they laid a trap for her. The woman was predictable: once a week, weather permitting, she took a long walk along one of the forest trails behind her home. The mycelium had drawn up an ambush adorned with its finest visual and olfactive accoutrements. Francine represented the first stage of a large-scale project. Nothing could stop the wheels of the immense scheme already set in motion.

Investigator Gauthier understood all that in less than a second. He leaped to his feet and left the scene. It made no sense, but he felt that the forest had whispered the answers to questions he hadn’t even had time to formulate. One would think he’d gone mad.

Thanks to a Cartesian mind armed with seventeen years of experience in factual analysis and case cracking, he managed to convince himself that it was just a ridiculous intuition, that those things only happened in books, and that he wasn’t going to risk his career on a whim. How could he possibly present such a far-fetched explanation to the population, scientists, or worse, the media?

It was just a waltz of the imagination, the most terrifying he’d danced of late, yet this delirium wasn’t far off from the nightmares that plagued his mind while tracking down the region’s most depraved individuals. He would reduce his screen time and use his accumulated leave to take a vacation. He had always dreamed of going to Peru and seeing the Incan ruins. He would climb Machu Picchu and admire the Andes.

Upon returning to the Saguenay police station, the investigator hastily drew the mushrooms in his notebook and typed out a brief preliminary report listing dates, places, testimonies gathered, and descriptions of the crime scene. He slipped everything into the case file and headed to human resources to request his vacation. Before driving off, he bought a plane ticket on his phone. He started the car and took the usual way home. His two-month leave had officially begun.

The next day was a Tuesday. He filled a gym bag with his favorite clothes as his wife and three daughters looked on in disbelief. There was no use explaining himself—they would never understand. He had tried with his youngest, Clémentine, but the nine-year-old’s imagination was already oriented toward the world of adults. He had felt the judgment in her eyes and questions. Ultimately, he had made a joke and forced himself to lie to avoid alarming her.

He promised to bring them a souvenir and left the house without looking back. Thirty-six hours after visiting the crime scene, Investigator Gauthier was roaming the bumpy streets of an elsewhere he’d only dreamed of until then. He took a deep breath. It had been a close call. Now that he felt safe, he could let his mind run loose and further reflect on the mushrooms. The evil mushrooms, his inner voice whispered. Gauthier was now convinced he’d fallen victim to a hallucination induced by some psychotropic substance. He would mention it to the person handling the case upon his return. It was up to others to skim through his sketchbook and try to find some sort of lead. At any rate, no crime had been committed according to the law. So far, not a single mushroom had been found guilty of its actions. A fly agaric had never been put on trial. He decided to forget about the whole affair and asked Google Maps to recommend a restaurant where he could try the local cuisine.

***

The autopsy revealed cardiac arrest, but the cause remained unknown. Although the victim was slightly overweight and her arteries hardened by the onset of atherosclerosis, there was no justification for the abrupt end to her project of tricolored bowls too small for cereal and too big for olives.

The Chicoutimi Hospital pathologist noticed a fine pink dust covering the corpse’s neck and ears. Microscope analysis of the dust revealed garlands of orange, red, and white spores. After a few minutes of careful observation, the pathologist was seized by an irrepressible urge to taste the colorful powder. She tore off her mask and took a big whiff of aseptic air. She licked the tip of her latex-covered index finger and, with a gentle tap, poured out the contents of the small vial in which she’d placed the spores. Then she opened her mouth and touched the powder-coated finger to her tongue.

Under the industrial neon lights of the morgue, dressed in her pastel uniform, bouffant cap, and latex gloves, the pathologist closed her eyes and saw herself in the middle of a lush green meadow. The mauve sky foreshadowed a storm, as did a flock of low-flying sparrows. The wind whipped the grass and made it undulate in waves. The air was heavy and saturated with static electricity.

The taste was subtle and somewhat sweet. It reminded her of the base of the clover petals she would tear off in bunches and suck on as a child. She savored her pink pinchful for almost a minute before coming to her senses and continuing her work. It took every ounce of her being to resist licking Francine’s neck, where a few grains of pollen had escaped her surgical aspirator. She put her mask back on, changed gloves, and removed the slide from the microscope to send a sample to the Quebec medical laboratory. Competent colleagues would take over from there. She herself had better things to do.

