'The Forest' Biological / Anthropological Scifi

I've been working on this sci-fi novel on and off for years. It is pretty heady and quite involved. But worth the read!

The book takes place 170 years in the future, in Salt Lake City, Utah, home to the last human settlement on Earth. The main character, an ecologist, must cross continents and oceans and face the perils of an alien, genome-altering Forest to find a cure for his dying son, and confront his family’s buried past. Set in a world as vast and intricate as Frank Herbert’s Dune, but written in a fast-paced and concise style, The Forest fuses the conventions of dystopian literature and biological sci-fi.

You can buy it, if you want, at Amazon or iTunes. 

Or you can download it for free right here! 

MOBI is the file for your kindle

EPUB works for Nook

PDF should work on any device

Or, if you just hate downloading things, here is the entire novel, pasted below:

The Forest

by

Paul Stephanus

 

Part 1: The City

I

“Thirteen of you. And you’re all so young. They keep sending them to me younger and younger.” David surveys the group of initiate Ecologists sitting cross-legged in a crescent before him, their white ceremonial tunics blending into the floor of white fungus beneath them. He smiles widely, showing a weathered set of teeth.

“You know what? I just realized that this is the thirteenth of these inceptions I’ve presided over. What an auspicious day. Thirteen bright young minds for the thirteenth time. This could easily be my last too; I am getting old.”

The students shift and laugh politely. He lifts his eyes away from the group and scans the lower canopy. Falling season has just begun and the white seeds are floating down in torrents from above, scattering themselves everywhere throughout the wide open expanse of Niche Algaric: settling on the students’ hair; sweeping like powdered snow across the fungal outgrowth, saturating the very air. He lets out a contented sigh and returns his gaze to the group.

“This must be quite unnerving for all of you. But not to worry. That is why they have me here. I’m not Incorporated myself, so I can’t tell you what it is like. Not what it will feel like at any rate. But, as you may know, I was the closest of companions with both elder Conrad Young and Marco Young. I knew them both before and after their Incorporations, and I must say the change in them was only for the better. And I’m not just talking about their ability to study the Forest. They were just easier to get along with. They stopped worrying all the time and were blessed with a much-increased sharpness of wit. And for fear of sounding abstract, I’d also say that they moved a little closer to God. It’s a hard thing to measure, proximity to the divine, but easy for a man like myself to observe in others. It was a benefit bestowed upon those two men that I envied greatly. But, alas! Incorporation is still designated only for use by Ecologists. Maybe one day I’ll get my chance.”

The group was still tense, but this seemed to loosen them up a bit. These students were right on the cusp of a new generation: on one side are the people railing against Incorporation as an absolute evil, a communion with Satan, while on the other side it is believed to be the only natural process for the progression of the human race. David smiles again and gestures to the rows of Ederesapiens behind him who have come to attend to their transformations.

“I’m sure you’ve heard this one hundred times, but I’d better reiterate just to put your minds at ease. As you know there will be massive changes to your phenotype after your genome is reconfigured, but the only phenotypic change clearly visible to the outside world will be these lovely wide brimming, white-toothed smiles that you see on these fine creatures behind me. Not such a bad thing! Your bones will become slightly stronger; your skin less susceptible to the harsh dryness of the City climate, when you are in the City; and of course your fingernails will fall off and eventually stop growing altogether. So nothing serious.” At this point David leans in and says in a mock whisper, “And they say that the Incorporated of Niche Algaric are very good lovers.” The class laughs nervously at this, taken aback that it’s coming out of a priest’s mouth.

“So,” David finishes his thought, “you won’t have to worry about finding a mate. You’ll be hot property.” Before the students could react again David carries on by pointing to a blond-haired student in the front row, sitting in an awkward cross-legged position.

“You. Yes you, son. What’s your intended area of study?” asks David.

“Well, nothing has been approved by the department yet, but I’m interested in new methods of translating the sensory perceptions of the R Gland in the postreptilian families in Habitat A.” He was getting excited. “Dr. Harrison of the first Renaissance believed that this perception was a result of a single component in their cells. If we can isolate the component and liquidize a large enough quantity, this could be added to Incorporation pools. Basically I’m interested in further specification of the Incorporation process.”

David laughed and said, “I think you’ve just proved the point I was driving at, but I’ll continue. Now, you.” David says, pointing to a young girl.

“I’m interested in Flora Orchis Fly. I’m hoping to collect some samples on this trip actually and set up some crosses in the University laboratory when I get back. I’d like to discover which states of Niche perception and what soil content cause the genetic regulation that leads to the varied mutations observed in the bloom.”

“A little over my head, but what do you expect? What about you?” David points to yet another student.

“Mine might not be achievable, but I’d like to collaborate on a taxonomical expedition to the Primary Canopy.”

“A fine ambition, but I suggest a bit more confidence,” David smiles at the student.

David now addresses the whole group, saying, “Expeditions to the Primary Canopy; City-based breeding programs; isolating proteins; translating sensory functions; and altering the process of Incorporation!

“I’m sure you all realize that fifteen years ago, before the re-organization, access to the Forest had been strictly banned for decades? I was the only member of the City allowed to reside permanently past the City limits, entrusted with the upkeep of Joseph’s Birthplace. During those thirty years, or more, I didn’t see a single soul cross the Landbridge to the Forest. The periphery stations had long been abandoned, the Landbridge had petrified and turned gray from lack of use.

“Of course, as we know, Forest study had been thriving shortly before that during the Renaissance, but even then all Ecologists were completely dependent on isolation vests, and they were much more primitive than the ones you’re wearing now, I might add. Those who wore them could barely make it this deep into the Forest without a complex system of sensory deprived navigational songs to guide them. A highly poetic and honorable, but extremely dangerous and primitive way to travel – muttering esoteric songs to oneself while stumbling in a hallucinogenic delirium through the inhospitable Forest!

“On top of all that the City outlawed any material to be taken from the Forest, at all, and among the great sins was the act of bringing natural life back to the City.

“What I'm saying to all of you is that you’re very lucky. Although the phrase hasn’t quite caught on yet, I’ve started to call this time of our existence the Second Great Renaissance. Maybe you can slip that into your reports when referring to the here and now so I can see it in writing and feel validated. It’s good to have young friends like you. You see, I’m an old man now, but I’m overjoyed that I will die in this age of newfound enlightenment. And it is you Ecologists that brought us here, and largely you who are exposed to and reap the rewards.

“Let me just ask before we begin officially: after coming here, and seeing the sights, has anyone thought of migrating to Niche Algaric for good? I know we’ve only spent a day or two exploring the area, but it is a choice that has been made over and again during these past thirteen years. Some of the most loving relationships and most beautiful offspring I’ve ever borne witness to were a result of a sapiens and Ederesapiens cross. Fifteen years ago this would have been considered a heretical blasphemy!” David finishes this last line in the style of a doomsday prophet and gets a few giggles out of his audience. He tries to keep things humorous, but they just don’t realize how different things were just a short time ago. And how different their lives will be after Incorporation.

“Well, you can see your pools of sap being prepared behind me, and it will take awhile before they’re done. Which leads me to my favorite part, the story. I’m no Ecologist, but a priest, and therefore my specialty is in storytelling. You are about to alter your human Genome, and in my approximation, narrow the gaping chasm between yourselves and God. I don’t say that facetiously, I believe it in my heart. We humans withstood the temptations of the Forest many years ago. While all the other plants and animals of this Earth were having their genomes fused into one another, becoming inseparable from the creatures they shared their Niches with, a small group of humans held back, suffered our austerities. And now, we have the ability to fuse our DNA directly with the sap of the Tree: the progenitor of this complex, pulsating giant that is the Forest. Evolution brought us close to God, but it is the gift of our human intuition, imagination, and daring that will bring us even closer. How much closer can we get?”

David settles himself cross-legged in front of his audience, incredibly agile for such an old man, his eyes wide and beaming. He lifts his hands up, as if shaping the story in the air before them, and begins:

“We’ll start with Marco Young, age 33, when things first started to turn for him. He is in the Great Chamber, standing in front of the Grand Quorum, and has just finished reading the final requests of his father. Let me paint the picture for you…”

 

Marco reads the final sentence aloud and lifts his eyes from the brown parchment to look up at the Quorum, those twelve ancient men sitting behind their long, oak desk. Although Marco knows the Chairmen of the Grand Quorum to be trained and experienced in reserving their emotions, he can easily make out the amazement through the layers of wrinkles shielding their eyes.

“Quite an unexpected request Marco,” says the elder sitting behind the massive octagonal emblem of the City mounted into the centre of the desk. The oldest and most domineering, his oval head elevated on a slender torso high above his companions.

“Yes, quite,” says another.

“Yet, I still wonder why he didn’t let us know earlier.”

The entire council seemed to Marco like a single organism, expressing different aspects of the same thought. His eyes shifted diplomatically between the members, giving them equal attention.

“Truly, quite dangerous thoughts to have kept hidden from the community for so long, not to mention the Council.”

“It was Conrad’s way though, wasn’t it?”

“Of course, yes, but I never expected anything to this degree.”

“And after we have shown your family such leniency, Marco.”

Marco waits until the chatter subsides and all eyes are again focused on him. He lets the silence play out respectfully, just to make sure they’d all had their say, then brings his eyes up from the ground and catches the cloudy luminescence of the emblem of the City. The white robe of Moroni radiates, fluttering imperceptibly.

“I realize this must come as quite a surprise, but as I mentioned, it was my father’s wish that the manuscript only be discovered after his death. I waited until the allotted mourning period had passed before reading his death letter, and came straight to the council as would be expected.”

“I see,” murmured a chubby and somewhat disinterested head at the far left of the table, “I see.”

“Of course, Marco, we are truly sorry about your father’s passing. It is a loss not only to the scientific community, but also to the City.”

Marco waited tensely to hear what the chairman would say about his request, his body held rigid.

“On the subject of your request to be allowed access to the Forest...” here the chairman paused, looked down at his desk purposefully and then quickly back up to meet Marco’s eyes. He continued quickly, his fist pounding lightly on the desk, “I truly don’t see how your father’s unlawfully hidden account of the people of Niche Algaric has any bearing on the current status of the Forest. You more than anyone should know why access has been restricted. And this ‘report’ your father compiled…” he waved his hand dismissively through the air at the word, “Marco, your father’s re-habitation into Human life in the City has been confirmed a miracle by the High Authority, but his Absolution does not negate his Great Sin. All thoughts, materials, ‘reports’ compiled during his time of Incorporation were soulless, and therefore can be disregarded. We will confiscate the manuscript he has left behind, and put it away, just as we did with the original draft 28 years ago. You will hand it over without reading a word. Is that understood? Nothing has changed since this Quorum’s original decision on the matter.”

The aged and almost homogenous heads on either side of The Chairman began nodding back and forth in lethargic agreement. He took a moment to breath and went on, more slowly.

“Marco…Your father was a top Ecologist—the best the City has ever had. He was a fine individual and a brave human being. But what he was not—he was not a servant to the City of the Great Salt Lake. Your generation does not remember the hardships we had to go through to achieve the stability we enjoy today. The stories have not been softened, we do not hide the children from the truths, but words never truly live up to the experience itself.

“I am afraid, Marco, that although you have proven yourself to be an upstanding citizen and a fine servant to the needs of the City, you may have some overzealous genes still lingering on in your blood. I don’t begrudge you that, it is what brought fame and respect to your line, but I do suggest that you rely upon on your well-honed intelligence and not your animal desires. That, after all, and as you know, Marco, is what separates us from those who left civilization for the Forest. If we compromise or question that distinction, we lose our identity, and that will be the beginning of the end.”

Marco felt his body relax. ‘The Grand Quorum is incorrect,’ Marco thought, ‘I haven’t an overzealous gene in me.’ Indeed, his relief at the council’s reply crept surely through him. His blood ran more smoothly and his backbone lost its rigidity. His entire spirit was so very soothed by their response that he became unaware of the thickening silence that had saturated the large chamber-hall. His glazed eyes leapt to life and flicked from chairman to chairman.

“Ah, yes. Of course, yes, that distinction will remain uncompromised, I swear it. I will of course adhere to the decisions of the Grand Quorum and may the holy water bless you.” Marco bowed clumsily, took a few steps towards the long desk and lay down the wooden bowl he had been holding throughout the meeting, with as much grace as he could muster, at the Head Chairman’s left hand. The Chairman filled the bowl with water from a dark hardwood container, and the small bowl was passed back and forth along the desk solemnly as each chairman washed his hands in it. Marco in turn washed his hands in the bowl and rubbed the water along the undulating image of Moroni in the City Emblem, and without a word backed silently out along the hall and through the main doors.

Once he was out of the Chamber Hall he wove between the stones of the temple gardens, and made his way back out onto the City walkway. Before he crossed the boundary of the Temple Gardens, he knelt down and slowly poured the water from the wooden bowl along the threshold that marked the barrier between the Temple Gardens and the street. He handed the bowl to a man who was standing patiently on the threshold, waiting his turn to consult the Quorum. Marco then turned up the dusty street, stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets and contentedly walked home.

 

II

 

Now, in a classroom of the Ecology Department at the University, Marco stands behind his desk, organizing papers silently while the students chat in their seats. It had been three months since his petition to re-open access to the Forest was denied, and Marco had all but forgotten about the incident. He glanced briefly up at the students and then knocked his papers into order twice upon his desk. He stood up straight and scanned the classroom. Immediately the chatter subsided.

"Welcome to the 4th week of Forest Ecology. Before we begin I’d like to congratulate you all on your Second Baptism. I see some of you still have the salt caked in your eyebrows. When was your order submerged? Five days ago was it? So it’s been nothing but sand baths since then Michael?”

The class all laughed at this, for it was obvious that Michael was pushing the ritual past its intended limits. His body was dry and dusty and lines of harde­ned salt were deposited in the wrinkles of his smile.

“Right,” begins Marco in a more serious tone, “I truly am proud of you, and all your hard work, trials and dedication. You all look far more mature than you were the day you left for the Baptism. I will not name those who I notice are missing, but let us pray a moment for their souls…They are Greater than we, chosen to be by God, to be at his side before we are granted that blessing. Amen.”

“Amen,” the class repeats in unison.

“Now,” says Marco with a definitive clap of his hands, “before you left we'd gone over general creation, The Principle of Stasis, and some of the more widespread evolutionary webs that arose during the formation of the Forest. We've taken an objective look at the general processes of the Forest and you all, if you've been keeping up your reading, should have a solid understanding of some of its processes in isolation.

"So, for the next two weeks we’ll be focusing on specific case studies during the first wave of Ecological research, starting with Niches Thoroughfare, Frogawk, and Gordon. We will also look closely at the phenomenon of Incorporation; what we have learned from those who have fallen to it; and the technological developments to guard against it."

This part of the curriculum had always been difficult for Marco. He’d been a professor at Brigham Young University for seven years, and had given this lecture more times than he could remember, but still, when it came to mentioning his father, that mythic name that changed Forest Ecology forever, he always found himself fighting to retain composure.

He takes a deep breath, swallows his nerves and continues, "And for the next two weeks after that we will make a leap forward in time, devoting our study to the more interior expeditions of the late Renaissance and Professor Conrad Young’s voluntary Incorporation in Niche Algaric. And that, I believe, will bring us to the Spring holidays.

"Now, if you'll all turn to page 212 of your Case Studies textbook we'll start by taking a look at the unique studies of Drs. Clarkson and Lew in the Niche of Chameleon, eponymous with the A.D. creature that could alter its skin-color to match its environment.

“Their groundbreaking work uncovered for the first time the co-dependency triangle of the Gossamer Rose, Rosa Translucere, Mangrove Lemur, Undalemuridae Primas, and the semi-flightless Accipritidae Lew, or Lew Eagle, named after the doctor himself.

“Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the study of this Niche was instrumental in establishing the limits of the protective technology at the time. Looking at your Forest chart you’ll see that the eco-Niche of Thoroughfare is adjacent to Chameleon through a thin strip at the westernmost periphery of the Forest. Many of the early Ecologists chose this as the site for their first experiments because of accessibility and the relative tranquility of the environment and species there. The 2nd Ferry/Rider Base was established at the entrance to this Niche, serving as a bridge between desert and Forest..."

Marco, hands behind his back, now into the swing of the lecture, begins to pace back and forth in front of the class. "As you know, all personnel had to pass through the screening procedure whenever entering or exiting the Forest. And after the devastating Incorporations that occurred at the 1st Ferry/Rider Base, you can be sure that every precaution was taken." Marco spins on his heels and begins to saunter back the other way when he catches a glimpse of the frantic, chubby face of his cousin-in-law, Charlie, at the glass door to his classroom. He is breathing heavily and gesticulating wildly.

"Uh...Please excuse me for a moment class, there seems to be someone out here who is quite interested in hearing my lecture." Marco opens the door a crack and slips his body through smoothly. The students watch coyly through the glass window at the conversation. Marco attempts to calm the small bubbly man, but this seems only to excite him more. Astonishment gradually creeps over Marco's face, as he places a hand on the man's shoulder. Marco then smoothly re-enters the classroom through the glass doors, and the students innocently re-adjust their eyes back to their textbooks. The man outside is now slightly placated, hands still however twitching at his sides, eyes restlessly darting.

Marco moves purposefully to the centre of the room and faces his students. "Class, I'm afraid that I must be leaving now. My friend Charles has just informed me that there is a matter of great importance I must attend to. Be sure to read the Chameleon case study and come prepared to next class. I will continue this lecture at that time." Marco nods curtly and turns again towards the door.

"What's the Matter Doctor Young?" pipes up a young girl, Madeline, sitting in the front row, just as Marco's about to leave the classroom, "Is everything OK?"

"Yes dear, everything is fine. My wife is about to give birth."

. . .

"How long has she been?" says Marco to Charles, as they stride through the sand columns of the Biology Faculty.

"Just over two hours."

"And her pool is completely prepared?"

"Yes of course."

"I'm glad. Clara was worried it wouldn't be finished in time."

"Things have a way of working out."

"Yes."

. . .

Marco and Charles rush through to the other end of the University. Professors and students give Marco winks and waves as they walk by. It seems word had gotten around. They speed through the towering monuments of Smith Rock Gardens and start to jog as they reach the pebbled pathways leading up to the Birthing Pyramids. Marco pauses for a moment in front of the large monument before entering, bowing his head in silence. He then pulls open the large glass door and steps into the Birthing Pyramid’s main chamber. The air is warm and humid, and the space inside the Pyramid is wide open and comforting. Men are only allowed in during the days of their children’s birth, and this is Marco’s first child. Peace sweeps over him and mingles with his excitement as he scans the room, looking for his wife Clara among the eleven other women giving birth that day. He catches Clara's eye and runs to her birthing pool immediately. 

"Charles came and got me," says Marco.

"Hush", scolds Mary, Clara's mid-wife. "There will be no news from the outside in here."

"Forgive me," Marco says.

"Nor apologies!"

"Yes."

"Clara, you may submerge yourself up to your neck. Good. Now, Marco, the birthing is about to begin. If you could kneel down behind Clara as we practiced and dip your hands into the water..." Marco does so, and the thick nutrient-rich water seems to swim with a mind of its own between his fingers. He slides one hand up against Clara's bare chest. The other runs down the bulge of her smooth stomach and covers her vagina.

"Good," whispers Mary in an incantatory, sing-song voice, "Now..."

At that very instant Marco's body stiffens. His heart springs up for a moment to his throat and lingers there. A bead of sweat forms on his brow. He’s remembered something.

"I have to go," Marco says, trying to hide the exasperation.

"Impossible young man, the birthing is about to commence!"

"No, I must. Clara, I must go, but I will be back in…7 minutes. You can wait that long?"

"Where are you going love?" asks Clara, unaffected by the sudden change in plan.

"Father left a minerals sachet to be emptied into Conrad’s pool. I of course must honor his wish. I didn’t bring the sachet to the University with me today. I will be back very shortly. Just relax, please."

“You should have carried your father’s minerals with you at all times as we discussed,” Mary scolds, breaking the spell-like aura that she’d created but a moment earlier, attracting the attention of the other women in the Birthing Pyramid, "You are destroying the good currents we've spent months perfecting Mr. Young,"

"It'll be fine. Please don't worry,” Marco intones gently, with a smile meant to charm, in an attempt to diffuse the midwife. 

Mary glares at Marco as he leans in towards Clara, who turns her head and meets Marco’s lips with hers for a moment. He smiles into her eyes and then bursts out of the Birthing Pyramid at full speed. He races down the thin pathways back to the Smith Gardens, through the University buildings, weaving between students and teachers, flying out onto the street and taking long powerful strides towards his house. He halts abruptly at his front door, turns the wooden doorknob and throws himself into the room. He automatically pulls the key from his trouser pocket and fumbles with the small lock of his hardwood safe. He lifts the cover of the safe off slowly and pulls out a small bundle wrapped in rock paper. Written on the outside is for the birthing pool of your child, to be opened on the day of his birth.

It had been months since his father's death, and Marco had been so consumed with his post-mortem request to the council that he'd completely forgotten about this. Marco, slowly, but with a deliberate sense of urgency, unwraps the bundle and lays it out on his sandstone table in the living area. Enclosed within is a folded piece of paper. Marco lifts the paper up, unfolding it as he does so, and a small paper-like object falls from the page and flutters towards the ground. Marco instinctively bends down to pick it up, but gasps and drops it again the second it’s in his fingers. He crouches to gaze at the object on the floor, and can't believe his eyes. A leaf! Here in Salt Lake City? He guiltily glances around his empty room to make sure he isn't being watched. His vision muddles. He finds himself shaking uncontrollably.  His father is insane! Who would do such a thing? To put one’s family at such risk!

Marco, suddenly aware of time and the imminent birth of his child, shakes his head, wrenches his attention away from the leaf for a moment to read the letter:

 

Marco,

 

Your son is about to be born. I am your father and was once in the position that you are in now. I would never harm you, nor your progeny, the heirs of our famed line. There is nothing that I respect more than our name, the legacy of Young, and so I do all I can to protect that name and the City your ancestors founded. You must trust me and do as I instruct. The reason why won’t be clear now, but you must put faith in your father. It is not only wise to do so, but it is your duty. I have kept this natural life in my possession since I left the Forest, and have saved it for this occasion. This will be difficult to accept Marco, for I am instructing you to neglect years of teaching, the teachings at the very core of our society, the things you have assimilated into your soul – that are now as primal as instinct.

What you see before you is natural life, a leaf you will not recognize. It is of an undocumented Niche. As your Father I instruct you to crush the leaf and add it to the sachet of minerals to be released into the waters of the birthing pool of your son, my grandson. The pool must absorb the leaf’s nutrients before young Conrad is born. Do not think, only act. May the City bring you a thousand blessings.

 

Your Lost Father,

Conrad

 

Marco felt on the verge of sickness. His stomach churned, he could barely stand. Life in the City teaches one thing above all else: to suppress animal desires under the command of a superior. The forty days in the desert, the Second Baptism, the Absolution, all these rituals are designed to train the mind to forego the urges of the body, for the greater good of the City and humanity. This order from his father, albeit contradictory, was clear, and it had to be followed. He picked up the leaf and turned it over in his fingers. It was smooth, waxy and dark green on the topside and covered with thick white hair on the back. Marco had never seen a real one before. Only representations. And his father had had it here the whole time. Had it since...since he left the Forest? That was over twenty years ago. Dark images flowed ceaselessly through Marco’s brain: painful Incorporations, his father as a deformed occupant of the Forest. He hears his father’s bedtime songs echoing through his head, but they are intermingled with screams, cracking, the sounds of torment and pain. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, expelling these from his mind. How is this leaf still alive?

Marco, suddenly realizing he has no time for hesitation, reluctantly springs up to his feet, rushes out the door, and slams it shut all in one deft movement. All against instinct, all against the very humanity he has been trained to uphold, he races back through the streets, the University, the park, flies past the sauntering masses enjoying the sun, dodging and apologizing as he goes. He races down the pathway to Clara, the leaf clenched tight in his palm beside the small sachet of minerals. He stops suddenly in front of the glass doors of the Birthing Pyramid and looks up at the crystal-like structure rising high into a pinprick in the sky, channeling the grace of God. He catches his wife's eyes through the glass and smiles widely at her. He rubs his fingers against the leaf discreetly and then opens the great glass doors and walks peacefully to his wife.

Marco kneels behind Clara, ignores the unimpressed glare of the midwife, and dips both his hands at once into the birthing pool, trying to hide his tenseness. He crushes the leaf one last time and then let's it go, hoping it doesn't float to the surface. It doesn't. Only the mineral sachet bobs up to the top. Marco lovingly embraces his wife from behind, slides one palm across her breasts, the other down over her sex, and then looks up at the midwife.

"Now, urge the child out," she instructs.

Marco matches the rhythm of Clara’s breathing, letting the low tonal hymns of Mary’s voice soothe his thoughts. The three of them work in unison to communicate with the child. The midwife, reacting to Clara’s increased breathing throws her face up to the Pyramid point and releases full-bodied song up toward the sky. Her voice mingles with the song of the other midwives in the glass enclosure, and the walls of structure resonate with the harmony. The air is thick with sound, and Marco and Clara bask in it, all thoughts of earthly things filtered out by the music. Marco puts his cheek up against Clara and hugs her tightly. An excitement and intensity flood through them both. They breathe and push together and the midwives of the Pyramid, who have merged in Marco’s mind into a single entity, reach a crescendo of prayer, bellowing out melodiously. Clara and Marco hold their breaths in one final effort and the midwives sustain a single powerful note. All the wives in the room are now conjoined in this moment of deliverance, and the babies slip into the pools and into the hands of the fathers. A sense of relief fills the building, as Marco gently supports the child underwater, leading it to its mother’s breast where it clings tightly to Clara’s long brown hair, draped across one shoulder into the water. Clara pulls the child towards her chest and looks up at her husband. They kiss and embrace. All is silent, the babies do not cry, there is nothing to cry about.

"Take off your clothes Marco. You must also now enter the pool," instructs Mary. Marco takes off his robe and descends slowly into the warm pool. The three huddle together, floating, embracing. All around them the other new mothers and their families are huddled together.

Clara falls asleep, kept buoyant by the thick solution of the pool, and Marco supports her and the baby until the night falls through the glass walls of the Pyramid. The midwife then accompanies Clara, Marco, and their child to a dark walled room where they fall sleep, covered in a thick layer of fine, warm sand.

 

III

 

Young Conrad met with three weeks of immense strength and vigor. Marco and Clara rejoiced with their friends at their good fortune. Then one day it all suddenly changed. Conrad was feeding from his mother's soft breast when in a single instant the child’s body became suddenly slack and sponge-like. Its head rolled lifelessly upon its neck and its eyes stared off into space. For hours Clara made attempts to feed and comfort the child, but the body remained limp and the eyes became ever more glazed and lifeless.

Over the following weeks the child's body became weak and skinny. It had a crazed and voracious appetite but gained no weight, no matter how much it was fed. No doctor could offer an unequivocal opinion, for the symptoms had never been seen before in the City. The child, it was predicted by the High Saints, would die within the third month of its life, right after its official naming.

Marco became detached, restless and erratic. All his close friends made attempts in comforting him, citing God's mysterious powers as the only explanation for this trial, but nothing helped. For none knew of Marco's breach: that he, against the highest of the City’s laws, handled material from the Forest and brought it into contact with a newborn child. Marco spent his days looking back on that choice with profound regret, tearing at his clothes in solitude, rubbing his finger nails across his skin, submerging his head into the confession pools and screaming.  He no longer lectured; he barely left the house.

One night, while Clara slept, exhausted, Marco attended the child through one of its most feverish fits. The young creature’s ferocious eyes darted madly across the room focusing on nothing, rolling painfully in its skull, and for the briefest moment, in the moonlit room in which Marco sat, the child turned up in his father’s arms and caught Marco's gaze. It was the most profound and terrifying connection with a human being Marco had ever had. It wasn’t merely a child’s eyes, for there was a demon residing within the body, challenging Marco. And that very night Marco decided to confess all to the Grand Quorum on the morn.

. . .

 

"Marco. This is the second time you've called upon the Quorum in a single year. There are only nine of us to care for thousands of our subjects. Tell us: why do you assume priority?" spoke the chairman, standing behind the radiating emblem of Moroni, his ancient and long arms adding emphasis to the questioning.

"Forgive me great ones, for this is a serious matter. Last time I came in the stead of my father, today I come for myself."

The councilmen looked at each other skeptically. "Proceed", said Bertrand, a man at the far end of the table. The only one Marco could recognize by name. He was the scientific representative on the council. Marco breathed deeply and began:

"My father--"

"I thought Salt Lake was through with your father."

"Not quite, sir...when my father died he left two relics behind for the family. The first was a copy of the account of the discoveries he made while Incorporated with the Posthomo peoples of Niche Algaric--"

"Yes, we know Marco.”

Marco, head bowed, held the silence for another moment to make sure the speaker had finished and then concluded, "The other relic; the other…was to be added to the birthing pool of my son."

"We are sorry to hear about your son Marco.”

Marco, head still bowed, felt tears well up. He tried to hold back, but they bundled in the recesses of his eyes and dropped one by one to the Oak wood floor.

"Need we remind you, Marco, that all salt returns to the lake? I realize this is a difficult time for you; however, there is nothing that the Grand Quorum can do to ease your troubles. We are caretakers of the law, not of emotions. You must have known before you came onto the Temple grounds that your emotions were too great to withhold, and so you should have restrained yourself from entering this place. We are willing to overlook this transgression if you leave now and work to better contain your emotions in the future, in places where emotions are not permitted.  Marco?" The councilmen stared worriedly at each other and at Marco, who breathed heavily, not responding, refusing to meet their gaze, staring down at the ground.

"Marco! We have hundreds of visitations today and I will not-"

Marco suddenly looks up, eyes wide and bright red, pupils amplified by the tears that are clinging between his eyelids. "Your honor," begins Marco "This is an extremely important matter, and the council must hear of it. I would have taken the time to suppress emotion and purge myself at the lake before this meeting, if I had thought that it would change anything. My heart is a spring of sorrow, and the more I purge the more powerful the outflow. If the source of my sorrow was merely my child's ill health, then I would have waited until the child died before coming."

"Marco we're not--"

"I am not grieved over the loss of my child. And his passing will not cure the sorrow. The grief will multiply until my body is consumed, and I shall have to commit the unspeakable sin to spare the City the horrible specter of my pain. The child's ill health is not of pure and holy means. His ill health is not the ordinance of God, but rather…"

"Speak you like a blessed priest on the will of God!"

"It was by natural means that this child has fallen ill."

A long moment of silence settled over them.

"What are you saying Marco?"

Twelve sets of eyes peered into Marco's.

"The parcel my father instructed me to open on the day of young Conrad's birth...”

"Why do you insist on using the child's name before his official ceremony of naming? One blasphemy riding on the robe of the blasphemy before it, parading into this holy chamber, is an unsightly procession that will not be tolerated."

"My father insisted we name the child Conrad."

"It is the mother's decision, not the decision of a fallen grandfather."

"She has decided."

"There are no decisions made until the ceremony of naming has been completed. Why must you insist on stretching our sacred and necessary laws to snapping point?"

"I am merely trying to fulfill the wishes of my father. The Old Scripture instructs me: 'Honor thy father'."

"The New Scripture expands on that holy truth: 'Give allegiance to the Great City built upon the shores of the Salt Lake and thy mother shall be respected, thy father honored, thyself loved, and God accepted into thy heart. All things flow into the Great Salt Lake, and if you bathe in its waters, all things shall be fulfilled.'"

"Blessed one", starts Marco softly, "My father was separate from the City. His body and soul were Incorporated into the Forest. True, the Great Salt Lake is the epicenter of a holy existence, but I wonder if my father was a holy man. No, I do not wonder, he was not. However, he was my father, and that title demands respect. As does the City. I attempted to hold both in the palm of my hand, and now they have both fallen and lay shattered on the ground.

"Great ones," continues Marco, gaining a solid sense of purpose in his defeat, as he stands in the centre of that massive Chamber Hall, "In an attempt to appease the wishes of my father, upon his post-mortem command, I took a leaf of the Forest and released its juices in the birthing pool of my son."

All voices of the chairmen were instantly unfettered. A medley of indignant tones were hurled about the capacious Temple Hall. The room reverberated with noise, words rebounding off the wooden walls of the chamber, the crashing of fists and footsteps shaking the smooth oak floor. A number of chairmen sprung up from their seats, their purple robes billowing in fury. And Marco stood in the centre of it all. He felt like an ant wafting gracefully through a tornado, flung madly through space, but somehow peaceful, held in the hands of fate.

The Chairman held up his hand, commanding silence, his eyes steadily fixed on Marco's own. He waited in that position until the oppressive chatter subsided and all councilors were again sitting.

He started, "Marco Young. I have no questions, nor desire any explanation for your actions. I fear you were born with genes tainted by pure self-interest and are now unable to contemplate the true meaning of community.

“You are too young Marco,” the Chairman sighs, deeply and full of sorrow, “You are too young to have struggled. Even we elders were only children when our fathers and grandfathers were still struggling to re-create civilization when the weaker men fled to the calling of the Forest. It has been 170 years Marco. 170 years since the emergence of the Tree, and we are the last human community. And Marco, my friend, we achieved that end by, and I quote from the New Prophet himself, 'worrying not for thyself, nor for tomorrow, but for thy neighbors, and the day.' The ancients who built this city were focused on the wellbeing of their brethren, the struggles of the moment, and the self-respect of humanity. They did not see their fellow humans as separate, but viewed the community from above as a single entity. Men and Women willingly gave their lives for the betterment of the new society. As a man must cut out his eye if it commits adultery, or sever his hand if it steals; as a man must cull pieces of his own self in order to save the whole, so our ancestors gave their lives, happily starved, to let the younger members flourish. And never did they run to the false safety of the Forest, the empty promises of pleasure and immortality. Against all odds we found ways to survive, free of the sins of Nature.

"Marco Young, your name bears testament to your fervor. If only that fervor was as well directed as those who bore the name before you."

"Your honor," started Marco "I--"

"Son! You may not speak. Your child is on the verge of death, with no medicine or treatment seeming to work to his benefit. You, Marco Young, during your previous visitation requested that the Forest be re-opened to Ecological Science once again. Your child is sick because he has evolved with the Forest inside him, in the midst of our holy City. And I do not believe for a moment, Professor Young, that you did not foresee the consequences of your actions. As far as I am concerned you have used your child as an excuse to enter the Forest."

Murmurs began to escalate among the Quorum, and were hushed with a subtle movement of the Chairman's fingers.

