Nicknaming the place Shroomtown was in bad taste. I knew that. But sometimes our work is so harrowing that I need a little black humor to get me through the day. That and my voice recorder. After every gig I sit somewhere quiet and tell the story of what I’ve just been through. It’s illegal, feeding this audio into the cloud. Instant jail time or worse if my bosses find out. Still, it’s worth it for the sanity it brings me.
It used to be a normal town. I’m not allowed to say its real name. That’s part of my job, too: official and permanent forgetting. But regular people lived there, with their kids and dogs and divorces and movies.
The movie theater’s what I remember best. We’d started the recon there, dumped onto the theater roof from a helicopter by gliding down a sterile chute. I waddled downstairs into the screening room like an astronaut, dressed in all my hazmat gear. My vision through the plastic helmet was fish-eyed, but I knew what I saw. I just couldn’t believe it. Twenty or so people in the seats. They used to be people. Now they were vaguely person-shaped masses of beige welts, each welt ringed with dark brown spores, layered like feathers.
“Jesus,” my boss, Tina, said through her helmet mic. Her words come out wrapped in static. “It’s actually true.”
There’d been rumors. That’s why the government had called us, a deeply clandestine clean-up crew. But ghastly rumors like this never turned out to be accurate. Until now. Reality in Shroomtown was worse than the rumors.
“They’re covered with the stuff,” Tina said. She reached out a triple-gloved hand and grasped the wrist of one of the unfortunate movie-goers. I got busy with the video camera. Our clients always wanted proof. How quickly and thoroughly they destroyed that proof was up to them. Tina said, “I’m gonna pick off this layer of, of, um…” She shrugged.
“Shroom.” That struck me as the right word. Seemed like the consistency of your standard button mushroom.
“Yeah, some kind of fungus.” Pulling a knife from her white plastic toolbelt, Tina started to scrape the victim’s forearm. She scraped and scraped but never hit human. Finally the arm-shaped thing was whittled down so thin that it snapped. Solid fungus. No flesh, no bone, no nothing.
Vomiting in a hazmat suit is something to avoid, so I was glad a voice behind me distracted me from my nausea.
“Um, Mr. Estevez?”
I turned awkwardly in my gear to see our youngest team member, Yoshi, waving the puffy white arm of his suit. “You’re gonna want to see this, sir.”
What I could already see was the green in that kid’s face. Yoshi had only been with ObscuraCorp for a few months. I knew how sick this scene was making me, even after seventeen years on the job, so I could just imagine how much Yoshi wanted to die right now.
“What is it, buddy?” I hoped my voice sounded gentle, despite the mic static.
He managed a weak grin and started out of the cinema, so I followed. The spring sun shone merrily on Main Street, as if it didn’t know it was illuminating hell. I’m telling you, even Dante couldn’t have described the infernal ring of Main Street. There were shroom bodies everywhere. Some sat on benches. Some leaned against walls with their arms reaching outward. Some lay on the sidewalk. Several were behind the steering wheels of cars. One woman—I think it was a woman—had lost her fungal leg. It lay perpendicular to her body across the passenger’s seat, as if it had popped loose when she’d hit the fire hydrant.
I was reminded of a documentary I once saw about the Italian town of Pompeii. How the residents were caught off guard by a volcanic eruption, and were turned to stone by the lava and ash that engulfed them. Imagining this town as a postmodern Pompeii museum helped me not to pass out.
Yoshi led me down a few blocks of silent residential streets. There was an occasional body in a yard or behind a wheel, but not many. Somehow, that emptiness was even creepier than the bustling death alley of Main Street. Finally Yoshi approached a dilapidated two-story house. The front porch was crooked, and creaked menacingly when we climbed up to the door. Our main tech guy, Jim, was standing in the living room, beckoning us toward a computer.
“Watch this, Mr. Estevez,” he said through his mic. A cell phone was attached to the computer, and a video started playing on the monitor.
I could see a young man’s pimply face, shot at a strange angle. Obviously, the kid was holding a videophone in his own outstretched arm. “Okay,” he said, “I’m Justin. Me and my friend Lee are home from freshman year at Southern, and we heard there’s this guy, Mr. Riffkin. He has this awesome disease. Like a fungus all over his body. We’re gonna make a video, and it’ll go viral.”