The pathologist took a fifteen-minute break to make a few phone calls about buying the large Sainte-Rose-du-Nord plot she’d been eyeing on Centris for months. She would finalize the paperwork with her notary that same afternoon before sending a terse email to management containing her formal resignation letter. There was lots of work ahead of her. She would finally set up the animal sanctuary she’d been dreaming about for years.

Three weeks after Francine Hamel’s autopsy, the Newfound Ark welcomed its first resident, an alpaca named Gerry. The ex-pathologist watched it trot about for an hour while sucking on clover petals.

***

In the weeks following the discovery of the body, the situation degenerated considerably in the municipality of Larouche. Two of Francine’s neighbors who’d taken part in the search returned to the stump and its carpet of moss. They, in turn, were found buck-naked and lying on their backs. Instead of being neatly folded, their clothes were scattered haphazardly. The bodily fluids at this new crime scene pointed to steamy sexual intercourse before death. Most striking was the expression of pleasure on the lifeless faces. The freshness of the corpses revealed red patches covering the victims’ necks, ankles, and wrists. The forensic science team dispatched to the scene took more than three hundred pictures of the undergrowth and victims. Upon enlarging the images, they noticed that the red patches were caused by hundreds of dots resembling microscopic pinpricks. They pulled the handle of the refrigerator drawer to see if Francine Hamel bore the same marks, but she was no more than a crumbly heap of cartilage and bones on the stainless-steel plate.

They took samples of all the insects and plants they could find in the area. Yet no one thought of digging. Three of the five technicians who worked on the scene quit their jobs the next day: the first, to devote himself to a jazz fusion project; the second, to walk across the country; and the third, to start his own kombucha business. The other two technicians ended their respective relationships and confessed their feelings for each other.

These events didn’t draw any attention: no one bothered to ask questions or cross-check information. Yet the staff defections were starting to cause serious issues for law enforcement officers, who hesitated to make the matter public for fear of losing face or convincing dormant criminals that it was time to run rampant. For lack of employees, the investigations went nowhere. Everyone who handled samples or ventured into the cursed undergrowth resigned or requested vacation. Monitoring, already a fragile concept in any self-respecting public office, was nonexistent.

It wasn’t until midsummer, when hordes of people could be seen rushing into the woods, never to come out again, that the authorities started to panic. They called in all uninfected police forces and the army, cordoning off a five-square-kilometer wooded area to conduct analyses. Almost a third of the police officers responsible for blocking access to the perimeter were found lying on the ground, smiling and lifeless. The others quit. Hazmat suits were deemed necessary for canvassing the area and collecting samples in containers reserved for level 4 biological threats. Part of the forest was then burned down with flamethrowers, much to the displeasure of environmental organizations.

It was of no use; the movement escalated. The local residents adopted impulsive behaviors: resigning, moving, breaking up, changing genders, engaging in spontaneous acts of kindness, even total generosity. The crime rate dropped to zero. Hospitals slowly emptied. Patients no longer entered—they were only ever discharged. Everyone who traveled to Saguenay and didn’t end up naked in the woods came back changed. Nothing mattered to them besides the desire to do good and commune with nature.

Media around the world descended on Saguenay for the show. It was rumored to be the land of happiness. One woman managed to break free from her exhilarating trance long enough to come back and tell the cameras about her transcendental experience. She had seen and understood everything and now felt an infinite love for all things. Afterward, she went right back to lying down with the other ecstatics and was never seen again.

Live videos of delirious influencers began to circulate on social media. Millions of followers witnessed their deaths in real time. People confided in their cell phone cameras, claiming they finally understood the meaning of life. Others wept with joy and screamed that beauty was everywhere before stripping off their clothes and ecstatically rolling on the ground. They fell asleep with a sigh. Their chests stopped rising a few minutes or hours later. Journalists, cameramen, and directors fared no better. Live reporting was discontinued, deemed too risky for the image of serious press groups. Most teams never came back from their assignments.