He continued, "And, Marco, I have decided to grant you your wish." Immediately sounds of protest exploded from behind the table, and again the raising of the Head Chairman’s hand was met with absolute silence.

"My colleagues seem to disagree with my decision. But I have seen in myself that this is what must be done. Your line has for many years been linked with the Forest, Marco. It is in your blood. Your Grandfather, Thurim, led the first expeditions into the Forest. Your father, Conrad, the only human to be voluntarily Incorporated. You, Marco, the Head of Ecological Studies. And now your son: poisoned with the Forest’s green blood at the moment of his birth. Although your mortal actions brought these events to pass, no action is unseen by the Eyes, and no action unfastened to the fingertips of God. It is merely my duty to interpret the events on Earth and to direct the flow of life to the best of my ability, in an effort to sustain peace.

"Your father should never have left the Forest, for that is where he has left his soul. And I refuse to have your child's unnamed spirit die on the soil of this City. We will supply you with transport to the Great Ocean and across the Landbridge, and supply you and your child with rations to last you for the duration of the journey. You may bury your child wherever you wish in the Forest, but that is where he shall be buried. I am offering you these things not because I am rewarding your actions, but because your family name deserves at least some degree of respect. Your ancestors led our tribe out to this desert, planted our flower, founded our community, and gave us the strength to withstand any trial or tribulation. Now, Marco, your choices and course of action have brought the saga of your line to a conclusion.

“My decision is final and you shall leave tomorrow morning. You will deposit the genes of the Young line in the Forest once and for all. You may come back to dwell again beside the shores of the Great Salt Lake, if you can bear the shame, but your seed shall never play a part in the rearing of children again. You leave at daybreak. All equipment will be assembled for you at the city limits."

Marco had the strange sensation that his whole life had been a direct path up to this moment. Before he had been wracked with guilt and pressure, but now it seemed as if he could ride fate to its bitter end. His life from here on out would be suffering, but he embraced that truth. Nodding to the council, Marco backed out without offering the wooden bowl to complete the ritual hand washing. That would have to wait until Marco's return, if there was to be a return.

 

IV

 

Clara said nothing when he told her the news. They lay together in bed that night without sleeping, watching the play of moonlight on the ceiling.

The baby had been eating voraciously all that day and Clara’s nipples were sore and her breasts felt bruised, but still young Conrad screamed for food. Not a baby’s scream, but like the scream of a young girl in severe pain. There was nothing Clara or Marco could do to appease him.

“He’ll be cast away before his naming,” says Marco, eyes still fixed on the dance of light and darkness. Clara doesn’t answer. A long silence between them ensues as they listen to their child’s painful pleas. After a period the screams subside, and there is silence.

Marco turns his head to stare at Clara. “Have you stored away breast milk for me to feed him during the journey?” Clara turns and meets Marco’s eyes. She seems stunned and distant to Marco, overwhelmed with the same sensation that Marco felt in the council Chamber Hall, the sensation of inevitability.

“My life had been to serve this purpose,” says Marco softly, quoting the Second Great Prophet. A tear slides down her cheek and drops onto the bed.

“May I come to the Forest with you?” The words from Clara’s lips are whispered and fall like feathers to the sheets.

“No. I will be back soon. Before the end of the month.”

“The Forest will take you.”

“It will not.”

“It took your father.”

“I’m not my father.”

Clara takes Marco’s hand and places it on her cheek.

“I will never be with child again,” She says.

Marco swallows hard and is silent.

“Let me come with you,” she insists, softly, “let us enter the Forest and stay with Marco and bear more children.”

“Clara!”

“We can still serve God by creating more children. If I come we can still fulfill our duty to Heaven.”

“Clara! Our children would not be human. They would not be human, and neither would we.”

“In the Forest, Would I still feel love?”

“No!” Marco shouts the word and young Conrad’s screams begin to sound once again. Marco stares back up at the ceiling and closes his eyes, not in an effort to sleep, but to suppress emotion. Clara doesn’t take her gaze from his face.

“Will you feed him?” Marco asks.

“I will save my milk, to store for the journey. I’ll make a mixture as well. In the morning, before you leave.”

Marco and Clara wait. And wait. Marco is drawn by the urge to go and comfort his child, but when he imagines the sight of those demonic eyes and the red and sponge-like tongue drooping out of the mouth…He shuts his eyes tightly to force out the image. They wait. Eventually the screams again subside.

“I will be without purpose.” Clara says.

“You will love me.”

“I will not bear child.”

“You have already!”

“He will no longer be human. You said. He will no longer feel love. He will be separate, then, from God. So, I will have accomplished nothing. Let us go live with him in the Forest.”

“Please Clara.”

There is a brief silence.

“How, husband, can we best serve God?”

“By serving the City on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.”

The screams begin again, louder, accompanied by thrashings and dull thuds.

“I must feed him.” Clara steps out of bed and walks through the open wall that separates their room from the rest of their hut. She slips her finger between the door and the wall, and turns to Marco before pulling it fully open: “There will be no milk for tomorrow, but at least it will satiate him for a few hours, while you get some sleep. Good night.” She slips through the door and shuts it behind her. Immediately the screams subside. Marco sleeps, and dreams of leaves. Thousands of green leaves, fluttering through the air.

. . .

 

Marco awakes, finding himself unexplainably refreshed. His head rolls over on his pillow and his eyes fixate on his wife as she prepares food on the dark oak kitchen counter. Conrad is left bathing in the sink, quiet for the meantime, though he is deep in a mindless trance. Clara wraps portions of food up in white rockpaper cloth and stacks them on the table behind her.

She senses Marco’s stare and turns to meet his gaze. She is crying. Marco steps out of bed and stands in front of his wife, staring her in the eyes. She meets his gaze for a moment and then swiftly turns away and directs her attention to the wooden kitchen counter, wraps the final bundle up, places it on the table behind her and turns back towards Marco. She lifts her head up to meet his eyes. They embrace tightly, and Marco realizes he may never see her again. He knows that she wants nothing more than to accompany her family to the Forest, but she will not ask again.

Marco prolongs the embrace, staring over Clara’s shoulder at their child in the granite sink. The head rolls and rolls, and then suddenly halts in a whiplash that fixes the boy’s eyes deep into Marco’s. The eyes are infused with a bright red and seem to expand in the child’s sockets. Its mouth opens wide and its tongue weaves through the empty cavern like a snake dangling in midair from a branch, high above the ground.

‘I’ve taken everything from Clara’, thinks Marco, ‘and still, she doesn’t nurse hate for me. I’ve turned her only child into a monster and she embraces me lovingly. I am held by an angel.’ Yet, in the embrace of an angel, Marco feels as if he’s never been farther from God.

The baby, still staring into his father’s eyes begins to scream. Marco squeezes Clara once more and then softens their embrace. He looks into her eyes, kisses her forehead, turns and walks towards the wardrobe and begins to dress himself. Clara prepares a bag for Marco, and tightly secures Conrad in a soft sac to be slung over Marco’s shoulders.

Marco stands at the doorway, child writhing uncomfortably on his back. He bends down to pick up the large bundle prepared for him. “Goodbye,” he whispers, and walks out into the hot, dry sunlight.

 

V

 

Charles was waiting for Marco at the eastern perimeter of the City.

“Good morning, Charlie,” says Marco, as he stops before his old friend and puts his bags down. The baby is still wrapped in the bundle upon his back.

“Here is your vehicle,” says Charlie, gesturing to the sandcar. His face is more flushed than usual. His eyes are wet and tired. He is obviously under strict orders to make no small talk, give only the necessary information, and to ensure that the deviant departs without a hitch. That is all.

“It is full of all the provisions you need, and the passenger seat has been customized for the child,” continues Charles. “It will take five days to reach the Landbridge and roughly six days to cross. Once on the continent of the Forest it is a short distance to the Forest boundary--”

“I know Charlie,” Marco cuts in. He’s read more diaries than he can remember of the crossing and knows every detail of the journey.

 “You may take nothing with you.” Charlie looks guiltily at the bag beside Marco.

“My wife packed me some provisions,” replies Marco in a way that he believed would have ended the conversation.

“I’m sorry Marco. I’m under strict orders.”

“I’m already banished. My child is doomed to an eternity as a sub-human, or death. What possible harm could this cause?”

“All goods belong to the City, of which you are no longer a part. You may take only what is given to you.”

“She stored her breast milk for Conrad. Let me keep that. For the child. I’ll hand over the rest.”

“Special formula has been prepared for Con—the child. It’s with the rest of the provisions in the back. Everything is clearly labeled.” Charles seemed on the verge of tears. “Please Marco. Don’t make this difficult. I must have it all.”

Marco silently hands over the bundles, feeling the last of Clara being ripped once and for all away from him. He felt truly on his own, alone with this child. Crouching down and maneuvering his body into the vehicle, he straps Conrad into the passenger seat.

“Goodbye Young,” intones Charlie meekly as the door slides shut, encasing Marco and Conrad within the dark tinted glass. Marco starts the solar engine. He takes one last look at Charles’ downcast face and pushes his foot down on the acceleration. The vehicle picks up speed rapidly, pulling Marco far away from everything he’d ever known, and plunging him across the desert, towards a world that he’d dedicated his life to imagining.

 

VI

 

During the monotonous journey over long deserted roads, Marco kept himself and Conrad in a timeless daze with the sleeping capsules provided by the City. He used almost the entire ration during the first leg of the journey, far too forlorn to face reality in all its fullness—nine or more days in a cramped sandcar, which he’d only operated once or twice in his life, beside a disturbed and sickly child, speeding across the desert, away from his City, the last bastion of unadulterated humanity.

In his drugged stupor Marco barely paid notice to his son. He sank deeper into his own consciousness and found comfort in the isolation of his own thoughts. At night he dreamt contentedly. Strange dreams about the legacy that will once and for all come to end with his life—the Young Family. Images of Brigham and his father walking side by side, silhouettes backlit, striding away from Marco, towards the setting desert sun, thoughts wafting through his mind –“The ancestral founding morals of the City kept us human. Alive. We are the last remnants of a lost eon, and I am the final remnant of the line responsible. This child and I.” --

Days passed, and the landscape became mountainous. Through the mental haze created by the sleeping capsules, Marco was able to interpret the charts well enough at least to negotiate the sandcar through the path of least resistance between the hills for the better part of the third day. From time to time he could make out the ancient roads through layers of wind-swept sand. Metal buildings lay in half-buried heaps, wind-shattered street signs at twisted angles along the side of the road.

Passing through the old deserted townships, he stared out through the dark windows at the rusted iron, the cracked concrete. He tried to imagine humans living in these places, but he could not. Ghosts moved between the slim whirlwinds of sand and dry dust, peering through glassless window-frames, observing with hungry and lusterless eyes as Marco and his child passed by in their sandcar. He saw faces form and disintegrate a moment after, as if caught for an instant in a gulley of wind and then released into the vast formless desert, to mingle again with the desiccated and long-forgotten cities.

On the fourth day he mustered up enough clarity to make the ritual detour towards the birthplace of Joseph Smith. Exiting the sandcar, he knelt and prayed at the ancient red farmhouse. The wooden walls of the house were alive to Marco, all its fibers and joints creaking in the thick wind, the roof radiating bright and red. It seemed the only living relic in the dead world that surrounded him. He prayed in the yard on the East side of the house, kneeling in the lawn beneath the hanging bows of the famed Solitary Oak. A gust of wind came through and shook the white leaves above his head. He broke away from his prayer momentarily to marvel at the Oak’s construction. The ancient wood artificially petrified, each branch tip meticulously decorated with a rockpaper leaf, perfectly replicated. Gusts of wind rustled the leaves up against each other in chorus, creating a comforting whisper through the cold air.

Marco allowed his prayers to mingle with the crisp fluttering of the Oak leaves, all just barely clinging to the branches in a perpetual autumn, ready to settle on the ground. The perpetual autumn, the timeless fall, of the Solitary Oak had been described by the Greatest of Salt Lake’s poets, but Marco for the first time truly comprehended what humanity must have lost when they lost plant-life. This feeling of…what? A deepened perception, a relaxed core, receptive, calm. The whispers of the tree settled down on Marco’s thoughts, and a single leaf broke away from the Oak and landed on his shoulder. He reached out and felt the texture of the replica in his hand, pulled it into his lap and ran the tips of his fingers along each vein, admiring the craftsmanship. He imagined Joseph doing the same thing over 350 years ago, here in this very lawn, with a natural leaf.

“Are you hungry?” The voice startled Marco and he turned up with a quick jerk of the head, reality suddenly flooding his senses. He heard a whimper, perhaps imagined, from young Conrad in the parked sandcar. Could he be waking already? He listened for a moment and when he heard nothing more he gave his attention to the man standing beside him in the lawn. His right hand was stretched out in salute, so Marco stood up and clasped the smooth patterned sleeve of the man’s forearm.

“David,” the man introduced himself and tightened his forefinger and thumb into Marco’s forearm. Marco paid attention to the movement of the man’s fingers against the sleeve of his uniform. The fingers moved swiftly but Marco could make out the greeting. The dialect was different, but he could understand that this man was a priest of the western lake settlement. He’d been away from the City for 30 years. The fingers stopped their talking and David awaited Marco’s reply.

“Marco,” he said, introducing himself, feeling his fingers move automatically, but then, mid-phrase, he froze. ‘Ecologist,’ he was about to indicate with a tight gripping of the pinky, middle finger and thumb in quick succession, purely out of habit; but before he started he suddenly realized it was no longer accurate. His fingers became limp on the cotton sleeve of David’s forearm. He looked into the old man’s eyes and let his hand drop back down to his side. David nodded in understanding.

“There are no exiles in the house of Joseph.” he said with a wink, “Besides, it’s time for lunch and I’d rather like to have some company, so won’t you come inside and have something to eat? And there is another in the car?”

“My son. Conrad Young. You haven’t heard of my arrival from the City?”

“I’ve stopped communicating with the City a long time ago my boy, they never have anything new to say. The radio’s been off for the past five or six years. Much less travel these days. Only really see the deliveryman anymore, but he comes less and less. I can make more or less everything I need out here. Just finished the schist mill yesterday. I’ve everything I need but the water of the Salt Lake itself. They bring that out for me.”

Marco took another quick glance out towards the sandcar. “My son is in the car,” he said. “It’s probably wise to leave him there while we eat.” David gave a curt nod without asking any questions and swung open the red door of the house, holding it for Marco.

As soon as Marco stepped in a wonderful smell enveloped his senses, the whole room was thick with the scent. Marco unselfconsciously inhaled deeply through the nose and shut the door behind him.

“I hope you’re hungry,” said the old man, uncovering a large ceramic pot and stirring it with a smoothly cut quartz cooking spoon, with handle left textured and unpolished. An old design. “Please, take a seat; you’re my guest today, and it’s fun playing host. I haven’t done so in such a long time. Are you sure your child is okay out in the car?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Marco solemnly, the feeling of comfort created by the rich-smelling food replaced again by that familiar feeling of brooding when his son was mentioned. But it was different, here in the Birthplace. Trapped in the sandcar speeding through the ruins of a haunted past, overdosing on sleeping capsules, presented constantly by the sight of his terrible child, reality seemed much more harsh. Much more real. There, in the Birthplace, Marco was at peace. The varnished timber walls seemed to throb with a benign natural life. It was as if the plant cells in the timber still lived and functioned, processing nutrients up and down their fibers. An ordered and well-tended life, not like the seething chaos he expected to find in the Forest. 

Well-crafted ornaments of brass and steel, weapons, kitchen implements, furniture stood like exhibits in a museum on the shelves, but somehow yearned to be touched and utilized. Marco knew from his historical studies that these items were all manufactured before the era of complete mass production. He imagined the skilled craftsman that toiled over these items.

“It’s peaceful in here,” said David, bringing a wooden bowl full of stew over to Marco, “but still very lively somehow.” It was as if he had read Marco’s thoughts. For Marco was more at peace than he had been for the past few months, yet his senses were brightened and he yearned for activity. Perhaps it was the unusual shapes scattered throughout the room, or the warm light flooding in through the windows, the windows that filtered out all the gray heat that had so weighed on Marco’s emotions.

“Eat!” said David, dipping his own spoon into the stew and slurping in some steaming broth. “You really are in a daze. Did the old Oak have an effect on you?”

“I suppose it did,” said Marco as he leaned over the broth and inhaled again. It was a standard stew - minerals, synthesized nutrients and proteins - but there was something about the smell that was completely new. Something almost intangible. From what the elders wrote in their memoirs, the one food the City nutritionists could never quite replicate was meat. In the early days of the City, right after the Migration, there were still stores of frozen meat available to the city, and these writings reminisce fondly of the taste and how it has never been paid justice by the modern synthesized versions.  But, it was as if this old man, David, out here on his own, had somehow found out the secret to recreate that taste. Not that Marco had ever eaten any meat himself, but he imagined it would be something like this, from the descriptions. He scooped a heaped spoonful of broth and chunks into his mouth and almost teared up it was so delicious.

“You know I made that Oak myself,” said David, between mouthfuls. “I fashioned every rock leaf and sculpted the whole tree around the remnants of the petrified original. I used paintings of the living Oak for inspiration of course, but went off mostly on my own artistic bent. I don’t think Joseph will mind,” he says, winking up towards the roof, connecting momentarily with the Great Prophet.

Marco nods politely, too engrossed in his food to really imagine what such an undertaking would entail. But he didn’t have to imagine, because he soon would be told.

“It took thirty two years you know. Only finished last year. Just to get the stone delivered here from the city was a bureaucratic nightmare. The Quorum, the High Priests, the Head of Masonry, the Energy Department all wanted to have a say. I didn’t listen to any of them when it came to design. When they turned up with the materials they also turned up with some drawings about how they wanted the thing to look. First thing I did was throw those damned blueprints into the furnace. Hell, it’s been so long they probably can’t even remember that some old sod was out here anyway. I’m sure they don’t mind.”

“You don’t get many visitors?” asked Marco, interested in keeping the old man talking so he could himself focus on eating.

“As I said, during the years of study it was a constant bustle out here. Reverent Ecologists and builders, energy experts and nutritionists. It seemed that everybody had something to learn from the Forest, or at least the life of the Landbridge, in those days. And of course I won’t overlook my personal allure as a great conversationalist. I’m not just a caretaker, nor a priest, nor a sculptor. I’m also a disciplined thinker. Always have been. I could get into the mind of a man from any profession, or any walk of life, and get them to see things from a different point of view. And on top of that my wife could cook a delicious stew. This, what you’re eating now, my friend, is nothing!” he said, gesturing towards Marco’s now empty bowl.

“This is the best food I’ve ever had,” Marco replied, quite sincerely.

“Well, I suppose I’d better get you some more then,” said David, sweeping up Marco’s bowl and rising up steadily from his seat. “So, they must not feed you very well in the City then,” said David, scooping more stew into Marco’s bowl and returning with it to the table.

“There’ve been new restrictions of what minerals can be synthesized. Some have been classified as ungodly recently,” answered Marco, taking his bowl thankfully.

“Minerals ungodly!” scoffed David, “I don’t know how they justify this stuff.”

Then the two sat in silence for a short while, Marco eating, and David staring intently at him. Marco began to feel a bit ill at ease and was going to say something, anything, to break the silence when David beat him to it.

“You say you have a son in the car,” said David.

“Yes.”

“His name is Conrad isn’t it?”

Marco almost choked, and against his will started to feel angry, intruded upon. Hadn’t the old man said that he wasn’t in contact with the city? Then how does he know this? What’s going on? Marco glanced up now from his bowl with a dark look and replied.

“Yes. Conrad.”

“Yes, I knew it must be young Conrad. You have the unmistakable look of your father. It’s not so much a resemblance in the features, but I see that battle in your eyes. The outside fighting against the inside. That wish to conform to the values of your City and the yearning for something else. Right?”

Our City,” said Marco firmly, rather unnecessarily so. But he felt as if he were being slighted somehow. That the City was being insulted.

“Yes, you see. That’s what I mean. That voice that leaps out of you to defend all the scriptures, the voice that defends the decisions of the Quorum and the splendor of the City at any opportunity. But then, your intelligence has created something else inside you. It shimmers unabated through your eyes when you least expect it. You can’t control it, because it can’t be controlled. It is the soul of the Forest, which we all have in us.”

“You can’t say that!” shuddered Marco.

“I’m saying it. You think the Forest is so different from us Marco? So did your father, and he knew much more about it than you do now. Well, I’ll ask you. What is so different between us: we the descendants of the Great Salt Lake, and the humans that chose to join in the Great Migration to the Forest. What’s the difference?”

“God.”

“And who is that?”

“How can a priest speak like this? And occupy this house.”

“Because I inspect our beliefs deeply, and teach the things my introspection reveals. I don’t take truths on the word of mere mortals. I’m from another generation Marco, when priests were entrusted with the duty of deep thought. These days it seems they are merely the pawns of a thoughtless will.”

“God’s will.”

“The Quorum’s will.”

“I don’t know how to reply.”

“Well, try answering my question first. What’s the difference between you, a direct descendent of the first founders, and those who left civilization for the Forest?”

“My ancestors were dedicated to their humanity, which God created and they wished to preserve and uphold. As a descendent it is my duty to continue to uphold—“

“And those who left for the Forest, were they not human?”

“They were human. But not dedicated to their humanity.”

“What is humanity?”

“A state of mortal Godliness reached through the process of evolution,” he quoted directly from the scripture.

“So nothing is more Godly than a human?” asked David.

“Only God.”

“So, if God is more Godly than a human, then it follows that humankind hasn’t attained absolute Godliness because there is still an entity more Godly than he?”

“Of course only God can attain absolute Godliness.”

“So there is still space between God and humanity. A chasm still exists between us, yes? A chasm of unattained Godliness so to speak.”

“Yes.”

“Will humans, if they evolve in a certain manner, ever be able to further breach this chasm of Godliness. If Evolution has taken us this close to God, surely evolution can bring us closer. No?”

“There is nothing more that evolution can do. We know this. Man is the highest form. It is written over and over. From Abraham to Joseph to the New Prophet. For men to reach absolute Godliness now it is only a matter of utilizing the spirit that we have been blessed with through evolution. No further alteration of our genome will bring us any closer.”

“Let’s leave that for a moment. Let me ask you: where does the spirit reside?”

“It resides within oneself and simultaneously pervades the Universe.”

“And is it destroyed when one’s genome is altered? When one becomes no longer recognizable as human?”

“Yes, of course.”

“The ability to attain Godliness is destroyed along with one’s human genome? So therefore you admit that the soul exists within the very structure of our DNA, for if our DNA is altered, then our spirit is destroyed.”

“Yes.”

The light pouring in through the wide windows began to darken. David leaned in and rubbed a clump of sulphur between his fingertips against the wick of the candle in the centre of the table, illuminating the underside of his face, elongating his features. He leaned back in his chair.

“You know, I was a very good friend of your father.”

“He never spoke of you.”

“No, he wouldn’t have. It was one of the stipulations of his return to the City after his…Incorporation. We had many long chats here. He always spent a long time reviewing his notes and formulating hypotheses’ here before the leg over the Landbridge. It was a retreat for him. I think he preferred my open mind to the biases being developed at the University.”

Marco paused for a moment to let this sink in and then stared straight into the old man’s eyes.

“Did you have anything to do with his Incorporation?”

“I never encouraged it nor discouraged it. In fact, the idea was never even raised, although I thought that he might have been considering it. Aren’t you wondering why I know the name of your child?

“Yes,” Marco had forgotten this amongst all the other unbelievable conversation.

“When your father emerged from his five years in the Forest under Incorporation, I was the first human he saw. You have to understand how stunned he was to find that the perimeter bases had been deserted, no scientific activity at all. He had to walk the entire length of the Landbridge, a reverse migration, eating the offered fruits as he went, feeding off his store of sap. Little did he know that the complete desertion was a result of his singular act of Incorporation. This single logical decision of his threw the City of the Great Salt Lake into an absolute ruckus. The Quorum passed laws limiting grants, restricting access, banning papers and research.

“I was the first to break all of this news to your father. When I saw him he looked healthier than ever, his phenotype, of course, had altered slightly, and he carried always that animal-skin sack full of the sap everywhere he went.”

“He was a monster. You forget that I remember him to.”

“Yes, they say he was a monster. An abomination. An atrocity. Abhorrent, deplorable, sinful. But I tell you what, Marco,” and here David leaned forward, “this chasm of Godliness between himself and the divine had been reduced to a crack, easily stepped over. He could feel God’s breath run through him with every exhalation.”

Marco fell silent for a while, trying to remember his father after his return from the Forest. Truly, he was one of the most at ease men he’d ever known, and calmed all those around him. How else could the man responsible for such a complete revision of the very fabric of City Life and intellectualism be able to convince the Quorum and every citizen that he deserved to be welcomed back into the City, to lead a normal life after his transgressions? He was a creature of the Forest, a creature we are all taught to abhor. To be able to convince citizens that such a creature should have the right to live among them, even after the most painstaking absolutions, would be impossible today. How could they have allowed it back then? He thought back to his father’s strange alien smile and wide penetrating eyes, that disturbing yet compelling alteration to his phenotype that charmed the world. He was charismatic, convincing, but closer to God? Marco tried to take all this in and then asked his final question, for it was time to get moving.

“How did you know my son’s name?’

“Your father told me to be expecting you. Indeed, that Solitary Oak, the famed Solitary Oak which inspires the City poets and springs to the mouths of the City minstrels, that Oak was built as a secret celebration of your arrival. And now that you’re here the leaves have started to fall. The whole thing has been timed perfectly, to the point. I doubt God could have done a better job himself,” said David with a facetious smirk. “Or perhaps it was his work, through the instructions of yet another new prophet.” Marco tried to ignore this and asked his question again.

“How did you know my son’s name?”

“Your father told me that he would be here with you as well.”

Before Marco could react to this David pushed himself up out of his chair and strode back over to the stove and began to scoop stew into a bowl and mash it up. He handed the liquefied meal to Marco.

“For your son,” he said. “He is doomed, partly, but he is also very important. You will grow to love him, so this will keep him strong.”

Marco accepted the bowl, stood up, and at the door turned around to take a good long look at the man. He would remember everything he said, no matter how blasphemous. He’d never met such a priest.

“May you walk with Joseph, and be sinless in the eyes of the Second Messiah.”

“And you,” David says with a wink. “Enjoy New York.”

. . .

 

Through the night he drove across the neglected highways of the Ancient Eastern States. As day broke the cement and glass skyscrapers of New York rose over the horizon. He passed through the avenues of the once great city, now dead with shattered buildings swaying above his head — a gray wasteland under a bright blue sky. ‘Did humans really live like this?’ thought Marco, ‘Stuffed in amongst each other? Perhaps it is obvious why they took to the Forest so readily.’

The way was very complicated. Although Marco had traced the pathway through New York to the foot of the Landbridge many a time in his youth, he couldn't have imagined the devastation, the instant abandonment of so many hundreds of years of toil. Buildings were collapsed across the old routes, so he spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon navigating through the gray rubble. He kept the child subdued with sleeping capsules still. Although it was against City regulations, at one point, helplessly lost, Marco got out of the sandcar and climbed up the staircase of a particularly sturdy looking building with a spire. He was overwhelmed with claustrophobia and exhaustion as he climbed a hundred or more sets of stairs to reach the top. Finally he found a window through which he had a full panoptic view of the sad city. From this height the crumbling buildings seemed to Marco like neglected tombstones of the old graveyards, each marking a dead God, or a forgotten prophet of the old world. Fires had spread through many of the buildings, for Marco could see right through into the gutted and scorched interior. But what stunned him most was the vast shimmering Ocean, spreading flat and unscathed over the horizon. Almost 200 years ago the roots of the Tree curled through the crust of the Earth, spreading into every nook of arable land, pulling all fresh water and plant life into itself, adding to its empire. The Earth was parched, dried of life, desiccated, enervated, stripped. Yet here the Ocean, that angel of the first pantheon, lay confident, unscathed and unaware of time, soaking up the breath of a glaring Sun.

Marco, too, could see the thick Landbridge bulging out of the Ocean. It was impossible to miss. Like the very spine of the Ocean, it met the shores of the dead city as a head meets the upper vertebrae. Its thickness was consistent across the Ocean, and its path unswerving, but at the point where it met New York it bulged and spread like a timeless gray wave of plant fibers across the industrial shoreline. Giant cruisers, massive rusting ships, whose magnitude Marco could never have dreamed of, had been upturned by the encroaching Landbridge and lay on their sides in the calm Ocean. All around the Landbridge were signs of simple destruction, the relentless progression of the Forest to this continent. Marco dwelt on the sight for a moment, feeling his heart surge, traced a path to the Landbridge along the streets below him and climbed down.

After a few more hours of navigating he finally brought the sandcar to a halt at the edge of the Ocean, by the sprawling foot of the Landbridge. Marco steered through the cracked asphalt and nudged the wheels carefully onto the threshold between the behemoth plant and what was once called civilization.

Marco, still limp with the effect of the sleeping pills and his climb up the spired tower, gazed over at Conrad, strapped tightly into the passenger seat. He had started to scream. Deep, tormented screams. Marco reaches behind him into the storage compartment and pulls out a plastic container of formula. He dissolves one of the few remaining sleeping pills into the liquid and puts it to the lips of the insatiable child.

After a few minutes the baby carries its tormented soul into the world of dreams. Marco stares out the tinted window at the Landbridge, now under his wheels. Its surface is dull gray amongst the clutter of crumbling cement and metal that it is rooted into—An enormous cluster of massive roots, thickly intertwined, violently secured into the skin of the city. 

“How many lectures I’ve given about this Landbridge,” thinks Marco, “How much I know. And yet here it is, before my own eyes, and it doesn’t seem real.” Marco had always imagined the Landbridges as they were during the migratory years, bursting with sustenance for the soon-to-be initiates of the Forest: nutritious fruits custom-crafted for the needs of each creature that came into contact with the living wood. He saw vividly in his mind’s eye the tired and hungry life forms staggering to the edge of the Landbridge, having just crossed the ever-expanding desert, which by then had spread across every inch of once thriving land. They were with no food; they had probably run out of supplies. But the moment these creatures touched the wood, their fleshy desires were recognized instantly and satiated in full by the fibers. Samples of the fruit produced by the Landbridge had been collected during the early Renaissance and were kept cured in the laboratories at the University, so Marco had seen preserved versions of what this organism could produce on a whim. He’d often marveled at the dense and complex nutritional content of the morsels, far richer, and, in a word, more ‘perfect’ than anything the City’s nutrionists had yet been able to synthesize. But, as Marco never neglected to tell his students: “Once the fruit had been eaten there was no turning back. Once the body had taken any substance from the Forest, the Incorporation would commence. Separation from the Forest thereafter would be a life of pain and, eventually, death.”

Marco glanced over at his son in the passenger seat. Here was a human overwhelmed with addiction to the Forest, a living specimen alluded to in Marco’s lectures. Suddenly everything he’d spent his life studying, and teaching, became a grim and dark reality. No longer colored by the romantic dye of the imagination which renders even the most depraved of visions somehow romantic, he was confronted by the ruthless, organic truth. He stared out over the vast distance occupied by the Landbridge, past the statue of the torch-bearing idol, out over horizon. The bridge was devoid of life now, petrified and fossilized, barren, for the migration had finished.

Marco slid the door of the sandcar open and squinted into the glaring sunlight. He lifted his head, eyes half closed, and took a slow and purposeful step out onto the mixture of sand, glass, dissolved concrete and shards of metal, which had mixed into the fibers of the Landbridge. It was against the City’s regulations to exit any vehicle en-route to the Forest, except of course to pray at the birthplace of Joseph. But Marco had little care for the City at that moment. He had already defied their laws, lost the dignity of his namesake, and embraced banishment. What harm could this breach cause?

Marco’s feet slipped clumsily on the rubble as he put his weight on the uneven coiled fibers of the Landbridge and walked out onto it. He walked about 50 meters out, until there was no more industrial junk under his feet, but only the petrified wood. He took a moment to gaze out again over the Ocean that now surrounded him on three sides, then knelt down and stretched out a bare hand to touch the fibers below him. A chaotic montage of memories — the warnings of elders, the passionate teachings of his professors — swept over him as his middle finger brushed lightly against the root.

Almost instantly the petrified fibers creak and twist into life. The gray outer layer peels slowly off like burning paper to make way for the living wood underneath. Between two thin fibers of the thick wood a single green stalk sprouts up before Marco’s eyes. It grows swiftly, sinuously winding upwards, inching towards Marco’s transfixed gaze. As suddenly as it began, the stalk ceases its upward growth and a single red, bulbous berry materializes on the end of the stalk and fills up like a balloon. The stalk bends under the weight of the berry but thickens instantly at the base so as to stay stable and keep the berry in a position directly in front of Marco’s face.

The berry dangles, ripened to perfection, releasing a delicious scent which fills his entire body with yearning. Convinced in an instant that eating this morsel would be the best course of action, his hand mechanically reaches out to grasp the fruit, but he forces himself to turn away. Holding his breath, and clenching his fists, he lets the rumbling in his stomach subside and the desire in his blood cool.

He stands up slowly. The red berry follows him, held fast by the swiftly growing stalk, rising to meet Marco’s head. He walks away backwards off the Landbridge, never diverting his eyes, and the plant follows until the distance is too much for the skinny stalk to suspend the fruit in the air. Eventually it droops and the berry drops to the sandy ruins. Marco contemplates crushing it beneath his boot, but decides that the aroma released would be too much for him to resist. He imagines himself on his knees, devouring the smashed pulp, mixed in his mouth with dirt and grime from the sole of his shoe, and cringes at the thought.

He shakes his head to clear himself of the emotion and looks down at the dry sand at his feet. He works to control his breathing, and just as he manages to bring a degree of placidity to his emotions, he hears a sharp cry from the sandcar. Young Conrad is coming out of his sleep.

Marco, with the ringing of Conrad’s cries reaching a crescendo behind him, looks out over the immeasurable distance that he will have to traverse, and makes up his mind. He strides determinedly back to the sandcar, crosses over to Conrad’s side, slides the door open, restrains the child firmly with his right forearm and unbuckles the seatbelt with his left. He picks the child up in both hands, struggling to keep him from wriggling out of his grip, and holds him at arm’s length in order to stare into its bright red, rolling eyes. Conrad had just woken and was overcoming the last stages of sleep delirium, hissing and writhing intensely.

Marco carries him with long determined strides, arms outstretched, to the foot of the Landbridge. He stands there for a moment, and makes sure that he is quite positive about what he is about to do. After a final moment’s hesitation he takes a few more paces out and places the child down on the thick, sinuous wood.

