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Nuclear Tourism

Vasily had but one customer that day, a Prague tourist whose breath reeked of old meat. Vasily waited in the jeep while the other man checked his equipment. Like most tourists, he had brought too many gadgets. Vasily picked his teeth in the mirror.

They were parked at a side path, at a place where Dymtrus had snipped the barb wire two years before. Now Dymtrus rotted in a Minsk jail and Vasily waited for the Czech to finish taking iodide tablets.

The first leg of the journey carried them by a small apartment bloc, usually a photo opportunity for the more excitable tourists in love the with the images of abandoned toys and floors paved with fallen books. But the Czech indicated they should keep walking deeper into the zone, and so they did.

Security had been stepped up in recent years; at first Vasily thought the hoofbeats he heard to be the horseback patrol not scheduled for another hour. But then they found the elk.

The beast had its head lowered and it breathed hard. Its eyes were filmed-over white, and its nostrils pulsed dangerously. Before Vasily could call warning, it charged.

The elk butted him in the shoulder. Vasily dropped his geiger counter, clapping a hand to the injury. The other man let out a screech, flailing his arms and flapping his cap. The elk ignored it and steeled itself forward again. Vasily met it with an iron bar that he grabbed up from the ground. The first hit did not seem to have an effect, but at the second, the elk shook its head and took a few drunken steps. Vasily swung again, downing the beast. The elk dropped to its knees. Vasily caught hold of the Czech before he could dash off in any direction and pulled him along a side path.

They took rest on a bus bench.

Normally, tourists would insist on pacing through the amusement park and one of the primary schools, but though he was shaken, the other man kept insisting on seeing the plant. Vasily had stated several times up front that he would never go near the sarcophagus, that he could not find enough recompense for what trespassing would incur. The Czech remained staid: he had seen internet videos of the internal structure. He wanted to go. Vasily took him to a swimming pool to assuage him. While the other man snapped photos of beached floaters and fallen birds littering the tile, Vasily fiddled with the counter. The plastic face was smashed, and no matter how he adjusted the contacts, it would not beep.

They would visit the park next.

The skeleton of the Ferris wheel loomed over all, an easy landmark. Somehow they had wound up going too far south. Vasily could find the park using dead reckoning with the wheel, but he had no idea how to get back out undetected.

They passed by a stand of sunflowers. A gap in their bright smiled formed of black and crisped bodies. The Czech bent low to poke one with a mechanical pencil.

A low grunt came from behind the flowers.

Vasiliy hefted his flashlight, wishing he had not dropped the iron bar somewhere behind them. A great old boar nosed out from the stand of sunflowers, its face a gnarled mass of tumors. It had a single sow trailing behind it, white-eyed as the elk. The boar’s tusks were yellowed with age and very, very sharp.

The Czech drained of all color and shouted, “Bůh!”

He ran, and the boar ran after him. Vasiliy jumped and caught hold of a tree limb, bringing his legs up just as the sow sailed through the air beneath him. Her head impacted the trunk with a dull thud, the aftershock shaking Vasily from his perch. He landed awkwardly on the sow’s back. The pig emitted a rusty-nail squeal as her legs collapsed beneath her. Vasily heaved to his feet and was off and running before she could recover. Low branches whipped him in the face. He no longer heeded direction, getting picked up would be a welcome intrusion. Jail was preferable to this.

The trees cleared suddenly. Vasily halted, skidding so that his body would not pitch over whatever drop lay before him. He landed on his elbow with a crunch, the jolt sent a shock up to his teeth. Vasily rolled to his back, winded, cradling his arm.

Something crackled nearby.

Vasily jerked his head up to find the Czech, shoe off and nursing a bleeding blister.

The other man blinked owlishly. “I guess we go reactor after all?” He pointed.

The drop before them was a slope, and the slope terminated in a shore. They were beside one of the plant’s cooling lakes, and beyond that was the coffin bulk of the plant itself.

Vasily sat up, heart hammering. He had never been this close before. Though he knew it illogical, he found himself taking shallower breaths. He would have to shower when he got home, and burn his clothes. The geiger counter at his waist was smashed and lost. The Czech dug a fancier German model with a digital readout from his pack. Vasily fumbled with it. The background radiation was higher, but not fatal. They would have to move quickly, he told the tourist, and stay briefly as possible. The other man nodded, staring awestruck off at the plant. Together they hobbled along the perimeter of the lake.

The plant itself had been shut down completely in 2000. but where was the security? Where were the patrols? Vasily knew he and his jeep were not the only fringe operators in the zone of alienation.

