~4300 words, ~21 minutes reading time
Yand poled her way across the Styrofoam Sea.
Buoyant beads crowded the water’s surface, multiplying in the wake of her raft. The raft’s sleek shape reduced the aggressive speed of their replication, but it was impossible to completely negate. Every step and breath this close to the city risked metastatic consequences, so no one ventured from the Bunker but her.
Not like she had a choice anymore.
A sky yellow as battery acid cast palpable light on the gently waving sea. Hard to say where toxic shore ended and polluted water began.
Yand relied on her pole and her patience to guide her. She relied on the non-permeable membrane of her bodysuit to repel the dangers of sea and air, spore and particulate. Ironic that the suit, a product of civilization, protected her from the very city that had caused all this ruin. Tumorous towers and columnar smoke stacks loomed in her peripheral vision like the exposed respiratory system of a poisoned beast.
Fishing had been poor on their river for some time, but she hadn’t come here to try to fish. Wouldn’t imagine it. With careful, deliberate movement, she swept her pole across the froth of foam beads to reveal a disintegrating fish, stiff and staring, a film of slime and gauzy plastic merged to cocoon its remains. Water billowed the translucent plastic like a parachute, revealing where it spilled from blown-open gills.
A dismayed groan echoed in her mask. As she’d suspected, the deformities they’d seen further upriver had their source here, in the concentrated runoff of the city. The Bunker’s location upriver and upwind wouldn’t protect them much longer.
Yand believed there must be a way to stop the creep of the cancerous city. Whatever had brought it to insensate life, radiation or extraterrestrial infection or something else, had to be neutralized.
If the Bunker’s residents knew how to do that, they would have by now.
If any of the others believed it possible, they’d be with her, seeking answers.
Movement caught her eye; an undulation that parted the floating beads, revealing murky water for a brief moment. Beads dissolved in its wake, in opposition to the normal reaction of multiplying when agitated.
She shifted forward onto one knee and poled, slow and steady, in that direction.
As she approached, foam beads refilled the gap, covering the place where something had submerged. Yand slowed to a stop, eased her weight to the front of her raft, and swept beads aside with her pole.
Gray-green eyes, set in a human face, opened just below the surface. Yand cried out in surprise. Bubbles escaped from those underwater lips, pelleting free, dissolving the froth of beads as they met the air.
With effort, Yand tamped down the race of her heart and eased back to balance her raft.
The figure rose, buoyed horizontal, until face and upper body broke the surface.
Yand clutched her pole and watched lips part to take one measured breath after another. A girl—a young woman, perhaps near her own age.
The Styrofoam Sea made a halo around the green-eyed girl, repelled by her presence. The sight made her hesitate, but only for a moment.
Yand slid her pole past the front of the raft, toward the girl.
The girl took hold of it. Where the edges of her hand touched wood, the pole bloomed with a powdery grayish green.
The city had started it all.
She was hardly old enough to recall the world a different way. Blue sky had been commonplace then, rather than the rarity it was now. If there weren’t others in the Bunker old enough to confirm this memory, she’d almost believe it a fancy of her own imagination.
A time before black plumes spewed relentlessly into the sky, and with them the metastatic material—no longer organic or synthetic but a messy mix of the two—which infected the landscape in all directions, devouring what existed, natural and man-made, and repurposing everything into new and illogical growths. Fungal lampposts. Fields of waving copper-wire weeds. Once-suburban neighborhoods gnawed down to slumping cave mouths in a shingle-shale wasteland.
It was always spreading further. Yand studied the city, imagining ways to return it to the inert, inorganic landscape it should be. If an entire city could be brought to seething, destructive life, the opposite must be true as well.
She should be able to kill it.
The girl from beneath the waves appeared human, despite the impossibility of the fact and the tinge of green in her skin. Yand helped her hold on to the raft. Pulling her aboard would disturb the sea too much; better to pole to the shallows and let her wade out. And yet the Styrofoam Sea continued to give the girl a wide berth.
The same powdery growth that discolored her pole outlined the place where the girl clung to the raft.
If not for her bodysuit, Yand would be wary to touch the girl. At shore, she offered her shoulder and the girl pulled herself up on it, clumsy as a newborn animal. Her free hand caught for purchase, then closed on the sensitive flesh alongside Yand’s breast, gripping like a handhold. Yand winced but bore the discomfort.
A dozen yards from the bank, the earth was relatively clear. She lowered the girl to sit there, then retrieved her shelter from the raft.
