Yellow Fungus on a Red Planet
We huddled together around the small mound of ruddy brown soil scooped harshly into a low hewn mound.
It had been a week, we were no closer to understanding why we were still alive. Miraculously and mysteriously, we were. Every night the fungus returned, the small mushroom-like tendrils reaching upwards towards the cold, distant sun. Every night we collapsed with cold and exhaustion face down upon the ground, pleading for merciful release. Every long morning began with the burning fury in our lungs and the misery and exultation of life renewed.
Jeremy was the first to push the soil together. We looked at him as a madman willing death’s arrival. He flailed his arms and thrust the red dirt ever faster towards his face. The following night we noticed it caused much fewer of the thin white bodies to rise from the ground near him, but we hardly noticed in comparison to his supine body stretched out from under an ordinarily lethal burial mound upon his head. The following morning he sat up with red-rimmed eyes and stared as if we were the crazy ones.
I was the last to bury myself, of course. I was never one to follow the crowd and could not bury my rationality as the others buried their heads. Yet there was no denying that while I arose every morning grasping my throat and chest the others woke looking more relaxed than I, notwithstanding their red-rimmed eyes and dying tendrils plastered upon their faces. I waited three days for my teammates to become zombies as their bodies were slowly taken over by an alien force, but it never happened. Instead the four of us struggled about on the ground, weakly flinging a dusty regolith towards our faces.
The first day the tang was bitter, but the smell was not a musty fungal smell. It had dragged my mind back to my childhood when I ran through the puddles after a rain or traipsed through a forest while hiking at extreme altitude. Except there was absolutely no moisture to it at all - it all felt sere inside my sinuses and lungs. The mix of sensations I understood with sensations that made no sense was disconcerting. I was beyond the point of questioning and knew I must obey the unspoken command.
The third day we lay akimbo, heads buried in small mounds of dirt like some bizarre negative image of adults buried in sand at a beach. The gently yellowed tendrils stretched skyward all around our bodies, much shorter than the first night, extending perhaps a few centimeters above our own forms, except for the mounds above our faces where they continued to stretch a full metre or more.
Clearly it was the tendrils that were giving us life. Clearly it was the final act of suicidal self burial that kept us alive. After six days I felt strength returning to my arms, the burn of metabolism coming to my body. I sat up and stared at Jeremy for the first time since we had landed. He was stronger than I. We could not speak, being kept alive was one thing, but there was no way we had enough breath to push past vocal cords.
He stared at me with burning eyes as if to transmit meaning across the short distance between us. Seeing my vacant expression he fell towards me, landing harshly on the ground. I collapsed backwards, when next I dared to open my eyes I saw him scraping the ground together with a metal sheet he must have retrieved from near my head.
He mounded the pile at his head higher and deeper than I could ever have done on my own. Perhaps enough to bury head and shoulders into the sharp, gritty soil. More depth, more life. You can’t get too much of a good thing.
That night the fungus didn’t return. We lay there, choking, dying, praying for relief, waiting for death, wondering if we’d have the tendrils grace our bodies again before we died. I’m glared at Jeremy, wondering if he had finally done the right thing through his carelessness.
I looked up to the stars, searching for Earth, longing for home.