The sarcophagus loomed over their future. Just looking at it raised the hairs on Vasily’s neck.

Vasily had no outset intention of getting anywhere near the plant, but curiosity drove precaution from his mind. Gates were open and empty, streets white and bare. The two men walked abreast, Vasily carried his flashlight in his uninjured hand, the tourist carrier the geiger counter.

The perimeter fence was topped with barbed wire. The gate hung open.

The Czech broke away, jogging lightly and waving for Vasily to follow. Vasily considered leaving him, but if he were picked up the man would probably blab Vasily’s name in an instant. He was stuck either way.

They headed not for a reactor, but one of the other buildings. The Czech excitedly overturned debris, snapping pictures with his phone. Vasily kept on lookout. Was there truly no one?

Before Vasily could stop him, the tourist darted through a half-open door. On following, Vasily found the man stopped dead.

They were in a lobby or reception room. The walls were piebald. Paper? No, Vasily could see the mottling on furniture too. A black mold. The walls were teeming with it.

The Czech had been snapping pictures, now he held the little screen up to his face, cursing softly. Vasily could see over his shoulder. The pictures were fuzzy and marred by yellow-orange bleed. The tourist shook the phone.

Vasily took a sudden breath, and then clapped his hand over his mouth. He must breath no more in this room. Something was wrong. It was too warm.

He tried to catch his charge’s arm, but the Czech wheeled forward and evaded his grasp.

The mold patch before them was as big as a classroom map. The Czech got a foot from it and prodded the surface with his pencil. There was a blue-white flash and a sudden rush of heat.

Vasily finally lost his nerve and ran out, shrieking. He could hear the Czech behind him, blundering into things, screaming. Vasily ran shouting, stripping off his clothes, to the coolant lake. He scrubbed ineffectually at his skin.

They did not let him talk to anyone. When Vasily had come into the hospital vomiting blood, he was immediately quarantined. Two days later, after his body had used the last of its blood cells, Vasily died insisting on what he had seen. They could not explain how he had taken a 1,000 rad dose outside of the reactor, nor could they explain the Czech tourist, found wandering cataractous and weak through the brush. The hospital turned his body over for study but refused to offer further facilities to the investigation. They had more patients to service and didn’t want a reputation.

And besides, the room where Vasily stayed had gained the most persistent black mildew…

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7 Bites of Lovecraft

Rot

The first thing that hits him is the smell. The stench of shit that somebody tried to cover up with a sugary-sweet votive candle. It makes his eyes sweat. He gags, “Jesus,” into his sleeve. Their quarry is, ironically, nowhere near the toilet. Poor bastard swelled ten times his size, and weighs as much as a basketball. The petroglyph’s cord punctures skin, lets out a swell of gas like an exclamation. He does throw up then.

Worship

Bodies kink and judder before him. Even without the lasers it would be surreal. His contact is fishing mushrooms from a plastic baggie, dealing to a bunch of suburb kids disguised as ravers. He lowers his balaclava and yells –side hall, men’s room—as if he could be heard over the beat. The contact has more than ears, though. Even when their deal is done, he’s not sure what he saw. The kids stand still as he leaves, mouths open like turkeys in the rain, breathing spores like smoke.

Incunabula

The antiquarian smiles and slops tea over the sides of a Wedgewood cup. It’s a good brew, smells of stiff poison. He’s almost sad he won’t get to drink it. There, the man’s finger points, there and there. There are books, yes, but then anything can be a book. He eyes the paperweight as Latin texts are thrust beneath his nose and fingers his watch. Sigils older than Rome creep under glass. Sometimes meaning transcends language.

Virus

Some thoughts spread like wildfire. Others like pox. He catches a little tune on the train to Providence and nearly loses himself to it. It’s everywhere right now. Such a catchy beat nobody notices the tribal rhythm beneath it, the hungry harmonies. He takes a pill to drown it out, but others aren’t so lucky. He disembarks to the news of a rash of sleeping sickness.

Sermon

The worm that walks is a friendly fellow if you catch him in the right mood. He’s got a smooth pitch and a firm yet yielding handshake. He’s got a healthy following, a good portion of the middle United States leaves their homes to camp hungry and destitute on the road with him. His poison is the unadulterated truth, and leaches into everything.

Museum

Light glints from cases of Jasper and Calcite while the sign before him proclaims this limestone block to be the largest Crinoid specimen found in the basin. The odd eye-shaped marks along the stern apparently hadn’t disturbed the man who unearthed them, though presumably they hadn’t blinked as they do now. He walks out with a heavier coat and the theft is never solved.

