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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Horror/Scary · #2218675
Sasha Burroughs reviews information germane to understanding the Devil's Veil.
Analysis and Review: We That Remain

The playlist cycled for the third time, thus marking nine-and-some hours since Sasha Burroughs had started cataloguing information. Nine-and-some hours that I've been recording the comedy of errors. It was less than promising; a surfeit of data mocking all their squalid efforts at capturing the enormity of the thing. Damnable fungus, she cursed. It was an idle curse, born of frustration more than genuine anger. A curse born in the throes of optimism, in the oft-spoken assumption that scientific method would yet prevail. An idol, cursed, she considered, as the rhythms of her thoughts matched up to the meter of the music. Let's review.

The first recorded instance of the fungus, I refuse to call it by its name, was traceable to Dammstadt, Indiana, a sizable metropolis of over four million where its discovery had met with little notice. The discoverer was one Kenneth Gorge, an office worker of no repute in the employment of Agora Marketing. Researching their website furnished no real information as to their daily routines. All Burroughs knew was that they were involved in advertisements. It's not like calling them did any good.

Gorge had chosen to name the thing the Devil's Veil, ugh, and it was small wonder that so ambitious a name would be so easily overlooked by the limping publication that it had been submitted to. Disapproval aside, Burroughs grudgingly admitted that the fungus did show several remarkable qualities, any single one of which would have been sufficient to have its discoverer entered into a mycological hall of fame. The mushroom had been described as such: "The ovate caps are the most exotic feature of the fungus. Each is four inches in diameter and three inches deep. They are predominantly of a deep brownish red colour, excepting the edges where they run into a sickly yellow-white. Two prongs grow from the tops of the caps that look every bit like two horns. Sporulation is porous, and the top of each cap is riddled with sores that occasionally discharge a runny pink fluid. This fluid runs off the edges of the fruiting body and congeals into a semi-transparent veil."

The description withstood interrogation and succinctly illustrated several of the mushroom's more outstanding points. The so-called veil was in fact a netting made of atromentin and heterologous proteins that facilitated the carriage of the sickly white strands of mycelium used for motility and reproduction. And the rate of reproduction was nothing short of fantastic. As Gorge had recorded, the fungus cultured in only a few days; it was more than capable of threading its way through a 20kg block of wood in under a week, leaving the surface relatively clean while it made a spongy mesh of its internal mass.

The fungus was hellishly fast. An especially patient observer could actually watch it grow with the naked eye. The ingestion of a strand or the inhalation of a spore resulted in germination with an infectivity ratio of 100%. Infectivity was absolute. Once in contact with a food source, the threads secreted powerful enzymatic compounds that gradually broke the material of the host into molecules small enough to be absorbed into the mycelium. Mushrooms only grow on dead things. This influx of new energy and material was translated into the proliferation of yet more mycelium. Cords of the stuff would soon start inching a network throughout their host.

Burroughs had watched a time lapse of the fungus being introduced to a lab rabbit. It had been an unsettling experience. Even while the rabbit slept, one could see its flesh quivering in patches where the mycelium crept too close to the surface. Two weeks in, and the rabbit's muscular structure had altered as meat was pushed aside for mushrooms. Lacy didn't flinch. She didn't cry out. Not once. And that was when the investigation team had found the most damnable element of the thing.

The fungus provoked electrochemical reactions correspondent to delirium and belonging. Infected subjects underwent alternating bouts of hypomania and aphasia. The increased activity of a recently infected was often confused for affability and productiveness. In at least two documented cases, the onset of infection had been directly responsible for workplace promotion. The newly infected required little sleep but acquired voracious appetites. They craved water on a near continual basis but could otherwise keep themselves together long enough to socialize. And they loved socializing. So much so, they set up their own little congregations. The overt tell-tale signatures of flaking rashes and the shedding of mycelium fibers would not occur until some weeks after infection, by which time it was too late.