The earth tirelessly digested humans, the way it digests all things. In three weeks, nothing was left of a person’s body, its moisture completely inhaled by thousands of translucid threads. Once dry, the carcass, turned to dust, flew off at the slightest breeze. The rain finished the job. It was a massacre.

By August 28, three months after the offensive began, Saguenay had witnessed 3,176 deaths. The forbidden area was extended to the entire region. Nevertheless, people managed to elude law enforcement’s vigilance and enter the dangerous territory.

Other outbreaks of contamination appeared in North America, then all over the world. Investigator Gauthier never came home. He plunged into the Peruvian jungle and decided to stay there. In the end, pursuing the mushrooms’ trail came at the cost of immense losses in the ranks of mycologists. A team of scientists from Bangladesh nonetheless discovered a mycelial network covering an area of forty acres. Elsewhere, scientists dug the loose soil to observe the growing presence of similar networks in temperate, tropical, swampy, and even semi-arid environments. All human populations were affected. Unable to resist the spores’ call, those who’d recently undergone life changes ultimately found their final resting place in nature.

Determined to live, the survivors locked themselves up at home with powerful air purifiers. Some fled to the driest lands where nothing grew. They died of thirst or cold in the deserts. Many perished at sea. Agriculture ceased. City dwellers had to get out or starve to death. The spore-saturated air led those who had failed to procure a gas mask toward the rich humus of the forests. Eventually, they all made one fatal mistake: an ill-fitting mask, an open window, or a poorly sealed door. Eating and drinking in a perfectly spore-free environment proved impossible.

Due to their isolation, the twelve residents of Antarctica’s Concordia Station managed to survive two hundred and sixty-seven days longer than the other continents’ last inhabitants. They vainly awaited the supply convoy meant to bring them food and equipment. No plane came to their rescue. Since they had no chance to lie down on living soil, their final moments were atrocious: hunger, thirst, cold, cannibalism, cruelty, madness.

***

The three astronauts of the International Space Station were eating their breakfast, looking rather glum. They had been rationing their food for months. Communications with Earth had ceased. Yet it was too early to risk a return aboard the Soyuz capsule attached to the station. The planet was infested by mycelium and its psychotropic spores. There was no telling whether the threat would eventually subside. Still, the three scientists were starting to feel homesick.

Dimitri was the first to notice the blurred shape materializing to the right of Canadarm2. He’d blinked, and there it was. His expletive alerted his colleagues, Jim and Alyson. They observed the big milky spot moving above the African continent on an orbit lower than their own. Shortly afterward, thousands of tentacles unfurled in every direction. The porthole misted over when one of them reached the station. The devices shut down. All one could hear was the astronauts’ breathing. Translucid filaments peeled off the walls. An ultrafine thread wrapped itself around Alyson’s wrist. Her pulse slowed down. She felt a renewed sense of calm. Something was connecting to her nerves. The foreign entity was fusing with her neurons.

***

Our world is doomed. Our immense blue star is dying, collapsing in on itself. Soon, it will be too weak to combat the densification of its mass, so enormous that its own gravity will cause it to shrink to the point of imploding.

Our civilization has been preparing to leave for seven thousand years. We cannot keep pushing off the deadline. To survive, we must abandon the system that witnessed our birth. This vessel houses our collective consciousness. Billions of simultaneous connections focalized on the same objective for seven millennia: leave, save our skin. We have no skin.

Like your sharks, our species has existed for three hundred million years. We evolved. We first abandoned our bodily form, then became a single entity in the eighteenth millennium of our calendar. We have no more children—only ideas.

The vessel soars into the sky. Autonomous, secure, comfortable. Unlike those built before, this one will never return. We refused to clone our mind in multiple ships. Our unicity is the only thing keeping us alive. We cannot bring ourselves to abandon this final frontier. We have only one chance. There is no room for error.

Our machine was built to last five billion years, in other words, forever. Yet we learned to believe in our longevity. We’ve existed for three hundred million years, preserving traces to keep track of our history. At this rate, we might make it another three hundred million years or more.