He steps quickly backwards as hundreds of green, creeping vines, uniform at first but then mutating into innumerable shapes, colors and sizes, unfurl and twist around the body of Conrad. They weave between his limbs and nuzzle his skin. Flowers of purple, blue and yellow mingle with all varieties of fruits and leaves, all bursting from the fibrous flesh of the Landbridge. They wrap Conrad tightly, ease his struggles, caress his lips, and support his shaking body. After a few moments Conrad relaxes. His little hands cease their sporadic, violent movements and adopt a slow flowing motion. His fingers glide innocently above his head, touching the various plants swaying there. And for the first time since the sickness hit young Conrad, Marco saw the child as a baby. As a human child, and felt an undeniable love.

Marco noticed a long, purple and white fruit slowly approaching Conrad’s mouth and was about to step onto the Landbridge to intervene, but held himself back. He broke into a cold sweat as he watched Conrad contentedly chew the little fruit. He didn’t devour it as he had done every liquid meal that Marco had fed him before that day, but masticated it softly between his baby gums, and swallowed passively, purposefully, letting the purple liquid ooze down his chin and spread across his cheeks. He ate another and then slept right where he lay. The various vines and branches quivered excitedly underneath him, forming a nest for the child, and seemed to rock gently back and forth as they cradled him. Or perhaps they were just swaying in the wind.

Marco stepped out tentatively onto the Landbridge and looked down at the child. Conrad was sleeping soundly, and Marco could swear there was a little more fat on those thin and wretched bones. He took his pocket-knife out, cut the plants that supported Conrad at the base of the wood, picked the child and his nest of plants up into his arms, and walked back to the sandcar. He managed to loosely secure Conrad into the passenger seat, maneuvering the seatbelt between the bundles of plant life. Conrad stayed sleeping through the process.

Marco ignites the combustion engine and the sandcar rumbles. He speeds up gradually as both front wheels cross from the rubble onto the thick folds of the Landbridge. Once all four wheels are steadily on the wood, Marco accelerates, crushing under his wheels the fruits, flowers and plants that had just fed and soothed young Conrad to sleep. He turns off the combustion engine, switches to solar power, and glides smoothly over the ancient walkway.

. . .

 

“Now!” exclaims David, breaking definitively out of his storytelling rhythm and taking a deep sigh, “how far along are you all?” He turns around to look at the pools of sap slowly filling into the concavities dug deeply into the outgrowth, where it meets the Tree. Thirteen pools are filling at a tortuous pace, tended meticulously by a number of Ederespaiens, who stir white seeds into the mixture with bamboo stalks.

“We still have plenty of time. Which is good, because I have a treat for you,” David says to the class. He opens the flap of his pelt carry bag and pulls out an old weathered rockpaper diary. The leather covers are brown and worn at the sides and uncut pages of rockpaper jut out unevenly. He holds it out and flips through all the pages with a quick sweep of his thumb, so the students can feel a slight breeze on their faces.

Then David opens the first page and begins reading quietly to himself. “I’ll never get sick of this,” he says. “I almost don’t want to share it with you.”

“What is it?” a young girl asks, unable to contain herself.

“Who is your professor?” asks David.

“Professor Madeline,” she answered.

“And she didn’t tell you about this!” says David with mock incredulity. They all shake their heads.

“Ha! That is because even she hasn’t looked at it. Madeline led the first wave of those who were once called ‘heretics’ into this Niche, to undergo the process you are about to undergo. I presided over their transformations, just as I’m presiding over yours. But, at the time all this was very new, and we were making up the rules as we went along. So at that first ritual of Incorporation I just said a few words, did my priestly duties, invoked the power of God through the Forest -- which had never been done before -- and went on my way. Only afterwards did I lay my hands on this piece of work: the expedition journal from Marco’s exile mission into the Forest,” he said, swinging the book back and forth through the air.

A wave of excitement swept over the students. They looked at each other with wide eyes, amazed that they hadn’t heard of the journal before.

“Oh don’t get too antsy, he’s an Ecologist remember, not a writer. But, after all, we do have the primary source right here in front of us so we may as well use it instead of having you suffer through my endless embellishment and conjecture. But you truly should feel honored, because there are only a few who can hear the words from this man who so changed our world, life in the City, and perhaps the very course of human history. Now I warn you, parts of this are quite personal, so don’t get squeamish.”

He opens the book to page one and reads the title, date, and purpose of the expedition.

“See,” he said, “all very formal and dry, but here we go.”

 

 

Part 2:

Expedition Log of Marco Young

 

Exile and Burial of Conrad Young

Expedition Log—

April 3rd, M.F. 170.

 

The Landbridge

 

Before the Forest was proclaimed a spiritual hazard, it was customary for all Ecologists to begin their expedition log from the moment their vehicle made contact with the Landbridge. Neither observations nor personal emotions were withheld from these logs and as a result they now provide the greatest source of information about the Forest, and about the Ecologists who first began to unfold its mysteries.

Although my son and I are now in official exile from the City, I will forever consider myself an Ecologist and a scholar of Brigham Young University, and so will abide by the customs, which in the past have elevated the profession and institution to the heights of knowledge and respect they now enjoy.

And besides, it’s always been a childhood dream of mine to keep an expedition log, so the act is admittedly a selfish one as well.

. . .

 

Our first day on the Landbridge is coming to a close. The American Continent is now out of sight, and I am surrounded by an unfathomable expanse of Ocean on all sides. In the distance the Landbridge stretches like a rigid backbone out over the horizon.

I’m amazed by the effect the plant life has had on Conrad. He’s been sleeping soundly for the entire crossing thus far and seems to be getting fatter before my very eyes. The skin no longer clings tightly to his bones. The natural life ensconcing him is in constant animation, sprouting, twisting and caressing his small body between thin vines and feathery leaves. When he begins sobbing and is on the verge of waking, soft white buds sprout momentarily, slide over his eyelids, urging him back to slumber, and then curl back into their points of genesis, recycling the nutrients indefinitely within a constantly transforming life form.

Each organism, and each individual to some extent, that comes into contact with the wood of the Landbridge determines the sustenance that will be provided, and generally the plants provided for humans are similar in appearance and nutritional content, with slight variations. For instance, thirst and an iron deficiency bring about the growth of the red berry that greeted me when I first came into contact with the Landbridge– globus rouge – but nothing that is produced for Conrad seems to have ever been recorded. His genome must be so utterly morphed. I try to imagine the process that took place in the birthing pool. It is known, of course, that plant life has a much more drastic effect on babies, especially in a warm, mineral-rich environment, such as a birthing pool where the solution is easily absorbed through the baby’s soft skin. But why then wasn’t Clara affected at all? Her inner membranes were exposed and utterly vulnerable to the leaf’s juices. Why was I not affected? Or were we?

We know that a fully developed genome can be irreversibly rewritten while exposed to the Forest in a matter of minutes, and the process there does not distinguish between adults and children. Why, then, is Conrad’s genome singularly contaminated? From what Niche did that leaf come from?

Looking at him now, I see he is fully Incorporated, completely at one with the Natural life that appears to be so devoted to him. I suppose he was born Incorporated, and only now, surrounded by the matter of the Forest can he enjoy any degree of comfort. A creature of the Forest.

The sandcar speeds smoothly along, leaning gently now and then to compensate for the twists in the Landbridge. I have switched to automatic control and am lying back in my seat. I feel that for the first time since young Conrad was born I can relax next to him without any tension or sorrow, and even the constantly lingering regret has gradually begun to melt away as I gaze at the peaceful rising and falling of his chest. I have sinned and know it is only right for me to have constant pangs of remorse, but I, at the moment, am deeply relaxed and feel love for this child of the Forest lying beside me.

. . .

 

Twilight has eased into darkness and I have slowed the car to a halt. Conrad still sleeps, although it seems the nest of plants that clothe him grow thinner and are losing their color. Now, without the constant rumble of the sandcar I can hear his breathing more clearly, and the lapping of the waves against the rounded edge of the Landbridge on either side of me.

My thoughts drift to Clara. The comfortable warmth inside the sandcar reminds me of her. I wish she were able to see Conrad like this, to hear the Ocean, and to witness the silver moonlight scattered upon the rippling expanse that surrounds me.

Suddenly I feel consumed by the emptiness. I have the urge to swallow a sleeping pill, but remember they are all gone. I wonder how Clara has been sleeping. I wonder what she will be doing. “I will be without purpose,” she said. She will be waiting. She will be praying by the edge of the Lake. She will try to purge the image of her demented son into the confession pools, but it will stick to her forever. Nothing can purge such an experience. If only she could see him now. How relieved she’d be.

I contemplate turning around. But something has made me selfish. There is more pulling me forward than there is luring me back. Behind me is nothing but stagnancy and rejection. When I do finally return to the City, it will be as a hero, like the Forest Ecologists of old, whose lives were rife with danger and wonder. I will bring with me some wealth of knowledge that the City cannot refuse. I will have paid for my sins.

Perhaps they may allow Clara to be again with my child.

Sleeping may be easier than I first thought.

 

Expedition Log—

April 4th, M.F. 170.

 

Midday. Woke up to a light pattering of rain on the roof of the sandcar. I’ve only been driving for about 20 minutes, and the pattering has become a heavy downpour. The wind has picked up and started to have an effect on the smooth running of the vehicle. More than once now the wheels have almost slipped off the edge of the Landbridge, but I have been able to recover control. My mind boggles at the expertise of the University’s engineers. I cannot imagine how the early Ecologists handled the crossing with the old technology.

Dusk. A storm is undoubtedly moving in, or we are moving into it. The air in the sandcar is still warm, but I find myself shivering. Perhaps with fear. I’ve pulled the car to a halt in the widest patch of the Landbridge I can find, and all braking systems are secured. The Ocean is crashing heavily against the wood and inching up towards the wheels.  Conrad is murmuring lightly in his sleep, but doesn’t seem to mind the turmoil outside.

I will try to sleep, and wait out the storm.

 

Expedition Log—

April 5th, M.F. 170.

 

Pre-dawn. The wind is ferocious. Conrad is awake and crying. I have held him to try and soothe his fear, but I believe he senses my distress no matter how I try and hide it. The combined racket of the wind and the occasional wave smashing against the windows of the sandcar, mingled with Conrad’s screaming is enough to have me contemplate the unspeakable sin.  But somehow his wails are comforting. For they are now the wails of a genuinely terrified baby, not the hellish racket of an abomination. The plant life has had an unmistakably wonderful effect on his health. I hold him lovingly to my chest without second thought or an inkling of fear now. His demon has been quenched. But I will never believe that it is forever gone.

. . .

 

I am going to attempt to drive, and hopefully we will eventually make it out of the storm. The lights of the sandcar don’t project very far, but the weather isn’t clearing here. What other choice do we have? The storm is not letting up, so we must move on. I can only hope it clears farther ahead.

 

Expedition Log—

April 6th, M.F. 170.

 

Night. How useless words are to describe what has happened to us; though perhaps recording the experience will subdue my lingering exhilaration. It is as if the events leading up to this moment have all been carefully arranged by God to awaken a soul that until now had been nestled comfortably in the pit of my being, half-asleep, content with its undisturbed existence. For the first time, beyond the meaningless rituals which had clouded our meetings before, I have conversed directly with God and experienced all of His beauty and horror.

I can barely comprehend where it is I sit while writing this.

. . .

 

Immediately after my last entry I strapped Conrad back into his seat amongst the browned and wilted plants that had comforted him, and re-ignited the combustion engine. The farther we traveled across the Landbridge the more hazardous became the storm. Rain clogged the blazing headlights; low-lying fog swooped in and blinded us. The sandcar continued accelerating full speed into the maelstrom, slipping on the damp wood under-wheel, thrown off balance by powerful gusts. After a number of serious jolts, the vehicle dropped off suddenly to the left. I abruptly corrected the accident, but the wheels continued to slip off into the Ocean. I killed the engine, flung open the door and leaped onto slippery ground, instinctively grabbing the edge of the sandcar in an idiotic attempt to pull the massive vehicle up to safety.

The car continued to slip off the edge of the Landbridge with Conrad crying terrified in the passenger seat. The rain beat down in torrents, the waves smashed with full force against the edge of the Landbridge. I was soaked completely through and blinded by the wind and the rain, but in an instant I had the clarity to do two things almost simultaneously: I slipped off the loosely tied shoe of my right foot and planted the bare skin of my sole onto the wet root of the Landbridge, feeling immediately the small vines creeping over my heel, curling up between my toes, and tightly latching onto my skin, for I knew the Landbridge would do anything to keep its migratory inhabitants safe; and in that same instant I reached into the passenger seat and undid Conrad’s belt and bundled the child up in my arms. As soon as I had him pressed against my chest a massive wave smashed the sandcar from behind, and flung the vehicle forwards. I clung tightly to Conrad and felt metal strike my head, as the child and I were pulled out of the sandcar and plummeted downwards, headfirst towards the violent waves, Conrad clutching tightly to my forearm.

I fought to stay conscious after the blow to my skull and saw the vehicle swept in a moment far out to sea while Conrad and I were plunged deep beneath the surface of the Ocean. We were flung forcefully against the hard wood of the Landbridge, only to be swept again out to sea. I held Conrad above the water, allowing myself to be completely submerged, and awaited the next impact. And as I felt my body surging again up against the wood with an incoming wave, the vine that had wrapped itself around my heel begin to tug gently, and then firmly, and then in a single swoop Conrad and I were pulled high above the waterline, out of the surging waves, above the Landbridge, into the sky and the clouds without any sign of slowing.

We rose and rose, soaring upwards with the windswept rain beating against our bodies. Beneath us swarms of plants and vines twirled their way up out of the wood of the Landbridge to greet and cradle us. Gradually, as we rose higher and as more plants swarmed around our bodies, we were enclosed in a bundle of foliage and flowers. All of the natural life growing, withering, and regenerating faster than I could process, weaving a living globe around our huddled bodies. The sky gradually dwindled above us. The all-pervasive fog saturated by the dense silver moonlight steadily vanished from sight. All light disappeared. Darkness became absolute. The torrential rain became a mere muted pattering on every side of our encasement, and warmth swept over us. I held Conrad close to my body until we both stopped shivering. Enclosed in this warm darkness, we slept.

. . .

 

During those few hours of sleep I dreamt vividly of the Great Migration. In bird’s eye view I saw herds of animals and humans alike, crossing over the Oceans from the five continents to the Forest; marching across the five Landbridges, drawn uncontrollably to the calling of the Tree; enticed to their core by the promise of sustenance and abundance and a life of ease. I saw the roots of the Tree twist deeply beneath the soil and through the dense crust of the earth into every corner of our planet, securing its own creeping fingertips to the roots of each and every living plant. 

The perspective in my dream changed and I became one of the creatures, a part of the herd following the flow of life across the Ocean. I was amongst the strange A.D. creatures that now only exist in the University textbooks. I found a crowd of humans amongst the other life forms and mingled in with them, all of us pathetically draped in tattered clothing. They smiled at me and laughed, joking loudly in languages I didn’t understand. Their words floated away as if made of dust.

Clara, too, was there in my dream, squeezed in amongst the herd of humans and animals, bemused, staring wide-eyed ahead of her, clutching Conrad tightly to her breast. I tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. She couldn’t hear my words. I tried to approach her, but my path was constantly obstructed by behemoth creatures wandering thoughtlessly onward. I gave up eventually and blended back in with the swarm of onward marching bodies.

The sweat, the marching, and the heat of the sun became too much so I leapt like a child into the calm Ocean to cool off, and to be alone. The water tasted like the water of the Great Salt Lake and for a moment, beneath the surface, I forgot where I was. When I re-emerged, only seconds later, the sky had darkened and the full moon was shrouded by silver clouds. All had become quiet.

I clambered up the side of the Landbridge and stood on the walkway. In both directions it was now empty. I thought for a moment that the herd must have moved on and out of sight. Then I realized, in a stunned instant, that piles of dried skeletal remains lined the surface of the Landbridge. I noticed a single bone at first at my feet, then another, and another, all different shapes and sizes, stretching far out over the horizon, reflecting the cold light of the moon. Skulls of those strange creatures I had been walking with a moment before now shimmered in heaps on the ground, clogging every inch of the root. Even my own feet were buried in bones. I saw the skull of my father, not clean and dry like the other bones, but with flesh still attached to the eye sockets. I saw Clara’s skull, the flesh of her lips still attached.

A shrill cry rang out in the distance. I looked up abruptly, and there, far off on the edge of the horizon, was Conrad, standing upright, illuminated by the silver piles of bones that lay between us. No longer the healthy and plump Conrad that I had grown to love, but the demonic child that tortured my conscience. He stood far in the distance, but his blood red eyes seemed to linger inches from my face, gazing deep into mine. He hissed once, disgustedly, then turned abruptly towards the setting moon and walked down the path, dissolving into the starlight.

Shivering, I followed. Navigating between the black Ocean, the bones, the dark wood and the moonlight, I followed this child of mine towards the horizon.

. . .

 

Now I am awake and my watch tells me it is still the night of the 6th, although I feel I could have been asleep for days. The dim illumination provided by my watch offers a vague understanding of my surroundings. Conrad’s face is visible, and his body is wrapped in plant life. I feel a pang of fear seeing him in this state, encroached upon like that. But once again, the vision of his face in a state of health and calm alleviates my fear of these enigmatic forms, and I again can breathe normally.  

The sandcar by now must be deep under the Ocean, and along with it all rations and equipment. I have only limited food supplies on my person, and must walk the remaining distance to the Forest Continent. I managed to steal a glance at the sandcar’s navigational monitor moments before we crashed and recall a prediction of seven hours before reaching the sands of the Forest Continent. Rations may be stored at the transition base at the end of the Landbridge, but will I last that long? How long is the journey by foot? Seven hours by sandcar will be days by foot. I am relieved that Conrad will be taken care of by the Landbridge, but I myself must refuse to give in to the fruit.

. . .

 

I will end this entry here. In a moment I plan to put on my gloves, cut Conrad free, tear an exit through this cocoon and attempt to make our way back down to the Landbridge. There can be no more wasted time.

 

Expedition Log—

April 7th, M.F. 170.

 

Night. Today we walked. I fashioned a carriage device out of my jacket for young Conrad and wrapped my undershirt around my foot so as to avoid direct contact with the Landbridge. Nevertheless, with each step the wood underfoot comes to life: it loses its gray petrified glaze and bursts into thriving animation, constantly generating at a point about five meters ahead of us, growing as we approach. The plants sway gracefully to the side as I push my way through them. They ignore me and swoop in behind my head to caress and nourish young Conrad, who giggles endlessly on my back. If ever a cry springs to his mouth I’ve noticed a peculiar orange flower that seems dedicated to assuaging his worries. It swoops in behind me, out of my sight, and provides Conrad with exactly what he needs. How fascinating. I think back then to my dream the night before and try to imagine now the herds of animals and humans all walking side by side, enveloped by living remedies specifically synthesized for the myriad worries and wants of every genus, every species, every individual. If ever Conrad wiggles restlessly, yanking the straps of my jacket against my shoulders, an entourage of concerned orchids twist towards his body to soothe and play with him, entertaining the vivacious child.

The plants for the most part are oblivious to my existence, although a number of times I can clearly recall the animated bud of a swiftly growing plant gazing at me curiously before attending to young Conrad. Or maybe I was just hallucinating due to exhaustion.

I have one day’s worth of rations with at least another 2 days journey ahead of us. I am worried about water. I wonder if I will make it, or if I will succumb to the Landbridge. I think of Conrad raised alone here, on the backbone of the Ocean among tireless plants. I wonder what kind of human he would become. I wonder if he would eventually be led into the belly of the Forest, or if he would live out his whole life on this piece of wood. I wonder if my mission to take him into the Forest is the right thing to do now. Maybe I should allow myself to die and let little Conrad live out a life here, in comfort and safety.

These thoughts all come to me now as I gaze at Conrad tucked in amongst his busy nest of flora. I have laid my jacket out so as not to come in contact with the Landbridge. I would prefer not to be tempted by their delicacies. I have enough on my mind.

It is a cold night, but the Ocean is calm and I am thankful the storm has decided to move on.

 

Expedition Log—

April 8th, M.F. 170.

 

Night. Another day of walking. Rations gone. Sleeping conditions similar to last night. Slightly warmer. Very thirsty.

 

Expedition Log—

April 9th, M.F. 170.

 

I believe I’m dying. The Ocean seems to be mocking me, lapping up gently against the side of the Landbridge, inviting me for a sip.

The massive sun, steadily radiating in the empty sky, speeds up the dehydration, sucks up my moisture. I will not be able to carry Conrad any further. Perhaps the plants of the Landbridge will see him safely to the Forest once I die. Perhaps there is hope for him regardless of my fate.

I am making this entry as I lay collapsed upon the smooth wood. My hand accidentally brushed against the ground and now, bobbing upon a thin vine right before my eyes is another damned mutation of globus rogue. This time it is filled to bursting point with liquid. The skin seems to be splitting, unable to contain its liquid insides, and if I were to so much as breathe on the smooth scarlet skin, the fruit would surely crack and explode. All I can do to resist the temptation is to continue writing. That delicious smell! I will die without the fruit. How long until the first transition station? A day? A half day? I can see the Forest Continent. Its gossamer outline sits tantalizingly close. How far is it? Perhaps I could survive a half day? No. I cannot bring myself to stand. How can I possibly walk any farther? Now, I must decide now: eat this fruit, submit to the Forest, or die of thirst and hunger and exhaustion.

The elders in our classrooms, when we were only young, came in and talked for days about the re-founding of the City. They too were thirsty, with only the water of the deadly Great Salt Lake. The gargantuan, unearthly roots of the Tree and their innumerable subsidiaries rapidly wove beneath the surface of the earth, consuming all the plant life and ground water, draining the rivers and withering the farms and gardens. Most of the city dwellers left, dying of thirst and hunger, for the promise of a new life in the Forest. Those who stayed, those who remained true to God, to the City, to the Great Salt Lake, happily died of thirst and hunger. They toiled their last few moments of life away providing for the next generation.

And now here I am. Presented again with the temptations of my forefathers. But why? To preserve what humanity? Conrad is Incorporated, born Incorporated, and I banished from the City. And even once I have fulfilled my duty, and deposited young Conrad in the Forest, once I return to the City I will be forbidden to produce offspring, to fulfill my human duties. What humanity then, at this moment, at this juncture, presented with this temptation; what humanity would my abstinence preserve? There is no humanity here. A broken father and his alien son.

The red fruit still dangles. I die and leave Conrad to the will of the Landbridge and Forest. Or I drink from this fruit, and survive. Survive as an entity completely apart from God. As a creature of the Forest. For eternity.

 

Expedition Log—

April 11th, M.F. 170.

 

The Forest Continent

 

I concluded that my death was more or less immaterial. If I survive, carrying Conrad, we both reach the Forest. If I die, Conrad will be raised here on the Landbridge and undoubtedly be led to the Forest when he is old enough to travel on his own. So, I pulled myself up and stumbled for another day toward the continent. An existential final march.

And, as it so happens, once I no longer worried for life I found the strength to survive. I stepped off the edge of the Landbridge and into the desert sand of the Forest continent, arriving at the transition station early last night. I thanked God that the final Ecologists had left some water and rations behind, over 30 years old, but still well preserved. I satiated myself and fell abruptly to sleep on the cold, dusty floor of the station. I tried to bring Conrad in with me but he wailed unbearably, so I left him to sleep outside, woven amongst the plant life. He is on the head of Landbridge, which dives underneath the desert sands of about fifty meters from the Transition station. I woke up periodically and checked on him through the dirty windows of the station, watching him giggle and play with the plants all night long under the cold and powerful moonlight.

. . .

 

This morning I found a suitable carry pack in the station. It was old and torn in places, filled with stale food, damp, and reeking of deceased human. Nonetheless it was all that was on offer so I filled it with rations, water and an isolation vest. I’ve packed far more than necessary in case I find the Ferry/Rider base completely empty.

I can see the greenery of the Forest in the distance, across a long stretch of unbroken sand. It shimmers like a mirage, titillating, engulfed in the waves of heat that rise from the desert floor.

I have cut Conrad loose from the vines and wrapped him up tightly in the bright Yellow Corollas that grow at the juncture between the Landbridge and the Forest continent. It is assumed that the Forest produced them to supply migratory creatures with an energy boost to cross the final expanse of desert to the foot of the Forest. They’ve been found to stimulate adrenaline and endorphin receptors, reduce the flow of lactic acid and cause a pleasant sleep deprivation, and, unlike any other plant produced by the Forest that has been analyzed, the Yellow Corollas have no discernible effect on a human’s genetic integrity. Although it was often looked down upon by the Council, the consumption of the yellow petals became a ritual for Ecologists before making the journey across the desert themselves. It is the only Natural life humans were permitted to consume. I’ve always wanted to have a taste.

I’ve fashioned a new carriage device for Conrad out of materials I found in the station. He sleeps soundly upon my front now, wrapped in his nest of plants, his weight countered by the carry pack on my back. This way of carrying him proves far more comfortable for both of us. 

. . .

 

I’ve started walking, and my tiredness and the combined burdens of Conrad and my pack make for slow going. I predict a day and a half to the periphery of the Forest at this rate.

 

Expedition Log—

April 12th, M.F. 170.

 

Afternoon. Writing while walking. I’ve gone barefoot. The sand managed to constantly find a way into my boots, and it was too uncomfortable to bear. Besides, the sand is warm and pleasant on my soles.

The Forest remains an undulating mirage at a constant point in the distance. No matter how far we travel, we seem to get no closer. Conrad is breathing heavily. Hanging now on my front to even out the load on my body, he claws up at my shoulders and chin frantically. I can feel the soft skin of the unrolled Corollas against my bare neck every time he shifts his position.

I turn to the side and allow young Conrad a glimpse at the Forest. Immediately he ceases all movement. His body goes rigid for a moment and then slackens. He falls, suddenly a calm bundle of contentment, the carry sack tugging downwards at the back of my neck. His eyes are wide and bursting with moisture, and I can make out the green glow of the forest in his pupils. The yellow petals ripple against his body, and brush against his face. It is as if, even at this great distance, he converses deeply with the Forest, connected in understanding. The Forest: no matter how much I fill myself with knowledge of its greatness, will forever remain a work ungodly, too mysterious to contemplate with the intellect of the soul. More mysterious, perhaps, than God Himself. But here is Conrad, absorbed, brimming with life and wonder in its shadow. How am I to feel?

“We all have the Forest inside of us,” said David. What did that mean? Here, seeing it’s form for the first time, seeing it’s 20 kilometer high central canopy, I believe those words are true somehow. Its collective chloroplasts seem to bend the light of the sun in towards it, depriving the rest of the dry blanched world. The Forest seems to control the very senses of my soul.

I half expected the Forest to no longer exist as it once had. I expected it to be petrified and gray, with only my imagination of what it once was to offer it life. But no, it is alive. More alive than anything I’d ever encountered, even at this great distance. More alive than I. More alive than the City. It is real life. Life, it seems, without the standard weight and restrictions of flesh and bone, or even fiber. It moves how it wants, it acts as it will.

Against my own volition the word “God” spilled from my lips as I gazed at the undulating green titan.

I turn the bundle so I’m looking into Conrad’s face, into his tear-glazed eyes. He stares into mine, into me, tears a piece of Yellow Corolla off with his small fist and thrusts it jerkily out towards my mouth. I hesitate briefly and then place it on my tongue, and chew. It is bitter, but immediately my body surges with adrenaline.

My eyes widen uncontrollably, and when I look up again the Forest has taken on yet a new aspect. It appears to beckon, and my feet are itching for action. I take a step. And another. When before I sank into the sand with each step, now I seem to float on its surface, like an early morning cloud upon the Great Salt Lake. We move.

 

Expedition Log—

April 13th, M.F. 170.

 

We’ve walked all night. I have not slept.

The Forest moves closer and then pulls away from my vision, like a throbbing heart in the distance, across the expansive desert. The sand beneath my feet has become pleasantly cool, and I am overcome with fatigue. I will lie down and sleep. Ha! Now Conrad is holding another Corolla out towards my mouth. He knows. Or the plant knows. I am tired. It certainly will give me the energy needed to walk another half day without food or rest. And a throbbing beneath my rib cage draws my tongue towards it. The memory of the bitter taste is suddenly my fondest of memories. I only want a taste. No!

I have to maintain some degree of discipline and push the petal away. Conrad gurgles, seeming to prepare for an outburst, but stops prematurely and swiftly doses off. I lay his tired body, still wrapped snugly in flowers and greenery, on the sand and dig through my provisions. This entry will end here. I suspect I’ll lay out my desert bedding, have a proper ration and fall asleep.

 

Expedition Log—

April 14th, M.F. 170.

 

I see the Ferry/Rider Base in the distance. I’m filled with wonder. I can barely function. The Forest looms above us.

. . .

 

Something terrible has happened.

The moment we stepped into the screening quarters the extermination gas rendered Conrad’s plants a wrinkled and dehydrated heap upon the sandstone floor. I could not have guessed that those systems would still be working after thirty years.

I will admit here that I felt an irresistible sort of satisfaction as I watched the invasive creatures wither and die in an unstoppable instant. It is a part of my upbringing, to loathe such life forms. Even after they brought Conrad and myself to safety I still relish in their destruction. How sad.

Once the gas destroyed Conrad’s companions the horror of his old demeanor slid instantly, without pause, over his continence. His eyes increased to twice the size and lines of red grew from the outside of the whites and in towards his pupils. His very body seemed to coil in on itself and his head started that demonic rolling upon his neck.

I couldn’t stand the sight. I have locked him in the soundproof experimentation chambers. There is ample air for him. He will not die. But how can a father help but feel sinful? I cannot stand for the last memories of my child to be like this, not after I have seen the boy healthy and nourished. I could bring him to the Forest. Indeed that is what must happen eventually. Why not now? Why? Because I have seen my son! I love my son! He is mine. He is God’s. Not a child of the Forest. And to hell with David’s theorizing! The Forest will wrap him in severe pain and release him a half-human. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps his Incorporation was complete at his birth and he will be admitted into any Niche of the Forest without significant change to his genome. Or only a particular Niche? Which Niche is that blasphemous leaf from that poisoned his birthing pool? What does my father want of me! But what if this is all speculation? What if Conrad will be absorbed into the Forest just as every other human before him – a painful Incorporation leading to a deformed transformation into a monster? To watch the cells of my child mutate and evolve into his immediate surroundings before my eyes…what greater punishment? But, I think back to his form on the Landbridge, not what he looks like now, because there is perhaps no greater monster than what he is now, locked in that padded room, eyes rolling in his skull.

No, I must bring him to the Forest, and I must prepare. I cannot turn around. I will complete this path. We will sleep separately tonight and I will bring him to the Forest tomorrow. Maybe it will be easier to deposit him in the belly of the Forest if he does wear the face of a demon.

And I have already decided that it will not be a matter of merely tossing him off into the Forest in the closest Niche, at the periphery. This will be a longer journey, one I need to prepare for. It seems only right that I take him into Niche Algaric.

The Quorum gave an order: to deposit Conrad in the Forest. And I will, but I will do it my way. I will act as a banished man, an individual, until I am admitted back into the collective. I will bring the child to my father’s Niche of study, Algaric, and complete this cycle.

 

Expedition Log—

April 15th, M.F. 170.

 

Early morning. I cannot sleep. I can’t shake the feeling that the path I am currently on will tomorrow diverge into a thousand possible options, no longer under the jurisdiction of the City. I am an outcast, but does that mean I should act as one?

Due to the swiftness in which the Ferry/Rider base was evacuated, and because of the Quorum’s decision to disallow further access to the Forest, there are ample supplies remaining. Neatly lined rows of test tubes brimming with defensive and sustaining chemicals, the rows of ready-to-equip isolation vests: these things conjure in me a feeling of desperate vulnerability.

I feel as if I am the lone survivor, an anthropologist looking back on the remains of the once mighty City, with nothing but cold academic interest. It was always my secret dream as a child, and even into my adult years, to be amongst the bustle and excitement of the perimeter bases. Now I am here, in this place I have imagined so many times in my dreams, aided by my endless fascination and study, and there is nothing but an uncomfortable emptiness. The place is filled with the souls of those who have passed through, and I feel as if each soul has their own monomaniacal agenda. That they are all trying to use me to achieve their long forgotten purpose. I am surrounded by ghosts.

. . .

 

Now 6 AM. I’ve immersed myself all night in a copy of “An Introduction to Forest Ecology”. I’ve taught from this book for over ten years and it brings me a greater calm than when I read from The Book of the Second Prophet, or the New Testament itself. It has been said that any one verse from the Great Trilogy endows more wisdom upon he who absorbs it than all other works of literature combined, but, I cannot help how I feel, and it is my duty to record my feelings. When I read of the Forest, when I read of her repulsive, inhumane aspect, I feel peace at heart. For the Forest seems complete and clean, smooth, while I am steeped in sin. And no amount of study from the Great Book can wash away this dirt. While immersed in the Ecology of the Forest, I know myself.

. . .

 

Now 10 AM. When I entered the experimentation chambers to retrieve the child, I was hit full in the face with a thick stench. Conrad’s body had shriveled to a dehydrated mass on the floor. All the fat and happiness, the heretical benefits of the Landbridge had disappeared during the night. His metabolism has devoured the very muscle off his flesh in an attempt to satiate itself. All that is left is a bundle of dried skin. The eyes are still intact in the head and the moistness in them suggested to me the child might still be alive.

I moved closer to resuscitate him and attempted to manipulate an arm to his side to expose the heart. When I tried this the entire body moved with the arm. The mass of brown skin was completely dried out and had no give at any point. I couldn’t hold back from vomiting in the experimentation chambers after handling the body.

The eyes stared at me, and moved in the head. He is alive. We gazed at each other through tear soaked eyes. I hugged the terrible body tight against me, feeling the dried skin protrude into my flesh. I wept and wept, and my tears mingled with Conrad’s. The demonic aspect has left him, the health and joy of the Landbridge has dissolved. He is but a bundle of emotion, the wonder of a new child trapped in the shriveled body of a tortured soul. His eyes are that of an adult’s. Together we weep.

 

Expedition Log—

April 16th, M.F. 170.

 

I will now begin the excursion into Niche Algaric and complete the cycle that began with my Father. To once again appease my father and obey the wishes of the City. To unite these two mutually exclusive axioms.

I was of course tempted to bring Conrad straight to the Forest in an attempt to cure him once I saw how the chamber had demented him. But I cannot afford to enter the Forest without as complete a knowledge as possible about how to reach Niche Algaric.