The camera angle lurched suddenly, and focused on the pale face of a beady-eyed red-headed man. Presumably, that was Lee. “Going viral,” he said with a sneer. “Nice pun.”
“What, dude?” said Justin’s voice.
So, Lee was the smarter one. Looked meaner, too. This video was probably his idea. But I gathered the videophone was Justin’s, giving him the right to shoot the footage.
The boys headed out with a lot of macho comments and guffaws. Block by block the camera recorded the ordinary life of a small town. People shopping, parking, walking the dog. Justin zoomed in on a teen girl’s chest as they passed by. To these guys, their project was a slightly naughty voyeuristic game. Little did they know, they were making a priceless historical document.
The camera panned across the front of a run-down two-story house. Its front porch was sunken to an awkward angle.
Déjà vu smacked me in the face. “Pause it,” I said. “That house looks familiar.”
“That’s ’cause you’re standing in it, sir.” Jim, the tech, gave me a wide grin.
I felt stupid. There’s nothing like watching your subordinates run ahead of you. “Ah-hah.” I tried to make it a joke. “I’m catching on now. You found this video in this house.” Yoshi should have told me that before we started, but I let it go.
“Found it just outside the house,” Jim said. “Did you see the body on the lawn? This camera phone was in his hand.”
I couldn’t get myself to admit that I hadn’t noticed the body. My brain must have been on overload after all those other fungal waxworks I’d passed by on the way. “Play the damned video.”
We heard Justin’s voice, which he constricted in a lame attempt to sound like a news reporter. “Here’s the house of doom. They say Mr. Riffkin looks like a zombie.”
Lee bounced up the stairs and turned back to the camera. “Come on. You scared?”
A collage of random, blurred images filled the screen as Justin ran up to the house. “You sure we should go in?” He suddenly sounded much younger.
“Don’t be a wuss,” Lee wheedled. “Hope he’s already dead. I never seen a dead guy before.”
In they went, without knocking. Their feet clattered and the camera jiggled as they raced to the second floor.
“Pause it,” said a woman’s voice. I was surprised to find Tina next to me. I hadn’t heard her come in.
“Hey, Tina,” I said. “You want us to rewind?”
“No, I just want to prepare myself. This movie’s about to get ugly, I bet.”
“Way beyond ugly,” I agreed. I stood there listening to my contained breath and the crinkle of my suit. After a minute, I couldn’t take any more waiting. “We might as well get it over with.”
“Yeah,” said Tina right away, as if she’d been dying to be forced forward over the brink. “Play it.”
On the screen, a big fellow in a brown uniform with a badge blocked Lee at the top of the stairs. “What do you boys want?”
“Just here to see how poor Mr. Riffkin’s doing, Sheriff,” Lee lied smoothly. Wiley one, that Lee. Justin snorted, and the picture shook.
The sheriff had his hands on his hips and that condescending “I’m the grown-up” expression some adults use on automatic. “Nothing to see here,” he said, moving toward Justin. “You boys better go home n…”
The scream was like the one Adam’s soul must have let loose as Paradise fell around him. It expressed a kind of terror that most of us never have to face in life. There was a scramble and more blurred images. Someone, maybe Justin, squeaked in an unnatural voice. “Oh my God.”
Lee, the fast thinker, the psychopath, suddenly trained the camera on himself. He was wide-eyed and cackling. “This is so awesome. Everybody’s freaking out. But someone’s gotta film this shit. I call director from now on. Justin, you weak-assed loser, you’re fired.”
The camera turned to show Justin, who now stood in a different room, presumably the sick man’s bedroom. Justin listed slightly to one side. His face seemed puffy.
Tina’s static-filled voice spoke up next to me. “Does he have it? Is the kid sick?”
“Can’t tell, ma’am,” said Yoshi.
Lee’s laughter was incongruous with the sounds of weeping his phone mic picked up around him. “Dude, you look like you seen a ghost. Are you maybe freaked out by this?” He swung the camera slowly past a chair and some family photos, stopping at a bed where a man lay.
Everyone around me gasped. The person―or thing―on the bed looked just like all those bodies we’d seen at the movie theater and in the streets. One of its arms was above the covers. It was just an arm-shaped clump of beige welts, filigreed with feathery brown spores. The man’s face had no eyes, just huge bulges almost as big as the nose. The lips and tongue, the color of mushrooms, were so swollen that the jaw was forced open.