We designed a vessel to accommodate us as long as the stars keep shining in the universe. For what’s the point of living if all the stars die out? Existing in the void, though it may be the condition of all consciousness, is not a happy prospect.

We have been traveling for twenty thousand years. We crossed what you call “the Milky Way” in search of habitable worlds. We found thousands. Yours is the most beautiful. Earth is our refuge. We must subdue you, not leave you to yourselves, or else the damage will only get worse. After twenty millennia of existing within the confines of our vessel, we dream of living soil where we can plant our roots. We’re sick of the void.

We chose to establish contact through mycelium. Although we evolved thousands of light-years apart, we share a common wisdom, modes of communication, and a similar relationship to space-time. Mycelium is your world’s most evolved life form. You hardly had a clue. You thought an intelligent entity would choose your species as an interlocutor, but you only interest us enough to be spared from annihilation.

We made an executive decision. We saved your souls. You are now one with us and the mycelium. Soon, all borders will disappear. We will be a single mind driven by powerful desires. We will be the earth, the plants, and all the delicate creatures that tread our world.

Welcome, Alyson.

“Bienvenue, Alyson” copyright © Éditions Hannenorak, Julie Kurtness. Translation © 2024 by Hannah Allen-Shim. All rights reserved.

English

Once upon a time, there was a social science student at the Cégep d’Alma named Bastien. He’d chosen the general “Human Interactions” program because it seemed like his easiest option.

Bastien rarely attended his classes. He preferred spending his time playing games on PlayStation and chatting with his friends on social media. Bastien was also a heavy consumer of THC and CBD, which he incorporated into a beverage of his own creation that everyone but him found disgusting: a mixture of spruce beer, cannabis oil, and tonic water with quinine.

One morning, Bastien came down long enough to think about the fact that his mother hadn’t wired him any money. Usually, Francine transferred between three hundred and three hundred and fifty dollars at the beginning of each month to bail her son out since student financial assistance wasn’t enough. It was June 11. What was she waiting for? Did she think he’d finally found a summer job? He hadn’t even started looking.

***

The first victim was initially treated as a fait divers. A fiftysomething woman from Larouche was missing. Her son was the one who reported her disappearance to the authorities. No one knew where she was. The last person who had spoken to her was a certain Jean-Pierre Nault, owner of God Almightea, a craft store that doubled as a tearoom. God Almightea was visited by tourists on their way to the Pointe-Taillon beach, looking for a tasteful vacation souvenir. Jean-Pierre kept Francine’s ceramics in stock in exchange for half of the sales proceeds. Their last exchange dated back to May 18, or nearly a month before the Sûreté du Québec finally took up the case. Francine had enthusiastically described her new collection to Jean-Pierre: a series of gray-blue bowls crossed by a somewhat wide brown band. 

Francine had vanished. When Bastien reported his mother missing on June 13, the investigator who received his complaint by phone assured him that there was nothing to worry about. At the midpoint of their lives, people became impulsive and adopted new “behaviors.” Could this be a sign that it was time for Bastien to stand on his own two feet? A patrol was nonetheless sent to Francine’s dwelling. They found the doors locked and the car parked in the gravel driveway—no sign of a break-in. The large windows revealed clean, tidy rooms. Francine could have gone out for a walk. Since no crime had been committed and people were free to move around as they pleased, the authorities could do nothing else for the moment. They would have to wait. A two-day lack of communication between mother and son could not be considered synonymous with disappearance. Call us back in a week or two. Bastien hung up, depressed and feverish.

He did what young people today do: he logged into the Discord channel he shared with his friends and turned on his camera and microphone. LeBastouche spoke at length before bursting into tears before the bewildered eyes of JigglySauce01 and Kingcan_Roy, who recorded the scene. This cri de cœur spread like wildfire in the region, initially because everyone sort of knows each other, and especially because someone uploaded the video onto “Spotted Alma,” the local Facebook page. The poor boy seemed sincere. He was looking for his mother, his eyes wet and his hairless cheeks red with emotion. If he weren’t missing the white spots along his flanks, you might have mistaken him for Bambi. Radio and television stations took up the torch. Since it was summer and the news flow was thin, all of Québec wondered where Francine Hamel had gone.