I have been studying the navigational instructions compiled by the last Ecologists, and hopefully I will find my way. I also have my father’s bedtime tunes implanted by rote into my mind, and now, after doubting my whole life, I believe they truly may be navigational songs. He made sure to embed them in my head at a young age, tapping out their rhythms on my bedroom floor. They have all the elements of traditional navigational tunes, and now that I know he planned for this journey of mine to a detail, where else would the songs lead but to Algaric?

I have fitted an isolation vest, filled the inhibitor cells, tested the resistance, gathered some rations, and secured the rigid, shriveled body of Conrad to the outside of my carry sack, my emotions in a constant battle between embracing the child and putting him out of his misery, as his eyes seem to beg from me. I walked the 500 meters to the edge of the Forest. Conrad’s eyes still moved in his skull as I strapped him onto my bag. I needed to hold myself back from again being sick at the sight.

I hear Clara, I see her face, and I can smell her.

Now the Forest looms, not as a distant mirage, but as a wall of intertwined enigmas. I stand here, postponing the inevitable, about to take my first step into the Forest. I’m on the boundary of Niche Thoroughfare. Of course I cannot see with clarity the hanging prodigious orbs of light this Niche is famed for, for I am still steeped in the singular reality of human perception. I tighten my isolation vest, touch Conrad lovingly on the cheek. In a moment I will take my first step over the boundary and into the Forest.

 

Location: Habitat B, Quadrant 4

Niche: Thoroughfare

 

Even under the thick cover of the Forest I know it is night because the Orbs of Thoroughfare have all filled out with their cloudy blue luminescence, illuminating the underside of the Gargantua leaves, bathing the red Spindle Moss of the forest floor in a vibrant glow. I know this Niche well. The first and most thoroughly documented Niche of the Forest. Admittedly not the most original name, but it would have been quite an accurate description back when hundreds of Ecologists flocked through here in the heyday of study, using it to reach other Niches of interest. It became the most popular point of access to the deep interior of the Forest because of its limited genetic intrusion and psychological impact, but until now I have never truly understood those concepts. Some things you cannot understand until you’ve felt their effects in the flesh. They were always such easy words to say. How many times I’ve repeated that sentence to my Introduction to Forest Ecology classes, without having any idea what it means: “limited genetic intrusion and psychological impact”.

Ecological Philosophy, Lesson 5, recited in front of class after class with great, unfounded confidence: “Due to the intense psychological manipulation inherent in Forest study, the hitherto sacrosanct concept of ‘objective’ research in its traditional form was soon found to be utterly futile. During the Great Evolution, as you all well understand, the chemical and physical makeup, the very genotypes of all species co-evolved precisely into the symbiotic ecosystems we know as Niches, and within the Forest as a whole. The biological mechanics behind the Great Evolution is certainly a leap of the imagination, but still an observable, measurable truth. What you will all surely find more difficult to comprehend is that the very consciousness of the inter-relating species in each Niche and Habitat was also altered during the Great Evolution. No longer did single organisms have isolated and individual thoughts, but each Niche, dependant on the constituent species involved in its particular evolution, developed a collective consciousness and conception of space-time separate from the occupants of every other Niche. Each separate ecosystem now shares a consciousness ingrained indelibly into their DNA, a connection unlike anything you or I could imagine in our exclusively Homo Sapiens experience. For we evolved in a Godly manner, from generation to generation. The Great Evolution took place on a cellular level, a vastly accelerated meiosis in the cells of all beings, profoundly and precisely mutating each chromosome with each new separation at a rapid pace. The evolution of roughly 300 million years was achieved in a day. I know you’ve been told this since a young age, but try to grasp what it really means on a practical level.

“The gradual shift in perception that would have occurred over the course of 300 million years, shared out by individuals in a slow and Godly process of selection – had to be dealt with by the minds of single individuals. The pain would have been great. The change in perception vast, incalculable, farther from our five senses than can be imagined.

“Indeed, what we experience in our everyday lives here in the City is pure truth, but irrefutably a by-product of our particular genetically inherent perception of space-time and the collective consciousness of our own community. God blessed the unformed image of the human when he brought the first cell into existence. He had an image in mind before evolution began, and evolution merely followed. He blessed the ideal of the human form with a divine thought, and now that mankind exists he continues to bless us, and us only. For only mankind has the genetic makeup capable of observing and understanding His pure truth. But just because we have a holy and god-sent form of perception, that doesn’t mean it is the only form. Indeed in the Forest alone there are innumerable varieties of perception, a new variation in every Niche, each wrought with genetic variations differing drastically from the forms of life that were in existence here on Earth before the Great Evolution. Perception changed so profoundly for the life forms in the Forest, that the very concept of space and time around those life forms was altered. This is a testable and observable truth.

“If you can accept this much, then you will understand why the tradition of ‘objectivity’ in the scientific method, when dealing with Forest Ecology, has had to be revised. In the early days of our explorations, Ecological engineers worked tirelessly to create technology that would isolate Ecologists from the genetic manipulation of the Forest, for the horrid Incorporations that befell the first Ecologists who ventured into the Forest without any form of genetic protection opened our eyes to the horrors of this riddle-laden giant. After thousands of trials and hundreds of prototypes Ecological Engineers arrived at the model that was soon to be exclusively used: the ChromoShift 8. It was largely the invention of this isolation vest that marked the start of the first Renaissance in ecological study.

“I will save the specifics for your Forest Technologies class, but after years of trials and study, what the Ecological community found was that complete isolation from genetic manipulation denied the Ecologist a clear and ‘empirical’ study while in the Forest. The founding observational tools of vision, audition, and all the tactile senses became muddled and their input rendered uninterpretable. While immune to all genetic manipulation by the forest, forms could not be distinguished from one another, sounds diminished into a prolonged white-noise, our very perception became a pool of hallucination and nonsense. In almost every Niche we explored, the human perception of our Ecologists, their very consciousness and genetically encoded relationship to space-time, would not permit them to understand or even properly ‘observe’ with any clarity whatsoever.

“So, on the one hand, without any protection from genetic manipulation, a human’s genome becomes violently altered and Incorporated into the fabric of Forest. He loses all memory and feeling, is altered genetically, physically, consciously, and stripped of his very humanity. On the other hand, complete protection from genetic manipulation renders a human functionally senseless in the Forest, and in some cases, as we travel deeper into the Forest, utterly retarded.

“By and by, the technology that allowed for the development of the ChromoShift 8 isolation vest was developed, allowing the wearer the benefit of limited and controllable exposure to the genetic manipulation imposed by his surroundings while in the Forest. In so doing, the Ecologist was able to be at one with his ‘subject’.

“This breakthrough allowed for the Renaissance that has left our Great City with libraries full of invaluable information into the workings of this vast organism of the Forest and its inhabitants. It opened our eyes to countless new wonders and forever changed the face of science. All other scientific denominations came to be grouped into the single profession that retained any holding power in dealings with the Forest: Ecology. For never again could species be studied as organisms separate from one another. Never could physics and chemistry and psychology be separated from the genetically manipulated realities in which they functioned. ‘Subjective’ study became the only way in which one could arrive at ‘objective’ scientific fact. The divides that once existed between scientific disciplines dwindled to a point of absurdity. Of course Ecologists still have specialties and dedicated areas of interest, but it was officially and unanimously recognized by the scientific community that the interconnectivity in all aspects of the Forest required a revolution in thought and a new openness to the concept of ‘perception’.

“The dawn of a new age which we have come to call the Salt Lake Renaissance, which, as I am sure you all know, is generally agreed to have lasted from the close of M.F. 80 to the Grand Quorum’s decree to close all access to the Forest in M.F. 140, incited largely by Conrad Young’s voluntary Incorporation into the Forest, which we will speak more of later…”

 

I am the first human to stand in the Forest in over 30 years, in the much-studied Niche of Thoroughfare, and only now do I realize how incredibly ignorant I was. I spoke so presumptuously, and with such confidence to my students, but all the while I had not the slightest inkling of what my words really meant.

I have a sudden and ravenous desire to read my Father’s banned report on Niche Algaric. This man, whom the High Priests and the Grand Quorum allowed back into the City because of the reverence surrounding his work and name despite the fact that he was pronounced to be devoid of Soul. He who had been willing to let himself be devoured by the sensual hunger of the Forest, who forsook his namesake, his city, his religion, his offspring, his wife, and his very existence; he who gave up everything human inside him to study the occupants of the obscure Niche of Algaric. In all his doings, in all his discoveries, what has he written about the soul? Only the Grand Quorum and a handful of his colleagues, who have since sworn silence on the matter, ever read his final work on Niche Algaric. And I suddenly feel an irrevocable distaste for the Grand Quorum. What right do they have to withhold this information from the scientific community, from the man’s own family?

Family. I was hoping that the Forest would have coddled and fed young Conrad, filled out his dried skin with plump white baby flesh. I anticipated with vibrant heart a plethora of devoted plant-life swooping down on his wrinkled frame, animating his limbs and bringing out again the baby’s soul housed somewhere deep inside this mass that now lies beside me, still strapped to my carry sack. We stare into each other’s eyes. It is the only function his body can still perform, that desperate shifting of his eyes, that imploring gaze, as if begging again to be carried to the Landbridge and to be left there. And why not? Was he not healthy there, cured of his demonic writhing? I secretly prayed that the Forest would treat him as the Landbridge did, as a mother, but so far we have both been largely ignored by the appendages of Niche Thouroughfare. It is understandable for me, for I have on my isolation vest, but Conrad’s chromosomes are exposed, ready for the taking. Why does the Forest leave him alone?

The Forest took no notice of either of us as we entered, like two atoms introduced into the vastness of the Universe, insignificant and unnoticed.

The Forest rejects him and so I must deal with the creature. What does he need to be cured? Where did that leaf, that dreaded leaf that tainted his birthing minerals, come from? What did my Father do to him? Could he possibly have wished his Grandson to become this thing, rejected by both Forest and City? Where is that leaf from? Algaric? I have turned my bag away from me, and Conrad’s eyes. I cannot bear this guilt any longer.

My isolation vest is at 99.8% genetic integrity, and at least the renowned peace-giving atmosphere of Thoroughfare calms me slightly. Helps me to ignore my child and lightens the severity of my sins. Helps me to recollect warm memories with precision and bask in them as if they comprised the present. It was common for Ecologists during the Renaissance to sit in Thoroughfare for days on end, under the cold glow of these orbs and re-collect the exact memories of their particular Niches of study while finalizing reports. It was also common practice for Ecologists to venture into Thoroughfare during their days off and meditate in the warm memory of their childhood, although it is my understanding this was severely looked down upon.

No matter how many descriptions I’ve read of Thoroughfare, and the manifold reports dedicated solely to the role of the Orbs in this relatively simple Niche, nothing could have prepared me for the sight. They have been likened in a number of reports to light bulbs, which were used in A.D. dwellings in most industrialized nations. I have seen light bulbs on numerous occasions in the reconstructed dwellings in the University Museum, and have tried to imagine them as 130 times larger and dangling from the thick branches of a Gargantua leaf, emanating a throbbing blue light. The reality is a far stretch from what I’d imagined.

Even Professor Jeremiah Xavier’s landmark report dedicated to the interaction of these Orbs with the constituent species of Thoroughfare couldn’t have prepared me for the reality. Xavier wrote, and I can quote very accurately under this memory-inducing glow, “the orbs are comprised of a million wisps of fire wrapped in a soapy translucent film. These bulbous creatures, each hanging from a single elastic vine, bobbing above our heads, radiate a cool glow over the green rocks and red moss.” But words cannot describe. Perhaps it is the mental shift that is associated with the radiation of these Orbs. The clear-headedness. The peace.

Witness this! A small test in genetic perception. I have just turned my ChromoShift up to 100% genetic protection. The Orbs now seem merely as if they truly are nothing more than giant light bulbs, with no poetic gravity within them whatsoever. The wisps of blue fire which whipped about like infinite chains of lightning within the bobbing Orbs have all melded into a single dull glow, and my peaceful flowing thoughts have suddenly seized up. I can fully understand how Ecologists became addicted to spending long hours in Thoroughfare. The moss below me has lost its detail and radiance. At 99.8% I could see each red spindle of moss individually absorb and radiate the blue light of the Orbs. Now the whole bed of vegetation seems merely to be a red carpet rolled under the glow of a cloud-veiled moon. Dull, uninspiring. When before I could see arms of electromagnetism pass between every appendage of every organism, now it seems as if nothing has life, as if I’m in a museum amongst intricate models of sculpted clay.

. . .

 

It was much quicker than I anticipated to reach the heart of Thoroughfare, following the remnants of the markings left by the old Ecologists. I predict at this rate it will take another half day to reach the edge of the Niche. If my bearings are correct I will be crossing over into Habitat C, Niche Mandala, which requires a 96% genetic isolation for safe perception to navigate. Most Ecologist carried out their studies at around 91% in Mandala, if I remember correctly. But the base of the Tree is a long way off, and I doubt I will make it with much genetic integrity left to spare if I am traveling at anything less than 94%, and crossing through Habitat F will require a far higher percentage. There are still another four Niches between Thoroughfare and Algaric. The last four, Neptune, Ariel, Emerson, and Rousseau require something in the high 80’s just to function. Of course the Renaissance Ecologists, with the aid of finely honed navigational songs, could cross vast tracks of ground under extremely high percentage resistance, reaching their destinations with plenty of genetic integrity left to spare for intensive study.

It is time, then, to test my father’s songs. By my bedside, night after night, he kept rhythm with his foot on the hardwood floor while reciting those complex, surreal verses to me, and after I reached adulthood it has been suggested by friends and fellow professors at the University that these songs he ingrained in my head from a young age were perhaps truly navigational remnants of a former time. My father would never say. When I asked he’d just smile and wink. But, they are perfectly stored in my memory, and so I must at least try to find a use for them. For what other choice do I have? I have no maps, no real idea of how to find Niche Algaric. And even if I did, to find my way there with a genetic isolation percentage low enough to have full sensory capabilities for the entire journey would leave me Incorporated before I even touched a foot in Algaric. It was once common for Ecologists to use songs as a way to stay on track under severely high levels of genetic isolation. These songs were passed down from Ecologist to Ecologist and were a staple of study. It is the only tool that seems available to me, so I must use it. If I travel at anything less than 94% resistance, by the time I reach the base of the Tree I fear I will have very little time before a breakdown of my DNA commences; but if I put all my faith in the songs I could become hopelessly lost and die Incorporated anyway.

I am at a lost. However, it is something I won’t have to deal with until tomorrow. I have at least 4 hours of travel before I reach the border of Thoroughfare and Mandala. I cannot think about it now.

Conrad is already asleep, I will join him.

 

Expedition Log—

April 18th, M.F. 170

Location: Habitat B

Niche: Thoroughfare

 

Morning is approaching. I’ve slept far longer than I should have. I can tell it’s morning because the Orbs have already started to whither and are beginning to look like empty sacs of wrinkled skin. The blue fire within the Orbs has lost its vitality and seems to be tugged back into the branches from which they hang. I’ve just finished sweeping the last ant off my body. They are crawling in swift droves all over the Gargantua leaves, and are working ferociously at clearing out the residue in the deflated Orb skin above me.

Due to its proximity to the Forest border, Thoroughfare coincides closely with the daylight cycle of the sun, unlike most of the Forest interior, and now and then one can even make out pinpoints of sunlight through the wide Gargantua leaves. These might be the last glimpses of sunshine I see for a long time.

I am disappointed with my lack of discipline at having slept so long, but there is no time for regret, and I suppose I should be content that I am now well rested and ready for my journey.

I touch Conrad gently on the cheek. It seems as if he is dreaming. I gently secure his body to my pack and will soon continue. I wonder if his dreams are as tormented as his life has been. Or are they his only source of peace and place of comfort?

. . .

Midday? It is now completely dark and I have reached the periphery of Thoroughfare. There are puddles forming around the green rocks, and the Spindle Moss underfoot has all but faded away. Tadpoles here leap from puddle to crystal clear puddle, and are snatched in mid-air by the long quick tongues of the Swamp Frogs that occupy the air above any dry rock that happens to protrude from the surface of the swamp. What I wouldn’t give to stand here for the day and watch the Swamp Frogs dissolve into puddles themselves giving birth to yet more tadpoles. I believe my path to the base of the tree will take me through the centre of Mandala, where the Swamp Frogs originate. That should be a sight.

I have run through the navigational songs in my head once more. It is not like I need to, for they’d cemented themselves into my consciousness by the age of 10. I only pray the songs are still accurate, and I don’t get lost.

My father sat beside my bed drumming their enigmatic poetry into my head for many a night. Let’s see if it’s worth something.

 

I was on the verge of stepping out

 from peace into the wild

with 8 years left upon my chest

an adult grown ‘round a child.

 

I took a breath and held it in

and was readied for the fall

from peace to wild

adult to child

the inner jungle calls.

 

Step the years down to your taste

and don’t start going till

you’ve had a chance to set yourself

with a view upon my hill.

 

the creatures haven’t eyes like ours

so every color seems

to call out as a shade of sound

so calibrate your schemes

 

twiddle your finger and turn your years

until you find the moment.

The green that most surrounds you

bellows like a torrent

of sand swept gently from the Lake

onto our city’s shores.

 

Now in rhythm forwards,

a step for each beat

into the smell of mottled tendrils

a molecule stuck

in your clogging nostrils.

 

So I will turn my genetic isolation to 99.2% (8 ‘years’ back) and step over the threshold into Mandala. Once I’m inside I’ll make small adjustments until the prevalent green that surrounds me begins to resemble the sound of small waves sloshing up against the shores of the Great Salt Lake. This feels like suicide. These songs are supposed to represent exactly what will happen around me, but they are so abstract. ‘the smell of mottled tendrils’?

What other choice do I have? I just hope I can remember every line and every word, or I suppose I’ll be thrown completely off track.

 

Location: Habitat C

Niche: Mandala

 

The moment I crossed the threshold into Mandala, at 99.2% resistance, the world around me blurred and narrowed, my thoughts became un-oiled cogs. It took every ounce of my concentration just to remember where I was and what I was doing. A complicated shifting synesthesia swept over me. My vision became my memory, smells became morality, my body became utterly un-me. In that haze of near madness and complete loss my father’s bedside songs surged up within me. He’d hidden them deep in my unconscious and now they swam through my head unabated, my footsteps marching to the rhythm of his voice. His words mingled with and complemented my severe hallucinations, echoing as loudly and clearly through my head as they had 25 years before. He led me onwards, describing clearly and in abstractly concrete terms the undefined whirlpool of sensation around me.

What a skill to develop such songs. Their very form, rhythm, tone and choice of imagery is absolutely inseparable from their purpose and content. They are developed to communicate to a mind confronted by a particular altered perception. And a song that helps an Ecologist to navigate through multiple Niches must ‘change key’ in a manner of speaking, multiple times. For each Niche is home to a community of species that communicates with their surroundings, and with each other, using a set of senses utterly foreign to our human five. How to translate the inchoate senses of sight or sound into an alien sense indescribable? How to have a human innately know the weight of air? Or to detect a displaced electron, or an already extinguished fallen photon? Or to shift one’s cells around one’s body with the same manner of ease that I would glance to the left or the right? How to translate these concepts beyond our intellectual capacity, into something real. No wonder the greatest composers of navigational songs were so highly praised, for they made the invisible visible. I know my father was renowned for this sought-after ability, and so far this song of his, which appeared until a few hours ago like childhood bedside gibberish, now directs me through conceptual darkness.

The sensation is truly incommunicable.

However, it worked, and I am now standing at the centre of Mandala, resistance down to 96% for a moment, so I can have a look around me. As soon as I turned the resistance down I felt my senses rearrange themselves slightly to operate in this new field of perception. It was just my imagination of course, but I felt each and every chromosome inside me mutate slightly to accommodate my surroundings.

So here I am, by the much-studied central pond of Mandala, and I have come just in time. It is a wonderful sight. I take Conrad off my back and cradle him in my arms so he can have a look. Just as the reports had described, the mass retrogression of fully matured frogs is taking place. Within seconds of ascending the rounded granite rocks that jut out here and there around the pond their skin collapses and shrinks as they mutate back into tadpoles. It was thought for many years that these creatures were thus immortal, coming to the granite rocks of the swamp to become tadpoles again, to start life over and extend their existence indefinitely. It was later discovered in 140, the same year Forest restrictions were enacted, that the Swamp Frogs were advancing in their life with this mutation, not retrogressing as was originally thought. For the Swamp Frog mutates into a photosynthetic tadpole which collects small patches of sunlight that reach the forest floor in Mandala. The tadpole begins germinating as a seed would. It swims, half flora, half fauna to the shores of the swamp, bores itself into the muddy soil and matures into Flora Asclepias Cognitivus, I believe is the name.

But I am not here to study, I must move on. I have decreased resistance merely to write this entry, because it is my duty. I must now continue. I haven’t once dared look at Conrad during the journey.

I am now bringing my resistance back up to almost full. I will try to stop occasionally to update this Log. It is time again to put my fate the hands of my father’s songs.

I believe the songs will lead me on a detour through the swathes of undulating Sand Alagae in Niche Neptune to avoid having to set foot in Niche Samsara, also adjacent to Mandala. I have to be careful to heed the words of the songs exactly, for even a footstep into Samsara, without injecting the correct ionic formulas would mean a slow and painful death. Most Niches will take a human through Incorporation, but Samsara is different. Its host is held together by a complex matrix of magnetic interactions that will tear a human body apart instantly, despite one’s level of genetic isolation. This, renders the Niche a supernaturally beautiful place, with the members of its host of 20 species, weightless and unstuck to the dictates of gravity. The only defense against Samsara’s malice towards the human body is a mixture of three solutions of specifically ionized particles interacting with the body. One injected directly into the heart and thus spread evenly through the bloodstream; one solution used to flood the sinuses; and one ingested. Only then can an Ecologist enter safely and conduct studies, and for this reason Samasara is one of the least studied Niches. Dr. Solomon, the first to attempt an ionized entry into the Niche is still celebrated as one of the bravest Ecologists the City has ever known.

I scan the upcoming verses in my father’s song to try to find any allusions to injecting or ingesting ionic solutions briefly. Luckily it seems he will be taking me by the long route through Neptune. So I suppose it's a long trudge through the barren sheets of dry, yeast-like, Sand Algae of Neptune before I move up through Ariel.

I scanned ahead through the song and I believe I’ve located the first ‘key change’.

 

Between two pillars of melting stone

amongst the memories of a child’s sun

weave into the places you can’t quite see

and continue till the end has come.

 

Now your pace will begin to build

your confidence caught in a flare with her

follow the image, your past tumbling on,

but your body hitting a barrier.

 

Lose two

until you

find sand

between feet

lose more

until your

air’s taste

turns sweet

 

hold hands

afore face

wrinkles mingle

spaces single

fists furled

toes braced

shuffle on at

my voice’s pace

 

That sudden shift in beat must be the change between Mandala and Neptune. Well, the seeming nonsense has got me this far, so I suppose soon I’ll understand why the change for Neptune when I get there. Perhaps this:

 

Don’t stop

air’s hot

walk, twist

don’t miss

turn up

your chest

boots boost

to left

left left

left left

left now

 

whistle until each echo is evenly placed above your mind

move until the sounds bounce back into your skull

find that place, in your centre, in the centre, and

know which direction to step, sometimes intuition is best

 

Turn the years upon your chest.

 

I’ll head through three Niches now without stopping, until I’m at the border of Niche Algaric. Assuming, still, that this is where the songs are leading me.

Conrad is still alive. His eyes are so healthy, but his body so unbearable. We have conversations with our eyes only, and he is as ready for the final leg to Algaric as I.

 

Expedition Log—

April 28th, M.F. 170.

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

 

Time of day unknown. Date is approximate. 87% resistance. I am here, Niche Algaric. There are still things that I remember from my very early research, before studies on the Niche were banned. The signs are unmistakable. Mussurio Centralis, the giant white fungal outgrowth that juts out from the Tree, casting a shadow over the vast, brown, churning swamp that constitutes the forest floor here; the massive red mushrooms littered across the swamps, Chatepillar larvae swarming about their bases. I am in Niche Algaric, and my father purposefully led me to this very spot, to the Niche that took his soul and turned him into an outcast.

When I uttered the final line of the navigational song and placed my foot down on the final beat of the verse, it landed in the wet and fomenting swamp. Immediately the form of perception I’d gotten used to in Niche Rousseau transformed yet again, I felt as if my brain were spinning in my head to accommodate these new senses and muddled thoughts. Amongst the inner turmoil I managed to cling to a single thought, the final line: Touch your heart and twist, take a step and listen. I should have turned my dial before that final step, for it seemed I was one step ahead during the song and transferred into this Niche too early in the verse. Despite that I managed to muster enough coherent thought to twist my dial down until reality settled into itself. Without trying I did what the final line instructed, and listened. And truly, it was a stunning sound. By now I’ve gotten used to it, but then it was almost unbelievable. It was that of absolute silence. I toyed with the dial on my isolation vest but still not a sound. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It is as if the air is simply without density, empty.

I cannot hide my satisfaction at having made it this far. It is impossible to predict how much genetic integrity my genome has left, but all I can do is keep resistance up when I can, and find a proper end for Conrad. I don’t have a plan. I hoped that the leaf in his birthing pool was from Algaric, and that when we stepped across the threshold into the Niche young Conrad would have transformed, at home at last. But he has not, and I am at a loss.

But the Tree! I couldn’t believe I was there staring at it, just a few paces from touching the epicenter of this enigma. I felt my heart swell. The rival to the angels and God -- a wall of tough bark, the father, the progenitor and genesis of the Forest. I reached behind me to touch Conrad.

The upper surface of the primary outgrowth, Mussurio Centralis, the central point of activity on this Niche, was about 50 meters above me. But all I could see from my vantage point was the thick underside of the outgrowth, dirty and pumping out spore clouds from thousands of gray-brown holes scattered throughout its mottled surface. I stood in the large shadow of the giant structure, which extended roughly 200 meters out from the Tree over the swamp below. How to get above it?

My initial thought, of course, was to somehow scale the Tree and dig my way through the outgrowth, but I could not walk in the swamp.  With each attempt I sank to my knees and had to struggle back to solid ground on the border on the Niche. Then out in the distance I saw a figure moving across the swamp, not too far away from me. I had the urge to call out but thought better of it. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, so watched him discreetly from where I stood. He was walking on the surface of and eventually began to sink. Before long he’d sunk up to his midriff, wading through the brown liquid. Then, at about a point 10 meters away from the base of the Tree he digs himself deeply into the swamp and a moment afterwards is propelled at a high speed up towards the underside of the outgrowth above him, shooting through the clouds of gray spores. At the zenith of his leap he digs his fingers into the porous gray fungus and pulls himself upwards through it.

What else could I do but attempt the same? I thought over my options for a while, remaining where I was until I saw another Posthomo riding on the back of a full grown Chatepillar! It is massive. As high as a human, and ten feet long. And the girth of the thing! I was only 8 when I read those first reports on Algaric and had no understanding of the scientific language, but they were the first studies of the Forest I had ever read and so even the small details have remained with me strongly.

And these Posthomo…I cannot remember the species name for the life of me. I should have scanned my memory back in Thoroughfare. I was too caught up in anxiety to think ahead. Ederesapiens perhaps? Posthomo Ederesapiens. That could be correct.

The Chatepillar and mounted Posthomo approach the base of the tree and continue straight up the bark without even slowing. How could such a giant creature move vertically up the side of this tree? The Posthomo clings tightly, hanging off the Chatepillar’s backside and soon they are both boring up through the fungus, working their way up to the top, sending spore clouds swirling in their wake.

What was I to do? I tried once more my footing in the swamp and instantly sank knee-deep, feeling the larvae squirming about around me. I managed to pull myself back out and stand again on the solid border at the edge of Rousseau. There is no way I would have been able to walk through that sludge. The smell of it was beginning to get to me and I almost retched a number of times. There weren’t any other Chatepillar nearby, although they swarmed on their own across the swamp out in the distance, where I couldn’t reach. The only thing to do, then, was to attempt what I saw that first Posthomo do. I secured Conrad tightly to my back and took two steps into the sludge. I began to sink a bit too swiftly for comfort, feeling the slimy fist-sized larvae swirling all about my ankles. When I’d sunk down to my midriff I began to panic and screamed out for help. I kicked my feet wildly in the mud, but it was a struggle just to move them a few inches. At chest height in the sludge I began to fear for Conrad on my back, hoping his face was not submerged, not wanting his already unfortunate life to end this way. I kept my arms above the swamp level and pulled them forcefully downwards through the brown liquid to try and stay afloat to no avail. And then, just as I thought all hope had been lost, the larvae at my feet began to swarm at a phenomenal speed, until my legs started to burn. My palpitations of fear morphed into pinpricks of pain as the larvae continued to create an unbearable friction against me. Soon my sinking stopped, but the activity below me was reaching a crescendo. When I felt like the skin and flesh of my legs was being stripped to the bone, my whole body fell back into the swamp slightly and then all at once I was expelled with the force of some kind of reverse suction up into the air. It came as such a surprise that I didn’t even think to grab at the fungal outgrowth that I was fast approaching. When I did reach it, at the apex of my upward propulsion, I thrashed out towards it in an uncoordinated manner, tore off a chunk of white fungus and then began to plummet again towards the swamp. I was halfway through a somersault in mid-air and thought to myself that whatever happens I cannot land headfirst in this swamp.

I managed to right myself in the air and hit the swamp with a thud on my left hip. I checked that Conrad was still secured tightly to my back and then instantly began sinking again. This time I mentally prepared myself for the heat and the pain and the wholly unnatural feeling of being surrounded by quickly swimming larvae. I steeled myself and against my will had a brief flashback to an A.D. cartoon I’d watched of a man being stuck into a canon, and shot out over an expectant crowd. I sink again. I raise my hands in an arrow shape above my head as if I’m diving into the Great Salt Lake and wait. The swarming and the heat begin. Now that I was calm I was more attentive to the details of this sensation. I felt the heat across every cell of my body. I felt it under my clothes and even under my skin. And then: the fall back, the suction and the release. I am again shot at high speeds up towards the underside of the fungus. I keep my body as stiff as a lance and firm up my fingertips before impact. The middle fingers sink deeply into the porous, dry matter and I hook all my fingers inwards. Next thing I know, I’m hanging on the underside of the fungus, dangling, choking on thick billowing spore clouds. I think back to the Posthomo I saw scurry up in a heartbeat through the fungal matter and feel somewhat inadequate, as for me it is a struggle just hanging there. I start with a slow and steady digging and feel that the fungus comes away little by little, and if I put my whole body into the action I am able to inch further up. When I feel that I am becoming unstable I wait a moment and within seconds the fungus has regenerated into a firm bind around my hands and arms. I continued this way until I could pull my whole body into the fungal structure. Once I was planted inside the outgrowth the bottom sealed up underneath me and things became much easier, as I could now use my feet as well.

As I continued upwards the porous brown spore tunnels and dust clouds soon gave way to a soft, spongy substance that glowed white even as I was shut in what should have been darkness. I breathed heavily, trying to stay calm even as the fungus regenerated at a rapid pace around me, closing me in constantly. Calmly and slowly I pulled my way through what must have been 50 meters of the outgrowth.

By the time my hand reached up and felt air I was completely exhausted, but managed to bring my head above the surface. I was amongst a barrage of large pale hominid feet parading on all sides around me. I was afraid I would be trampled, but it seemed I was being purposefully avoided at the last moment by all who approached my exposed head. I was a bit frightened to look up and see the Posthomo creatures that these feet were attached to. They were so pale as to almost be light blue and they lacked toenails. I did take a brief glance up and instantly recalled a field drawing that I’d seen as a child in my father’s reports. It is the first time that drawing had come to my mind since I had scanned over those pages so long ago. But at that moment it all came back in a swoop, the wide alien mouths, the completely hairless skin, the long slender, almost boneless, limbs.

When I am fully emerged and standing on the topside of the primary outgrowth I take a look around to make sure I'm not in any immediate danger. But it seems as if the massive, slow moving Chatepillar and the groups of Posthomo are too caught up in their business to notice me. There is only the flat white fungal platform upon which all the activity is taking place, and I can’t see the end of it in any direction, for it was so crowded with bodies. I decided then that I needed to get to higher ground.

When I look up the length of the Tree to find a suitable perch I am almost knocked unconscious by the sight. There is not a single piece of plant life nor greenery for about 5 kilometers up the length of the entire creature– only the semi-circular fungal outgrowths attached to the tree that become scarcer about 300 meters up and then disappear altogether. All the outgrowths are a similar shape and construct as the primary outgrowth, but orders of magnitude smaller. Above that there is just a straight wall of bark, the curvature of the tree’s trunk not even apparent below the 5 kilometer high mark, where the bark is lost again among the foliage in a Niche above Algaric. The concept of the Tree, Drus Protos, had always been mind-boggling, of course. Just the mere concept that such an organism exists! But concepts are easier to accept than reality, and to actually see this object of disbelief is a completely different matter. I feel vertigo and my eyes begin to blur. I force myself to continue looking upwards and toy with different settings of resistance on my isolation vest. Nothing seems to help. It was not a matter of confused perception, but my own emotional state that caused this feeling. I need to find higher ground to take this all in.

I bring my gaze downwards to try and find a way to ascend to one of the lower secondary outgrowths, and am jostled by a passing Ederesapiens. He walked into me as if I did not exist, and the instant we came into contact, the air, the ground, the top of the primary outgrowth on which I stood were all suddenly saturated in a dusty white substance. I look up, shielding my eyes and see the torrents of feathery, chalk-like flakes falling constantly from the upper canopy, permeating every square millimeter of air in the entire Niche. I open my palm and collect a dusting of the substance, rubbing it between my fingers. They are seeds. Seeds falling from above. One minute non-existent, and in the next it is as if they had been falling for months, already coating every exposed surface, for the powdery flakes cling to all they touch and the individuals here seem to take no notice. Their hair, which when I first emerged onto the surface was jet black and oily, is now carpeted with the white seed.

 Trying to stay focused I scan again the bark of Drus Protos for a higher outgrowth. There are hundreds above me, and all at first seemed to be unpopulated, but on closer inspection I was able to make out figures scattered amongst them. Ederesapiens were now beginning to jostle me on all sides, and a slowly moving Chatepillar almost trampled me. Caught in the mad bustle I was nevertheless able to pick out an outgrowth not far above me that seemed to be unpopulated. I will attempt to reach that one.

. . .

