Another for the flash fiction challenge here.
Here’s a rough take on invasive species in an urban fantasy/horror style. Just under 1600 words, and another first draft. When I go back into this one, I think I’ll probably up the body horror bits.
A Gentle Glow
She squeaked as I yanked her through the doorway. I clamped a hand over her mouth. “Don’t freak out, I don’t want anyone to hear this.”
She glared at me until I moved my hand, then hissed “What the hell is your problem?”
I tilted my phone in so she could see the screen. She squinted at the photo, a view of my living room picture window, zoomed to show a thin glowing green line around the corner of the frame. I watched her face change the second she caught it, and my stomach sank with the confirmation.
“Liz. Liz. That’s—is that fey moss?” I looked at her, my neck cracking with stress as I nodded. “Shit shit shit shit. When did you find it? Did you touch it? Oh, Liz.”
“Of course I didn’t fucking touch it, I’m not a total moron. I saw it this morning, maybe an hour ago?”
Allison inched away anyways. Fey moss. Geosiphon maledictis. The common name is a little misleading; it’s actually a lichen, not a moss. I guess doom lichen isn’t as snappy a phrase. Whatever you call it, it’s a potentially life-ending problem.
Four years ago, a handful of physicists at the Credence Coalition think tank got suuuuper high on some synthetic hallucinogen the chemistry division provided, and managed to open a Seelie gate, which they then proceeded to enter like complete idiots. Humanity was lucky that they did not run into any of the fair folk directly and that the gate was sealed permanently very shortly after their return. The lot of them swore to never speak of what they saw, or smelled, or heard, and thought their misadventures would be forever unnoticed.
One teeny, tiny, microscopic spore clinging to the lab coat of one righteously fucked up physicist said otherwise.
This spore dropped from the sleeve of the aforementioned lab coat onto the handle of the main door into the building. It found an abundance in our land of milk and honey, and thrived. We hadn’t ever seen a new species grow so rapidly, but since it didn’t seem to be harming any plants or animals, it was left alone. Plus it was pretty; a bright, glowing, blue-green moss that spread in swirls and spirals up walls and around windows. We thought it was a blessing.
Three years ago, the first case of fairy pox showed up. Sadly patient zero was not one of the idiot physicists that began our little glimpse into the past, but a paralegal from Compliance. She treated the itchy patches on her skin at home, not going to a doctor until the iridescent scales covered most of her limbs. She was quarantined immediately, and as soon as each new case emerged, the patient was whisked away, never heard from again. When the photos of the infected leaked, the news channels called it fairy pox simply because the scales were shimmery and otherworldly. They all still are unaware of how close to the truth they are.
A year ago, the lab I work for was contracted to study the effects of human consumption of scale dust. By the time it got to us, the moss and subsequent pox scales had been confirmed as fae. The doctors treating these patients had hinted at some inexplicable side effects. Our research uncovered its true value.
“Liz, you’ve got to take care of that now. I’ll cover for you here. I can get you a box of iron fillings.”
I ran after her out into the hall. “Al, I can’t burn down my fucking house. Where am I going to live?” She stopped abruptly, and I bumped into her back. She wouldn’t meet my eyes as she slid her jacket off, careful not to touch the material I had grazed. She handed it to me.
“I know a guy, a friend from college. He has an apartment over his garage. I’ll call him later when we hear about the fire.”
“Fuck. I’ll get the box from you on my way out.” Her eyes were sympathetic, and pitying.
When I got home, I zipped into the disposable coveralls I stole from the lab. The fey moss had spread along the window sill, covering the entire length in dizzying patterns. The thick layer of iron fillings I poured on barely obscured the glow.
Researchers at the USDA found the only way to contain the spread of the moss is to cover it in an unbroken layer of iron and to burn all surfaces around the affected area with wood from a mountain ash. I taped rowan branches to the wall under my window in a pristine row, and wove strips of newspaper through the smaller twigs for the fire to catch. A line of very flammable books wound around the room. I stripped fully right there, and put Allison’s jacket on the pile.
In the shower, I took inventory. My homeowner’s insurance was fully paid, and I was pretty sure I had itemized all my stuff last spring when I was thinking about moving out west. All my important paperwork was in the cloud. I had clean clothes in the dryer, and it was nice enough to take a “nap” on the deck while the fire got too far out of control to save the house. Son of a bitch. I’d mourn my art and my books, but I wouldn’t have them if I got quarantined anyways so I guess it’s a wash.
“Allison? My house burnt down. Everything is gone, Al.” I was so tired. My skin felt dry and itchy and tight; my eyes ached too much to open fully.
“Oh, Liz, I’m so sorry. I’ll find you a place to stay, don’t worry about that.” I didn’t hear anything but concern in her voice. “I’ll call my friend Bryant. He has an apartment over his garage that he doesn’t use. And I’ll tell management what happened, maybe get you a few days off to take care of things.”
I thanked her, and then collapsed into my car, watching the fire department spray what was left of my house into a smoldering ruin. One tiny blue-green line of doom, and my whole life was up in smoke. It didn’t seem real. My head fell back, and I shut my eyes, trying not to think about any of it.
The thing that was really bothering me, though, was how it got in my house in the first place. I had verbena and St John’s wort around my thresholds like everyone else, treated my window screens with marigold oil, washed my walls with a solution of yarrow every few months. Like every person at the lab, I was scrupulously careful with the decontamination protocols. We knew what happened if you caught fairy pox.
When we started looking at uses of the scale dust, we weren’t aware of the original supply chain. Our first contract was nearly over when we figured out the first batch of test subjects lived two hundred percent longer than expected. That got us a renewal and a request to push even further with our experimentation. The discovery that it could be weaponized won us reassurances that our stock of the dust would never run out, that we had the support from the very highest levels of our country’s leadership. Only once we got to the extra-sensory perception did we learn the truth about the camps.
Patient Zero hadn’t died, nor did any of the rest of the infected. If we hadn’t found out for ourselves we certainly would never have been told. There was no cure, no way to extricate the hyphae from healthy human cells. Instead, they were kept in government-run sanitariums, where their scales were scraped weekly and ground into dust. Most of the patients were kept on life-support, heavily sedated. The excruciating pain of your skin mutating bit by bit into something from another realm was too much stress for anyone’s body to handle. The scales don’t grow if the hosts aren’t alive. No scales, no dust. No dust, no extraordinarily powered super spies to ensure our interests ahead of the rest of the world, or any others that are out there. No undetectable weapons to keep us at the top of the heap.
One thing that has been a surprise, a discovery I’ve made during these weeks in Bryant’s garage apartment, is the way the pox scales glow. They woke me up one night, a luminous pink light pulsating in time with my heart.
It takes about two weeks for the ESP to start. I think I inhale the dust when I scratch at the patches.
Allison comes by every few days, bringing me dinner or brownies or a stack of magazines. Part of her does it because we were friends, but I know now that she is just counting the days until the pox shows up. In her eyes, it’s a win either way—if I get the pox, the lab will have an in-house source of scale dust. If I don’t, the lab will have a fully immune subject to study for a possible vaccine. Hiding it is getting increasingly difficult. I know she was just doing her job. I just wish she hadn’t been quite so good at it.
My insurance check should be arriving any day now. I’ve always thought Greenland looked beautiful. Or maybe I’ll go see the blue ice of Lake Baikal. I guess it doesn’t matter as long as it’s cold enough for long sleeves.
Two hundred percent of 78.9 years is a long time.