Stung by commentators’ accusations of inaction and incompetence, the Sûreté du Québec opened an investigation into the fifty-four-year-old woman’s disappearance. The Independent Investigations Office followed suit and opened its own investigation into the SQ’s practices. Several people’s vacations were canceled. Everyone was still getting organized when citizens decided to take matters into their own hands.

A volunteer search was organized on June 20. It was a radiant day, with all the birdsong and tender green leaves you could ask for. At 6:30 in the morning, the sun was high and beating down strong on the pale skins of early summer. The participants proceeded in silence, scanning the ground and pressing the long grass at the bottom of the road with their walking sticks or cross-country ski poles. Another group dealt with the forest behind Francine’s bungalow. Several trails led to her backyard full of hummingbird feeders and dried-up birdbaths. Had they really known Francine, the patrollers sent a week earlier would have noticed the empty feeders. Francine would never have left her hummingbirds without sugar water.

They found her four hours after the search began. She was lying on her back, eyes closed and features relaxed, on a bed of green moss. Tall pine trees towered all around, and if you had lain down exactly where Francine was found, you would have seen the tips of the slender trees dance in the cool, late-morning breeze. A falcon circled above the scene in silent contemplation.

Though the corpse must have been there for at least two weeks, it didn’t give off a nauseating odor. Quite the contrary—a subtle and delicious fragrance floated in the air. Some found it had a lemony aroma. For others, it brought to mind the freshness of cold winter days. Since everyone was too embarrassed to comment on the pleasant smell of what was considered a crime scene, no one brought it up. It was as if Francine had lain down there and never woken up. Her clothes were neatly folded on a mushroom-studded stump. The gray body showed no trace of violence. Instead of being swollen from the pecking of vultures, Francine, or what remained of her physical envelope, was intact. The coroner would write “mummified” in his preliminary report.

***

The investigator responsible for the file had a habit of drawing the crime scenes he worked on. In his opinion, photos didn’t do justice to a site’s distinctive ambience: overexposed to bring out every detail, they came in handy but lacked soul. Sketches helped Gauthier organize his ideas and take in the space. He preferred looking at the bigger picture and observing how natural light affected each scene.

He slowly walked around the undergrowth where the body lay before sitting on the stump where the clothes had been left. The good Samaritans who found Francine had been dismissed. There was no one around other than his colleagues, who spoke in hushed voices. The scene was peaceful, with the song of chickadees and white-throated sparrows to accompany his thoughts.

He bent over to admire the mushrooms. He found them beautiful, even exceptional, with their delicate yellow stems crowned by bulbous hats. They grew in clusters all around where he was sitting. He wasn’t familiar with the species. He had a firm intuition that the fungi were important for the case, but at this stage, mentioning them would be absurd. Yet, as soon as the idea popped into his head, the cause of death became clear:

The mushrooms had lured Francine here. Knowing she regularly walked in this undergrowth, they laid a trap for her. The woman was predictable: once a week, weather permitting, she took a long walk along one of the forest trails behind her home. The mycelium had drawn up an ambush adorned with its finest visual and olfactive accoutrements. Francine represented the first stage of a large-scale project. Nothing could stop the wheels of the immense scheme already set in motion.

Investigator Gauthier understood all that in less than a second. He leaped to his feet and left the scene. It made no sense, but he felt that the forest had whispered the answers to questions he hadn’t even had time to formulate. One would think he’d gone mad.

Thanks to a Cartesian mind armed with seventeen years of experience in factual analysis and case cracking, he managed to convince himself that it was just a ridiculous intuition, that those things only happened in books, and that he wasn’t going to risk his career on a whim. How could he possibly present such a far-fetched explanation to the population, scientists, or worse, the media?

It was just a waltz of the imagination, the most terrifying he’d danced of late, yet this delirium wasn’t far off from the nightmares that plagued his mind while tracking down the region’s most depraved individuals. He would reduce his screen time and use his accumulated leave to take a vacation. He had always dreamed of going to Peru and seeing the Incan ruins. He would climb Machu Picchu and admire the Andes.