 

Finally I’ve ascended to the outgrowth. A mosaic of rounded handholds and footholds in the bark of the tree made the ascent an easy one. I am about 15 meters above the primary outgrowth. It turns out there is one Posthomo here with me, but he doesn’t seem to be disturbed by my presence. He is undergoing a series of what to any human would be painful contortions and staring off into the empty space of Niche Algaric. I thought at first he was staring into the leafy mid-canopy of the neighboring Niches, but his eyes are certainly focused on some point closer and utterly invisible to me. I toy again with my dial and still cannot fathom what he is looking at. Being at 87% resistance feels as if there are hundreds of fingers roaming around in my insides, shifting my organs, making room for something. The sensation is not painful, but mentally discomforting.

From this new vantage point I would hazard a guess at a combined total of 350 acres of flat ground upon the primary outgrowth! This of course doesn’t take into account the secondary outgrowths above, of which there are hundreds. The outgrowths overlap and cast shadows onto one another, bathing the base of the primary outgrowth in a sheet of relative darkness at its base.

After taking note of the shadows I wonder where the light comes from. Of course this perception of light is merely my own sensual interpretation of a completely alien sense (or set of senses) that I cannot begin to fathom, for the sun’s light cannot reach this far into the Forest. I turn the dial on my isolation vest to try and discover the light source and have come to the conclusion that the falling white seeds in their entirety are what create the quality that my human perception has come to interpret as light.

I’ve sat the stiff body of Conrad next to me and feign away all sense of revulsion when I look him in the eyes, for I don’t want him to feel I have lost any love. I hope for a brief minute that he can be cured when I look in those healthy eyes. But when I see the state of the rest of his body I wonder how any creature, even a creature of the Forest can still be alive. I think back to that leaf, that fate-changing leaf. Where did it come from?

Beneath me, on the primary outgrowth, the giant Chatepillars emerge intermittently from alcoves where the fungal outgrowths meet the tree. They do not seem to be new additions to the population, for their shells are scarred and dry. I would imagine that the Chatepillar that have newly emerged from the xylem of Drus Protos and onto the primary outgrowth would be wet with a membranous shell following their final mutation inside the Tree, but the shells of these Chatepillar seem quite old. They wander in a seemingly aimless fashion, stopping from time to time to rub their bodies against other Chatepillar.

The Posthomo Ederesapiens, too, cluster in multitudes and walk back and forth across the various outgrowths, far more numerous than the Chatepillar, and more lively. Once in a while I see one scurry up the bark from one outgrowth to the next, their hands seeming to sink into the very structure of the Tree as they go. They are in constant interaction with each other and with the creatures and landscape around them. They widen holes in the Tree, tearing away at the bark, for the Chatepillar to pass more smoothly through; they tend to small pools of golden liquid dug into the outgrowths; a number of them scatter handfuls of the white seed over the edge of the upper outgrowths, onto the primary outgrowth below, as if sowing a field; a group of individuals that could be females are filling small satchels with chunks of fungi they tear from the outgrowth; one individual is covered completely by a swarm of blue butterflies (Insectum Lepidoptera Azurluminesce I somehow recall); a group are mixing a pool of red liquid with a rod of what seems to be a leaf-less descendant of bamboo that grows in abundance where the base of the outgrowths meet the Tree. They smear this red mixture on the Chatepillars in liberal amounts as they wander along, and decorate the entrances that have been bored into the side of the Tree.

The general bustle is almost overwhelming. Every centimeter in time and space is occupied and wrought with purpose. I know creating analogies between life in the City and happenings in the Forest is looked down upon, but I cannot push this particular analogy from my mind: it reminds me of the Festival of the Revelation, with the hundreds of exhibitions and stalls and wandering bodies.

On closer inspections I see saplings sprouting up here and there across the Niche. Very small saplings, growing in the white mounds of seed, growing from the red liquid splattered atop the roaming Chatepillars, growing from the golden pools. Each sapling is a unique color of green, orange, purple, varying in intensities of radiance, for they each seem to produce their own light. On some of the saplings are (it is hard to know for sure from this distance) buds that the Ederesapiens take a special fondness in. They stroke and caress the buds, entire groups forming around the saplings upon which they grow. They must be cultivating the white seed. But without any organization or order. Yes, that is what is happening. It is a frenzy of cultivation.

And an unexpected phenomenon, which I don’t remember being mentioned in my father’s reports, is taking place: at higher frequencies of resistance I can see individual Ederesapiens disappearing and reappearing from view. As I increase resistance and focus on a certain individual, their body becomes slowly transparent and then disappears completely, while other figures come into existence from out of thin air, it would seem. These psychological misinterpretations are common in the higher intensity areas of the Forest -- mistranslations if you will -- but I can’t help shake the feeling that this is somehow unholy.

All of this, and still there is no noise! In all ranges of resistance I hear nothing.

. . .

 

Wait. Now there is something. A single repeated sound. It is continuous and seems to be getting closer. I’ll toy with my resistance. The air around me has changed quality somehow. Warmer maybe. There is a pleasant smell. I feel very pleasant suddenly. The noise is close. A familiar noise. I’ve turned my resistance down a few decimal notches.

My God. I must stop writing. There is a creature right in front of me. Female. She is repeating the word “hello”.

 

Expedition Log—

Falling Season, M.F. 170.

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

 

Outgrowths

 

Night and day are indistinguishable in both the environment and the behavior of the occupants, so I cannot be sure how much time has passed. The topside of the outgrowths emanate a bright glow now and then, which may account for a change in routine, but a change to exactly what I am still not sure, for activity never ceases. At times the various creatures retire to their alcoves in the bark of the Tree, but there seems to be no generally agreed upon time for rest, as the environment is remarkably consistent in every way – quality of light, temperature; the smells, the sensations, the absolute noiselessness, nothing changes.

It must have been a number of days since my last entry, although I have only slept for brief periods. I’ve barely remembered to eat the cold rations and rehydration tablets, as I have never felt hunger or thirst. Perhaps these needs are taken care of without me noticing. Or perhaps here I simply do not lose moisture. And I have been too caught up in the host of disillusioning and remarkable occurrences here, so enlightening and dreadful, that I haven’t even given a thought to recording an entry. And even now I don’t know where to begin. There is so much to write.

I know now that my father, to a detail, had planned for this day, for my child’s addiction to the Forest, for my subsequent arrival into Niche Algaric. From the songs he recited at my bedside, to the messages he left with the inhabitants here. It appears he has taught Sora -- the female member of Posthomo I have met -- the language of the City in order for me to have someone to communicate with after my expected arrival. I suspect that Sora was my father’s concubine during his Incorporated period here in Algaric. From the moment she took her place beside me, even I have been overcome with sinful thoughts, made all the more blasphemous because these thoughts dwell on the form of a creature of the Forest. I can see how, over time, any male hominid would let all virtue fall away and be with her heart and soul. Even my father. I’m sure he did. I cannot even trust myself.

She treated me at first as if I were one of her kind, rubbing her soft hands all across my body, entangling her limbs in misshapen arrangements around me, releasing her warm breath across my face. When I finally mustered the resolve to push her away she acquiesced immediately and retreated seductively, smiling widely, speaking in her broken language. What have I become? What is this place? Who are these creatures that can so toy with human emotion?

The Posthomo of Alagaric seem to have retained the many basic human qualities. Yet their absolute silence is disturbing beyond description, so innately un-human. And the way they glide along across the Algaric, rubbing up against each other, hands feeding each other, forming contorted shapes with their bodies, beaming wide smiles at each other. Quite grotesque. A sensual grotesqueness. Their bodies seem boneless, their skin is pale. And the way they interact with the very air around them -- it is as if they have no self-awareness and are lost in a haze of idle routine and absolute bliss. It is only this one member of the population, Sora, who can communicate in any familiar form. She is the only one who even makes an utterance.

Her language is broken, but I have gleaned a thing or two through our conversation. The occupants of the fungal outgrowths, for instance, cannot travel even a step from their Niche. The boundary of their territory is marked by the last row of massive mushroom caps, which grow in clusters in the larvae swamps below. The Posthomo are absolutely dependent on the fungus and cannot even leave the surface of the outgrowths without carrying huge handfuls of the substance with them and constantly ingesting it. In a complicated little exchange I believe she insinuated that the fungus can be absorbed through any part of their bodies, as if their skin is as permeable as an amphibian’s.

We spoke at length of my father, her pliable body swam through our entire conversation. At times I was furious, at times sad, at times overwhelmed with wonder, but I could never take my eyes off of her.

She described the process in which I should prepare for my Incorporation. She told me that my father had planned for Conrad and I to ascend above into the uppermost section of the Tree’s canopy, and that full Incorporation is the only way to achieve this.

She explains that my father, after his Incorporation into Niche Algaric, had complete mobility all up and down the length of the Tree itself. It seems this was an ability he was highly regarded for amongst the Ederesapiens. How was he able to achieve this? How much more productive this journey would have been if my father’s report had been published and accessible to all! But nevermind, I am no longer an Ecologist of the City. I keep forgetting.

“I am not here to ‘change’. I am here to bury my child,” I told her, quite firmly.

“Conrad. I know. He change too,” she beamed.

“How do you know his name?”

“Your father tell me. He will name Conrad. Like your father. Same name. He say also you both change, like your father.”

“I’m not my father. I’m not here to become Incorporated. I’m here to bury my child.” I said again, gently lifting the shriveled body of Conrad for her to see, his eyes still moist with life. She seemed indifferent to the disturbing sight.

The feathery white seeds have been falling at a steady pace from somewhere deep in the upper canopy, far above Algaric, and I believe they are increasing in frequency. The air of this windless Niche is saturated with the falling white particles, and the Posthomo all take immense joy in their presence. They collect and cultivate them all throughout the fungus, in the soil, inside the tree and elsewhere. Even now they fall constantly onto this notebook, mixing relentlessly with the ink.

Sora remains the only member of the population that has taken any interest in me. The rest seem unable to even make eye contact. They stare past me. And the Chatepillar are not aware of me whatsoever, and would trample and crush me if I wasn’t constantly vigilant. At one point in our conversation Sora pulled the withered body of Conrad from my reluctant hands and brought it in towards her bare chest in what seemed to be mock compassion.

She then took me on a tour of sorts, through all of Niche Algaric and its environs. So, in this manner, I have walked amongst the populations and have just about covered every inch on the primary outgrowth. With Sora leading the way slightly in front of me, cradling the terrible spectacle of Conrad’s body as if it were a delicate, lovable newborn.

No one takes much notice of my presence at all. Even when introduced to them (in an odd fashion) by Sora. They do not treat me as they treat each other, with constant contact and mysterious sensual dances.

Sora breaks away from me to join in these amorphous indescribable rituals, but always returns with a wide and bright smile, grotesque in its vastness. Her pale lips form a crescent around her semi-opaque teeth in an attempt, it would seem, to keep me comfortable and at ease. If nothing else her constant attention to Conrad is uplifting. That a creature could show any sort of affection to my child in its current state at once warms my heart and repels me. As we pass groups of Ederesapiens she hands Conrad off to be inspected by them. The seemingly boneless fingers of their pale hands run over his withered skin. His eyes shoot glances wrought with fear now and unsurpassed joy now, as he is handed back and forth and fondled by Sora’s companions. To see even those brief glimpses of joy in Conrad’s eyes was crushing, reminding me of the child I once had, but will never see again outside my memory.

Through all this passing of Conrad back and forth between them, still not one ever truly acknowledged me. I was, save the occasional and perhaps unintentional glance, invisible. And never, never, never a word is spoken amongst them! The silence is overwhelming. I have the urge to scream up into the vastness of the mid-canopy at the top of my lungs, but manage to restrain myself. Even in the Niches of Thoroughfare and Mandala, the strong wind sweeps in from the desert and manages to squeeze through the dense flora. In those Niches there is, at least, the whisper of the wind, the infrequent rustling of leaves, the soggy plop of swamp frogs, the scuttling of insects amongst the spindle moss. These were noises that I hadn’t properly registered at the time, but can recall with alacrity now, in retrospect. But here in Algaric, each footfall is soundless, each facial expression is masked behind a thick fog of absolute silence. Conrad passes between their hands; the white seeds fall from the sky; the sap of the tree leaks constantly into pits carved into the fungal outgrowth; the Chatepillars shuffle along and the butterflies flutter about, refracting blue light through their paper-thin wings – but all in complete silence.

I would have thought that some alien sense would be translated by my isolation vest in the form of sound, but there is nothing. Only Sora’s occasional comment which wafts to my ears like brief syllables of light in absolute darkness.

The emotional heaviness of Conrad’s state, the suddenness of our arrival into this Niche, the unexpected friendly acquaintance made in this female, the disorienting blend of past, present, memory, imagination, and reality has left me in an absorbent but almost mindless state. How I’ve secretly wished to conduct first hand studies of the Forest for my whole life. And here I am, finally. But, despite my prodigious theoretical knowledge I remain unprepared and helpless. I’m confined by the confounded state of my own mind.

Upon coaxing I’ve joined in the mad rituals of cultivation and have dug a number of burrows in the fungus to plant white seeds of my own.

“Will these grow into plants, like that?” I pointed at a nearby sapling that had sprouted out of a red stain in the outgrowth.

“Patient,” she said with a smile.

“What are those plants?” I asked. “Will they become food?”

“No,” she said, tapping her forehead, “For here.”

. . .

 

After we’d completely explored the primary outgrowth, I followed Sora as she climbed the bark of Drus Protos up to the secondary outgrowths, which jut out from the tree with no discernible order. She scampers up the bark with ease, while I struggle on behind, and in less than a few breaths she has already climbed high above me.

“Sora,” I called after her and immediately felt guilty for breaking the silence as I felt hundreds of heads turn toward me from the primary outgrowth below and saw a number of other heads peer down at me from the scattered outgrowths above. So they can hear. They can register sound, they just don’t use it. Yelling upwards was a mistake also because the mere opening of my mouth left my tongue covered and my throat clogged with the chalky seed falling from above. I started coughing uncontrollably, lost my grip on the bark and fell onto the primary outgrowth below. It didn’t hurt and in fact was pleasurable in a way. I sank right in and then gently sprung back.

At least it can be recorded that the seed is not poisonous as I managed to swallow and inhale a significant quantity of it. It is harmless at least with resistance percentage at a suitable level.

Sora scampered back down the bark and once on the primary outgrowth she touched me with her fingertips and lifted me up from off the ground through what seemed to be some extra-muscular force. She held her slender pale fingers in front of her face and then inserted them into the bark. They slither through the jagged layers and disappear. When she pulls her fingers out again they are covered in a thick golden liquid. sap. The blood of the Drus Protos. The falling white seeds clung to the liquid she’d extracted, and her hand became blindingly white. She then took my hands in hers and slathered the sap liberally through the insides of my palms. I was about to protest when she slapped my hand hard against the tree with a strength I didn’t think possible from her. My hand stuck hard and it took great force to remove it. She then grabbed my hand and blew her hot breath into my palm which instantly liquefied the hardening sap. While it was still wet she slapped my open palm on the bark again. She gave me a curt little nod and bounded up the tree just as she’d done before, with Conrad under her arm.

This little trick didn’t make the climb all that much faster but I felt more secure as I ascended the tree after her. Eventually she stopped climbing and rested on a secondary outgrowth above, gesturing for me to come.

 As I was climbing I’d noticed that most of the activities on the secondary outgrowths were quite different from what was happening on the primary. For instance, one entire outgrowth was covered with full grown plants, not just the budding saplings I’d see below, but a wide variety of plants, emerging from hardened pools of the golden sap, dug into alcoves in the outgrowth. Fruits of various colors, flowers of many shapes and sizes. A group of Posthomo were standing around the circle of plants. A male plucked a long purple fruit and chewed into it, dark liquid splattering on his face. The fruit was then passed back and forth among the group, each closely inspecting the specimen, taking a juicy bite, and then passing it on.

“They look for food from here,” Sora said later when I asked about what the fruit was, pointing straight up into the Tree’s distant green canopy. “We cannot go, like your father. So we make here.”

On another outgrowth higher up I saw rows of what can only be described as leafy, human-sized cocoons. Under each cocoon was again a pool of the golden sap. On closer inspection I could see that the leaves forming the structure of these cocoons originated from those bamboo-like plants at the base of every outgrowth. My first sight of greenery here! What a welcoming vision, but quite out of place. One man stood at the foot of each sap pool and caressed the cocoons.

“What are in those cocoons?” I later asked Sora.

“Cocoons?” she asked with a tilt of the head. I pointed down to the outgrowth I’d seen the cocoons on.

“Green,” I said, still pointing. She understood this and nodded. “What are they?” I asked, “Is something in them?”

“You,” she smiled widely, “And Sora. You and I are in them.”

“I don’t think so,” I mumbled under my breath.

There were other still stranger visions on other outgrowths on the way up, rituals and undertakings more foreign yet more purposeful than anything I’d witnessed lower down. A dense concentration of swaying flowers splattered in a variety of colors cluttered one outgrowth of about 30 square meters. A man walked through the field slowly, stroking the petals with his fingertips.

On another outgrowth, larger in size, there were hundreds and hundreds of Ederesapiens babies! I had the bad fortune of passing close to this particular outgrowth during my climb and was dumbfounded to see that the juvenile specimens of the Posthomo population look almost identical to Homo Sapiens babies. They crawled and played dangerously close to the edge, at this point about 70 meters above the primary outgrowth. Exhausted from the climb, and needing to take a rest, I stopped to observe them. I pushed my sap covered palms into the bark and hung, trying not to use any muscle strength at all. On the outgrowth were fist-sized pools of sap scattered about the play area, and the babies ripped off chunks of the fungus, dipped it into the sap pool and stuffed it into their mouths. A roof-like structure had been built above, constructed from the bamboo stalks and the wide leaves that grow from them. I’d always been told that the Posthomo of all Niches were incapable of any form of advanced construction. But this structure was intricate and complex and I couldn’t figure out how it remained stable. It extended far over the outgrowth, but was not supported at any point. It must have been built deeply into the Tree in order to remain horizontal. It provided a tight shelter, rendering the surface below it totally free of the falling white seed, and so I saw, for the first time, the thick golden sap in pools unadulterated with a glaring whiteness.

As I stopped to look at this, one of the babies caught my eye and held my gaze in his. It wasn’t the fleeting gaze of the other Ederespaiens, unsure whether they have made eye contact or not. This child looked straight into my eyes and then crawled out towards me. Then all the other babies, as if they had suddenly been made aware of my presence, all turned and stared deeply into my eyes. Then they started crawling towards me.

“No,” I called out. “Stop, please.” I was a number of meters away from the edge of the outgrowth and the first baby didn’t seem to be stopping. I prayed that the creature would stop coming towards me before it reached the edge. For it looked so human and I immediately felt concern for it. But it didn’t stop, it continued unabated over the edge of the outgrowth.

“Sora!” I screamed out loud, “Sora please.” I looked up briefly to see if I caught her attention and saw her head peaking over the edge of the outgrowth high above. She waved her long arm at me.

“Sora, please! Come down here!” I called to her, almost on the verge of tears. She didn’t seem to mind and gestured for me to hurry upwards. I called to her again with no success. When I looked back the other babies were crawling towards me, laughing, staring into my eyes, approaching with outstretched arms. And one by one they edged off the outgrowth and plummeted downwards. My body convulsed as I saw one hit an uninhabited outgrowth about six meters below us and sink deep into the fungus. Another plummeted all the way down to the primary outgrowth and exploded into pieces. I was terrified.

More babies fell and smashed on the ground below me and no one took notice. After about two dozen had fallen I blew hot breath onto the sap in my palms and started making my way over to them. When I was close enough I set up a block with my arm, attempting to keep them held in like A.D. cattle in a pen. But they didn’t stop. I could only use one hand or else I myself would plummet, and they continued crawling up that one arm and along my shoulders, down my bag, across my limbs, the tips of their fingers fusing suddenly into my flesh through my clothes! They were using me as a giant plaything and amalgamating their little appendages into me. This was not just a sensation. I saw it. I felt it. What sense could this possibly have been translating? I screamed and shook my body but couldn’t dislodge them. I yelled for Sora but couldn’t look up. At an utter loss I did the last thing I could think of and turned the dial on my isolation vest. I decreased resistance down to 86% and, in a heartbeat, in a fraction of time divided infinitely all the children were again roaming around their play area under the roof as if nothing had happened, as if time had gone backwards. I looked down and saw no bodies of dead children on the outgrowths below. I looked up and quickly turned away so as not to catch their eyes again. I moved slowly away from that outgrowth, ignoring their existence as best I could.

When I was far away and could feel the extra one percent resistance meddling with the structure of my organs I decided to put it back up to 87% as that is what I’d found to be the best level on which to function. I turned the dial and in an instant those babies were again clinging to my body, their skin fusing with mine. I felt a baby on my face, his stomach fusing into my cheek. I clicked the dial back immediately and all was back to normal.

This I cannot explain.

These experiences during my climb through the secondary outgrowths were so terrifying that I hadn’t even thought of turning around to look behind me even once, but when I finally reached the outgrowth Sora and Conrad were on I had a chance to scan the mid-canopy from roughly eighty meters up. Tears welled in my eyes as the nature of my position struck me, the vastness of this place, the overwhelming surge of life. At this height the blood swallows flit through the air, and below me the Posthomo and Chatepillar are the size of thimbles. I looked to Conrad in hope that he was registering this, and saw his eyes wide, the dark green of the neighboring Niches reflecting back at me through his orbs. If I recall the maps correctly I could see from that vantage point two Niches in the distance and the border between them. De Sade and Rousseau named after the A.D. French philosophers. I could distinguish their threshold lines clearly by the twirling vines that suffocated all the foliage in the small Niche of De Sade. From memory it hasn’t been studied at all. The first Ecologists who ventured in were instantly killed by a toxic gas which permeates the Niche. It is supposed that the strangler vines somehow nullify the gas for the inhabitants that live on them, but it is all conjecture. The Niche of Rousseau was discovered first, of course, and quite well documented. I tried to make out the figures of the leaf mice travelling in their packs of 10,000 through the brush, but was far too high up to make out such details. Niche Algaric is easily distinguished by its surrounding Niches by the presence of the larvae swamp. There comes a point in the landscape below where the swamps end abruptly and plant life emerges in its stead.

While I was collecting the sight in my memory Sora tapped my shoulder and introduced me to a male, older looking than the others, legs completely submerged in the Algaric up to his waist. I had completely missed him at first. He was just staring off into the mid canopy of the Forest. He turned around briefly to look at me, but didn’t quite catch my eyes, and then went back to his business of staring. He was most interested in a point somewhere in the mid-canopy. I tried to turn my eyes to see where he was looking, but saw nothing special. Just the endless flitting of the blood swallows. A stunted Chatepillar circled his body, digging him deeper into the fungus. I stared at this ritual for a moment but eventually the Chatepillar proceeded to chase me off at a slow but determined pace. Sora took me to the edge of the outgrowth and we peered down together.

“Something strange happened,” I said.

“Many things happen to your father he calls strange,” she replied, still gazing downwards.

“Did he show you how this works?” I asked, pointing to the dial of my isolation vest.

“Yes. I know.”

“You know that it lets me experience what you experience.”

“I know.”

“What kind of things did my father mention?”

Sora turned and smiled at me with a practiced gaze of motherly condescendence, with an awkward tilt of the head, eyes looking up at me.

“Your father, too, understand little. This,” she said, pointing at my vest, “tells nothing. Soon, when you change in sap. When you have new child here. You understand. Like your father.”

“I will not change. And I will not have a child here. I have a wife.”

“You will forget her,” she said, and stood up with Conrad still under her arm. I wanted to ask her about all the things I’d seen on my way up, but before I could even get one word in she backed away and pressed her spine up against the bark of the Tree, with her knees bent slightly. Then she straightened her knees and I could hear the skin ripping off her back as she scraped it against the bark. My instinct was to call out for her to stop, but of course I didn’t. She walked towards me, peeling her torn skin from the sharp bark and turned around to show me the damage. Thousands of small abrasions had opened up across her back, and a thick white blood with the faintest of a red tinge was oozing out of each wound.

“You have seen top; now you see bottom,” she said and in a single move ran out towards the end of the outgrowth and jumped over the edge. I yelled out for Conrad, but I couldn’t make a noise. I ran to the side of the outgrowth and saw about two dozen blood swallows swoop down towards her at a high speed and cling their talons into the wounds in her back. First one, then two, and gradually more birds latched onto her falling body. She continued to plummet and the birds worked tirelessly, flapping their wings. Only when about twenty birds had attached did her descent begin to slow. I saw her and Conrad slowly dwindle to a pinpoint on the bottom outgrowth, umbrellaed by a barrage of madly fluttering wings. When they had landed the birds shot back up to the mid-canopy at high speeds and dispersed among the bamboo stalks growing at the base of each outgrowth. One landed on the outgrowth I was on. It bent down and chewed voraciously at the fungus, digging its beak into the pools of sap that were scattered about.

I took the long and laborious route down, still using the same dirt caked pools of sap that Sora had slapped into my palms for the ascent.

. . .

 

Death

 

When I reached the primary canopy I was exhausted. Posthomo continued moving around ceaselessly, jostling past me. I thought I’d lost Sora for good when she suddenly emerged from a passing group with the shriveled body of Conrad in her hands. She passed by me without looking and then turned back briefly to say “come!” as she wove her way through the crowds, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. As if creatures had no need for rest. The wounds on her back had almost completely healed over. The thick white blood must have been consumed completely by the blood swallows, as none was caked on her skin. Only a small, ever-shrinking bright red dot on each of the healing spots.

Sora led me back to the larval swamp where I started. We dug our way down through the outgrowth. Well, Sora dug, and I stumbled along after her, clinging to the soft fungus as we went. Eventually Sora fell out the bottom and landed in the swamp below me on her feet without sinking. The stench hit me as soon as our tunnel opened out onto the swamp, and the spore clouds clogged my eyes and nostrils.

“Hey!” I yelled. Sora looked up from the swamp below, Conrad’s eyes also turned up towards me. I clung desperately to the crumbling porous, spore-spouting mass and attempted to clear the air from my eyes. “I’ll sink!”

I could make out a smile forming on Sora’s face, her glowing white teeth blasting through the spore cloud swirling all around my head. She made a ‘this way’ sign with her arm and walked towards a one of the large red mushroom caps that were scattered throughout the swamp. I stayed above her position by digging my way through the fungus, holding my breath, and breathing through a layer of my shirt when I had to. Soon she was standing right beside the mushroom cap, and I was dangling above.

“Come!” she called, using Conrad’s stiffened arm to gesture. I swore silently, positioned myself as best I could over the cap and wrenched my arms from the fungus. The force of my pull sent me spinning backwards. I hadn’t time to right myself in the air and landed on my nape on the edge of the mushroom cap. I felt my legs flying over the edge, but Sora grabbed them in mid-air and positioned me on the cap.

I sighed and sat in the centre of the cap and looked down at Sora. She did a little mock applause, and seemed to laugh at me.

So I write now on the bright red cap, the fermenting dark swamp-like pools of miasmic Chatepillar larvae beneath me. The viscous liquid squirms endlessly, churning out the larvae in the thousands. I am sickened by the sight. And the smell. Sora, however, picks up the larvae in her spindly fingers and fondles them. She uses one as a toy to impress the eyes of Conrad, which dart quickly in his inanimate body.

“Come,” she calls out to me.

 “I can’t walk in this,” I said, gesturing to the swamp. She held out a long, spindly hand to help me down. Those five long pale fingers moved towards me, like five eyeless snakes wandering into a dream. I held on to her hand and jumped into the brown liquid, which immediately released a miasmic swell of noxious gas from the disturbed surface. I held back a retch and looked up at her. Her fingers twisted around mine. The surface of her skin was cold, but I could almost evince a warmth underneath the surface. Her grip was strong, but her bone structure seemed light as air and had a spongy quality. Absent-mindedly, almost out of instinct, I turned my isolation vest down a degree with my free hand to deal with the close contact with her that so excites me, and then the horror of but a few hours ago returned to me in an instant. I felt my body fused with those babies, I felt one growing inside half my skull, and another squirming in my quadriceps. One of the creatures must have started growing into my brain matter, for I felt I was losing my ability of rational thought. With my last ounce of straight logic I turned my dial back up a degree. How had they still been there? Their assimilation with my body was continuing even when I had my resistance turned up. How were these two existences contained within my body playing out in time and space simultaneously?

“Did you see that, Sora?” I asked, sinking in the swamp. She handed Conrad to me. I took him. She then put two hands under each of my armpits and lifted me up with ease, and held me above the ground.

“Did you see that!” desperate to find an answer. She was quiet. I was about to ask again when she made a ‘shh’ sound. Her eyes were wide. Conrad felt unnatural in my arms – of course, but more unnatural than normal. I was shaken, terrified by the knowledge that in some parallel existence my body was fusing with a gang of Ederesapiens children.

“Close your mouth,” she said. I did. I could still feel myself sinking. “Before your father change, he sink in swamp too. He Learn a trick. Keep your mouth closed. Now, speak with your throat.”

I didn’t know what she meant right away, but after trying to follow the instruction I realized she meant for me to hum. So I did. I began to ‘speak’ sentences in a hum.

“No,” she said, “One word.” So, I sustained a single-noted hum.

“Like the Tree,” she said, gesturing to the massive trunk beside us with a nod of her head, “not the butterfly.” I thought about this for a moment and then brought my hum down to a lower register.

“Good,” she said under an always unnatural, massive smile. “Good. Now as big as tree, feel your speak go down to feet.” I hummed deeply and fully. It helped calm my nerves, I was enjoying it. I felt my entire diaphragm vibrate, and my stomach. I sustained a frequency at which my feet felt the vibration. I shifted my knees and my backbone to create the straightest path for the vibration down to my toes, and held the sound.

“Good,” she said, still holding me, “watch.” She glanced downward, and the moment she looked down I felt what it was she was looking at. Beneath the surface of the swamp hundreds of larvae had begun churning madly under the soles of my feet. Slowly Sora let go of me and let me stand on my own. Still humming I took a step forward and where my foot landed I sank in slightly, but was propped up right away as long as the humming was sustained. Sora took Conrad from me and cradled him in towards her chest.

“I like this,” she said. “I also like with your father. It is better. Because you cannot talk. Peace!” She smiled at this, but then mimicked the facial gesture of deep concern, a bit too pronounced, and said, “You were scared of the children,” pointing at my body. I shook my head ‘yes’, still humming.

“You ask if I see them on you?” she asked.

I nodded yes.

“I see,” she said, “I still see. I always see. It is what you cannot understand. Your father cannot understand,” she said, gesturing around her with a wave of her hand, as if my father’s soul were permeating every molecule and atom in the Niche. She paused, and then finished, “When you change, you understand. This,” she said, tapping the straps of my isolation vest, “Not help. I see so much you do not see. I see everything you do not see. When you change, there are no secrets. You will see everything too.”

With that she scraped out some of the flaky seed that had fallen into her hair while we were upon the outgrowth, the underside of which now loomed over us like a rotting cloud for kilometers into the distance. She held the seeds in her hand until they congealed into a thick, chalky substance and then dipped her fingers in the swamp pool below. She rubbed the seed and the liquid of the swamp together and spread it along the base of the mushroom stalk. Soon hundreds of larvae churned up from the brown pools and began taking bites out of the mixture she’d rubbed on. She extracted more seed from her hair, again created a mixture and rubbed it on the already gnawed circumference of the stalk and again the larvae began to chew furiously. Gradually the stalk could not bear the weight of the large mushroom cap and the thing tumbled over, top first into the swamp. As soon as it hit Sora leaped up to grab the upward falling end of the mushroom and pulled it over, so it rolled upon its zenith, now nadir, upside down in the swamp.

Sora pushed the giant upturned mushroom along the floor of the swamp towards the Tree. The larvae underneath it were enthusiastically – if I can give such a word to larvae – moving it along. Once it was pushed up against the side of the Tree Sora worked to remove another dusting of white seed from her hair and again mixed it with swamp liquid. This time she slapped the mixture onto the Tree at a point just above the upturned mushroom cap. She held it there for a moment and when she took her hand away it had stuck. We waited. I was growing tired of humming so I took a deep satisfied breath and fell against the tree and held myself up on the jagged edges of bark.

In a short while the clump of liquid Sora had let dry to the bark seemed to squirm ever so slightly. And then more viciously. Then all at once a Chatepillar that was in what seemed to be a phase of mutation between Larvae and Chatepillar ate its way through the thick bark and fell out into the upturned mushroom, and behind him a torrent of sap flowed from the Tree like translucent liquid gold. It smelt of the burnt Oak of the Lake pyres in the City, save the scent of burning flesh.

Suddenly I remember distinctly the diagram I had seen in that report of my father’s. As if imprinted clearly onto a neural pathway, hidden safe and away from harm in my mind since the age of eight, it leaped out at me now. A diagram of the five mutations that Chatepillar undergo on their skyward journey through the centre of the tree, following the upward tide of water in the xylem. That creature squirming in the pool of sap was beyond a doubt a Chatepillar who’d undergone his first mutation. More like a worm. I suppose my father used this technique to lure the creatures out at different levels of their upwards journey through the xylem. How else would he have been able to sketch them all so precisely?

“Here your father change,” she explained, pointing to the upturned mushroom filling slowly with viscous sap. “And you too,” she added with that smile.

“No,” I said decisively, more confident now that I could support myself in the swamp. She laughed at this by tilting her head back and bellowing an uproarious silence onto the porous underside of the outgrowth above us. That voice reverberated back down at us and was absorbed by the swamp, at too low a register to be heard by the ears, but felt as a vibration in the cells. It seems my father had taught her the concept and mechanics of laughter. It was the first time I heard it, and it distressed me, for it was without soul.

“For Conrad,” she whispered, glancing down at the upturned mushroom cap filling with sap, painting her features with a taught expression of solemnity. Something about the architecture of her species’ vestigial vocal cords, that only she had been coaxed into utilizing, rendered every utterance something like the wafting leftovers of a hymn, cut to pieces by an erratic breeze.

“My father?” I asked, incredulous.

“Your son,” she replied, with taught gravitas. I looked at my child cradled in her arms. His eyes and mine locked deeply for the first time since entering Niche Algaric. They were the eyes of an adult who’s crossed many roads and undergone many trials. He seemed to beg with his eyes, but for what? To be kept alive in that state? To be drowned in a pool of sap, as Sora wished him to be?

“What will happen if I allow you to put him in there?” I asked.

 “Come, look.” said Sora and took me by the hand. We walked along the swamp floor, I humming lightly. She led me across the miasmic swarms of Chatepillar Larvae. I looked back and saw our mushroom, still filling with sap. She led me through the thick swamp to the side of another upturned mushroom. As we got closer I saw that it too was filled with sap. And floating inside the hardened liquid was a full-grown Ederesapiens. His body was twisted and encircled with red vines, and thin roots seemed to burrow into his flesh. The roots and vines bundled by the creature’s temple and converged to form a single stalk about one meter long and as thick as my finger. It twirled through the sap and poked out through the surface of the hardened golden pool. Upon it grew a single bulb, not unlike the pre-Forest onions, or tulips I’d seen represented in textbooks.