At the end of nine weeks, Gorge had a personal gathering of close to 50, ugh, clergy bringing him dead animals, humidifiers, buckets of water, and blotting the sun from his home. 50 infected, and each one spending the larger part of their day working, shopping, eating out, and visiting friends and family. By the time his house warranted more specific attention, an estimated dozen or so had joined with the deformed mass that Gorge had become. Some were found praying at his feet while others had simply draped themselves over him in a death-long embrace. All were half-putrescent yet still living, their organs decaying as their flesh sloughed into a slurry more amenable to the growth of the fungus. And there, rising triumphantly from what had once been the crown of Gorge's skull, sat three fruiting bodies. Three abominations.

That the fungus inculcated cultic overtones and affectations in its subjects was beyond dispute. Occasionally, one subject proved hardier than others and so became a carrier. Burroughs' colleagues insisted on calling such subjects preachers; she was about as impressed with that nomenclature as she was with calling the common infected clergy. At any rate, preachers were generally able to avoid total delirium long enough to form long-term strategies for transmitting the fungus. They were additionally cognizant of the consequences of being caught and strove above all else to avoid being captured or destroyed before their inevitable collapse.

Preachers eventually broke down into pilgrimage sites in a manner analogous to that undergone by Gorge. They would remain animate until such time as their entire ambulatory system consisted of mycelium and decaying meat. Once even simple mobility had been sacrificed, preachers would sit or lie down and wait for clergy to recover their body and bring it somewhere dark and cool. The looks on their faces were always disgusting: utterly content. Once deposited, clergy would then gather unto them, bringing them food, water, music, and shade. The infected sure love their music. There were several obvious ways of identifying a practising preacher, but they all required that one at least suspect a person of being infected.

More interesting was the fact that some kind of communication network appeared to exist among all infected. It was well established that any effort to gain information from a clergy would invariably come to a conversation about Messiah Gorge. There were infected for whom any contact with Gorge would have been impossible who yet referred to Messiah Gorge and were able to describe his appearance, his daily routine, and his home environment, with perfect clarity. Space and time failed to separate the infected from their experience and understanding of the life and times of the index case.

There was additional evidence that the infected had marked certain individuals as enemies: paranoids, psychopaths, loners, individuals whose lifestyles permitted an early identification of the infected and a subsequent abandonment of their company. Efforts had been made at locating these individuals in the hopes of finding something about the fungus that may have been overlooked. Not much luck, there. It was small wonder that such social misfits had so far evaded all efforts at locating them. They were, after all, the subjects of the single largest manhunt ever conducted.

Uninfected exhibited similarly zealous behaviours once the nature of the thing was finally revealed. Their reactions bordered on atavistic, and lynch mobs had begun spontaneously erupting throughout the city sometime between weeks 10 and 12. Patient zero could be identified and his time of infection charted to within a day, but the onset of zealotry among the uninfected was more widespread and so less certain. Population movement charts had been worked up and every biologist worth their degree had been forced to admit that the uninfected mobilized against pockets of clergy in exactly the same manner as skin cells gathering around a contaminant. Some deeper motivation... almost cellular. Burroughs shuddered.

By the end of week 15, the infected had numbered over 10,000. At this time, no one had been aware of the slight mercy afforded by that statistic: it was not yet commonplace to speak of the infected and the dead in the same sentence.

She kicked back from the tables of data and pinched the bridge of her nose. She always got migraines when she was forced to confront the reality of Spontaneous Immunological Migration. It's not a bad name. There had been several late nights among the researchers as they first had to admit that the phenomenon was real, and several additional late nights as they tried to capture its implications. Not that it had helped. The clergy almost never defended themselves, nor did they defend pilgrimage sites. Preachers were different, and showed no hesitation in attacking, running, or defending themselves from hostiles. Early migrations had every appearance of being a one-sided war on the infected in which the uninfected were assured of easy victory. Instead, they had become the impetus for the total dissolution of all public authority.