Upon returning to the Saguenay police station, the investigator hastily drew the mushrooms in his notebook and typed out a brief preliminary report listing dates, places, testimonies gathered, and descriptions of the crime scene. He slipped everything into the case file and headed to human resources to request his vacation. Before driving off, he bought a plane ticket on his phone. He started the car and took the usual way home. His two-month leave had officially begun.

The next day was a Tuesday. He filled a gym bag with his favorite clothes as his wife and three daughters looked on in disbelief. There was no use explaining himself—they would never understand. He had tried with his youngest, Clémentine, but the nine-year-old’s imagination was already oriented toward the world of adults. He had felt the judgment in her eyes and questions. Ultimately, he had made a joke and forced himself to lie to avoid alarming her.

He promised to bring them a souvenir and left the house without looking back. Thirty-six hours after visiting the crime scene, Investigator Gauthier was roaming the bumpy streets of an elsewhere he’d only dreamed of until then. He took a deep breath. It had been a close call. Now that he felt safe, he could let his mind run loose and further reflect on the mushrooms. The evil mushrooms, his inner voice whispered. Gauthier was now convinced he’d fallen victim to a hallucination induced by some psychotropic substance. He would mention it to the person handling the case upon his return. It was up to others to skim through his sketchbook and try to find some sort of lead. At any rate, no crime had been committed according to the law. So far, not a single mushroom had been found guilty of its actions. A fly agaric had never been put on trial. He decided to forget about the whole affair and asked Google Maps to recommend a restaurant where he could try the local cuisine.

***

The autopsy revealed cardiac arrest, but the cause remained unknown. Although the victim was slightly overweight and her arteries hardened by the onset of atherosclerosis, there was no justification for the abrupt end to her project of tricolored bowls too small for cereal and too big for olives.

The Chicoutimi Hospital pathologist noticed a fine pink dust covering the corpse’s neck and ears. Microscope analysis of the dust revealed garlands of orange, red, and white spores. After a few minutes of careful observation, the pathologist was seized by an irrepressible urge to taste the colorful powder. She tore off her mask and took a big whiff of aseptic air. She licked the tip of her latex-covered index finger and, with a gentle tap, poured out the contents of the small vial in which she’d placed the spores. Then she opened her mouth and touched the powder-coated finger to her tongue.

Under the industrial neon lights of the morgue, dressed in her pastel uniform, bouffant cap, and latex gloves, the pathologist closed her eyes and saw herself in the middle of a lush green meadow. The mauve sky foreshadowed a storm, as did a flock of low-flying sparrows. The wind whipped the grass and made it undulate in waves. The air was heavy and saturated with static electricity.

The taste was subtle and somewhat sweet. It reminded her of the base of the clover petals she would tear off in bunches and suck on as a child. She savored her pink pinchful for almost a minute before coming to her senses and continuing her work. It took every ounce of her being to resist licking Francine’s neck, where a few grains of pollen had escaped her surgical aspirator. She put her mask back on, changed gloves, and removed the slide from the microscope to send a sample to the Quebec medical laboratory. Competent colleagues would take over from there. She herself had better things to do.

The pathologist took a fifteen-minute break to make a few phone calls about buying the large Sainte-Rose-du-Nord plot she’d been eyeing on Centris for months. She would finalize the paperwork with her notary that same afternoon before sending a terse email to management containing her formal resignation letter. There was lots of work ahead of her. She would finally set up the animal sanctuary she’d been dreaming about for years.

Three weeks after Francine Hamel’s autopsy, the Newfound Ark welcomed its first resident, an alpaca named Gerry. The ex-pathologist watched it trot about for an hour while sucking on clover petals.