End

The word apocalypse means “rending of the veil,” not the end of all things, he tells her, but she is in no mood to bandy semantics. Something immeasurably huge parts the distance and she screams with her whole body, a primal scream that recalls ancestors just beginning to walk upright. He finds her lovelier than anything then, and would give much to preserve this moment just like it is. The sky vomits a blind sun and his wish is granted.

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The Old Grey Man

Jolene first saw the man when her truck was idling at the drive-thru, foraging through the 99 cent menu. She watched the grey heap of him and chewed her lip as she contemplated miniature tacos. Even in the sticky July heat he seemed to be more cloth than man. He looked like he’d smell. She could tell it’d be a baked-on stink of too much living, plus something more unpleasant underneath. Maybe piss.

The speaker crackled to life, startling her from her thoughts.

“Wel—me to –et Taco, —at w—d y— li— t—day?”

She looked at the man. Then down at her money. She made a decision.

At the pay window, she pulled her extra burrito from the bag and slid over the seat, popping open the passenger side door.

“Here!” she called and scythed the burrito out over the parking lot. The old man, in a surprisingly deft move, caught it in one hand. His left.

She smiled and slid back into her seat. The counter boy, nonplussed, asked her cleavage whether she wanted special sauce.

He was always by the bus stop. That was the intel she gathered the next day. He never got on, didn’t join the city’s homeless population in recycling cans for fare. Sometimes he left the spot, late at night, probably to forage.

He was sitting in the shade of a liquid maple when she found him. Jolene casually threw her leg over a shopping cart and sat sidesaddle. If he noticed this, or anything ever, he gave no indication.

Long, sweaty minutes passed while Jolene got eaten up by flies. The flies didn’t seem to bother him, in fact they kept a good distance away. She realized that he did smell, completely different from the stench she’d anticipated, but just as strong. Like dry rot. She took a few swigs from her water bottle to fortify herself.

From the heap, a gloved hand snaked out, bearing a bent Styrofoam cup.

“Would you mind?” the homeless man said.

Jolene decided to call him Keith, after her sixth grade homeroom teacher. He didn’t know how old he was. He had lived in this area ever since he’d got out, though from where exactly, he would not say. He would not take off his gloves.

Jolene sat there for hours while sweat greased her skin and talked to the old man about the town, his life, the people he met. At no point did she ever see his skin. When she bid him farewell that day, she said, “See you tomorrow.”

And she did.

When she wasn’t out running errands, she sat and talked with the homeless man. Occasionally another bum would walk up, looking for her mercy, but these were isolated incidents. She found that none of the other homeless people liked to be around him for too long.

It was a week before he talked about himself.

“It started with my uncle,” he said, “he was my dad’s younger brother, used to live with us. University student.” He hocked and spat.  “He was always picking weird shit up. He’d fill up his little room at the end of the hall, till my dad would yell at him and empty it out again. Guess he was whatchacallit. Touched. Things were fine until he came in one day with this…growth on his hand. Looked like mold. Surprised he didn’t get it sooner, picking up shit like he did.”

Jolene nodded and watched, fascinated, as Keith scratched an invisible itch. The heat was in triple digits, even in the shade, but she saw no sign of dampness on his layers of cloth.

“’Course he never got it checked out, and by the time dad noticed it was too late. Hand damn near rotted off. My uncle died in a whatsit. Sanitarium. Nice name for the funny farm in those days, ‘course there wasn’t nothing funny bout ‘em in those days. I remember the day he had to go out and get his ashes. Thing was, the folks said they never cremated him…” the old man trailed off.

Jolene licked away the crumbs of today’s fishstick meal, studying him. The old man was prone to gesturing with his left hand while he spoke, but never the right. No one could tell her how he got around. He never rose from his heap.

“Anyway, I forget about it till about…’85? ’87? Spots start showing up on my peter. ‘Course, with my time in Da Nang, I think it’s just some kinda jungle rot. Doc gives me some steroid cream or somethin’. Doesn’t go away.”

Jolene noticed the position of the sun and left, promising more food tomorrow. The old man did not reply, did not move.

“It was on my back after a while, too,” he said the next day, after six hotdogs disappeared into the folds of cloth on his head. Thought Jolene strained, she catches no glimpse of a pink mouth.

“Washed with every damn kind of soap known to man, might as well have been sprinkling sugar on it, for all the good it did. Didn’t even think of my uncle, though him and me were pretty thick back in the day.” He stopped to hack at phlegm, a prolonged attack that went on for six minutes. She timed him. When he was done the cloth around his mouth was stained with wet.

Jolene didn’t know why she picked this time to ask it, only that all their interactions had been building up to this question.

She asked, “So why do you keep all covered up?”

The old man fell silent. His left hand flexed once and then stopped, as if even this simple motion taxed him.

His next statement was so quiet the passing cars nearly drowned it out.

“Goddamn doctors couldn’t tell me what the hell was wrong. I bore all their poking and prodding till ‘long about ’93, when I skedaddled out of one of those veteran hospitals. Laid low in case they looked for me. Then after a while I didn’t have any other choice.”

Jolene frowned. “What?”

“I don’t think there was ever anything they coulda done, but I think it spread faster once I got out. I remembered my uncle then, not that it did me any good. It just ate and ate. Got so I was as bad as Hamburger Sue down by the rails, don’t nobody want to give change to someone who looks like the ass end of a nightmare.”

“What’re you saying?”

“Every year I weigh a little less. I think the heat makes it spread faster, but I ain’t gotta choice. I used to be down by the soup kitchen until someone saw me one day. I keep thinkin’ someone will see me and call someone, but I guess I don’t have much of a reason to be scared anymore. Went to piss the other day and my fucking peter broke off. I just keep thinkin’ of my uncle, laying in that hospital bed, whatchacallit. Disintegrating. Terrible way to go.”

Jolene licked the sweat off her upper lip. “I think you’re fulla shit.”

Keith did not seem put off. In fact, he gave no indication of hearing her at all, continuing to speak in a flat cadence.

“Can’t even go down to the soup kitchen anymore, couldn’t take the soup anyway. Can’t move too much so I live off what I can reach from the dumpster.”

“I said,” Jolene pitched her voice louder, “you’re. Full. Of. Shit.”

“—ain’t got no one to help me, ain’t got nowhere to go, ain’t got nothing to do but sit here and—”

There was a powdery, crumbling sound, and then silence. The man seemed to settle.

Jolene realized she’d been squeezing a mustard packet, it had burst in her fingers. She dragged her hand on the seat of her jeans, staring at the heap.

“Mister,” she called. No response.

“Hey mister,” she said, scooting closer. Nothing.

“You alright?” she asked and picked up his knitted cap.

Of course, there was nothing underneath.

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Sapii pullum

From the diaries of Henri Smythe

From the diaries of Henri Smythe

Name: Tree Pig, the “Tasty” mushroom, Chef’s friend, countless others.

Latin: Sapii pullum

Habitat: prefers tropical hardwoods such as teak, mahogany and so forth.

Habits: has a nearly year-long growing season in most of its growing habitats.

Reproduction: drop spores like typical gilled mushroom, also fairly easy to propagate through mycelial division.

Edible? yes

Description: this mushroom has a wide geographical range, from mountainous climes in Malaysia to the bogs of Cambodia. It is hardy, growing from early spring to late fall, and is a healthy contributor towards decomposition of “nursery” trees in jungles across Southeast Asia. In many ways it is a typical wood-rot mushroom, and a popular addition to the dinner table for many foraging cultures.

The mushroom’s most remarkable attribute would be its taste. Its discoverer, Sir Neville Ratham, put it succinctly that “[the mushroom] replicates with perfect mien the stout rarity of human flesh.” This was confirmed by the head of a later Borneo expedition who added that it “possessed a gammy[sic] almost Cornish tang.” The bouquet has eventually been classified as originating somewhere in the Mekong delta, with a nutty aftertaste. It is popular in Haute cuisine when a substitute for “Long pork” is needed.

(see index for recipe suggestions)

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Lycoperdon pseudopolis

From the diaries of Henri Smythe

From the diaries of Henri Smythe

Name: “City” fungus

Latin: Lycoperdon pseudopolis

Habitat: widespread, though it prefers “waste” ground and vacant plots.

Habits: develops as mycelium underground over the course of centuries, once the sporocarp develops the fungus detaches itself from the ground, often taking large portions of the surrounding area with it.

Reproduction: unknown

Edible? chewy

Description: this literal genius loci may remain dormant underground for centuries as mycelium until triggered, whereupon a fruiting body will develop rapidly enough that a city appears “overnight.” The triggering event can be as devastating as a natural disaster or as seemingly benign as someone digging a well in the wrong spot, but once triggered growth is exponential. The largest sporocarp on record measured appr. 568  km² , but they vary widely in size from the “hamlet”(pseudopolis  pagus) to the “metropolis”(pseudopolis  urbanus) which possesses outgrowths that rival the Empire State Building. Oddly enough, while the mushroom has an uncanny resemblance to human structure no “live” presence has ever been detected on one.