Rising from her chair, she grabbed an almost empty water bottle and a coffee mug and headed to the cantina. The cooks worked at their own discretion, it's not like they're getting paid anyways, but they made sure to stock wrapped sandwiches and cold cuts for the researchers. Coffee was always on, and triple-filtered water was available on tap. She set the mug to catch some coffee, filled her water bottle, and went to the adjoining stock room to rummage for some painkillers. Said rummaging was interrupted by the arrival of fellow researcher Devon Thompson.

"Looking for some dum-dums?"

She smiled. "No, just something for a headache. I've been reviewing for the past day or so. Hoping something percolates."

Devon fished around his front pocket and pulled out two pink gel caps. He held them in front of her until she put her hand out, then pressed them into her palm. "Dum-dums. Best thing for a SIM headache." One of the other survivors had coined the term. Perry Voss, former philosophy major turned drop-out, had compared serious thinking about the SIM phenomenon to reading Hegel: anyone paying attention always ended up with a headache. She popped the proffered pills and made her way back to the coffee machine. Dum-dum was the somewhat cavalier term that Devon had coined for his personal mixture of several prescription medications. They reminded her of Adderol, but with a snifter of euphoria thrown into the mix. Devon assured her that the buzz was a sign she had taken the right amount. Any more than that, and it's apparently vertigo all the way down. "Hey, what did we classify these things as, anyways?"


"Makes sense." Coffee was ready. She let it cool a bit while she watched Devon take apart three sandwiches in order to make a single better one. It's one of his jags. Thompson was a senior pharmacist at a local drug store maybe a dozen kilometers from the research station. He seemed young to have held the position that he did but he had a nonchalant way of dealing with authority that tended to benefit him. He was tall and lean, with cropped brown hair and wire rimmed glasses. Thick lenses. Guy looks like a villain. She was pretty fond of him, though.

He had been among the first few to suggest creating a site for research rather than remedy; the site would not accept infected, as they had no interest in treating the fungus on a case by case basis. Rather, they accepted uninfected and pooled skills and resources together in the interests of finding a cure-all solution to the fungus that could be administered at large. Failing that, their fallback function was as archivist to the ongoing fall of civilization. To date, the site had 20 medical and scientific personnel, 32 security professionals from police, military, and reserves, and 12 miscellaneous. The latter included their cooks, a family group consisting of two adults with three children, and three others who had been unemployed at the time of the outbreak.

The site itself was a primary school that had been converted according to their needs. Two wings of the school were locked out. Heavy chains and padlocks protected those doors. The windows of the school were secured before infection, and each was covered by a metal grill that locked from the inside. The cantina was a converted lunch area, and the school kitchen functioned perfectly fine. Through some miracle, power was still running. As long as nothing is done to the grid, I'm pretty sure it runs on autopilot. Well, either that or some crazy pack of bastards boxed themselves into the power plant and are keeping it ticking. If you're out there, we love you; hell, even if you're just a computer. We love you. In a worst-case scenario, they had managed to locate several generators with enough gas on hand for three years of careful use.

The gymnasium was a short walk outside across a field now occupied by several mobile trailers that had formerly been used to teach special needs students. All the trailers were boarded up to prevent their being used by the infected. The gymnasium itself was under what passed for heavy security, two armed guards patrolling it at all hours, and served as their R&D department. Inside the gymnasium were four live specimens of the clergy, and an aquarium with one full grown specimen of the Devil's Veil, cap, horns, and all. The clergy shared a custom-made cell consisting of a 6 x 4 wooden box with an interior covered over in aluminum siding. They were granted no sunlight and very little food. They had no area for excretion, but this hardly seemed to matter. The damned things never need to go. The specimen of Devil's Veil lay in a glass aquarium which in turn was submerged in a larger glass box that had been completely filled with bleach and rock salt.

There were limits to what the thing could accomplish. Burroughs mulled the well-worn list of limitations as she chewed absent-mindedly on the parts of the sandwiches that Devon had deemed to be unfit for his reconstituted one. It can't grow on or through any Class A metal. It can push through Class B metals, and, given enough time, can separate surface particles and incorporate them into itself. It can't consume glass. It can't consume most non-renewable plastics. And it actively avoids salt: it can eat it, but only at cost to its own growth. Hell, enough salt and it just goes dead and brittle. There were a number of hypotheses concerning this latter interaction. The popular one was that the incorporation of large volumes of salt into its mycelium network resulted in a buildup of crystals along the digestive tissues which in turn ended up retarding the processes of catalyzation. Log jam.