***

In the weeks following the discovery of the body, the situation degenerated considerably in the municipality of Larouche. Two of Francine’s neighbors who’d taken part in the search returned to the stump and its carpet of moss. They, in turn, were found buck-naked and lying on their backs. Instead of being neatly folded, their clothes were scattered haphazardly. The bodily fluids at this new crime scene pointed to steamy sexual intercourse before death. Most striking was the expression of pleasure on the lifeless faces. The freshness of the corpses revealed red patches covering the victims’ necks, ankles, and wrists. The forensic science team dispatched to the scene took more than three hundred pictures of the undergrowth and victims. Upon enlarging the images, they noticed that the red patches were caused by hundreds of dots resembling microscopic pinpricks. They pulled the handle of the refrigerator drawer to see if Francine Hamel bore the same marks, but she was no more than a crumbly heap of cartilage and bones on the stainless-steel plate.

They took samples of all the insects and plants they could find in the area. Yet no one thought of digging. Three of the five technicians who worked on the scene quit their jobs the next day: the first, to devote himself to a jazz fusion project; the second, to walk across the country; and the third, to start his own kombucha business. The other two technicians ended their respective relationships and confessed their feelings for each other.

These events didn’t draw any attention: no one bothered to ask questions or cross-check information. Yet the staff defections were starting to cause serious issues for law enforcement officers, who hesitated to make the matter public for fear of losing face or convincing dormant criminals that it was time to run rampant. For lack of employees, the investigations went nowhere. Everyone who handled samples or ventured into the cursed undergrowth resigned or requested vacation. Monitoring, already a fragile concept in any self-respecting public office, was nonexistent.

It wasn’t until midsummer, when hordes of people could be seen rushing into the woods, never to come out again, that the authorities started to panic. They called in all uninfected police forces and the army, cordoning off a five-square-kilometer wooded area to conduct analyses. Almost a third of the police officers responsible for blocking access to the perimeter were found lying on the ground, smiling and lifeless. The others quit. Hazmat suits were deemed necessary for canvassing the area and collecting samples in containers reserved for level 4 biological threats. Part of the forest was then burned down with flamethrowers, much to the displeasure of environmental organizations.

It was of no use; the movement escalated. The local residents adopted impulsive behaviors: resigning, moving, breaking up, changing genders, engaging in spontaneous acts of kindness, even total generosity. The crime rate dropped to zero. Hospitals slowly emptied. Patients no longer entered—they were only ever discharged. Everyone who traveled to Saguenay and didn’t end up naked in the woods came back changed. Nothing mattered to them besides the desire to do good and commune with nature.

Media around the world descended on Saguenay for the show. It was rumored to be the land of happiness. One woman managed to break free from her exhilarating trance long enough to come back and tell the cameras about her transcendental experience. She had seen and understood everything and now felt an infinite love for all things. Afterward, she went right back to lying down with the other ecstatics and was never seen again.

Live videos of delirious influencers began to circulate on social media. Millions of followers witnessed their deaths in real time. People confided in their cell phone cameras, claiming they finally understood the meaning of life. Others wept with joy and screamed that beauty was everywhere before stripping off their clothes and ecstatically rolling on the ground. They fell asleep with a sigh. Their chests stopped rising a few minutes or hours later. Journalists, cameramen, and directors fared no better. Live reporting was discontinued, deemed too risky for the image of serious press groups. Most teams never came back from their assignments.

The earth tirelessly digested humans, the way it digests all things. In three weeks, nothing was left of a person’s body, its moisture completely inhaled by thousands of translucid threads. Once dry, the carcass, turned to dust, flew off at the slightest breeze. The rain finished the job. It was a massacre.

By August 28, three months after the offensive began, Saguenay had witnessed 3,176 deaths. The forbidden area was extended to the entire region. Nevertheless, people managed to elude law enforcement’s vigilance and enter the dangerous territory.

Other outbreaks of contamination appeared in North America, then all over the world. Investigator Gauthier never came home. He plunged into the Peruvian jungle and decided to stay there. In the end, pursuing the mushrooms’ trail came at the cost of immense losses in the ranks of mycologists. A team of scientists from Bangladesh nonetheless discovered a mycelial network covering an area of forty acres. Elsewhere, scientists dug the loose soil to observe the growing presence of similar networks in temperate, tropical, swampy, and even semi-arid environments. All human populations were affected. Unable to resist the spores’ call, those who’d recently undergone life changes ultimately found their final resting place in nature.