The fungi will inevitably drift towards the sea as the end of its life cycle nears and it loses altitude, but there have been occasions where the biomass falls just short of its destination. Memorable occurrences include the defoliated suburb of New Brunswick and “the Minsk Incident.” No first-hand account of such a “fall” has ever been recovered.

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Morchella Senis

floating old man mushroom

Name: Floating “Old Man” Morel

Latin: Morchella Senis

Habitat: church foundations, caves, subway tunnels

Habits: floating appr. 1.5 meters off the ground, sporing when threatened, polite coughing

Reproduction: follows victims around for days, once the victims tires of pursuit and goes to rest, fungus floats above subject and sheds spores.

Edible? yes

Description: The Floating “Old Man” (or “Wise Man”) mushroom is a curious fungus with curious habits. Morchella Senis spends most of its life underground as mycelium. After approximately 90 years it fruits into a body with a rind 3 inches thick that, when cured and ground, makes fine treatment for scabies.

After a gestation period of 30 days the rind splits open to reveal the tender fruiting body, which will engage its hover mechanism to search for prey. In a method of selection unknown, it finds a human with reclusive habits and follows them. Often, these victims are homeless or transient in nature.  Once engaged in pursuit, the mushroom can go for days on end without dropping.

Once the victim inevitably drops from exhaustion, the mushroom with float above them and release spores, leading to a fatal respiratory infection. The purpose of this live “sowing” is unknown, but the result is clear: once the victim is buried (or wanders off to die) mycelium descend from the body and once again the cycle begins anew.

Once shed of its spores, the fruiting body will float aimlessly for days on end, now a dried-out husk, until captured or rained upon. Once reconstituted, it goes well with pasta and white wine and is said to be an excellent substitute for prosciutto antipasto.

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Cordyceps Suspiriae

When we caught up with Phillips, he was too far gone to do anything for. He was still talking, lips moving, but that didn’t mean anything. Some of those dogs were still walking when we got into town. Tony tried patting his arm, telling him it would be okay, and I cold-cocked him before he could make contact. Stupid shit. Lucky bastard was wearing gloves, otherwise I would’ve shot him and then put the torch to him.

You can’t explain shit like this to anyone who hasn’t seen it firsthand. Like when we found that farmer face up in front of the Laundromat, all swollen like a bag of popcorn in a microwave. We tried to lift him up and his arm separated from his body. Made a sound like ripping hair. I tried telling that to those uniformed shits they have back at the base, and they laughed. Sounded funny, I’ll admit. Didn’t stop me from beating their asses.

I have to scrub real careful around the stitches now. Two against one. Bastards had knives. Not fair not fair.

Just because you’re a soldier doesn’t mean you appreciate the reality. Town. Plague. Infection. They’re just words, words for something you can’t really envision, have to experience to even begin to see. Gas masks and E-suits over E-suits over E-suits.

Dowling died two weeks ago. I watched that punk from sunup to sundown, never once took off so much as a glove. They wrote it off to heart failure. Wonder what they did with the body.

There’s still a bruise on my ribcage from my fall on the steps. I’m okay. The one who turned back to help me, one of the raw dogs sent in to fish us out when we realized just how deep in the shit we’d gotten ourselves, he got the short end of the dick. I wonder if they told him going in to always have something between your skin and the miasma. I doubt they told any of them, they were wearing home-security epidemic getups, all taped seams and condom boots.

I told them I didn’t look back after I got up. I lied.

Ever kicked a puffball? That’s what his body did.

Even in the shower I cough phlegm like bullets. I tell the doctor it’s the cold weather, he gives me NyQuil and wags his finger. Fuck you very much. I want something to knock me out for a while. I want to sleep without dreams. In dreams I see Phillips and the farmer. In dreams I shoot the dog again, the first movement we saw in the town, and he splits right down the middle. His inside is all cloudy.

None of it made any sense. The labels on the bottles, the papers, nothing. I think we were wrong, looking for a cause. It’s here now, that’s what matters.

The water on the bathtub floor is pink. My lungs feel hairy. I’ve been spitting teeth for a few days now, been shitting liquid for a week. I’ll finish here and then I’ll climb up to the roof of my house.

I feel a yawn coming on.

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