Finally, conventional cleaning agents were excellent as preventative measures. Bleach was especially potent as its granular nature ensured its easy and automatic consumption. This in turn lead to the internal destruction of the mycelium as the combination of bleach and fungal tissues turned into a highly toxic foam base that was lethal to man and mushroom alike. The fungus had learned this truth quite quickly. Observation showed that the growth of mycelium networks would be redirected or even stalled completely when confronting bleach. The sample in storage was a case in point: with nowhere to go, the fungus had simply turned back on itself until its aquarium was packed tight with gauzy mycelium.

Unfortunately, neither salt nor bleach offered any hope as to remedy. There was simply no way to give an infected the requisite amounts of either without killing them outright. Additionally, the mycelium in an infected could easily reroute its growth through surrounding or remaining organic materials in order to avoid the offending substances. There was a further complication insofar as an infected could always be driven to find and consume more food, the bulk of which would go towards increasing the proliferation of the fungus within the host.

Dum-dums done and the corpses of the sandwiches having been picked over, Burroughs cleared the table spot she had been eating at and returned to her study. She glanced at the calendar as she sat down. Sunday. Sermon in about four hours. Real clergy, then some sleep. One of the classrooms had been converted into a church for the religious. Her own faith was one of the reasons she refused to adopt the naming conventions of her scientific brethren. War's over, fellas. Nobody's trying to pray our way out of this. Not here, at any rate. In any case, she looked forward to the sermon.

She let out a sigh as she resumed her studies. She had left off with SIM. The phenomenon had only expedited the dissolution of civil society. Those afflicted by SIM were fanatics throughout its duration. They displayed profoundly tribal and xenophobic behaviours, often going so far as to adopt new wardrobes and customs to mark themselves as separate. In Dammstadt, this was predominantly being expressed in the wearing of bright yellow hoods and the performance of elaborate war dances around protected territories; the customs and behaviours changed from country to country, from city to city, and in especially densely populated areas, from block to block.

Government intervention had been paralyzed by the onset of SIM waves. Law enforcement and disease control specialists were forced to engage all pockets of SIM resistance as enemies of the state. Protracted sieges and running battles occurred even as the SIM zealots were actively hunting infected and submitting them to public execution. Of course, the fact that one suffered from SIM madness did not provide any kind of immunity from the fungus. It was often the case that a lynch mob that had successfully terminated an infected would themselves be subject to being lynched several weeks later by other zealots from adjoining territories.

Still, it had not taken long for SIM populations to learn to protect themselves from contamination. Zealots were especially prone to settlement within military and government institutions, and it was not long before they had instituted a camp in an army base somewhere in Oklahoma. Waves of SIM survivors had gathered outside the camp, suffered both violence and privation, and finally churned out small packs of zealots who proved willing to conform to the camp standard identity. Their last radio message had been issued only several days ago. It was the same old messages, mainly back clapping and shouts of triumph, but the announcements were new in both content and wording and thus confirmed that Storm Base was still active.

Despite the presence of any number of other groups seeking to imitate the success of Storm Base, the Midwest more generally had become an effective demilitarized zone. The environment and social milieu of the Deep South had proved too fertile to offer much resistance: Louisiana and Mississippi were almost entirely abandoned, and the fabled Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia had become a morass of fungal domination. More surprising was the near total isolation, and subsequent self-sufficiency, of Texas, which had been facilitated in no small part by what had happened once the infection had passed south of their borders.

South and Central America had proved especially amenable to fungal proliferation. The spores were hardy enough to withstand transportation across great distances, and the infected were faithful enough to bring it with them on extended journeys. The general absence of central authority in Mexico prevented their detecting infection while the short-sighted tactics of the cartels only served to expedite the collapse of government. And the less said of the rainforests of South America, the better. It had taken several days for border guards to realize that SIM and infected alike were effective enemies, by which time a sizable reduction of Texas state lines had already taken place. The remaining cities were able to quickly erect walls and palisades both within and without, establishing a demarcation between their citizens and the rest of the world. Surrounded on all sides by enemies they could barely define, it had taken Texans less than ten days to establish themselves as a system of freeholds. They were not keen on communication.

In any case, week 30 marked the point at which there were over ten million infected or dead. Government and economy alike had come to a standstill as the populations of each state suddenly had to consider their regional needs over those of the nation. And yet they had still not reached the full terror of the thing. For while the fungus could be scraped, sprayed, or cleansed from most surfaces using conventional cleaning agents, those actions still required that someone be on hand to perform them. With the east coast run amok between conflicting tribes of the infected, the mobilized, and everyone else, the daily rituals of scrub and wipe were abandoned.

No one had been cleaning the skyscrapers of New York City.

The fabled Manhattan skyline had become a monstrous promise of days to come as their fades crumbled beneath the cancerous flourish of Devil's Veil. The researchers had determined that substrate was provided in abundance by way of cafeterias, aging insulation, various biodegradable office supplies, and of course, the prior tenants of the buildings. What now stood in place of the towers of commerce were blasphemous pillars almost entirely covered in a surface growth of fungal bloom.

The tops of the towers were still worse. Material had been brought from all five boroughs and stacked atop any building of sufficient height, creating tottering shrines that were visible from some 20 kilometers away or more. On a clear day, at least. Clouds of particulate periodically issued forth from these foul columns, extending outwards in massive sheets and subsequently accelerating towards ground as they were caught up in downdrafts.

Of course, not all the drafts were downdrafts. Some went out to sea.

Europe was caught unawares, as was coastal Africa. And the damned thing just keeps learning. Somewhere far away, in another time and place, the west coast suffered as its eastern counterpart already had. We've all heard the rumors. Some of us - damn our eyes! - have seen the pictures. Scouts from Storm Base had reported lines of infected extending hundreds of kilometers from across the country and converging towards nexus at San Francisco: the city was now home to a monolithic enterprise referred to as the Western Towers, two great massive pillars of substrate towering over 100 meters in height and leaning towards the rising sun.

Here we are, we that remain. Week 50 had just begun, and the infection would celebrate its first anniversary in less than fourteen days. Over one billion people were now calculated to be either infected or dead as a result of the Devil's Veil. 1, 000, 000, 000, she visualized in her head, making sure to comprehend the demonic significance of each zero. One billion. The number was an estimate, calculated from the application of observed rates of transmission and the demonstrated breakdown of infected populations. What had happened in North America was applied to what was remembered about Europe, Africa, and mainland Asia. One billion. It was a conservative estimate. Happy anniversary.

Sasha Burroughs sighed deeply, folded her arms, and lay her head down. The desktop was cool against her forehead. A slight wave of giddiness swept her from ear to ear and she let the dum-dums do their part. Science, you glorious bitch. Her playlist ended. On reflex, she looked up and cued the next one: something soft and ambient to accompany her efforts at locating some kind of direction to this whole thing. A rap on the door provoked a response. Muffling into the crook of her arm she told her visitor to go ahead. Perry poked the door open, with Devon looking over his shoulder.

"Rise and shine, Sasha," Perry smiled, his high voice acting in counterpoint to the music from her speakers. "Sermon." The two of them left to go do their own thing; they weren't believers, but they knew she was running herself ragged. Comrades in conflict, Sasha mused. They do nothing but argue and the place wouldn't be the same without them. She rose from her chair, stretched, and drank some water to clear the cotton from her head. She appreciated the preacher in residence and refused to do him the discourtesy of anything less than a full contemplation of the day's lessons. Carefully replacing her chair, Sasha refilled her bottle of water and left to attend. The playlist continued in her absence.

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