The girl blinked in the yellow light, her eyes fixed on the distant city as Yand set up the shelter. Yand cast furtive glances at her, expecting to glimpse fiberglass unfurling through tears in soft flesh, rubberized calluses on elbows or knees, twists of wire in pale, brittle hair. Anything to suggest the girl was as toxic as the sea she’d come out of.
When the clear membrane of the shelter pressurized and the air monitor gave an all-clear, Yand opened a hand to invite the girl in.
The space was small enough that, though they sat at opposite ends, their feet almost touched in the middle. Yand watched the air monitor, anticipating an alert at the girl’s presence. It didn’t budge from the safe zone.
“Who are you? What are you?” Yand asked, unsure of the right question.
“Lichen,” she said.
Yand was equally unsure which question she’d answered.
She considered the powdery gray-green furling out around the girl’s bare feet. A thin crust along the shelter’s floor stopped just short of her boots.
She’d heard rumor of lifeforms that survived in this poisoned landscape. Seemingly simple things becoming symbiotic clusters, to resist the infection. Through unified effort they protected themselves from the city’s carcinogens.
Yand hugged arms around her knees. It was exactly what she’d hoped to find: some way to counteract the city’s spread. To stop it once and for all.
She hadn’t expected it to appear in the form of a person. A girl with green-washed skin and gray-green eyes.
How many organisms had come together to create her? How was it even possible?
The air monitor hadn’t budged. Safe. Whatever the girl was, she was safe.
Yand reached up, hesitated, then removed the mask of her suit. The air within the shelter was warm, scented with chlorophyll or something like it. Petrichor? She couldn’t be sure; it was so long since she’d smelled either.
Yand pulled off a glove, held a hand out toward the girl. Lichen mirrored the gesture, pressed her fingertips to Yand’s. Solid flesh resisted her, yielding as it should. No more, no less.
Powdery gray-green growth passed from the girl’s fingertips to her own, moving across her skin with a rapidity Yand couldn’t follow. Hairs prickled down her arm and up the back of her neck. Her palm tingled at the proliferation of life across it.
“Lichen? Is that really your name?”
“It’s what you’d call me in any other form,” the girl said.
“Then why do you have this form?”
“Even the organisms that compose me can recall the shapes of what came before.”
“Before the city?”
Lichen nodded. As much as humans were a part of that poisoned, industrial landscape, they’d been a part of the natural world, too. They could be, still, even if the definition of natural was no longer what it used to be.
“I’m trying to find a way to stop the city’s infection. To protect my home.”
Lichen’s expression went thoughtful.
“And you? Why are you out here, in the water? Alone?”
“Not alone,” she said, and smiled. “Not like you are.” Her eyes ticked to the distant cityscape as their hands remained pressed together. Dark cement shapes, like bent and twisted fingers, reached in all directions, heedless of sun or sky or gravity, whichever had been the initial purpose for their glass and concrete facades to grow so straight and tall.
Yand drew a breath that trembled with hope. “Do you know the way to its heart? To stop it?”
Lichen’s eyes returned to her. Gray-green. Deeper and vaster than the Styrofoam Sea. Her fingers slipped into the gaps between Yand’s, straight for a moment then curling down to squeeze reassurance into her, palm to palm. “I can’t tell you the way. But if that’s where you want to go, I’ll take you.”
Yand had supplies to last a few days—more than enough to reach the city and return home. With Lichen to help, she could get closer than she’d ever expected on her own.
Lichen had no fear of the veils of pollution they passed through, or the desert of warped asphalt and vitrified linoleum and rubberized turf that opened up before them. She knew her immunity to the landscape as surely as Yand knew her own vulnerability.
The irregular mix of textures underfoot made the smooth, rolling expanse deceptively difficult to traverse. It must have been the churned, bald earth of a construction site before the city converted it into this strange, ever-widening landscape.
Yand had investigated the edges of the desert to gather samples, to prod at its strange, cactus-like growths of chain link and corrugated metal, but she’d never gone very far. Every step forward was untrammeled territory.
She took reassurance in Lichen’s sure stride. Her always-forward eyes.
Even here, Lichen’s passage quelled the ever-present metastatic reactions. Overgrowing surfaces fell back, inert, where she passed. The air appeared clearer than Yand was accustomed to, but that could be a matter of shifting winds.