I noticed that Lee held the camera steadily despite the horror he faced. Somehow this disturbed me as much as the images themselves. But the obviously dead Mr. Riffkin was not the worst part of this scene. After a close-up of the corpse’s face, Lee panned left to catch a middle-aged woman, presumably Mrs. Riffkin, reach out and grab her husband’s exposed hand.
The hand, of course, broke off in her fingers. We all expected that after seeing it happen at the movie theater. We were not prepared for the instant change in Mrs. Riffkin’s own skin.
Tina nudged me. “Look at the little dots.”
“Yeah,” I said numbly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the thousands of black-brown specks showing up on the woman’s face, neck, and arms. They grew rapidly, becoming paler as they blossomed into welts.
Her face was shiny with sweat. She wobbled.
“I got you, Gloria.” The sheriff caught her as she fell. Lee’s camera followed them to a chair in the corner. That action took mere seconds. But by the time the sheriff turned around again, his own face had changed.
We heard Lee’s voice. “Whoa, Sheriff. You got the plague, dude.”
Yoshi clenched his fists. “That kid is a monster.”
He was a monster. Lee zoomed in on the sheriff’s eyes, their pupils dilated, whites bared and shot through with red. The surrounding flesh was sprouting tiny black spores that inflated and turned beige. The sheriff’s body crumbled like it was made of cheesecake.
I was panting hard and my blood pulsed in my ears, so I could barely hear the audio. But it was important. It was research. So I focused and listened.
“That’s so incredible,” Lee said in a frat-boy falsetto. “Justin, dude, did you see that? Ladies and gents, let’s get a comment from your average douchebag on the street.” The camera swung around. “Justin Fisher, what is your reaction to…”
What used to be Justin was now a bulging beige statue, leaning against a wardrobe.
Finally Lee got scared. He screamed like a toddler and backed out of the room, panning the camera manically from side to side. First a shot of Justin, then the three fungal corpses to his left, then Justin, then back again to the others. When Lee reached the doorway he must have started looking at his own forearms. The camera faced downward, showing his sneakers as he stumbled down the stairs and out the front door.
“No! Make it stop! Oh God! No!”
We could see the outdoors now, trees and the houses across the street. He must have reached the front lawn. Then there was a thud, and the image went to dappled dark green.
The last thing we could hear from Lee were the words “No, no, nnn…” Then silence.
“He’s face-down in the grass.” Tina’s voice startled me.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Yoshi. “That’s how we found him.”
Tina coughed and swallowed in her helmet. I could see her push her shoulders back, as if resetting herself into professional mode. Or moving on after an accident, which was how I felt. She started to act like the skilled administrator she was. “Jim, you have enough samples? Process and save to the cloud. We can’t take any of this out. Don’t know what it can leak through. Yoshi, call for the SkySeal.”
ObscuraCorp jobs came with the understanding that everything had to be destroyed. Everything was toxic. We certainly couldn’t drive any vehicles out or even take out a cell phone or computer. This made our work expensive. What minimal equipment we used to take photos or capture files had to remain at the scene. We sent images and data to the cloud and incinerated what we used to capture it. As much as possible, we utilized found equipment to transmit the video to our secure website, where it would be hidden under a series of firewalls that would withstand the computer version of a nuclear holocaust.
No one would ever see this video. That’s why we watched it at the Riffkin house. Once we shot it into the cloud, it would be locked into the abyss, inaccessible except at the apocalypse. Sure, maybe this was the apocalypse, but it was our job to pretend it was just a blip in history, a unique event. Viewing the video gave us a sense of what happened, which told us how deeply the incident needed to be buried in history’s vault. In this case the answer was as deep as possible. Deeper than usual.
By the time we’d walked out onto the Riffkin’s porch, the SkySeal was in place, locking the entire town under a polyurethane bubble. Satellite photos would show a giant white oval with parallel seams running along it. SkySeals looked a lot like domed football stadiums. And then they incinerated whatever was under them. And then they disappeared.
“Jim’s done with the samples,” said Tina. “We’d better get out of here.” Lifting her bulky arm to press the export transmission button on her collar, she spoke in a clear voice, “Recon complete. Team extraction requested.” She listened for a moment, then turned to me. “They want us back on the theater roof.”