The man’s eyes were still open, but pitch black and lifeless.

“What happened to him?” I asked Sora.

“Fell from top,” she said, drawing the descent from the edge of the primary outgrowth – which was still a kilometer or so away from our position at the edge of the swamp – down to the Forest floor with the tip of her finger, a drop of about seventy meters.

“So he died?” I asked, and touched the hardened sap he was encased in. The instant I did so the air was filled with white seeds, and a mountain of the collected seed appeared on the hardened sap that a moment ago had been clear gold. I looked up, and directly above this sap grave, a hole had appeared in the primary outgrowth above. I hadn’t seen any holes through to the swamp when I was up there. And these seeds so quickly coated the pool. It was as if two realities existed simultaneously: one in which this creature’s grave was unexposed to a hole in the outgrowth, sap golden clear all the way through; and one reality where the grave had been exposed to the seed for days, or weeks, a long time, and the white seed had a chance to collect and pile. There were mounds of white seed all around him, emitting a condensed blinding light. I had to shield my eyes.

“What happened?” I asked, pausing my humming to lean against the cap. “Where did that hole come from so suddenly? How did the seed pile up so fast?”

“This,” she said, tapping my isolation vest, “Tells lies. Seed was always here,” she said, running her hand through the mountain of chalky seeds collected on the man’s grave.

“But which one do you see?” I asked.

Sora just smiled and swept her hand through the air, causing eddies in the seeds which were falling like snow. She gestured out in front of her. I looked up and saw more of the upturned mushrooms dotted all about the forest floor. Sora grabbed my hand again and we wove our way through more larvae to the next sap pool. I peered in and recoiled slightly at the sight. Attempting to regain a scientific composure I glanced in and saw a much younger member of Sora’s population, definitely female, submerged in the liquid. However, unlike the man we’d just seen, her body had almost completely disintegrated. Her left foot was still intact, but as I moved my gaze up her calf, the flesh had been completely stripped away, replaced instead with those thin red vines, as if they’d filled in every vein and sinew. The structure of her entire left leg, from her half-eroded thigh to her ankle was replaced by those red vines, intertwined, holding her disintegrating body together, or replacing it. The right side of her chest and shoulder had eroded and were replaced by thicker roots, as the plant twirled upward around her neck and twisted together to a point in the centre of her forehead. I could make out a single open eye through the twists in the root. The stem that popped through the top of the hardened sap held a single large, blooming white flower. Its petals were riddled with splashes of light green.

“Smell,” ordered Sora, cupping the flower in her long fingers and pushing the stalk out towards me. I hesitated momentarily and then did I was told, inhaling through my nose. I couldn’t hide my surprise, and this time not for the seed that began to fall instantly in a hole above us, as it had before, but because, at the moment of that inward breath I felt as if I’d contacted that half decomposed girl lying there, vibrantly fossilized in that pool of sap. I can only put it one way: I’d smelt her emotions – as it were, for lack of a more objective assessment. Sora smiled. There was a pause loaded with anticipation. And then, in a flash Sora grabbed me tightly by the scruff of my neck and with the other hand, still holding Conrad, managed to turn the dial of my isolation vest down many degrees. Past 70% I imagine. I was overwhelmed with terror at the possibility of again having to confront that amalgamation of babies inside my body as she twisted her fingers around the dial. And indeed I did. I felt retardation spread through my mind in a brief moment as my body, brain and soul became no longer my own but a host for these children that were sinking into me. I felt that diluting of my consciousness creep through me and then, in a space I cannot measure in conventional time, found myself coming back to reality. My body was clean, the invading appendages began to dissolve and disappear, and I found my nose was buried in the flower growing from that girl’s grave, covered in a mountain of the white seed. With a sigh of relief I inhaled through my nose, and in that brief space of a single inward breath I experienced innumerable sensations outside the experience of our five human senses. I instantly experienced the girl’s entire life. I wanted to smash through the sap and embrace her eaten body. I was taken over by the sensation, and started to dig at the sap with my fingernails. I tore ferociously and crawled halfway through into the grave, pulled in by her single open eye. I tore deeper and deeper until I lay next to her. I couldn’t have enough of her life so I kissed her and smelt her and stroked her half-plant half-animal body. I barred my teeth and was about to take a bite out of her, desperate to connect with her on some more intense level, but in a flash regained composure as my human senses and my consciousness as I know them rushed back to me. I felt my genetic isolation move back up to 87%, and my organs gurgle and shift in compensation. I was no longer in the pool of sap with the young girl, but standing again beside her mushroom cap, as if nothing had happened. Sora was standing there, hand on the isolation vest dial, smiling. I hadn’t the ability to be furious, but was struck by my vulnerability. I had almost lost myself and had my humanity replaced by a set of alien senses that my body would not have been able to handle.

“You could have killed me,” I told her.

“You would not die,” she said, in a comforting mother’s voice.

“I would have been Incorporated. To me that is worse than death,” I said.

“I know the secret of it,” she said, pointing to my vest, “I have much practice with your father. I teach him much like this. And I will teach you much. But soon you will want to know more. And only seed can give you more.” She held out a pile of the seed in her hand, threw them up into my face and then turned and walked off. As my eyes moved up from the sap grave of the girl and scanned the hundred or more upturned caps dotted across the swamp, I saw that now each one had its own pillar of light falling onto it, its own showering of white seeds piled atop, when before there had been none.

Sora was already a few paces ahead by the time I had fully calmed myself. She turned around and gestured for me to follow.

 “Come. I show you your brother.” she called, and bounded on along with Conrad still under her arm. I can only imagine that she meant a child of hers and my father. I’d assumed that something like this must have happened between her and my father. I’m sure they must have had some sort of sexual relationship from the way she speaks about him. But I didn’t think for a moment that any offspring would come of the Union. How could we possibly be so genetically similar? Intercourse with a creature of the Forest or any relationship at all outside a purely scientific one was completely blasphemous. But to actually bear a child spawned from such a relationship…I’d contemplated the possibility, against my will, a number of times since I’d been here, such is the surreptitious lure of Sora’s inexplicable sexuality. She lacks all vestiges of beauty or hormonal stimulants. Ederesapiens breasts are but mere bulges on a flat surface. Nippleless, cold. She is dexterous but I wouldn’t say graceful. Her hair is smooth and long, but soot black and oily. She doesn’t even have sex between her legs. There is no opening on any of the women here, and the men too lack genitals, it seems. How is it even possible then to have inter-species intercourse? Why am I so compelled by her? Why can I not control myself? Her mannerisms are alluring, but they seem learnt and unnatural. What then? Perhaps it is her smell? Her smell.

Sora continued to lead me past hundreds of pools of sap, with a dead member of her population in each of the upturned cradles. I stopped now and then to wipe the mounds of white seed off the graves and peer at the body inside, each in a different stage of death and synthesis with the white seed.

I suddenly stopped and Sora, noticing my lag, ceased her swift gait and turned around. I had seen two Ederesapiens carrying the limp body of an old man draped over the frame of a slow moving Chatepillar. They were making their way out into the swamp from the base of the tree. The two men noticed me staring and continued on without an acknowledgement. I followed closely behind them, not worrying about keeping a respectful distance, for it seemed I was invisible anyway. I arrived by their side just in time to see them dump the body of the old man into a sap-filled mushroom cap. The sap spilled over the side onto the forest floor and splashed into the larvae swamp around us. We three stared into the pool as the old man’s limbs rearranged themselves and settled into a bobbing, splayed heap, suspended in the liquid. Neither of us made a move, our eyes transfixed on the man’s body. Once he was fully settled in the liquid a single seed fell into the pool from above. Then another and another. I looked up and saw the underside of the outgrowth open slowly above, allowing a shower of the white seed through. It began to build up on our unmoving shoulders and settled on the mushroom-bowl of sap. Then one of the seeds in the pool sprouted and sent a single root down which lodged itself into the old man’s forehead. The rest of the seeds floating on the pool then merged with the single germinated seed, twisting their newly sprouted roots around that of the original. The same thing happened with every seed that landed on the pool thereafter: each sprouting and converging with the main stalk in turn, until it was a thick sturdy stem with a tiny flower bud growing atop.

The two men then turned abruptly, shaking the flakes of white seed off their shoulders, and walked away, back towards the base of the Tree. I took a last glance at the old man and then walked toward Sora. When I reached her she took my hand and I obliged to follow. The humming now was becoming second nature.

. . .

 

Burial

 

We continued walking until the gray porous underside of the primary outgrowth was no longer above us. The secondary outgrowths were also becoming less frequent and were all unpopulated. The ‘city’, as it were, was behind us. The farther we went the sparser became the upturned mushroom graves as well, until eventually we met none in our path. Even the disgusting larvae swamps beneath our feet gradually turned into fertile, soft, dark soil. We stopped in a clearing and Sora pointed above to a single mushroom outgrowth on the tree about ten meters up. She bounded up the bark of the Tree to reach it, Conrad still secured under one of her arms, and I lumbered on after her. When we reached the outgrowth I was almost knocked backwards by the sight. Sensing this, perhaps, Sora grabbed and steadied me with her free hand.

In front of us, spread across the outgrowth, swayed thousands, hundreds of thousands, of the same white flower that had poked from the sap graves, whose roots had lodged into the bodies of those buried Posthomo. Each flower was splattered with a unique color, and they all swayed back and forth in unison although there wasn’t an inkling of wind. I didn’t have to ask Sora where we were. It was a graveyard. As the bodies of our upstanding citizens are preserved for eternity at the bottom of the Great Salt Lake, so the bodies of these creatures are preserved in the maturity of these white seeds as flowers.

As I stood there settling myself, all these thoughts being unsuccessfully sorted by my mind, the nonexistent wind shifted and the hundred thousand flowers tilted towards us, drenching me in the mingled scent of too many talking souls. I wanted to turn my dial to 100% to nullify the experience; I wanted not to breathe. But it wasn’t only the smell, it was the very texture of the air that blew our way. It swirled around us and coated our skin with experience, sadness, love, children, parents, gods, beauty, horror, friendship, imagination, ambition, creativity, impulse, rationality, yearning. I collapsed onto my knees. Tears fell from my eyes and seeped into the fungi beneath me. I took Conrad from Sora’s hands and held him to my chest. His withered body pressed against mine, I held him tightly as a thousand spirits swirled around us, pressing themselves into our weak bodies.

I eventually found the power to descend to the forest floor once again and make my way back across the mushroom graveyard, Sora and I, and perhaps even Conrad, knew what had to be done. Conrad had gone through every stage of an adult’s tortured existence before reaching his first birthday. From insatiable sickness and madness, to absolute bliss and then into helpless and reflective old age. This child has experienced more than I in my 36 years. And when I lay his body into this grave, only then will our dual experience have converged to a point of mutual understanding. And only when I smell the flower that sprouts from his own grave of sap will I truly know what he has experienced, what he has wanted, who he was.

. . .

 

By the time we returned, the upturned mushroom cap that Sora had felled was filled to the brim with the golden liquid.

“Push”, said Sora, pointing at the heavy, sap-filled mushroom cap. There must have been 600 liters in there. And the sap was certainly heavier than water, not to mention the weight of the mushroom.

“It’s too heavy,” I replied.

“Push,” she said again, without her signature smile. So I leaned my body up against it and pushed with all my might for about five seconds and gave up.

“It’s too heavy. It weighs over a ton.” I said.

“Because you push so hard,” she said, taking my right hand and resting it on the mushroom. “Push”.

Giving in, I sustained a small and consistent force on the mushroom cap with my open palm. For awhile nothing happens, but then, after about a minute I can feel vibrations moving up through the cap. It seems to slowly lose more and more weight as the vibrations increase. I take my hand off for a moment, but Sora swiftly replaces it with hers and then gestures to the ground beneath me. The Chatepillar Larvae have begun to swarm around the base of the cap and are growing in number, moving in from every corner of the swamp, it seems. They crawl madly beneath the mushroom, moving in the direction I’m pushing, the vibrations increasing. Soon, the entire sap filled mushroom begins to give way and inches through the swamp, over the bodies of thousands upon thousands of fist-sized larvae.

“Why are they doing it?” I ask Sora.

“It is what they do.” She says. She walks beside me as I push the mushroom, the larvae no longer responding to the direction in which I push, but taking it where they will. Soon, the cap has settled itself in an empty spot between a number of other sap graves, and the vibrations cease. I look to my feet and see the larvae scamper away. I had the urge to thank them but quickly realized the absurdity of the notion.

 It was here, in this liquid grave of sap, that I gave over the body of Conrad. The sight of his darkened body floating in the thick golden liquid was at once harrowing and relieving. As with the other burial I witnessed, the falling white seeds merged and formed a stalk that bored into Conrad’s forehead. He looked up at me, and his eyes seemed at peace, somehow very aware that soon existence as he knows it will end. We stare into each other’s eyes as the roots twirl through the liquid and ensconce his body. In his eyes there is still confusion and innocence and pain, but beneath it all, at the core of his unabating gaze is a “thank you”, for he knows he soon will be at peace.

“Will he also be planted?” I asked Sora, still staring at the plant forming around Conrad.

“More,” she replied, and traced her fingers down my back. The contact made me shiver

I told Sora that I wanted to stay here in Niche Algaric until Conrad’s ‘planting’. I explained to her that if I stayed long enough to watch Conrad change then I would die, which wasn’t quite true, but to me Incorporation would be worse than death. I explained that I would have to turn the dial on my isolation vest up to remain safe and isolated while I waited and that she should wake me when it is time for the planting of Conrad’s flower. I tried to explain that I wouldn’t have the mental capacities to do so, which I wouldn’t at 100% resistance – my senses would be at complete odds with my surroundings, distorting my perception so deeply as to negate any complex thought processes. I went over the procedure with her a number of times and was convinced with her understanding of the situation.

“I did with your father many times,” she kept repeating, reassuring.

We left the body of Conrad and returned to the primary outgrowth. Now I have reached one of the unoccupied secondary fungal outgrowths and will turn my resistance up to 100% until Sora releases me from the stupor of high resistance. I’ve fitted the isolation vest with all the nutritional supplements I have left. I hope they will last until I awake and see Conrad finally at one with Niche Algaric, and at rest with the Forest, where his soul belongs. If Sora does not release me than I pray someone may find this journal, for I will be long gone. A vegetable, thoughtless, dreamless even, caught in the midst of this Forest but forever an alien, until my last pathetic breath.

 

Expedition Log—

Mating/Shedding Season, M.F. 170 (?).

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

 

Mating

 

My time at 100% resistance went by in what I registered as no more than instant. I have no way of knowing exactly how long it was, but judging from how much of my nutritional supplements have been depleted, not very long. The experience was not dissimilar to an extended dream upon awakening. I felt constantly on the brink of understanding or realization, but my mind was clouded by a drifting array of undulating colors and sounds that lingered just before my eyes and right behind my ears.

When Sora woke me the understanding my mind had been abstrusely clawing for came flooding in, and I was swept over with a warm comfort. It took but a moment or two to recall where I was, how I got there, and my purpose; a moment or two for my entire life to rewrite itself upon my memory. And that warm feeling was soon crushed in the pit of my stomach as my recollection swept to the present, reminding me of the fate of my child, my mistakes, Clara’s despair.

These thoughts and sensations melded together with the forming of Sora’s face directly in front of me. She was breathing her warm breathe onto me and I could barely focus on her eyes she was so close. Her body was near to mine and I could feel it throb with a soft radiance. She emanated a human warmth that crept like tentacles underneath my isolation vest, through the fibers of my clothing and settled on every inch of my skin. Her hair had grown to three or four times the length that it was when I first saw her, down to her legs almost, and her very physicality became more human. She traced her fingers up the length of my leg and pushed her newly enlarged bare breasts into my chest. When before her skin had been bluish, pale and cold, it was now like the supple flesh of a fully developed young human woman. She laid her body across me and rubbed her lips across my face. Her breath smelled of burnt oak, her eyes had expanded to occupy a disproportionably large area of her face and glowed bright blue with no pupils or whites. Her hair seemed to dance wildly in the wind. Yes, there was wind, flowing at a strong steady pace through the Niche now. From where it originated I do not know.  

With her weight still strong upon me I tilted my head to look down at the primary outgrowth below. It was no longer bustling with life, but markedly sedentary, populated by thousands of empty Chatepillar shells, each one beaming from the inside with two faint flames of blue. The white seeds had stopped falling from the sky and the entirety of Niche Algaric was bathed in a permeating blue twilight. I looked back up at Sora. I was empty of thought, of reason. In that moment the pleasures of the flesh became my only God and I rubbed my hands along her soft naked body. I became more excited than she, and noticing this she stood up gracefully, took me by the hand and led me down the bark and towards an empty Chatepillar shell. My body was shaking forcefully and I could barely climb. I fell the last ten meters or so down to the primary outgrowth, following close at Sora’s heels as she wove her way through the scattered shells. I glanced into the shells as I passed by, and in each were two humans. I knew they were Ederesapiens, but their skin, their shape, they looked so human! A male and female in each, rubbing against each other, bathed in the blue light.

Soon Sora stopped at the mouth of an empty shell, and I remember feeling a moment of hesitation before stepping in, a thousand thoughts racing through my head. But these were soon dispelled by Sora’s longing gaze as she crawled into the enclosure and lay under the fluttering glow of the two blue orbs. She spread her pliant body across the floor of the shell and opened her legs. Her anatomy was human, her scent was human, her emotions human. A perfect human.

All feelings of guilt, immorality, duty, and shame evacuated my soul and dissipated across the vastness of the forest like a tear melting in the Ocean. I tore my clothes off, but still had enough sense to leave the isolation vest on. I positioned myself above her and let my penis sink into her warmth. I ejaculated almost immediately but my erection did not weaken. Perhaps it was some hormone in the air of the Chatepillar shell, or in Sora’s lips, or through the ever-growing orbs of radiant blue that worked to maintain abnormally strong levels of blood flow.

We had intercourse for hours and hours – and any pain or fatigue that would normally have accompanied such extended periods of arousal was nullified.

The blue light continued to grow, releasing higher intensities of light. The inside walls of the shell, when bathed in this blue light, exposed a mosaic of resplendent colors and geometric patterns, not unlike the stained glass windows of the early A.D. churches. But the patterns themselves resembled more the paintings of the A.D. modernist era – strong, distinct shapes, no apparent theme or purpose but an intensity of meaning that grew more profound with every passing minute. Sora’s features also became clearer, and her body grew only hungrier for pleasure as time passed.

I thought of Clara but never with any degree of shame or guilt. Rather the pleasure I felt with Sora urged my memory back to the early years of our marriage and the night of Conrad’s conception. But overall, I thought of little. My senses were inundated and my energies were spent upon the pleasure of the present. Sora and I never spoke.

The blue light of the orbs radiated to a level of excruciating intensity and their rays burst through the Chatepillar skin itself so the outside could be vaguely distinguished. Sora for this last hour or so went into a voracious frenzy, sucking every last ounce of life out of me in the insatiable quenching of her own lust. It was then I heard the wild screams of pain and euphoria from the surrounding shells mingled with Sora’s own, and filled the air. Her madness grew with the intensification of the light and culminated at the very instant when the Orbs burst and sent a cloud of innumerable fluttering butterflies into our shell. They swarmed around our bodies, lightly tickling our skin with their wings. Sora collapsed, panting. I half expected her skin to fade back to the pale blue and her hair to fall off, but she remained unchanged, human. She panted a few more seconds, staring at me with the last whisper of her crazed madness, and then shut her eyes and went to sleep.

At that moment the entire realization of what had happened hit me. Whatever force had taken hold of me and compelled me to take part in this orgy of pleasure had now released its grasp and my mind went in search again of reason, God, and my humanity. Shame spread over me and I backed slowly out of the Chatepillar shell, scooping up my clothes as I went.

Sora didn’t even see me go. She just lay, asleep, without a worry, splayed across the floor of the shell, dim blue lights splashing madly about her body, animated now with flitting shadows and dappled light.

“Sora,” I said, trying to rouse her. Although I was overwhelmed with shame I had to figure out what was happening with Conrad. Why had she awoken me? Just to have me mate with her?

I called to her again, but she didn’t budge. When I left the shell I walked into an entirely transformed Niche, whose air was saturated with thousands upon thousands of newly hatched butterflies, which swarmed from the inside of each and every Chatepillar shell, blending into the blue night, each tiny insect emitting an intense pinprick of azure light. The entirety of their swarm was enveloped by the steady radiant light throbbing off the surface of the fungus. For me it was a moment of rapture and forgiveness, of the absolute beauty of creation conquering all else, belittling shame and personal troubles. I was the only creature to have emerged from the shells and stood companionless on the outgrowth. I was alone in this madness of the Forest’s flittering primordial starlight. It was all mine.

The presence of sound was comforting. Why could I hear it now? The steady breath of the still human-like Ederesapiens seeping out of each shell, the fluttering of thousands of butterfly wings, my footsteps on the outgrowth. As I looked around me in a daze I noticed a single circular hole was open in the outgrowth, for butterflies were swooping down into it in droves. I followed the swarm, walking up to the hole and peered into it. The hole went straight down through the outgrowth and opened up on the swamp below, and at the bottom I saw Conrad’s grave of sap. Why could I only see his and not all the other holes that had appeared?

The blue pinpricks of light surrounded and illuminated the grave below and I caught glimpses of Conrad’s body through the golden liquid despite the distance between us. It was if he was magnified through the sap. In one flash I saw his flesh, no longer brown and shriveled, but plump, soft and white as milk. I saw thin red vines encircling his bulbous limbs. In another flash I caught the whites of his eyes, and they glared with a stunning force through the open hole, boring into my consciousness, gazing into me. He was still alive, and still blissful it seemed.

A flower hasn’t yet begun to form above his grave, so his transformation still must be in early stages. I pray the process doesn’t become painful for him. I almost wished I could dig him out as he was, in that state, fattened and happy. It seemed perfectly sensible, but that glare of his convinced me he would not want to be liberated prematurely. He was at peace.

. . .

 

I’ve again ascended the tree and I write this entry while elevated above the primary canopy where I originally intended to wait until Conrad’s burial, or planting. My isolation vest remained at a constant 82% throughout my time with Sora. I truly cannot believe I allowed this to happen, to have been so weak-willed. I am sure to be on the brink of genetic breakdown. Then again, perhaps I hadn’t spent long at all in the shell with Sora. I have no idea. It could have been days, or weeks. Most likely not weeks. If so I could become Incorporated at any moment. Hopefully it was merely a matter of hours.

I will now turn resistance up to 100% and pray again that I am released by Sora when the time is right. I have plenty of nutritional supplements and hydration capsules still fitted to my vest. Let’s hope they last.

 

Expedition Log—

Birthing Season, M.F. 170.

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

 

Birth

 

I was awoken again by Sora with the same sensation as last time: quick encroachment of enlightenment and understanding, followed by a flood of sorrow as the memory of recent events crept back into me. Sora stood in front of me, but this time her features had returned to how they were before – pale blue skin, small black eyes, almost no hair, the sex between her legs again closed in on itself. She beckoned me follow her, and I was sure that now it was time for the planting of Conrad’s flower. I was mistaken. For instead of going down to the swamps she led me up the bark of the Tree. She sensed immediately that I wasn’t willing to climb, so she forcefully pulled me onto her back in a lithe swoop and carried me up. She sprinted up the bark of the tree like this, whizzing past outgrowths on both sides. I couldn’t believe her strength, but by now I’ve learnt to accept almost anything.

We reached a fungal outgrowth higher than I’d ascended before, almost 300 meters up. Hundreds of concavities had been dug into the base of the outgrowth, and many were filled to the brim with pools of golden sap. Each had a woman kneeling at its side, hands submerged into the pools. All of them were wailing in harmonic minors with each other. Music! Each note was forceful and clear, cutting through the otherwise empty air.

Above each pool hung a large fusion of torn and ruptured plant matter, from which the women tore and shoved handfuls in their mouths, chewing slowly, and spitting the liquid mixture into the pools they knelt by.

The plant matter above other sap pools was not ruptured but interlocking and tubular, supported by stalks of bamboo running up along the sides, like a very large, very well constructed and fortified cocoon.

Sora led me by the hand past throngs of women and sap pools. There must have been over two hundred such pools, and as we were walking I saw one of the cocoons begin to pulsate, so I stopped in front of it. Sora did too and we watched together. The convulsions became violent, as if there was a creature inside the cocoon desperate to break out. Despite the violence of the convulsions, the women kneeling by the pools on either side of it didn’t take much notice. When the convulsions reached a crescendo an organic blob dropped out an opening in the bottom of the cocoon and plopped with a splash into the sap below it. I stepped forward to peer down at it. It was a severely underdeveloped hominid fetus still suspended snuggly in its caul, which in turn was suspended in the sap. The umbilical cord stretched from the opening in the bottom of the cocoon and down to the fetus. As I took a step closer to have a better look the cocoon burst open in a single forceful movement and a female Posthomo emerged from it. She was dripping with blood and chlorophyll, her entire body convulsing with pleasure. She straddled the sap pool below her, barely able to stand on her own two feet, every convulsion almost taking her knees out from underneath her – as if she were experiencing orgasm after orgasm. Her physiology was completely human, like Sora’s had been when she woke me last. Her skin was soft, warm and white; her breasts enlarged, two protruding red nipples erect on the end of each. She was releasing ejaculations of liquid out of her vagina which ran down the insides of her legs and into the sap pools with every spasm. It was a complete fusion of pleasure and pain. After a period her sharp violent movements began to progressively slow, and the ejaculations subsided. Her body then started to morph before my eyes: her nipples sinking back into her breasts; her hair retreating into her scalp, some falling out onto the ground; her figure slimming out, losing the sensuous curves; her eyes losing their blue luminous glare; and the redness of her vagina folding into a smooth continuous blue between her legs. When she had completely morphed back into the common Posthomo Ederesapiens form she turned around and ripped a huge handful of plant matter off the ruptured cocoon she had just emerged from and ate voraciously. Once she had her fill she dropped onto her knees by the pool of sap, her umbilical cord still connected to the bobbing fetus within.

I looked up at Sora.

“Same happened to me,” she said, grabbing my hand, “I show you.”

She smiled and walked on. About another 100 meters onwards, after passing dozens of cocoons and pools and Ederesapiens mothers, we reached a pool of freshly drawn sap beside which Sora dropped to her knees. I gazed into the pool and saw another human fetus, slightly more developed but still wrapped in a caul, bobbing in the viscous sap. Sora smiled at me widely and then tore off a piece of the cocoon matter above the pool, liquidized the plant matter in her mouth and spat into the sap.

“This was mine,” she said, stroking the leaves of the ruptured cocoon. “You and I were in here, like I tell you. And this is ours,” she said, dipping her hand in the pool of sap.

At first I thought the fetus was Conrad, reawakened, ready to begin life anew as a member of the population Ederesapiens. But of course this wasn’t the case. I knew the truth, and Sora confirmed what I already had come to realize.

“This is your son,” she said.

“I know.”

Sora smiled widely and tugged me gently onto the ground. I leaned against the bark of the tree and stared into the pool. A Homo Sapiens – Posthomo Ederesapiens hybrid. The creature looked no different than what I’d imagine a human fetus to look like, about three months developed, quite repulsive. Fingers still bulbous and translucent. The veins in its alien face still forming.

I made to stand up and return to my place on the outgrowth below, but Sora pulled me back down. She dipped her hand into the pool and pulled out a handful of the liquid cupped in her palm and brought it towards my mouth. I clenched my lips and turned away, but with a single finger she redirected my head towards her and rubbed the sap all over my face. It was warm and not unpleasant. I had no will to resist.

I wiped the sap off my face and pointed to the dial of my isolation vest. Sora nodded. I will turn back to 100% resistance and remain here by this sap pool until I am woken again. I have no more power over my own life. I know she understands my wishes yet she insists on waking me whenever she pleases, putting my very existence as a human at risk. I will merely turn the dial back to 100% and wait until she thinks it necessary for me to be woken again.

 

Expedition Log—

Harvesting Season, M.F. 170.

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

 

 

          Food

I emerged again from my trance. The amalgamation of sounds and colors gave way to the plump face of a young baby held in front of me. It looked exactly like Conrad in his healthy days on the Landbridge, and in my post-coma stupor, before all my memories had come back, I was convinced it truly was he. I then saw Sora, her face flush with that smile. I pushed the baby aside and stood up. The birthing pool that I had been asleep next to had dried up and the fungus had begun to refill the concavity. I don’t know how fast Posthomo babies take to mature, or how fast the fungus takes to regenerate, but I’m sure I was out for quite a long time.

I tried to stand up and immediately was hit with a headache and fell back down. My vision collapsed, my stomach rumbled. I could barely lift my limbs. I looked down at my body and saw the outline of my bones beneath the skin. I was emaciated. I glanced at the isolation vest. The nutritional supplements were gone. The hydration tablets gone. I was hit with a rush of fear. What would I eat?

“Come,” said Sora, holding her hand out to me.

“Look at me!” I forced out. It was painful even to speak. I was dying. I thought I could smell my own decay. “How long have I been unconscious?”

“Until now,” answered Sora with smile that stood somewhere between malicious and childish. Thirteen months, I calculated with difficulty. That’s how long it would have taken for the nutritional supplements to deplete. But I should have had enough hydration tablets for…years. What’s happening.

“Conrad,” I said.

“Come,” replied Sora, holding out her hand.

“I’m dying Sora. Can’t you see?”

“Food,” she said, with wide eyes, sticking her fingers deep into her mouth. “Food, your father favorite. I show your father favorite.”

Sora pulled me up off the ground. I felt my bones readjust and my ligaments stretch with a series of cracks and scrapes. As we walked I could see that most of the concavities dug below each cocoon had begun to close and only one or two pools still had babies, now fully grown, still bobbing in them. Beside one pool a female gestured through the sap at the open eyes of her child. Then in a playful swoop she lifted it out of the pool and held it in front of her face as the sap slid off its plump body. She pulled the slimy mass close to her and rubbed it all over her chest as we passed by.

“I can’t walk,” I told her, my legs giving way underneath me.

“Weak!” she said firmly, and then bellowed out mechanical laughter which drew some attention from the other mothers. The baby in her arms also giggled as if on cue. I recoiled at the noise and fell into myself.

“Is Conrad buried?” I asked, wanting confirmation of this before I finally expired, feeling on the edge of death.

“Soon,” she said and lifted my crumpled frame up in a single arm, and draped me over her shoulder. Her mate in one arm, her child in the other, Sora continued to the edge of the outgrowth and sat me down. I folded at the waist and peered over the edge, onto the hundred outgrowths below. My heart quaked momentarily at the site.

“What is all that?” I asked in a barely audible murmur. The outgrowths were no longer white, but each was splattered with a distinct color, contrasted against the brown bark of the Tree. And the primary outgrowth far below was a splattered mash of all the colors, as if pieces of the secondary outgrowths had fallen to the lower.

“Children of seed.” said Sora. She draped me over her shoulders, and made her way down the Tree, her fingers sinking like spindles of wet clay through the cracks in the bark. I held on with all my might and fought with unconsciousness. I hallucinated, imagined myself as among my ancestors of the Great Salt Lake who lived through famine and hunger, resisting the temptation of the Forest to build a new city and retain forever their humanity.

Eventually I was laid into a bed of soft material, like wool which I’d once held in my hand at the University museum. The woolly stuff coated my body, and crept up through the cracks in my fingers, swayed against my neck, cushioned my back. I slowly opened my eyes and saw I was deep in a field of orange plants. Sora was leaning over me and our child was crawling through the field, giggling. So human-like. Like Conrad on the Landbridge. Sora reached down to the base of one of the woolly plants and uprooted it. At the end hung a fruit-like bulb. A bright red bulb, filled with juice, just like the one I’d encountered on the Landbridge and was able to resist, despite my thirst and hunger. And here I am, tempted again by a morsel so similar. I laughed and laughed, with my last ounce of strength, leaning back and bellowing into the canopy, rolling back and forth in the wool. I laughed all thought out of me and grabbed the fruit-thing from Sora, wiped away the remnants of white fungal matter that still clung to it, and tore the skin with my teeth. A red-tinctured liquid poured all over my face in a splash. I opened my mouth and recovered a few drops. I tossed the skin away and held my hand out to Sora. She put her arms down on either side of her body, bent deep into the orange field and rose back up bearing a fruit in each one of her hands, both a slightly different tinge of red. I grabbed another in both hands, ripped a smaller hole with my teeth and gulped every last drop, shoving the skin in my mouth afterwards, discarding the orange wool of the stem to the side.

I drank and ate and ate. The satiation was not only one of hunger, but of my mind. Space seemed to fill between my brain and my skull with each gulp. I fiddled with the dial of my isolation vest to try and pinpoint exactly what was happening within me. At a very low resistance, 81% or thereabouts, I felt the juice not only fill my stomach and coat my intestines, but build upon the upper layer of my brain. My brain was expanding. I laughed again, realizing the absurdity of this perception, but only when I’d felt like my brain was full, like the capacity of my thought had finally reached its full potential did I stop eating. Part of me expected to undergo Incorporation, as can happen with the ingestion of some Forest matter, despite genetic isolation level. But nothing of the sort happened. Only revival. I was completely revived.

I glanced up at Sora.

“Now you see,” she said, bending over and rubbing her slender fingers across the length of my skull, squeezing in the places where I had felt my brain matter expanding. I stood up, with a completeness of physical strength I’d never felt before. My bones felt straight and powerful, my muscles supple and receptive.

I scanned the horizon from where I stood and instantly tears welled up in my eyes. There was music. Everywhere. Each outgrowth with its own specie of colorful plant matter also emitted music, not a sound, but music. The Tree, Sora, this child crawling at my feet, the canopy, my memories, the Ederesapiens roaming the primary canopy below, everything was music. Slow, harmonic, chaotic externally, but ordered in perfection to my mind. It was too much. Too much beauty. There was nothing that could compete with it in the City. Nothing I’d heard, only perhaps in my deepest dreams which are forgotten instantly upon awakening, nothing had ever been so inspiring. Each element of my surroundings added its own element to the symphony. I looked at Sora. She pressed her mouth up to one of my tears and gulped it away. I tried to say something, but words suddenly were pointless, for no sound I could create was comparable to this fullness of music around me. Sora sensed this perhaps, and answered my question before I could form it.