Lichen paused before something on the glossy ground and Yand joined her. It looked like an air-filled bladder; some organ pried free of a living creature, quivering as veins pulsed across the membranous exterior.
Lichen moved to reach out, but Yand stopped her. It must have been part of a living animal. Infected, infested, eaten up, and swallowed into the landscape. The darkened ground around it was all that remained. A corpse mark burned into blistered laminate.
“It’s not safe,” she said, and drew Lichen on. Away, further down their path.
“I don’t think it can hurt me,” Lichen said.
“I don’t want to find out.”
Lichen blinked. She didn’t object, though she seemed confused by Yand’s concern. “What I think is what tells me to act. I wouldn’t think of touching something if it was dangerous.”
Yand realized the tightness of her grip and loosened it. “Maybe. But I wouldn’t want you to be wrong.”
“I’m not,” she said, simply.
How do you know that, Yand wondered but didn’t dare ask. It didn’t seem like the sort of question that had an answer. At least, not one Lichen could express in words.
They set up shelter when night fell. Though it kept the air safe, it did little to provide warmth, so they slept with their backs pressed together.
The towers seemed no closer after days of walking. Yand almost believed that the space between them and the city grew as they walked across it. Their footsteps sent forth vibrations that caused subterranean expanses to accordion out before them, a defense mechanism to delay or confound their arrival.
If the city possessed the intellect of even the simplest organism, perhaps it realized what Lichen was, and sought to escape from her.
They wended their way through a forest of dendritic columns, an amalgamation of plywood and metal, concrete and tubing. These imitation trees obscured the sky, threatening to drop parts of their unnatural biology on her head.
Even the wasteland was bearable compared to this claustrophobic labyrinth. Yand set her eyes forward and steeled her thoughts against the desire to go back.
If she became injured or her suit damaged, she was dead. The pollution would take hold and make her a part of this place. Dissolve and disassemble her, like it had done to that once-living thing they’d found in the desert, and use her to sustain its destructive existence. The thought clenched her stomach into a tight, hard ball of dread.
Lichen continued on, led by instinct. Only glimpses of the skyscrapers through wood-printed pillars promised their goal still existed.
The proximity of the city, the burdened heart and wheezing lungs of industry, pressed into her skull like a thumb into soft clay. Imagined toxins flooded her mind. If her bodysuit wasn’t perfectly secured, she’d already have them crawling across her skin, passing through her body with every exchange of breath.
A flick of movement in the corner of an eye caused her to turn, then turn again as it moved ahead of her gaze. Nothing there. The branching columns remained unmoving.
She caught sight of it again, down at her side. A deformation on the wrist of her suit.
She hadn’t expected the suit to remain impervious forever, but had hoped—hoped—
She tried to call out, but her voice was a strangled sound, muffled to silence by her mask. Panicked tears pattered the inside of it as she watched Lichen’s form dwindle to dimness in the sharp-shadowed forest.
Elbows pulled in against her sides and Yand sank to the ground, her knees striking with a puff of thick, fine dust that rose and glittered and multiplied itself in all directions.
Whether Lichen felt the vibrations of her fall, or simply stopped to look back, thin arms caught her, curled around her shoulder blades, held her firm. Her mask bumped askew when Lichen leaned her forehead against the side of it.
“I can’t. I can’t,” Yand gasped, surprised by the fear-heavy weight of her voice.
She raised her wrist to show Lichen the problem but, through blurred eyes, the deformation wasn’t visible.
Lichen spoke low, reassuring words, hands moving across her back as though she understood the why but not the how of such human behavior.
Lichen took her pack and assembled the shelter. She must have watched every time Yand did it, as she performed the steps precisely. Yand only half-noticed, still struggling with the panic that moved through her in slowly receding waves.
They crawled into the shelter and huddled hip to hip, warmth mingling between their bodies. Yand watched the air monitor and the wrist of her suit. Both promised normalcy.
Lichen removed her rebreather and mask, then closed both hands over the seal of her glove. Yand waited for the deformation of the seal to become evident. The powdery gray-green of Lichen’s touch spread across the material, revealing no flaw. She relaxed, assured that the deformity she’d seen had been in her mind.
“You’ve been trapped in this suit for days,” Lichen said.
“As though I have any other choice,” Yand said, but yielded when Lichen undid the seal down the suit’s back. “I wish I understood how you’re able to walk here unaffected.”
“It’s in my nature,” Lichen said.