I didn’t relish another walk along Main Street, but there was no avoiding it. The sun wasn’t shining down now. Instead, we could see the SkySeal fabric flapping high above us. I decided to make business chitchat, so I wouldn’t look at all the bodies and body parts lying around. “What about quarantine? What if someone got out?”
Tina answered, “We saw how fast the virus worked. An infected person couldn’t have gone far. Air recon did a sweep and found nobody dead just outside of town.”
“No fungalized drivers doing the mushroom dash?”
“Correct.” I could never get Tina to jump into my morbid comedy routines. Her voice remained blank. “No living people either, in or out of town.”
“There might be carriers,” I suggested. Some people have that super-gene, Delta-32, that can protect them from plagues. But they can still carry the disease and spread it.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that no one in this town survived.”
“Yeah,” I forced out a chuckle. “It’s turned into Shroomtown.”
Tina didn’t laugh. “Shroomtown. Very funny.” She crossed the street, approaching the movie theater. We had to step over two tuber-like beige bodies in the lobby. “Anyway,” Tina continued, “it appears nobody was resistant. So it’s really unlikely there are any living carriers. It was a hundred percent fatal, with only a few minutes’ incubation period.”
“Except for that first guy, Riffkin.”
“Yes,” she said. “We may never figure out where he got it. But once he got it…”
Tina didn’t respond, so I plowed ahead with the grim debriefing. “And if we don’t contain it all?” I held the inner glass door for her.
“Then we’re screwed. Every one of us.”
“Right.” More quietly I added, “Excellent.”
Jim and Yoshi caught up to us. Yoshi waved to get my attention. “Mr. Estevez, they did the prelim wildlife survey.”
“Blood and material tests clean from plants, birds, mammals, and fish so far. Nothing that matches the spore samples. They’ll keep looking.”
“But so far, so good,” Jim interjected heartily. Understandably, he was looking on the positive side. The other alternative was too awful to give credence to. The bad cases were always like that, and this was worse than any we’d seen.
None of us wanted to seem to be rushing toward the roof. That would be unprofessional. But I could tell from the awkward scuffling of feet and the hard breathing coming through people’s mics that everyone was as desperate to leave as I was. Tina and Yoshi made for the roof door at the same time and got crashed into each other. In another situation it would have been hilarious. Instead it seemed pathetic. Nobody made a single joke.
“Stand in the middle,” Jim advised, heading across the roof toward a short steam pipe about halfway between the north and south outer walls. “That’s easiest for the chopper.”
We gathered there, our bulbous suits bumping together as we strained in our helmets to look at the SkySeal dome above us. Procedure was that they’d send a helicopter, which would hover over the dome and lower a ladder encased in a sanitary chute. We’d climb up, one by one, then fly off to safety before they imploded the disease site.
That was the procedure. It’s not what happened. We stared up at the dome until our necks ached, but no chopper arrived.
“Where the hell are they?” Tina sounded uncharacteristically desperate.
I did what I’d been avoiding for ten minutes: I looked at my phone. There was a text message, as I knew there would be: TRTR. Too Risky to Rescue. It was the dreaded text code you learned about in training, the one your brain tried to forget even existed. It meant they couldn’t take us out. Too much risk of contagion.
Next step was that they’d turn off our phones so we couldn’t contact anyone in the outside world. Even the most seasoned pro was likely to cave and spill secrets when he was sealed in a death chamber. Sure enough, my phone went dead. Everyone else’s phone would be dead, too, but they hadn’t noticed yet. They were still looking at the sky. They were still hoping.
“Um,” I said, and all heads turned toward me. Now was my chance to tell them they were doomed. But I couldn’t do it. “I’m gonna go in and check something,” I coughed. “Back in a second.”
So here I sit on a concrete landing on the staircase, talking as fast as I can into this machine. Don’t know if the transmission will make it out, but I have to pretend it will. It’s funny: you’d think sanity wouldn’t seem important right before you die. No end of surprises in Shroomtown, I guess.
AUTHOR BIO: Anne E. Johnson lives in Brooklyn. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, FrostFire Worlds, Shelter of Daylight, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Her series of humorous science fiction novels, The Webrid Chronicles, is being published by Candlemark & Gleam, which will also publish her YA science fiction adventure novel, Space Surfers, in the summer of 2014. Anne writes speculative fiction for children and tweens as well. Learn more on her website, http://anneejohnson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnneEJohnson.