The Mushroom and the Cold

Author: John McNeil

The weather was too good. It should be twenty degrees with snow on the ground, but it was sixty-five and sunny. Milo hiked the forest outside Edgewood with unease. Edgewood was a mean, hypocritical, self-regarding city, a place of enlightenment so bright that all the people sleeping under the bridges couldn’t even sleep in the dark.
While he hiked Milo’s sweat evaporated from his neck as soon as it formed. They didn’t deserve this pleasantness, he thought, and would pay for it. He gathered mushrooms often in these forests, and today he searched for one that looked like a rotting orange peel. A mycologist by training, he was three years unemployed since the beginning of the Unraveling. That was what they now called the cascade of plague, depression, and strife they had thought was just one bad year when it started.
In his days as a scientist, he hadn’t believed the myths about healing mushrooms in the forest. The world so plainly needed healing now, though, that he tried to believe. If he were a doctor he would have researched a cure, if he were a sociologist he would have proposed a social program, but he was an ex-mycologist, so he searched for magic healing mushrooms.
They would like the shade over this hilltop. There might be some there. But “I got them before you,” said a familiar voice as Milo stepped over.
“Hi Blake,” Milo sighed. A rival from grad school, the only other person in Edgewood who cared as much about wild mushrooms. And indeed, Blake already had a basket full of orange.
“You don’t need all of those.”
“No, but you don’t get any.”
“We need them to fix us.”
“That’s stupid.”
“They could stop the Unraveling.”
“It’s sad you talk like that. You used to be a scientist.”
“Used to be.” Milo lunged and tried to grab the basket, but Blake picked it up too quickly, so Milo just tripped and fell into Blake, knocking him over. They both rolled down the hill, twigs, and brambles dragging against them till they stopped.
Milo imagined grabbing a sharp stick, raising it high, and plunging it into Blake’s heart, killing him. Then he’d stand and with the basket of mushrooms held high in the air, inhale a deep breath of pleasant air on a sunny day, skip out of the forest and catch a bus to the Water Treatment Facility, bribe someone to drop the pulverized mushrooms into the water and then kick back and watch the world get better.
Instead, he sat up. “Never mind. Keep them.”
“You’re giving up?”
“Yeah, it’s stupid anyway.”
“Okay,” said Blake, “is this a trick?”
“It’ll be cold tomorrow,” Milo said. “This can’t last.” He stood and dusted himself. “Keep them,” he said, and walked back over the hill.
“I’m glad you gave up,” Blake yelled after him, “but you look a little pathetic right now.”
Once out of Blake’s sight he walked faster, then run at full speed, until he crashed out of the forest onto the streets. Inside his jacket pocket, his hand clenched the mushroom he had grabbed during the scuffle. He ran till he reached the bus stop. There he halted, doubled over and panting. As his body heat from the run dissipated, Milo felt chillier, like a cold front had come in just then. The cold and the mushroom, Milo thought. One of them had to work.

The Bicyclist

Author: John McNeil

A yellow bicycle leans on the sign at the trailhead. Its narrow tires are completely unsuitable for the trail. The sign says “Closed For the Season.” It’s November and there are several inches of snow on the ground. These are just foothills, not mountains, but still. The snow and ice get worse as you go up. What’s a bike doing there?

That’s what Morton Serm is wondering. Middle-aged, balding, Caucasian, he works for the Park District, works at the Visitor Center by the parking lot near the trailhead. Now, during the offseason, there aren’t many visitors.

There are tracks in the snow near the bike, he now notices. Not footprints, but tracks of some kind. Not animal tracks. Sixteen small perfect circles in two rows. They’re printed in the snow in a few places near the bike, near the sign, and going up the trail.

Morton looks back at the parking lot. His car is there. It’s already 3:00 pm, and the sun will go down soon. He’s on the clock till 4:30 pm, but if he left now no one would notice. Stacey had the day off, and no one else is working today. Visitors aren’t likely to stop by this close to sundown, in winter. The phone doesn’t ring much either. He could just drive home. Pretend he never saw the bike.

He sighs and starts walking up the trail, following the tracks. It must be some new winter activity I haven’t heard of, he thinks. Why would you wear shoes with round pegs on the bottom for hiking in the snow? Sort of like the opposite of snowshoeing? Peg shoeing? He can ask when he finds this person. After scolding them for ignoring the sign.

The bicyclist is sitting half-way up the hill. Its two eight-pegged feet are what’s puzzling Morton Serm. They are dangling from a boulder where the bicyclist is sitting, facing a clearing in the forest, having chosen this spot so the last rays of sunshine will fall on its face before the sunset. It is not human, not from Earth. Its hydraulic joints and fiber optic sinews bend and flex. Photovoltaic eyes drink every remaining drop of light before the fast begins at dusk. Up on a hill, it can eat for longer.

Morton Serm rounds a bend in the trail. He can see the bicyclist now. It is wearing loose clothing and its head is blurred by the sunlight. He can’t tell its gender or age. “The trail’s closed,” he calls out.

The bicyclist doesn’t look at him. Morton feels ignored and gets angry. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he shouts, striding closer.

Now the bicyclist turns to him. It prepared for this, learned what to ask a human of Earth: “Do you have a flashlight?”