“Your nature.” Yand gave a soft laugh. “That’s what I truly don’t understand.”
“What is there to understand? You live as you are, and I live as I am.”
“Exactly. How are we different when we’re made of the same things? Or are we, even?” She considered the steady, silent creep of Lichen’s powdery touch as it spread up her shoulder. “Whatever caused the city to become what it is, it must have affected you the same way. Or you’re born out of a response to it, but …”
“There, you see? So you do understand.”
“But if you could just explain it to me.”
Lichen’s head moved side to side, an imitation of how Yand shook her head no. “I know what I am in a way beyond words. Some things can be felt but not spoken.”
For the first time, Yand wondered how Lichen could speak at all. “Why do you have a human form? What reason do you have to move through the world as we do?”
“You just said it yourself. We’re made of the same things,” Lichen replied, and touched her far shoulder to urge her to lie down. To rest.
They stretched out side by side, Yand with her suit peeled down to her waist. She closed her eyes, matching Lichen’s measured breathing with her own.
Perhaps that response suggested that there was, after all, a human underneath the green-skinned mystery beside her. If the city could twist organic and inorganic forms together, why should it be so strange for the organisms which had survived in this wasteland to develop similar abilities? Perhaps strangest of all, considered in that context, was the way Lichen referred to herself; she was Lichen first, any humanity subsumed somewhere beneath or within that symbiotic identity.
“When we return to the Bunker, after this,” Yand murmured, her voice low in case Lichen was asleep.
“Let me learn from you. What you are, what you can do. You will come back with me?”
“Yes. We will.”
Chlorophyll, vegetal life, filled her nose and lulled her to sleep.
She dreamed that the thin crust of green covered her, then thickened, then reached upward in foliate fingers and unfurling tendrils. More greenery than she’d seen in countless years anchored into her as though she were a stone. It spread in sympathy, or symbiosis, of her desire to see the world returned to order.
She opened her eyes in the light of morning and gazed up through the forest canopy, into the yellow sky.
She hadn’t been able to see that much of it the day before.
Columnar trees fell away at the edge of the city’s center. Multi-story buildings, tumbled under the weight of their own metastasis, spawned miniaturized versions of themselves like mushrooms on rotten logs. If she stood still long enough, she could watch them growing. Would they reach the height of the skyscrapers that had come before? Rebar threaded what remained of the streets in a network of metal roots that drew sustenance from dead buildings.
In the center of it all, a few towers still stood, swarming with overgrowth. Black clouds venting from their tops offered the surest sign of life.
They walked in that direction. What would happen when they got there?
Lichen’s nature had reversed the city’s effects so far, but how could she stop the furious, pumping heart of a thing so huge in comparison to her?
A toppled tower lay against one of those that stood, a diagonal bridge to the building’s roof. They headed toward its base, through gray smog veils of increasing darkness. Particles glinted in the haze, making Yand think of jewels. Or of silicates, microscopic but razor-sharp, against the delicate tissues of human lungs.
Lichen walked through twisted steel and cable, plexiglass and pools of fuel-poisoned water. No one had come this deep into the heart of the city since it first took on a life of its own.
Lichen led the way across the crumbling building-bridge. What should have been a momentous event narrowed to the need to climb. Yand watched the other girl’s back to keep from glancing at the increasingly distant ground below.
Rubble dropped away underfoot. Yand gasped in surprise and then she was falling, scrabbling, flailing at rough concrete and brick that fled every attempt of hands and feet to find purchase.
Lichen cried out. She was there, somewhere, trying to help.
As swiftly as it began, it stopped. Air slammed out of Yand’s lungs as she came to a jarring halt. Yand fought her scattered mind back together to understand how she hung, suspended, against the sheer side of the building-bridge.
She turned her head carefully. Her feet dangled over the distant ruin of the city, no toehold within reach. Her body pressed against the sloping edge of the tower’s side, but she saw nothing that could have snagged the front of her suit.
She felt it at the same time that she turned her head the other way and saw. A ragged, radiant pain in her armpit. A red metal beam wedged, jagged side first, through torn suit and into flesh.
Lichen appeared a few feet above, and with her, a cascade of dust and rubble.
Yand had never seen fear in the other girl’s face, but perhaps this was what it looked like. A slight widening of the eyes, a forced slowness to her actions as she descended to a closer outcrop, reached for Yand’s free arm, steadied her, then pulled.