“You are now little more like me,” she said, and put her hand against the dial of my isolation vest. She turned it slowly upwards, to 85%, 90%, higher. I felt my senses begin to dull and muffle. The music around me faded into scratchy, sonorous, dark rumblings. The child at my feet seemed grotesque, the orange plants surrounding us exploded outwards into a grey dullness. I held her hand with mine and pulled the dial back the other way until the music and colors again seeped back through the cracks of my consciousness. But I’d seen something horrible. She’d shown me something horrible. Humanity. She’d shown me humanity. Now the music, although still beautiful, was tainted.

“Every food,” she said, gesturing to the resplendent colors upon the other outgrowths, “Every food is from seed. Seed is a gift for here,” she said, rubbing her own skull. “A gift from the beginning,” she gestured with a single finger up the length of the tree, into the depths of the verdant canopy. “You eat more, you are more like Sora. You understand more.”

I trembled at the parade of new experiences that gripped my mind and body. I starred deep into her eyes.

“Thank you for the food. But now it is time for me to go home.”

“I know,” said Sora, “But first, Conrad.”

 

Rebirth

 

We descended to a perch where I could view the primary outgrowth below me, where the entire population of Ederesapiens stood in a tight circle. There must have been over two thousand of them. The Chatepillars had gone almost completely. A few stragglers were herded into alcoves. A wide space was cleared at the centre of the circle, where there was an upturned mushroom cap filled with golden sap. It was Conrad’s, for I could still make out pieces of his body in the sap, although most of his form was encircled by roots or replaced by those thin red vines that reminded me so much of mammalian veins. He’d certainly come a long way since my last awakening, for from out of Conrad’s golden grave grew a strong green stalk with a light purple sample of that flower, swaying subtly in all directions, as if smelling the air.

Sora traced her soft fingers across my face and then bounded down the bark to join the circle, holding the child under her right arm. She pushed her way to the centre of the circle, to join other women with children under their arms.

The circle around Conrad widened slightly. Everyone was very still. The music of the Niche, now exposed to me through the consumption of that fruit was quiet and anticipatory. I heard the rhythm of drums. The hundred or so women at the centre of the circle placed their babies on the surface of the outgrowth, and the tiny creatures crawled in towards the giant mushroom cap which enclosed Conrad. The men and childless women on the outside of the circle danced slowly, and then wildly as the music quickened and gained complexity, moving always outwards, giving the women and the children in the centre more room. The children made their way in closer and closer, and as each child finally made contact with the mushroom cap the corresponding mother would kneel on the ground and hold out their arms. Soon all the women were kneeling and all the children were ripping tiny fistfuls of the mushroom cap off and throwing it to the side. I estimated over 200 babies, and in very little time the entire mushroom cap had been torn to shreds and the hardened golden sap was exposed underneath. A symphony of instruments I’d never dreamed of filled the air, and then for the first time I was granted an unobstructed view of young Conrad’s body. What remained of his flesh had regained its moisture and was indeed supersaturated, bloated with liquid. The rest of him was a wet pulp of roots and red vines coated, molded inside the dome of golden sap. The only thing that seemed to have retained any structural integrity was the tall flower stalk that protruded high into the air from his body.

Once the infants had finished tearing through the flesh of the mushroom, they then began clawing at the hardened sap structure that enclosed him. It seemed it was not as hard as I first assumed and they were easily able to rip chunks off this as well. They tore and tore until they reached the root of the plant, and Conrad’s body. The babies worked tirelessly clearing every last trace of the sap that clung to him.

Once his body was clear of the sap the frenetic activity on the outside of the circle slowed, and all eyes peered in on the centre. All was silent. The carcass that had once been a mass of dried out empty skin was now filled out with thick golden liquid, surrounded on all sides by hungry infants. I knew what was to happen for the music alluded to it, and it seemed as if, for a quick instant, the Ederesapiens population was as disturbed as myself. However, when the first child, which I believe to have been mine with Sora, ripped a handful off Conrad’s softened and pulpy body and stuck it in his mouth, the onlookers burst into an ecstatic dance.

The rest of the children began to tear Conrad’s body apart and I had to turn my head away now and again to regain composure, as the sight was almost too much to bear. There was no blood, but only the thick sap pouring out of Conrad’s mutilated body over the ravenous children. They tore pieces off Conrad along with interwoven fistfuls of the plant and stuffed it all into their mouths, chewing contentedly with toothless gums.

All was devoured spare that strong stalk and single purple flower that housed all that was left of Conrad, rooted deeply into the fungus below. Once the children were finished they all retreated slightly, and the stalk, the last remnant of my child, tilting back and forth, seemed to acknowledge the circle of children as they crawled back to their mothers’ waiting arms.

The music then became dark again. I hadn’t touched my dial, but there was a terrifying scraping and screaming from every inch of the Niche, blasting from every direction. All darkened around me to that low humming blue. Conrad’s flower was the only source of white light, like a single star in the universe. The air was dampened, the music devolved into unbearable noise and the population of Posthomo stayed very still. All was so still that creatures could be faintly heard bounding through the sub-canopy of a neighboring Niche.

Every member of Ederesapiens then began to sway back and forth in a state of communal meditation, their attention completely focused on that seemingly conscious stalk, rooted firmly in the centre of their circle. Conrad. It was he. I wanted to stand by him and bask in the redolent aromas of his memories as I had done in the graveyard of flowers, feeling the density of his life sweep over and through me. Conrad’s stalk, his flower, leaned now in one direction, now in another, seeming to look each and every individual in the eye. I toyed with my vest to be rid of the barrage of sick sound that was overwhelming the atmosphere, but I only made things worse. My brain throbbed

Conrad’s flower finally stopped twisting back and forth and settled with its centre pointing at one spot in the surrounding circle. It was exactly where Sora stood, and when she realized attention was falling on her she knelt and put our son on the ground. He crawled towards the flower. The members of the circle backed away, and their internal energy seemed to grow, as they hunkered onto their thighs, ready for anything. I too found I was holding my breath. The sight was surreal. An abominable offspring of mine slowly approaching the final remnants of my former abomination. I couldn’t quite fathom the significance of the moment, and before I even had a chance to begin attempting to fathom, my half-breed son had reached Conrad’s flower and plucked a single petal from the purple flower.

I was seized with a jolt of anger, the Forest wailed. This single act was far more brutal and cannibalistic then the entire ritual that had preceded. For this flower contained the very emotions of Conrad, unrestrained by his embattled physical body. Free to waft across the sub-canopy and touch the deep emotions of all. But, I thought to myself, this is probably just another aspect of the ritual. Or so you cannot blame me for thinking, until, of course, the young child reached up and grabbed another petal and stuffed it into his mouth. I suddenly couldn’t contain myself. The vision of Conrad being slowly lowered into that pool of golden sap, his confused, scared, yet knowing eyes, staring up at me through the viscous liquid. “I understand, father,” he seemed to say, “Thank you for freeing me. Soon we will converse free of constraint, as we were never truly able to do. I love you father.”

I could feel hot blood pump into every extremity of my body. Each fingertip throbbed with vehement anger as I saw that creature reach up and pluck a third petal, and a fourth, popping each between his toothless gums, munching, and swallowing. Now the scratching music and the wonderful symphony I’d heard before were fighting for dominance in the air, and in my own mind.

I toyed with the dial again to calm my nerves, to orient myself more clearly. But it was no use, this was not some mistake created by an altered perception, or a misinterpretation of reality, this was an actual event, causing actual emotions, causing actual anger and very real murderous thoughts.

“No!” I bellowed out from my perch as that child plucked still more and more petals from the solitary flower. I clambered down from my small secondary outgrowth, falling most of the way and charged at the circle. A few heads turned indifferently towards me for the briefest of moments, and then twisted back towards the circle.

“Sora!” I screamed, closing in on the tight circle, no longer with Conrad’s slowly stripped flower in view. I approached the circle, and instead of slowing, I ran straight through. I was stunned by the physical sturdiness of the Ederesapiens, and although they were caught unawares by my attack, I almost fell over. I did manage to break through into the centre of the circle in another strong blast and then stopped in my tracks as I saw the child pluck the final petal from Conrad and pop it into his mouth.

I felt tears well up in my eyes, I felt warm adrenaline squeeze the muscle of my heart. I dug my nails into the centre of my palms as my eyes rested on the empty bed of stamen atop that now soulless stalk, folded over, limp. I could feel a haze drift over my vision and vomit move up from the pit of my stomach as I brought my eyes down to the child – ready to destroy him, ready to tear his flesh apart in an irrational attempt to retrieve Conrad’s stolen soul. I looked down at him expecting to have my emotions catalyzed into an absolute frenzy, but something very different happened.

As I looked down on that child I saw not the distant stare of an Ederesapiens, nor the repulsive features of an abomination, but—in a word—I saw Conrad. There was no distinction between the memories of my lost son, and this creature in the flesh. His body plump, his flesh white and healthy, fed and happy. We met eyes, there in that circle, and I again had a child. It was Conrad of the Landbridge here before me. And at that moment, I knew there was no escape, for my love flooded back one-thousand fold, my pride, my dedication, that creature I created with Clara…and Sora. Sora.

“How could you,” I spoke aloud, my body trembling. “How could you!” I repeated, knowing that Sora was the only one that could understand. There was no answer, and that child, my son, Conrad, the new Conrad, the only Conrad, started crawling towards me. “Sora,” I managed to squeeze out through stifled vocal cords. “Sora. You misled me. I didn’t want this. I wanted to speak with my son as I spoke with the others in the graveyard. Sora. Where is my son!” 

The child moved closer and closer, a faint yet excited smile crawling over his face.

“Your child is there. You will speak to him when he grows.” I heard Sora say kindly from the inside of the circle, her voice dropping onto me like a damp mist. And as if I needed Sora to confirm this thing I’d already felt, this single sentence rendered me absolutely crushed. I fell upon the Algaric and locked my gaze with the eyes of the approaching child. It crawled in towards me and collapsed from exertion an arm’s length in front of me, giggling, excited, waiting for me to scoop him up in my arms.

I envisioned myself cradling him gently, and simultaneously, superimposed upon that very thought, I saw myself hammering my fists into its still gelatinous weak skull, dashing its brains onto the outgrowth, watching its blood soak into the white fungus. I could imagine its smell, its human baby smell, as Conrad’s smell on the Landbridge brought endless joy to my heart. In my mind I buried my nose into its neck and then squeezed him so tight that all the air was forced out of a broken rib cage and collapsed lungs.

“No,” I uttered, as I reached my arms out and picked the child up. I held him at arm’s length under the armpits and stared at him through a thick distortion of tears. “No”, I repeated, as I brought the child in close to my chest and rubbed my hand over the soft skin of his head. “No, no, no, no, no.”

I cradled the child and placed my cheek gently against his and stared out into the undulating greenery of the subcanopy, penetrating its chaotic darkness with my singular gaze. “I love you Conrad, I love you, I love you, I love you.”

There was a part of me that discerned the absurdity of the situation, the utter desperation of it. Yet those who would measure and qualify that absurdity were a continent away. Those who surrounded me, the hominid inhabitants all around me saw no moral ambiguity in what I did, no blip in my mental state. I have no idea what they saw, but in the air I felt nothing but solidarity. And soon the feeling of absurdity, and even immorality, sank far into the darkness of myself, and I drenched young Conrad with my tears.

Sora walked over. I grabbed her hand and pulled her down beside me. “I love you Clara,” I said, perfectly aware of the self-made illusion I created and instantly espoused, “I love you. Look at our healthy child,” I said, moving in close to Sora and putting the child between us, “Our child is healthy again. Clara,” I said, “We can be happy.”

“Yes,” replied Sora, running her long fingers down the length of my face, beaming at me with that oversized alien smile. The music, again, had become beautiful.

 

Expedition Log—

Falling Season, Second Cycle, M.F. 170~173.

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

 

Incorporation

 

Falling Season has again begun, with the arrival of the white seeds again drifting into the Niche. The cycles in Niche Algaric can neither be directly correlated to the Earth’s yearly cycle nor to the other Niche cycles in the Forest itself. And because the time variance is strong this deep in the Forest you will notice I have begun to supplement the inaccurate M.F. time keeping, and will start recording time solely in cycles while I am here. And I have reason to believe I will be here a long time.

Falling Season has come again, arriving shortly after Conrad’s funeral and rebirth. I observed a total of thirty-seven such funerals after Conrad’s, each one with a slightly different outcome. Each resulted in a communal cannibalism of the dead, and those taking part in the cannibalism were near to the deceased in terms of sex and age. For instance, the old man who I saw sewn with white seeds in the golden sap last Falling Season was devoured by the older men and women of the community. His flower was permitted to remain standing, and was taken to one of the outgrowth graveyards. Of the thirty-seven funerals I witnessed only four flowers were left intact and planted. The rest were devoured by a single member each, as Conrad’s flower was devoured by the new Conrad.

Soon after the last funeral had taken place the first of the white seeds began to descend from the sky, as if on cue, and the Ederesapiens danced in wild orgiastic madness to greet its arrival. Somewhere amongst all this Sora managed to scamper away into the folds of some secondary outgrowth and return with a rockpaper notebook my father left her, over thirty years ago. It was crumbling at the edges, and the pages had faded to a deep soil brown, the cover blotched here and there with sap. I flicked through his field drawings, notes, and, finally, on the last eight pages, the preface to his final report, the report which was blacklisted and banned by the Quorum; the very report that led to the ultimate restriction of access to the Forest; the report that was deemed so harmful as to warrant the Forest be officially considered a direct threat to the City. I quote my father in this very report when I say that I shall “respectfully disobey the requests of the Grand Quorum” and rewrite the entire preface here in my Expedition Log, to ensure that there remains at least more than a single copy.

I reprint it here for another reason. After much deliberation, at all level of genetic resistance, and also in the Niche Rousseau, which is known for its allowance of logic, I have decided to pick up where my father left off in his research, and there is only one practical way of going about this. Sora is making the preparations as I write.

 

 

On the Ecosystem, Species, and Inter-species Interactions of Niche Algaric

by

Professor Conrad Young

of

Brigham Young University

 

History:

Niche Algaric is Located in Habitat F of Quadrant 3. First contact occurred in Autumn, M.F. 126 with a team consisting of Drs. Charles Crowdley, Urim Harrison, and myself. Full time studies were initiated in the Summer of 127 and lasted until mid 129. Three reports were compiled during this time entitled, chronologically, The Origins of Species of Niche Algaric; The Psychological, Preservative, and Sustaining properties of the Fungal Outgrowths (Mussurio Centralis) of Niche Algaric; An Indepth Study of Posthomo Ederesapiens of Niche Algaric. The first two studies were a cooperative work between myself and Drs. Crowdley and Harrison. The latter report was a result of independent study, undertaken by myself alone, and has subsequently been restricted for publication until further reviews are carried out.

In M.F. 130, after these first two aforementioned reports had been published, Drs. Crowdley, Harrison and other members of the scientific community requested that Niche Algaric be restricted from further study or entry due to spiritual concerns adopted by Ecologist and Clergyman alike. This attitude had been taking hold during the past five years with regard to a number of Niches and sometimes entire habitats. However, it is with the utmost humility that I respectfully disobey the requests of the Ecology Department of Brigham Young University and the Grand Quorum, and continue with this particular study.

I agree that commitment to the further study of this particular Niche may compromise any Ecologist’s spiritual stability, including my own, but I have spent many months outside the psychological influence of the Forest objectively weighing the benefits with consequences, and have concluded that an in-depth study of this Niche and its populations will one day prove invaluable to the City of the Great Salt Lake. Therefore, it is my intention and resolve to continue my work here.

 

Brief

The Ecosystem of Niche Algaric is fairly simplistic at first glance. With a primary host of only six species and three recorded itinerant species, one would imagine the study and documentation of the Niche to be somewhat straightforward. However, the genetics and life processes of the Posthomo species here; the complicated inter-species interactions with various itinerant species; and the psychological inconsistencies associated with human perception make this Niche relentlessly complicated and mysterious.

This report is my final attempt, after more than 4 years of study, to compile all data from this Niche into a single coherent work. I warn the reader that this is an inherently controversial work due to the unfavorable status of Niche Algaric and all who choose to deal with it. However, I will restate my own convictions on the subject: the revelations that I have come across during my work here, which I will make known through this report, will contribute to the propagation of a new intelligence and fuller appreciation of life and God among the residents of the Great Salt Lake. My work here, in short, will serve to progress Forest Ecology for many generations to come.

 

Background:

The Ecosystem of Algaric is comprised of the following species, listed in their scientific and common names: Flora Drus Protos (the Tree), Flora Orchis Sky (White Bloom), Fungi Mussurio Centralis (Algaric Outgrowths), Insectum Lepidoptera Azurluminesce (Bluelight Butterfly), Insectum Chatepelose Larga (Chatepillar), Flora Gramineae Bambusa Pupae (Tool Bamboo), Aves Hirundinidae Haemohirundo (Blood Swallow) Fauna Posthomo Ederesapiens (Sora). With the Exception of Flora Orchis Sky, these are the species that compromise the Primary Host of Algaric, and will be the focus of our attention. Orchis Sky has been found to play such an integral role to the functionality of the Algaric Ecosystem that I have included it in the Primary Host grouping although it is by definition an intermittent species, and is in fact present in some quantity in every studied Niche of the Forest.

The other intermittent species are found only along the periphery of the Niche, and do not discernibly affect the processes of the Primary Host, and therefore have been mostly omitted from this report.

 

Mussurio Centralis and Drus Protos

Like all other Niches in direct proximity to Drus Protos, Niche Algaric’s populations rely almost entirely on the nutrient-rich sap of the Tree for sustenance and standard functioning. All bodily systems and chemical processes in the Niche’s populations can be traced back to consumption of this sap through various means. However, unlike all other documented Niches in direct proximity to Drus Protos, almost all intake of the sap is not direct, but filtered through the dominant specie, Mussurio Centralis.

Believed to be a hybrid of a number of A.D. fungi, with unmistakable linkages in particular to specie Ganoderma applanatum, Mussurio Centralis is the focal mechanism of sap delivery to all species of Algaric. Indeed, internal consumption of the sap, unprocessed by Mussurio Centralis, proves deadly to all species, except for in the case of Ederesapiens in a fetal stage, and in a few other rare instances that have all been examined in detail.

For further information on this subject please refer to The Psychological, Preservative, and Sustaining properties of the Fungal Outgrowths (Mussurio Centralis) of Niche Algaric.

 

The Life and Culture of Posthomo Ederesapiens

The descendents of Homo Sapiens in Algaric differ in many regards to the Posthomo discovered in all other Niches. One difference, however, stands out quite noticeably. A difference that can only be described as a “cultural” relationship to their surroundings that surpasses the primal instincts created during the Great Evolution. This distinction can be observed in many characteristically hominid activities, including a developed primitive agriculture, advanced communication skills, highly developed emotions, and an ever-developing sense and creation of what can only be classified as art.

Indeed, Ederesapiens has become so aware of its environment, that it has established itself as the conductor of all Niche activity, far surpassing its inherent role as a mere part of a Niche ecosystem. In fact, it would seem that the life functions of every specie of the Niche, including Mussurio Centralis itself, is dependent not just on the genetic link to Ederespaiens established during the Great Evolution, but also on the sentient and consciously cultural choices made by this Posthomo species in relation to its environment.

With the cultivation and use of White Bloom in all stages of its life cycle, Ederesapiens has learnt to manipulate the species of Niche Algaric. In addition, or as a consequence, Niche Algaric is expanding and encroaching into other ecosystems upward along the length Drus Protos, another hitherto undocumented phenomena unique to Niche Algaric.

Refer An Indepth Study of Posthomo Ederesapiens of the Niche Algaric.

 

The Full Life Cycle of Orchis Sky in Niche Algaric

All Ecologists know of Flora Orchis Sky, for it permeates every Niche of the Forest in the form of small white seeds that fall from a Niche above, and in a few isolated instances have been observed in full bloom, most notably in Niche Orchis. The origin of this flower remains unknown, but is generally thought to be produced in the Primary Canopy of the Forest, although there is no substantial evidence. In all other Niches White Bloom has proven to be a redundant species, not tied in to any ecological web, even in Niche Orchis where it blooms but does not fruit, and has not ecological ties with any other species. However, in Niche Algaric, through the cultivation and manipulation of Posthomo Ederesapiens, the role of this seed, fruit and flower proves to be critical.

Of all Niches studied, only in Niche Algaric, does Orchis Fly go through a full life cycle, culminating in the production of seed bearing a variety of fruits in one strain, and in another strain (an indefinitely prolonged floral stage) it serves as a highly complicated communicative tool. And this completion of White Bloom’s full life cycle is achieved only by the cultural choices of Ederesapiens, for they nurture, utilize, and ensure the survival of this specie in all stages of its life.

 

Thesis

For the first time in the history of our Ecological studies, we are witnessing the process of Evolution within the Forest. The Principle of Stasis has always been the founding theorem of Forest Ecology. And before my in-depth study of Niche Algaric, I too have always operated under this principle, for its laws up until now have been reliably corroborated by all findings and reports. However, I cannot deny the evidence that presents itself.

 

The 1st Principle of Stasis: The Great Evolution left all life under Drus Protos in a state of evolutionary immutability, in which the relationship between all parts will forever remain in a state of absolute and static dependency upon each other, and so, without outside influence, shall remain indefinitely unchanged.

 

I realize that a polemic questioning of the Principle of Stasis not only affects the Ecological community, but that reverberations of such a line of thought will reach every corner of spiritual life in the City of the Great Salt Lake. However, it is my duty to expose the truth as I observe it, in a direct and solemn manner, and that is what I intend to do.

 During my 4-year study of Niche Algaric I have found sufficient evidence to refute the Principle of Stasis. This particular Niche has among its host a species that has somehow, through design or happenstance, developed communal and individual sentience and created a culture, which is driving the ongoing evolution of their own Niche, and the species that comprise it.

In this report I will set out to prove that the sentience and culture of Posthomo Ederesapiens came not during, but after the Great Evolution, coinciding with the introduction, continued presence of, and eventual co-evolution with White Bloom, Orchis Sky.

 

Method

This Niche differs from every other Niche ever studied, and therefore requires a completely different approach in order to grasp it in its entirety. Although my intensive study of Niche Algaric has brought me closer to understanding the workings of this ecosystem and society, I remain utterly baffled by Ederesapiens.

I have painstakingly observed and published in numerous reports every minutiae of Ederesapiens society, yet still I know nothing about them. I am aware of their deep consciousness, yet I cannot speak to them on their terms; I cannot understand their symbols; I cannot truly understand how they have broken from their Stasis and begun a second evolution within the Forest.

The study of this species has consumed my every thought for the past four years; they have become my passion and obsession, and I fear that the political climate in the City of the Great Salt Lake is such that entry into this Niche, and perhaps even entry into the Forest itself, will soon be restricted.

Therefore I will sever myself from the spiritual, ecological, and societal foundations of the City and proceed with my plan of controlled and voluntary Incorporation into Niche Algaric.

I hypothesize that the mysteries of Niche Algaric and its breaking with the Principle of Stasis cannot be explained until we discover the origin of White Bloom. For I believe White Bloom to be the missing piece in the puzzle, and to learn more about it one must travel to its place of origin, the Primary Canopy. Every seed comes from a fruit, and I am determined to find it.

With current technologies the journey to the Primary Canopy would be impossible without total genetic collapse and Incorporation. However, a controlled voluntary Incorporation into Niche Algaric, if conducted properly could give one the ability to travel up the length of the Tree and reach the Primary Canopy, while simultaneously avoiding complete genetic collapse.

The foremost concern with Incorporation remains the loss of consciousness, soul, emotion, logic, and one’s very humanity. One would desire to retain also the phenotype of a human, which has always been completely mutilated following every documented Incorporation. Indeed, no Incorporation to date has ever taken place without resulting in a total destruction of humanity, phenotype and genotype, from the inner workings of the soul, to the body that houses that soul. However, I believe there exists a method to overcome these afflictions.

It must be acknowledged that all documented Incorporations have been a result of an accident or misjudgment on the part of the Ecologist. Therefore, in every instance, the transformation was marked by fear and resistance on the part of the victim. These Incorporations resulted in a total loss of thought, logic, spirituality and humanity, forcing the victim into a state of absolute reliance on instinct, and unremitting dependence on their immediate surroundings. However, if one were to be Incorporated in a state of peace in well-considered and custom-constructed surroundings, in a Niche where thought, logic and consciousness is observable among the dominant species, one could utilize the process of Incorporation to assist in one’s studies.

I, for instance, desire full access to the highest Niche on Drus Protos, the Primary Canopy, so I will have the ability to ascend the tree and test my hypothesis on the origin of White Bloom. Therefore I will need to evolve with, and only with, the sap of Drus Protos. My Incorporation will result in a symbiosis with the Tree and only the Tree. I will remain genetically independent from all other species. I will achieve this by actively separating myself from all other life forms and substances save the sap of Drus Protos

I conjecture that connection with a wide variety of specialized and localized life forms during Incorporation is very likely the cause of physical mutations and mental and spiritual breakdowns. I predict that the sap of Drus Protos will find no gain in altering my genotype or phenotype too greatly, because this creature is encompassing by its very nature, excepting all forms of life. Indeed, it is the structure of the Forest itself. Therefore it is the best specie to unite with in order to gain unrestricted access to the Forest.

Perhaps most importantly is that I have found a Niche where some basic human qualities are retained in the Posthomo population. It is important that any Ecologist repeating this experiment does the same. This is why I have chosen Niche Algaric and why I wouldn’t entertain the idea of conducting this experiment anywhere else.

However, even if my predictions prove correct, and I retain my humanity, I will nevertheless remain dependent on the sap of Drus Protos for the rest of my life. In what form I will be dependent upon the sap I do not know. I can only hope that my dependency can be appeased by a transportable amount of the liquid that can be replenished as I live out my later years in the City of the Great Salt Lake.

In a worst-case scenario I will be forced to live the rest of my life in direct proximity to Drus Protos, and may lose all memories, thoughts, and semblance of humanity. But I am confident with my predictions, and that is a risk I am now willing to take.

I will accomplish my controlled Incorporation by creating a bowl of sap in an upturned mushroom cap as the Ederesapiens do when they bury their dead. I keep out all moisture or life forms from the pool and fill the concavity with pure, untainted sap. I have measured the density of the sap, and predict that I will float in the absolute centre of the pool without touching the sides, therefore restricting overt genetic interference from the surrounding fungus. Incorporation takes an average of 2 minutes in all observed cases, and therefore I must not emerge from the pool of sap during the entire process, or may be threatened with genetic fusion with unwanted life forms.

At the end of this experiment I hope to re-emerge as a newly created, custom-designed Posthomo. I shall then have the ability to ascend the Tree, discover the origin of White Bloom, record my findings and return to the City to publish this report.

At first my actions will be seen as dissident and heretical. But soon, when the profound nature of my discoveries come to light, the opinions of the Elders will change, and soon Voluntary Incorporations will become a commonplace aspect of Forest Ecology.

 

Expedition Log—

 Falling Season, Second Cycle, M.F. 170~173.

Location: Habitat F

Niche: Algaric

Action: Incorporation in Niche Algaric

 

My father, after many years of study, came to the decision that I’ve come to now. Judging by the number of strange occurrences I have confronted during my few conscious days here I can only imagine what things my father experienced in 4 years. After reading only the preface of his infamous report I found myself convinced that I must follow in his path.

“Did my father reach the Primary Canopy?” I asked Sora as soon as I’d finished the last line of the crinkled manuscript. She looked at me with tilted head, chewing clumps of Mussario, stroking our child who was crawling about her body. She grabbed him in a swift movement, touched her mouth to his, and emptied the liquidized mushroom into his mouth. I repeated the question.

“I not know,” she said, releasing Conrad to have free reign crawling all over her body again.

“Did he get up to the top, to the Canopy? Did he find the fruit?” I asked.

“You not know?” she asked under the trappings of practiced bemusement, “He is your father.”

She was right to play confusion. For he was my father, and the fact that I don’t know about the most significant single action in his life must be a strange concept for these creatures who are always connecting and communicating, who are obsessed with each other’s lives.

“He is my father. But I don’t know,” I answered. What did that report say? What does the Quorum know that I do not? What did he find out in his final report? Did he get to the Primary Canopy?

Sora then took a moment to stare at me in silence. Her eyes rippled as if they were puddles of water and minuscule pebbles were being tossed into them. She was purposefully mesmerizing me, or searching in me for something.

“We all try what your father try,” she started. “We all move together. You move alone. Your father move alone, even after change. But we move together. Sora and all,” she said, gesturing over the expanse of Niche Algaric. Then she pointed up the side of the tree. “We move up here slowly. Very slowly. We move up to look for the Father of the seed.” At this she held her hands open and allowed some of the seed to settle itself into her palms. “But we go slowly. We go together. Your father go fast, and alone.”

So that is what my father meant when he wrote that the Ederesapiens were encroaching on other Niches. They are moving up the length of the tree, cultivating new outgrowths as they ascend.

“Why do you move up?” I asked.

“To go back to the beginning. The seed falls from the beginning. Where life start. Where everything start.”

“Has the seed always been falling? Can you remember a time when it wasn’t falling?”

“Sora cannot remember, but Sora in flowers can.”

So the memory of a time when Niche Algaric was not permeated by the seed is still preserved in the mummified consciousness of their ancestors?

“So the seed just started falling one day?” I asked.

“One day,” she nodded. “That day we were born.”

The day they developed a consciousness. Where did it come from? What is up there in the Primary Canopy?

I had one last question for Sora.

“So my father went to the top?” I said, pointing up the length of the Tree.

“Almost to the top,” she replied.

“He didn’t make it all the way?”

“No.”

“Did he bring anything back with him?”

“A leaf,” she said, “small leaf.”

I turned the whole mystery around in my head. The small leaf of Conrad’s birthing pool, the same my father brought back from the Primary Canopy. He created a creature that would have access to the entire Primary Canopy, where that leaf originates. Only Conrad can continue to the top, onto the apex of the Tree itself, for he is a creature of the Primary Canopy. And if I myself were Incorporated, I could take him there. 

“I’ve decided to change,” I told Sora.

“I know,” she said, with a hint of sorrow.

“And when I’m finished, I need to take our son.”

“I know. Your father tell me.”

. . .

So, my pool of sap is prepared. The members of Ederesapiens have gathered around. Apparently my father’s transformation hasn’t yet faded from their memories, and the prospect of its reenactment is exciting for them. I will finish what my father started. Once I am Incorporated, me and this child will be able to scale the entire length of Drus Protos, and there he will be at home. My Conrad will be at home, and I will find what my father sent me here for.

My time here has been just a blur of sensory input, with very little critical thought involved. My father, however, who traveled back to this place so many dozen times must have struggled endlessly trying to understand the strange communication, the odd rituals, the pervasive collective consciousness, the meaning behind all these rituals. Now, looking up at the community of Posthomo gazing down at me, I feel what he must have felt before his Incorporation. I am wracked with fear that I may lose my humanity forever, that Sora has forgotten some aspect of the process, that my father hadn’t recorded the procedure properly. But I am also stirred with anticipation. I no longer mourn the loss of my son, for I feel, albeit it an irrational way, that his genetic code, his memories, his very soul has been transferred into a creature of the Forest. It is not just a feeling, but an empirical experience. I touch Conrad, I commune with him, he is still alive. And this unfathomable truth creates all the more excitement within me. What else will I discover? If these people can pass souls into plant life, and indeed dictate which souls are passed, what else can they do? How much more is there to know? How much my father already must have found out during his five years of Incorporation.

Now I will go again, I will study again. “Honor thy father,” the scripture says, long before anyone mentioned the City, long before the City even existed. And I shall.

Their collective gaze is strong. Sora is gesturing for me to hand over this expedition log. Well, I suppose I cannot take it into the pool with me. I will hand it over. Now is the time. Perhaps this will be the final line of the final entry of this log. Suddenly, whether it is found or forever lost means very little to me.

. . .

 

“Marco climbs the side of the giant mushroom cap and allows himself to be absorbed by the thick and viscous golden sap. Once fully submerged he opens his eyes, expecting to feel a sting, but there is no pain, only the sensation of warm liquid rubbing against the exposed skin of his cornea. Through the sap he peers up into the endless expanse of the Forest canopy, golden and undulating. He can still make out the forms of curious Edersapiens encircling the mushroom cap, awaiting the transformation; curious to see if he will arise as his father did, unharmed, healthy, younger, and more powerful than ever. 

“He looks over to Sora and sees the child in her arms, that strange lovable creature now possessed, endowed by the spirit of young Conrad. Running out of breath he extends a hand up out of the pool of sap, breaking the surface, and gently touches the cheeks of Conrad. He holds his hand there for a moment and then feels the cold, soft touch of Sora’s fingertips on the back of his hand. She squeezes his fingers firmly between hers and then urges his hand back into the sap.

“Running short of air, Marco grasps for the dial of his isolation vest, quickly re-evaluates this monumental decision, confirms it's the right thing to do, and decisively twists the dial to 0%. The last thing he remembers is inhaling a large quantity of warm sap into his lungs and then running up full speed against the black wall of unconsciousness.

“The end!” exclaims David with a clap of the hands. After being absorbed by the low melodies of his voice for so long, the sudden noise of his clapping hands jolts some of the students out of their daze.

 “You know all the rest, don’t you? Of course you do. They must give you some damn kind of education at that place or I don’t know what I’m paying my taxes for!”

There was silence for a moment and then David continues in a more genuine tone.

“Yes, I must admit his diary does end fairly abruptly, but, what can I say, he had more important things to do than record every little detail of his life. That’s another beneficial side effect of this whole undertaking: you’ll have such unadulterated memories that you’ll stop worrying about forgetting things. You can save your writings for your reports, for the rest will be stored in here,” he said, taping at his temple. “Now, on that note!”

David leaps to his feet far too quickly for someone his age and turns around to look at the now completely filled pools of sap.

“Well, it looks like we’re ready,” he says. He turns again to the students. “Marco and his father, as you now all know, underwent their Incorporations in the mushroom caps. However, for the first official mass Incorporation, two years after Conrad the Younger’s return to the City, we decided it would be more fitting to carry out the procedure in the area where the Ederesapiens give birth, not where they die. Because for you, this is truly a rebirth. And it should be treated as such. Not as a death.

“This is a massive undertaking that I have tried to play down, but it’s now time for you to know the absolute truth, because this is last chance you get to turn back. All the emotions that you thought you had will dwindle to a point of insignificance. The lines your scientific minds drew between things will dissolve. You will find it hard to understand the concept of naming things; or loving one person over another person; or sorrow. As humans we fluctuate between extremes; we revel in the joy and despair in the sorrow; we dance without reason and cry without reason; we cling to pointless concepts like hope and fear. Some believe that this is what makes humanity beautiful. Some believe that if these emotions cease to exist, than there is no more human. I happen to be one of those people. I believe you will soon be greater than a mere human.