Determined to live, the survivors locked themselves up at home with powerful air purifiers. Some fled to the driest lands where nothing grew. They died of thirst or cold in the deserts. Many perished at sea. Agriculture ceased. City dwellers had to get out or starve to death. The spore-saturated air led those who had failed to procure a gas mask toward the rich humus of the forests. Eventually, they all made one fatal mistake: an ill-fitting mask, an open window, or a poorly sealed door. Eating and drinking in a perfectly spore-free environment proved impossible.

Due to their isolation, the twelve residents of Antarctica’s Concordia Station managed to survive two hundred and sixty-seven days longer than the other continents’ last inhabitants. They vainly awaited the supply convoy meant to bring them food and equipment. No plane came to their rescue. Since they had no chance to lie down on living soil, their final moments were atrocious: hunger, thirst, cold, cannibalism, cruelty, madness.

***

The three astronauts of the International Space Station were eating their breakfast, looking rather glum. They had been rationing their food for months. Communications with Earth had ceased. Yet it was too early to risk a return aboard the Soyuz capsule attached to the station. The planet was infested by mycelium and its psychotropic spores. There was no telling whether the threat would eventually subside. Still, the three scientists were starting to feel homesick.

Dimitri was the first to notice the blurred shape materializing to the right of Canadarm2. He’d blinked, and there it was. His expletive alerted his colleagues, Jim and Alyson. They observed the big milky spot moving above the African continent on an orbit lower than their own. Shortly afterward, thousands of tentacles unfurled in every direction. The porthole misted over when one of them reached the station. The devices shut down. All one could hear was the astronauts’ breathing. Translucid filaments peeled off the walls. An ultrafine thread wrapped itself around Alyson’s wrist. Her pulse slowed down. She felt a renewed sense of calm. Something was connecting to her nerves. The foreign entity was fusing with her neurons.

***

Our world is doomed. Our immense blue star is dying, collapsing in on itself. Soon, it will be too weak to combat the densification of its mass, so enormous that its own gravity will cause it to shrink to the point of imploding.

Our civilization has been preparing to leave for seven thousand years. We cannot keep pushing off the deadline. To survive, we must abandon the system that witnessed our birth. This vessel houses our collective consciousness. Billions of simultaneous connections focalized on the same objective for seven millennia: leave, save our skin. We have no skin.

Like your sharks, our species has existed for three hundred million years. We evolved. We first abandoned our bodily form, then became a single entity in the eighteenth millennium of our calendar. We have no more children—only ideas.

The vessel soars into the sky. Autonomous, secure, comfortable. Unlike those built before, this one will never return. We refused to clone our mind in multiple ships. Our unicity is the only thing keeping us alive. We cannot bring ourselves to abandon this final frontier. We have only one chance. There is no room for error.

Our machine was built to last five billion years, in other words, forever. Yet we learned to believe in our longevity. We’ve existed for three hundred million years, preserving traces to keep track of our history. At this rate, we might make it another three hundred million years or more.

We designed a vessel to accommodate us as long as the stars keep shining in the universe. For what’s the point of living if all the stars die out? Existing in the void, though it may be the condition of all consciousness, is not a happy prospect.

We have been traveling for twenty thousand years. We crossed what you call “the Milky Way” in search of habitable worlds. We found thousands. Yours is the most beautiful. Earth is our refuge. We must subdue you, not leave you to yourselves, or else the damage will only get worse. After twenty millennia of existing within the confines of our vessel, we dream of living soil where we can plant our roots. We’re sick of the void.

We chose to establish contact through mycelium. Although we evolved thousands of light-years apart, we share a common wisdom, modes of communication, and a similar relationship to space-time. Mycelium is your world’s most evolved life form. You hardly had a clue. You thought an intelligent entity would choose your species as an interlocutor, but you only interest us enough to be spared from annihilation.

We made an executive decision. We saved your souls. You are now one with us and the mycelium. Soon, all borders will disappear. We will be a single mind driven by powerful desires. We will be the earth, the plants, and all the delicate creatures that tread our world.

Welcome, Alyson.

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