The metal beam provided leverage as she pushed upward, kicked for purchase, found just enough to get her upper body horizontal on a stable section. She breathed deep, and when the cold pain in her armpit spread, forced herself up.
They made their way, shaking and overcautious, back to the top of the bridge.
“You’re hurt. The suit—”
“It’s nothing,” Yand said, and hated the shake of her voice. Blood streaked hot over her skin and poisoned air blew cold across it, drilling tremors down to her core.
It didn’t matter. There was no going back now.
She clamped her arm to her side and tried not to see the fear on Lichen’s face. She forced her feet to move and prayed that she was faster than the infection rooting in her bloodstream. “We’re almost there. I can make it.”
Lichen closed a hand tight over the wrist that hung loose at Yand’s side. The delicate creep of her nature spread over the suit’s exterior.
Something stirred, a thrumming sensation in the meat on both sides of Yand’s injured armpit, waking and proliferating just beneath the surface of her. Yand directed her attention toward even breaths and steady footsteps.
At the end of the bridge, she helped lower Lichen to the rooftop with her good arm. Every flex of the damaged muscles seemed to feed the infection.
Yand descended after her, eyes fixed forward, refusing to glance at the black-bleeding wound.
The air darkened here, a thicker veil of pollution that cast them in graveyard light. Soot rose up where their feet passed, clouding around Yand but dissolving into a nimbus of clarity around Lichen.
Yand clutched her wounded arm closer as the thrumming sensation expanded, bursting the seams of her suit and the delicate structures of skin and muscle beneath.
Impossible to fight against the poisoned life that multiplied, swelled, and spread. But, really, why should she want to? The living city was humanity’s legacy, a next evolutionary step for a toxic and degraded world. Just as the infection that coursed through her would be her own legacy. Her offspring.
Lichen was there, talking fast, but Yand couldn’t hear the words, see her face. She saw only the boiling, blooming mass of flesh. Wherever her torn skin contacted the building’s rooftop, it drew in cement and wire, shingle and grit. Inorganic materials merged with flesh. Her arm expanded into a bloated, ropy, grayish mass that grew faster the more it pulled in.
The city was as much a victim of its processes as she was. The cycle of non-life was inescapable.
Lichen worked the mask free from her face. She pressed one hand into the ruin of Yand’s arm, but to no effect. The ferocity of the infection, or the nature of her body—something about it was different, unaffected by Lichen’s ability. Yand couldn’t feel her touch but, as Lichen pressed fingers harder into the flesh, it seethed up and around her hand. Seeking to trap and consume her as well.
With effort, Yand caught Lichen’s wrist and pulled her free. Blood and slurried plaster smeared Lichen’s hand, burning through the protective structures that made her.
“I’m sorry,” Yand said, afraid for her friend. She wished that the other girl could escape, but it was too late.
Lichen closed her hand into a fist, leaned forward, and pressed her lips to Yand’s.
Yand’s bones burned with cleansing fire, skin hot with an incandescence that lit the inside of her. A new form of life, rife and eager. She welcomed it on her tongue, and every cell that comprised her responded likewise.
Pain faded to a distant part of awareness as Lichen’s presence, all of her, every organism that made her, filled Yand, mind and body.
Yand awoke to a sky yellow as battery acid. Veils of smog had fallen away, settling like a last snowfall over the city.
When she shifted to sit up, a crust of organic matter flaked away from her suit, her skin. It spread out from her, across the rooftop, over and into the building’s now-dead chimneys. The edges of the crust seemed to still be spreading as she surveyed the buildings nearby, the desert beyond. Further, beyond that, the Styrofoam Sea.
Lichen was not there beside her, but not gone, either. Yand turned her no longer injured arm this way and that, dislodging flakes of powder as she did. A faint green cast beneath the otherwise human flesh told her all she needed to know. The air smelled of greenery, vibrant life, growth and potential.
She was not alone; she felt Lichen’s presence, the multiplicity of her, in blood and marrow and mind.
Tears welled and spilled over, first of sorrow, then of gratitude. She willed them down, deep inside, until she could return them to the Styrofoam Sea.
As a fine art professional, Mar has wielded katanas and handled Lady Gaga’s shoes. As a veterinary assistant, she has cared for hairless cats, hedgehogs, and, one time, a coyote. As a writer, she can be found in Fusion Fragment, Flash Fiction Online, Apex’s Robotic Ambitions anthology, and more. Find her on various social media @MaroftheBooks.