The question confuses Morton. He stops. He says no. He left his phone in the car. The bicyclist turns to the sun again. Morton lunges forward, but trips and lands on the ground. The bicyclist leaps down from the boulder and pinches Morton’s head between the soles of its feet. “That’s all right,” it says. “You store enough charge for one night.”

The next morning Stacey arrives. Mort’s car is there, but he’s not, and the Center is locked. At the trailhead, there’s a bike and strange tracks. Two rows of eight circles. And footprints in the snow, going up the trail. They’re Morton’s, but why would he head up the closed trail? Stacey sets off after him. The bicyclist will be glad to meet her on a cloudy day.

Practice Drowning

Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

Ollie McNeil used to be a person, or so the rumors said. He came to the glades when the glades could still grow grass, before the floating villages, when the mosquitoes were smaller than the shrimp and the shrimp were safe to eat. Not that Ollie ate, of course. He got everything he needed from the windmill.

Jake called him Old Man Ollie, though he was only kind of a man. No one could dispute the old part, though: his human eye was like smoked-over glass and his lips curled in where his teeth used to be, lending a slurred twang to his language. Composed mostly of metal, Ollie was too heavy to go out in the boats, but his strength and precision made him useful in other ways. He was the only Glader strong enough to pull the barge in before a storm, and he could knot a net even faster than Mrs. Johnson, much to Mrs. Johnson’s dismay.

Like most of the Glader children, Jake knew of Old Man Ollie before he was old enough to swim, but he didn’t meet the man until a drowning fever tore through the village when he was eight. After his father choked in his sleep, Jake was sent away from the floating village and left to wait in a sickhouse on the muddy shore, to die or live depending on the whims of the fever. Only Old Man Ollie knocked on the door, bringing dried fish and purified water fresh from the windmill’s filter.

“Ain’t you afraid of getting sick?” Jake asked as he tore into on the leathery meat.

“Can’t catch the drowning if you don’t have lungs,” Ollie said with a shrug, and although the gesture carried a faint pneumatic hiss, its warmth was like porridge after a week on the ponds. Immediately, Jake’s fear of the half-man vanished, and despite the village’s best efforts, it never returned. If Old Man Ollie was an outcast, then Young Man Jake would be an outcast as well.

Most of Ollie’s time was taken up with maintaining the windmill, which jutted out of the muddy pond like an ancient castle and was even older than he was. Unlike the Gladers, he could make sense of the symbols and digits on the ancient displays, and he always seemed to know when a wire needed to be redrawn. The windmill spun slowly, lazily, but it generated an immense power that hummed through its deepest core and could be stored in white coffin-like slabs, sleeping until a need arose. These slabs seemed to cause Old Man Ollie an endless amount of misery.

“Capacity’s down,” he’d mutter, and Jake would nod in sympathy. This was a common refrain, and as far as Jake could tell, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. There was also “gotta run the cycle,” which sounded mostly harmless, and rarely, “wind’s gonna overload ‘em,” which was much more urgent and was followed by a scramble to disconnect wires at the top of the structure. The windmill was an essential part of the village’s life: it powered electric lights and fans that stirred the miasmatic air in the summer heat, but most importantly, it ran the water purifier. It also ran Ollie, who drew power a few nights a week using a wire in his arm.

Although he spent his spare time at the windmill, Jake’s job was on the ponds, pulling in nets and traps with the others who were old enough to work, but too young to start a family. That’s where he was when he noticed the first signs of the storm.

“We should head in,” he said. Surprisingly, the others agreed. Storms were common but this one seemed ominous: the horizon was hidden behind dark sheets of rain, and the clouds boiled red in the setting sun.

By the time Jake made it to the windmill, Old Man Ollie was well into the task of managing wires. “Give me a hand,” he called, and Jake obeyed. By the time the white slabs were fully disconnected the rain had reached the Glade and the wind whipped against the building like a wet rag, creating heavy sounds that rain had no business making.

“Big one,” Jake said, and Old Man Ollie nodded. He was watching the slabs with a dull frown, and he raised an arm to scratch the rippled skin below his eye.

“They’re still losing capacity,” he said.

“Eh?”

“The batteries. Look. They’ve been off for an hour and they’re already down to 96 percent.” He pointed at a lighted panel beside one of the slabs, and although Jake didn’t understand, he gave a nod of agreement.

“What are you gonna do?” he asked.

Ollie was silent. Jake stood up to take a closer look at the panel, as if the bars and rings meant anything at all.

“You can just plug them back in, right? After the storm’s over?”

“Yeah,” Ollie said, but he didn’t sound convinced. “Yeah, sure, we can plug them back in. They’re going to keep losing capacity, though. One day they’ll run dry and they won’t hold a charge at all.” He leaned against the wall, which groaned slightly at his weight, and Jake settled onto a heap of nets waiting for repair.

“That’s a long way off, though, right?” Jake asked.

“Fifty years or so,” Ollie said. “Maybe sixty. We’ll see.”

“So a long way.”

“You could say that. Sure.”

The rain continued, and Jake could hear the windmill’s blades creaking as they strained against the gale. It seemed like the storm would go on forever, the way storms always do, but Jake knew the morning would break red and angry and the lake would be full of fish, full of detritus, full of opportunity. They’d reconnect the wires and the white slabs would fill up again, just like before. Everything would be fine.

“You worry too much,” Jake finally said.

“I do,” agreed Old Man Ollie. “I do.”