“Look at this Tree. What Life could possibly have given rise to this colossus? How did it come about, and from where did it originate? Were its genes engineered by the A.D. scientists? Did its seed arrive here from another planet? Or was it an appendage of the Earth, a retaliation, an answer that had laid dormant for 4 billion years?

“Whatever it is, you cannot deny its omnipotence. It is progenitor to countless species, hundreds of impenetrable forms of perception. With its canopy it encompasses every aspect of reality. This Forest, in its entirety is an ambassador from the chaotic Universe. We will never understand her just as we will never fully grasp the cosmos. We will penetrate neither and must merely be content to bask for our lives in stupid wonder.

“But you…you have chosen to bathe in the blood of a God, and will see everything as she does. You’ll be emptied of the things that make you who you are, and replaced with the entirety of the Universe.

“And it may not be fun. That’s what I’m driving at. So take your time to decide. When you have made up your mind, you know the procedure.”

David then walked off to the side and let the students have an unobstructed view of the pools, one for each of them. An Ederesapiens tending to each pool, stirring it with a rod of tool bamboo. One by one the students walked towards their pools and dipped their feet in. Then they let their whole bodies fall into the liquid. Soon there is just one student left standing on the outgrowth. She is crying. David walks up to her and touches her shoulder.

“How are you feeling Ares?” he asks. She has a small, athletic frame and long brown hair. Her eyes loom with intensity behind a thin coating of tears. David puts a hand on her shoulder as they both watch the other students soaking in their pools of sap. They dunk their heads under the surface, turn the dials on their isolation vests down one notch and wait two minutes before they resurface.

“Incorporation is not what it used to be,” says David, a bit facetiously. “It’s all so scientific now. Apollo usurps yet another Dionysian act.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” says Ares.

“Just making small talk,” replies David. All the students have submerged themselves at least once by now, and their hair is matted against their heads in slimy clumps. He and Ares watch in silence until she replies.

“I thought I would do it this time,” she says.

“I didn’t,” says David. She glares at him fiercely.

“You think I’m a coward?” she asks. David thinks about this for a moment.

“No,” he replies. “It’s strange. I speculate wildly about the shifted consciousness of the Algaric-Incorporated human, but I have no first-hand knowledge. Everything I say to you students is based on my conversations and observations. Nothing else. So, even the most basic assumptions I make about the Incorporated, like the alterations in their physical appearance, may just be a distortion in my perception; that isn’t even to mention the more metaphysical assumptions I make, which may be completely off the mark.

“My point is: you may not need this treatment. You are different.”

“I measure as a human on all psychological and physical tests,” she shot back, “I am no different.”

“Yes, your father’s Incorporated genome was recessive in almost every respect to your mother’s humanity. From what our society can tell. But that means nothing. The only truth is your own perception. There is no way of knowing whether it is the same or different as the others, because it is all you will ever experience.

“You are the only one who can come to a decision about this Ares. And don’t think hesitation is cowardly, for you are a Young. There have never been any cowards in your line.”

“You’re very sure.”

“I’m not sure about anything,” says David, “but I have faith in every hominid’s ability to choose wisely while in a state of peace.” Ares stared at the students still twisting their dials and dunking intermittently into the pools.

“Okay,” said Ares, after a moment of introspection, “shall we do what we always do then?”

“Of course. This bunch look like they’re going to take longer than normal.

David and Ares move off to a corner of the outgrowth, out of sight of the other students and Edersapiens and sit down with their backs against the leafy bamboo. David reaches into his bag and pulls out a tattered rockpaper journal. They sit side by side and open the diary in front of them on their laps.

“Can you read aloud this time?” asks Ares. Without replying David flips through the pages to the middle of the book.

“Well,” he says, “let’s start where things get interesting,” and begins to read.

 

 

Part 3: Clara’s Diary

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 3rd

 

Marco and Conrad will be reaching the Landbridge by now. I cannot imagine how my baby will be able to withstand such a long journey. Even his day to day existence, in the arms of his mother, drinking of my milk, partaking in the things that should be the greatest joys for a child, he was tormented. How he can survive such discomfort when he can barely survive pleasure, I don’t know. Perhaps he just registers neither.

My days have been a haze of resettling. The house is too clean. Everyday I have some visitor. Madeline, a student of Marco’s came yesterday. She came to confess sexual thoughts about Marco while she was in his class. It isn’t the first time I’ve had to listen to confessions from his students. I told her that the confession wasn’t necessary as Marco has been exiled, but she felt better telling me. She stayed for mineral tea and we talked for a long while. As she warmed to conversation her questions became more and more private, about Marco and I. But I was in the mood to talk, and no subject seemed too heavy. Madeline seemed to become excited as I went into the detail about our relationship and I in fact took a sort of relish in eliciting such a reaction from a young woman. It has been so long since I have spoken my secret thoughts in whispers with young friends. She was certainly enamored with Marco, and his exile must have affected her deeply.

Before she left she confessed that she had been having sexual thoughts about me through our conversation. I said it was okay because I was drawing images with my words and the imagination can’t help but to take hold. She blushed and thanked me. I even gave her a kiss as she left. Nothing seems wrong now that Marco is gone, the maxims of the City have lost their rigidity and seem as interpretable as the stars. I feel I have the right to follow the whims of my body and do as I want.

She asked if I could take her as my apprentice.

“I can never again be with child, Madeline,” I said to her before she left, “and I have very little experience as a mother. I don’t know what I could teach you.”

“I see,” said Madeline, “I just thought it was fitting, given that you are the wife of professor Marco.”

“You are still young,” I said, “and are just attaching yourself to any hope of pleasure. If you want me to take you as your mentor, you need to ask permission of your parents and your district Quorum, and we wouldn’t be permitted to begin until your University holidays.”

She nodded, and looked down at the ground, embarrassed that I’d come out and accused her of seeking an apprenticeship with me solely because of the pleasure aspect.

“And you know my husband is exiled. There is a slim chance your parents would want you to be attached to me. Especially since there is no male to direct us and keep you from becoming attached in love only to women. There would be a very unlucky gentleman unknown to us as of yet if that were to happen.” I let her mull this over and added, “And again, I cannot train you in child-rearing, for you know my luck with children.

“But, I’m attracted to you,” I finished. At that she looked up and smiled. I could smell her excitement; what a potent young girl. I’m amazed that I was like that once.

“So,” I continued, “if you are given permission, I would be happy to teach you what I know, and prepare you for a man and motherhood.” She smiled and we embraced. She kissed me and I could smell her excitement more than ever. We embraced and then she left.

Afterwards I felt slightly guilty for giving into a young girl’s desires before all the formalities had been met, but as I said, the rigidity of laws and tradition are slackening in my mind. What more can be expected from a mother disowned of her baby, the wife of an exile.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 4th

 

I felt a gyration in my heart in the middle of the night last night. Joy swept over me, and the same sense of relief after Conrad emerged fully from inside me into the birthing pool. All the muscles that have been knotted in worry loosened at their deepest core. But why?

I saw Conrad in my dreams, a young baby, swimming amongst plant life, alive, happy.

I masturbated while thinking first of Marco and then of Madeline and felt no guilt. How amazing the freedom of mind that being a widow allows one. I was almost caught in the act by a Grand Quorum’s emissary at my door. He walked in and saw me naked on the bed and turned away. True I should have been up and dressed at that point in the day, and it wasn’t his fault. In fact it was technically my fault, so I apologized and took my time with dressing as he pretended to fully shield his eyes.

“What do you have for me?” I asked after I’d slipped on my tunic.

“You’re summoned to the Grand Quorum’s chambers tomorrow Clara Young,” he said, attempting to reestablish the confidence in his voice and handing me a letter. I took the letter and read the short note.

“Thank you,” I said, “you’re dismissed.” It would be customary to invite him in for mineral tea and protein cake, but I didn’t like being around such a squeamish boy. I had the thought while looking into his face that the City won’t last another generation if we are producing squeamish men like this. And chosen to be an emissary at that! This boy is supposed to be of the highest genetic make. It disturbed me, so I dismissed him to get him out of my sight.

I immediately thought to what Conrad might have looked like at that age, infused with his father’s fierce intelligence, and his grandfather’s alien charm. My entire being felt like crying then, but the rock exterior that I’ve been building didn’t permit it.

The young emissary left. I have had time to wonder what the Quorum would want with me, an aging, lawfully barren widow. I’ve come to no conclusion. I suppose they have a range of stipulations I must follow, having taken now this unprecedented status. For there is no history in the City of a woman having to suffer the loss of her child and her husband to the Forest. How could any ruling body be so cruel?

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 5th

 

I’ve never been too caught up in the interpretation of the Book of the Second Prophet. I’ve always read the passages at face value and taken to heart the words for what they are, without looking anywhere beyond the literal. If the historical accounts are accurate, Joseph II was a stonemason before the Tree began its absorption of the Earth’s plant life. He worked for small pay in a country called the United States of America, in which the City and her environs comprised but a single state out of many. I can’t remember how many. Perhaps hundreds.

I don’t know why I’m having all these thoughts now. Of course it is a result of my appearance before the Quorum. Whatever it is, I feel the extent to which our City is collapsing has only now become apparent to me. When I am summoned before a group of stagnant old men and told how the Book should be interpreted I cannot just quietly accept this.

Joseph II was uneducated. Education in the United States was a matter of owning resources. The more resources one owned, the stronger education one could have. Joseph II was exceedingly poor and couldn’t even write. The whole Second Book was written entirely by his wife as he dictated. He was treated as a lowly member of society, and yet we know him to be the most strongly willed human to have ever lived. The Forest called to him, as it called to all humanity, with the promise of everlasting bliss, freedom from toil and work, complete unification in oneself. So even Joseph, a downtrodden man, refused the call of the Forest. Uneducated, unvalued by society, he retained humanity in its purest form, as was intended by God. 

Yet now, only a few generations later, I am obliged to stand in front of a group of elite and be told I am less in the eyes of God than the rest.

“Show me the passage!” I asked them, “Where does the Second Prophet say that I am less than you.”

“It is our words,” they replied, “for we are the mouthpieces of God.”

How easy it was to conform to the way of things when I was embraced and pleasured by a devoted husband, and suckled by a healthy baby, if only briefly. How easy to think that the way of things as they are work fine for the City. Only when you are thrown to the wind, only when the City forgets you do you wonder about laws and how they are affecting the people around you.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 6th

 

My strength is increasing. There is talk about me around the City. It’s very obvious. I can see it on people’s faces as they pass me in the street. No husband, declining morals. They are right.

I’m going to the library today. I haven’t studied in so long. Only Ecology. Only ever Ecology for the past fifteen years so I could help Marco to formulate his ideas. It is like studying the dead languages, studying Ecology. It is like engrossing yourself in a theoretical past. That is what is wrong with this city. We are always thinking of the past.

Of course people avoid me in the street, but discreetly, without trying to. I am a lesser person in the eyes of the Quorum, and in the eyes of God – they say. That brings me only the most immense sense of freedom. For suddenly I feel as if the rope that had been holding me just out of God’s reach has been severed. For the Quorum, and these stupid people are nothing more than diluters of the grace of God. They reduce the immense comfort and transcendence one can receive in God to particles floating in a vast solution of ritual and nonsense.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 7th

 

I met Madeline today at the confession pools. I woke up before sunrise and donned Marco’s skin jacket. It was handed down to him by his father, stripped from some poor creature in the Forest that he had murdered accidentally upon touch. A large creature, similar to the A.D. brown bears, but unable to withstand physical contact of any kind by humans. I forget the Niche. I’m trying to forget all of that. Apparently he was wearing this very hide when he returned to the City. The Quorum’s decision to allow the Young family to keep the skin was a yet another law the man was permitted to break. And now that I am free from the shackles of the Quorum’s diluted God, I feel this right has been extended to me. Perhaps the sight of it on the street could have offended people, but it made no difference anyway, for the streets were more or less deserted. I was wandering through the darkness, a silhouette in the mist, off to see the sunrise. Nobody seems to be interested in that sort of thing anymore. Sleep, to most, takes precedence.

I stopped briefly at the Temple grounds and admired the workmanship of our ancestors. Despite all the disturbances on this Earth, this structure stands and collectively we maintain it. We’ve done something right.

After my long admiration of the structure I walked to the final set of salt-stone pillars on the threshold of the Temple grounds and dipped my toes in the warm canal walkway. I felt the soft mud seep between the spaces in my toes, and allowed the tail of the animal pelt to drop into the water as I waded into the walkway, and began my trek between the hills towards the Great Salt Lake.

Many hours later I passed by the first confession pool and decided not to go through the submersion ritual. I had things to confess, of course, wrongs against the City’s laws and perhaps against the will of the Quorum, but I felt no wrongs in my own soul. So I passed seven confession pools without thinking twice about neglecting the ritual. Then, as I was about to pass the eighth pool I was overcome with the desire to feel the warm waters soaking through my hair. Usually submersion into the eighth confession pool is a reward for having suffered the gelid waters of the first seven. ‘But why not have my pleasure without the pain?’ I thought. I’ve had enough pain. So I knelt on the clay bank and submerged my head in the pool, instinctively bellowing out confessions into the warm water. I had harbored a hateful thought about Marco at least once a day since he left, and I truly did feel somewhat weighed down by that. So I screamed, but without asking forgiveness. It was merely for my own satisfaction.

When I pulled my head from the pool the sun had already risen over the distant mountains, as if on cue. I walked the last few hundred meters to the edge of the Great Salt Lake, which opened out for miles in front of me.

I let my feet transition from the warmth of the canal walkway into the biting cold of the Lake and stood on the threshold for many minutes, staring at the slither of sunlight that had begun to radiate over the hills. None of the other canals had worshippers there, so I decided to disrobe and feel the warmth of the sun creep over my skin. I hadn’t worn anything underneath the pelt. The brisk air that wafted towards me from the lake spread like soft cold cloth over my skin, and I spread my legs to feel the air touch my thighs. I put my arms into the air and closed my eyes. I stayed in this position for longer than I’d ever stayed in any position for one period and imagined myself to be an ancient and undisturbed statue, with the dawn of yet a another day creeping over me; a timeless statue, accustomed to the slow revolutions of the universe.

The sun continued upwards and touched my fingertips which were stretched up into the sky; I could feel my blood cells with every heartbeat jostling through my arteries to get to those single heated points. Then the sun rose higher, and my body was slowly coated with sunlight. My blood became ever warmer. My muscle’s cold timeless granite began to thaw. My nipples unhardened and my spine relaxed as the warmth of the sun fought against the sweeping breeze. Soon my skin was covered in sunlight, and my blood cells no longer fought to find the warmest point, but moved as slowly as possible, to avoid overheating.

I wiggled my toes in the water and then dropped my arms to my side with a sigh. It was if I’d been holding my breath for a millennia and now as this new sun, the first of a new set of rising suns, yet another division in infinity, had released the knots tied round my lungs.

I squinted through my eyelids and looked to my left and saw that people had begun to populate the other confession canals. There was a man three canals over from me on my right and another person about ten canals over on my left. I stared at the man closest me, and it was obvious that he was trying his hardest to ignore my gaze. He’d surely already seen my nude body and not known how to react. I continued to stare and even swept my hair backwards sensually to distract him from his worship. For no real reason. Just for fun.

I turned back to the reflection of the sun now firmly positioned in the centre of the Great Salt Lake. I wondered at its incomprehensible physics – its vastness in the heavens; its control over so many planets. With these thoughts of the Universe my mind drifted inadvertently to the phenomenon of the Forest. Was it a species from this same daunting Universe that housed the sun? Was the seed from which the Tree was to sprout an accidental landing from space, or a species that traveled here of its own accord, or perhaps sent here specifically by a species much like humans from some other solar system, some other galaxy? Its genome, the genome of the Forest – was it a project artificially engineered and synthesized by A.D. scientists that had gone out of control? Or did it evolve on its own? Or did it evolve under the guidance of God? Or a combination of all of these?

The Sun shimmered, seemed to beat lovingly against the Salt Lake, causing her to ripple and froth with joy. These two titanic angels pressing against each other in unapologetic love and lust. The Sun, after twelve hours of hunting on the other side of the world – boring itself into rivers and lakes, melting glaciers and snow-covered mountaintops with blinding radiance, dancing boyishly through the infinite grains of sand, and touching, lingering perhaps, as he swept over the canopy of the Forest – before he settled again on the Great Salt Lake.

What does he feel for the Forest, I wonder? Does he anticipate meeting her yet again? Does he grow excited every time he inches over the horizon? Does he prepare fastidiously for the sensuous rendezvous? He must take great joy in wrapping himself in the most glaring of golden robes, trailing thin shreds of a thousand miles of blinding fabric. For hours now – to him it must feel like many lifetimes– the two are separated by the Earth’s lazy spin. The Sun yearns to breathe again on the Forest, to feel her tantalizing touch up through the heavens to caress him. And as the first of his thousand-fold fingertips of sunlight touch the outermost leaves of her canopy, he pays no attention to any other point on the Earth. He may blast a dollop of sunlight off towards the Oceans he so used to fawn over, or onto the grains of the deserts he used to tend to so particularly. But now he does this only to keep them occupied, to keep them quiet so he can focus his absolute glory on his complete adoration of the Forest. And, after scaling her vast sides for hours, once he is mounted completely above her, he exhales long and deep, dividing his overwhelming breath into infinite emissaries, which flicker and slide across every leaf. He protrudes as deeply as he can into her canopy, he squeezes through every orifice, and mazes through every opening, touching and loving every corner of her mysterious body. He clings desperately to her rippled skin in a pointless attempt to hold her back. But the Earth revolves and she, the Forest, slips from his grasp. Earth turns, and the Forest tips over the horizon, slowly, tantalizingly dancing away from the eyes of the Sun. And with a coy backwards glance she suggests her love, her devotion. She lets him know that she’ll be waiting, as always, for his return. And then she disappears.

And as I see the Sun now perched over the Great Salt Lake, splayed atop her, seemingly committed to her body with his body, I can sense his mind and soul are elsewhere, still dwelling on the perfumed complexity of that dark Forest, whom he can never quite touch, whom he can never quite impregnate. There is a breach between he and her. While the Lake lays sensually in front of him, unabashed, exposing her every secret, letting him take part in the enjoyment of her every perfection; the Forest tucks her secrets away, veils her complex desires, let’s the Sun kiss her gently on the cheek but then rolls off into the darkness.

The Sun loves us too, of course, as he loves this City. I can see it in his satisfied ascent over the hills and across the Lake. He relishes in dipping his toes in the Lake’s cold body, and laying against her windswept chest. He enjoys creating a play of light through the glass structures we’ve built for him, watching the worshipping reflection of our human eyes. For a brief period of time, here on Earth, there must have been so many of us; he must wonder where we all have gone. I questioned then, standing there on threshold of the confession canal, who the Sun most loved on Earth before the Forest appeared. The Anno Domini angels were so shambolic: multitudinous, dispersed throughout the land, muddled, worshipped only apprehensively, followed anxiously. All would have been so simple for the Sun to feed upon, to touch, to understand and control. Perhaps Earth, back then, would not have been his foremost focus of attention. Perhaps he concentrated his gaze on skipping photons across the rings of Saturn, or relentlessly fighting through the clouds of Venus. But Earth always did have life, varied, unexpected, and constantly evolving. Of all the bodies in our system, surely he has always been most fond of the Earth. There were minds here to worship him, colors and geography here to keep him occupied, warring species to keep him wondering. The more reason for him to be enamored with the Forest. For all has always been exposed to him, laid bare, and now the Forest has hidden it, taken it all back to suckle from her breast, taken life back into her womb.

 These thoughts glided through my head as if they were in existence already in the air and merely happened to pass through my brain on their way to the other end of the galaxy. There was no straining of my will to conjure up the thoughts, no fear of a guilty internal retribution. My mind was now as exposed to the air as my body was exposed to the arms of the sensuous sunlight.

My front soon grew too warm so I shuffled my feet in the water to lay bare the white skin of my back to the Sun. As I did this I caught the eyes of the man standing two canals down. He was staring at me. I smiled. He turned away quickly. I closed my eyes for a moment and focused on my skin cells soaking in the warmth. When I opened my eyes again there was Madeline, standing in the confession canal just to my left.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi Madeline,” I said under my breath, still focusing on the warmth of the Sun, but feeling myself become excited by her presence. She was wearing a fitted rock paper dress, which revealed her upturned nipples through the fabric. I could see the two hard dots of red poking against the material. The middle of the dress was pulled tightly around her waste, accentuating her thin midriff.

I felt wetness build up between my legs as the sunlight gleamed through the skirt of her dress, outlining the smooth curve of her strong legs. When she came again to face me her lightly tanned face was blushing noticeably. Her blond hair was a bit sweaty and ruffled from the long walk up through the hills, and the few strands of red within it now stood out radiantly in the sunlight. We were silent, staring at each other. Then she spoke.

“I’ve never seen an animal skin before,” she said, pointing a slender finger at the ruffled heap of fur by my side.

“You’re an Ecology student Madeline,” I said, turning halfway back into the Sun, “Shouldn’t you have access to all the museums?”

“They only have A.D. creatures on display,” she replied. I heard her feet shuffle in the water. The silence was long. And then:

“I like you,” she finally said. Every element: the Sun, Madeline, people looking at me, the cool breeze, the water rippling around my feet. My head was not clear.

“Then come touch me,” I said.

“There are too many people.”

“You want me to take you as my woman’s apprentice. Have you asked your parents?”

“I have.”

“What did they say?”

“They say I’m old enough to make my own judgments.”

“You’re old enough to bear child. That doesn’t mean you’re old enough to make your own judgments.”

She fell silent.

“I’m not quite an upstanding woman of the city,” I continued. “I’ve told you that I’ve been outcast. Because apprenticeship is a practice separate from the church and the Quorum, of course they don’t have any say over what you choose on the matter, but you have to think about what you want for yourself in the future.”

“What about what I want for myself right now,” she asked. I looked at her. Her wet lips were slightly parted and she stared at me through the thin slits of her eyelids.

“I think you’re talking about something different. You don’t want me as a master, but a lover.”

“Yes.”

“And the front of apprenticeship would be a good excuse to spend time alone together.”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you worried that people will notice?”

“I think I don’t care.”

I couldn’t tell if her tone was teenage callousness against society in general, or something more thought out.

“You will care in the future if you end up in a position like I am.”

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” she replied.

“I try to enjoy myself. And it may seem that I do. But Madeline, we give so much of ourselves to the City when we are born. They take the very functioning of our bodies as a process for the communal good. So, when you detach yourself from that society, what do you have? Freedom is painful Madeline. When everybody else exists inside a social construction like the City, the only freedom left to an outsider is…solitude.”

“What if others were to join you?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if others left the City with you?”

“And went where?” I asked, quite loudly, thinking it would put an end to the conversation. She seemed so ignorant, so young, and so ready to heap false hopes upon me. Not that I knew what those hopes were yet. I wanted to stop them prematurely. She did fall silent and looked at me, making sure that I wouldn’t erupt suddenly.

“We don’t have to go anywhere,” she said, “you haven’t gone anywhere, yet you are separate from the City.”

“And I’m telling you now. There is only pain. Apprentice yourself to a proper woman, I’m sure you’ll get your fill of sexual pleasure as well as the teachings, it always works that way, as I’m sure you know--”

“This isn’t about sexual pleasure--”

“I was speaking,” I cut in sharply. “Find a man and keep yourself happy. Do you understand?”

She shot back almost immediately, “I understand. But I’m not the only one who’s thinking this way. There is talk about Marco leaving. Many think it’s uncalled for.”

“You know then what he did to my child?” I asked loudly. A few heads from the many rows of confession canals looked briefly at me and then turned away. “Do you?” I asked again. When I got no response I continued, “I saw him off with a smile and kiss, and the stoic disposition of a good woman of the City. But he murdered my child.” That put an end to that. I thought she would leave then and I almost started crying for fear that I’d never see the her again. But she just turned in her pool of water to face the Sun, which sat now in the middle of the sky. We both remained silent.

“I loved Marco,” she said. “I thought of him every night and dreamt that I would be so lucky as to have a man like him. I was very jealous of you when I saw you walking hand in hand in the city. During your child’s first few days, when it was still healthy, I envisioned myself dashing its brains out against a rock, I was so jealous.

“I was told that during the Forest Renaissance there were many casualties among the Ecologists. I’ve read that it was common for the students of deceased Ecologists to comfort the widows. That was a very different time, I know. The type of knowledge and revelations the Ecologists brought back from the Forest always kept philosophy in the City up to par, and made sure that the morality of the City always rivaled that of the Forest. So the Quorum let things happen. That’s my view on the matter. They let the students fawn over and sexually pleasure the wives of deceased Ecologists. And this wasn’t looked down upon. The Quorum let things happen. It was a different society then.

“And no Ecologist back then would ever be considered blasphemous or heretical, no matter what they did. Even your stepfather was allowed back in the City after his Incorporation. It was a dangerous, savage, and noble profession. The Quorum and the Ecologists were always at odds, and only when an altered human, completely won over by the Forest was seen by the community, was the Quorum able to convince us that we needed an absolute shutdown of studies. But it had always been what they wanted, long before that. The Forest was their only rival for control.”

This wasn’t a new point of view, but I know Madeline had come to this conclusion on her own, because it is never spoken aloud. She continued.

“And now they have cemented their prejudice against the Forest in us. From birth they teach us to abhor and fear natural life. And finally, with the exile of Marco, they have made it a place where the City disposes of evil things. Unexplained things. It is the junkyard to deposit the demons this City produces.

“I’m an Ecologist, and I want the Forest back. And I want the old lifestyle back, the lifestyle that this society of warrior-scientists created. Where pleasure isn’t shunned and where human bonds exist in a state of nature, not in a City constructed by fallible men.”

“The City has done much for us,” I replied, “we would be dead now without.”

“Yes the City has done much for us,” she said, “but we have done more for it. You have already sacrificed so much.” At this she stepped up onto the clay bank that separated our two canals and stepped down into mine. I could hear murmurs from the people in all the other canals. I couldn’t believe she was doing this, crossing canals in plain view of citizens.

I try to say something, to stop her, but she had already grabbed my arm and directed it to the back of her dress. My fingers untied it and the rockpaper fell in a heap in the water. She pushed her body against mine. She was so supple and warm. We kissed deeply and her breath smelt like mineral salt.

She took my hand and led me into the Great Salt Lake. Despite my gradual breaking with the City in all its norms, this was something I would never have dared to do my own accord. I suppose I am still ingrained to the core with the City’s laws. But I followed her despite the fear that shot through my body. Soon we were out deep in the Lake, swimming, dispersing the sunlight upon the water. We waded far out into the Lake and voices were yelling from the canals behind us.

As we floated on the surface of the Lake I could sense all the bodies of the preserved dead beneath us. I could almost feel the watery breath of my mother and father, I could almost hear the deep, charming laugh of Marco’s father.

All the people lining the shore of the lake stared at us, but their small heads shrank as we drifted out into the distance. We were enveloped in sunlight and floated like ghosts on the heavy water. I felt that we, too, were dead. It didn’t matter who saw us. We were dead.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 9th

 

I spent all yesterday sleeping naked on the cold sheets of my bed. In my dreams I relived the birth of Conrad over and over. At first it was just like it had actually been--I was sedated heavily, and happy. Marco disappeared and returned. I held Mary’s hand tightly, expectant. Her voice echoed through the birthing pyramid, intertwined with the voices of the other midwives.

Then things change. The birth is painful, the child cuts the insides of my womb and vagina as I push it through. Marco, beside me, is terrified. Then a creature, half-plant, half-human emerges from the pool. Marco drowns it. I wake up.

Then another dream, starting the same way. I am happy, expectant, and this time the birth is smooth and easy, as it was in real life. But when Marco brings the baby to the surface it is dead, and melts back into the pool as soon as it touches the air. I awaken in a sweat, but am still so tired, and am starting to feel sick. Shattered sunlight spills through the window and across the ceiling in thin, hard waves. I go back to sleep.

This time Marco pulls out a baby with the face of his father, those wide, inhuman features. When I awake soft moonlight is settled softly upon the white sheets. I sleep again.

This time as I try to give birth I realize nothing is coming. I realize I am not actually pregnant. I turn to look at Marco, but he is not there. Nor is Mary. I look around me, and see the entire birthing pyramid is empty. A storm is seen settling over the apex of the glass pyramid. Rain beats down on the roof and I feel it is going to collapse. It does, in a dazzling, instantaneous shattering of all the panels all at once, from the apex to the base. The falling glass mixes in with the falling rain and all pours down on top of me. Then, I am no longer in the pool of the Pyramid, but bathing in a Confession pool, in the moonlight. I feel the hands of the dead at the bottom of the lake reaching up to caress me. I am terrified, but their hands are warm and pleasurable. So I lean back in the mineral-thick confession pool and close my eyes allowing their dead hands to fondle and massage me.

When I wake the moon has changed angles and the silver light no longer comes through my window. I am surrounded by absolute darkness. But right before my eyes there is a human shadow outlined by some ephemeral consistency in the darkness. Pure darkness within pure darkness, but I can make it out.

“Hello,” I say nervously. There is no response, but I stare at the outline and soon I can make out the features. It is Marco’s father, his wide smile. I close my eyes tightly and open them again. He is still there.

“Conrad?” I ask, extending my hand.

“Mother,” he says. Mother?

He reaches out to take hold of me and at the moment we are about to touch the door opens. A thin flame drifts into the room and casts light upon the shadow, and he disappears.

It is Madeline; and there are others with her. They step quietly into the house and circle my bed. There are five of them.

That was last night.

 

I am writing this in the afternoon, and those five have all left, save Madeline, who lies upon the bed. They came to comfort me as was the custom among the students of deceased Ecologists during the Renaissance. To give their widows pleasure in a time of grief. But that was a different time. If the Quorum were to ever find out what had happened here last night...In the famed Young house at that; how would they be punished? Of course I am not punishable, as is written, but they are very vulnerable to the laws. I asked Madeline about this. She said she didn’t care. Her body so smooth and young, sprawled confidently across my bed. She apparently is too far from the stories of the post-Renaissance raids, the abductions, the exile of many loyal men. The men who left for the Forest. The Cult of Moses. These things are hidden from the young.

 

Part of the reason she does this is to help me forget Marco and Conrad. To help me. And the pleasure does help, but it is only a temporary ameliorant. The memory of Marco and Conrad are like two seeds lost in the corner of my mind, germinating, slowly growing through my thoughts. Soon I will think of nothing else. But by then Conrad, and perhaps Marco as well, will be dead.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 10th

 

Bertrand of the Quorum visited the house today. He had his full ceremonial robes on, which surprised me, given he was stooping so low as to visit the home of an outcast. He was hesitant in the doorframe, waiting for me to invite him in. From the look on his face I was sure he’d break news of Marco’s death. As if I’d expected anything different. I offered him drink and food but he summarily rejected, giving me far more respect than I deserved. There was a long silence, as we sat across the table from each other. And then he spoke.

“Clara. I’ve known Marco for a long time. I’m the only member of the Quorum who was acquainted with him personally. I’m sure you know all that. And your father-in-law. I was one of the few that paid him all due respects after his return to the City. I’ve always been tolerant of the Ecological traditions of the City. I understand what great prestige was lost, or sterilized as a result of the new code, and I often imagine how disheartening all that must have been. For the Ecologists and their families.”

I’d seen Bertrand preside over ceremonies in the City from time to time, and he’d entertained Marco at the Quorum residence. But I’d never seen him close up. His wrinkles were set deep beneath gray bushy eyebrows. He lacked some pretension that marked most Quorum members. His eyes were kinder, as if they were willing to see anything, to accept anything.

I didn’t offer any opinion, although the lull in conversation called for it. I just sat and stared at the intricate details of each wrinkle. He eventually broke the silence.

“People are swimming in the Lake, Clara.” I nodded once, thinking he referred to Madeline and I two days ago. He continued, leaning in closer with his gaze. “Many people. Hundreds of people.” He stared at me with a gentle yet prying gaze. I’m sure that two weeks ago the equanimity of those eyes would have lured any answer, any explanation, any complaisant response out of me he wanted. But now they were powerless. Those eyes became something to be observed only. I remained silent. He leaned back in his chair.

“Actually, could I bother you for some mineral tea Clara? It's been a long walk here from the Chamber.”

“Of course,” I said, happy to get up and do something. As I was grinding the minerals behind him in the kitchen he tried again to elicit some response from me.

“The Lake preserves the dead. All our worthy ancestors, those who buttressed the collective human soul against the encroaching Forest. All our humble priests, and our pompous ones. All our leaders. All those soon-forgotten children that didn’t survive the Second Baptism, our quickly discarded miscarriages, our sons who didn’t live to the day of their naming. How quickly we can put these misfortunes out of our mind, how quickly they decay in our memories. We are able to let their memories fade, we are granted the peace-of-mind to let them go, because we know that the Lake will preserve them. Our heritage is–”

“Pickled at the bottom of some puddle. Preserved eternally in their lifelessness. Who wants to be preserved as such?” I asked placing his mineral tea in front of him. The sun was spilling through the window and laid in an elongated rectangle across the table, illuminating each particle of vapor rising up out of the white clay cup.

“Many,” he said, blowing the particles away in a spiral outside the patch of sunlight and then taking a sip. “Many want to join the great in the preserved memory of this great City.”

“Why do you attach so much significance to the body?” I asked, “When do we ever see those bodies? When are we ever connected to the dead apart from in our minds? As far as I’m concerned their preservation in the Lake is redundant when their only real preservation exists in the minds of those still alive. If someone is not worth remembering, then they are not worth preserving.”

“Maybe those who you would deem ‘not worth remembering’ would disagree.”

I paused for a moment to sip my tea.

“Do you think you can keep their souls intact by holding their bodies together? You deprive their cells of oxygen and supersaturate their organs with the minerals and salts of the Lake. How is this a continuation of life? This is no continuation of life, it is an elongation of death.”

“You could not speak like this with any other member.”

“Why not?”

“You would be punished.”

“Under what authority? I’ve broken from the social contract.”

“Yet you continue to enjoy all the pleasures and comforts that the contract affords its members.”

“I reside in the City. That is all. This house was constructed before the contract took effect. The Lake belongs to all. What does the City give me?”

I could see moisture build in thin layers on his forehead. I was inadvertently tearing through his calm demeanor. I knew how I should have answered, and a frothing social instinct buried somewhere in my stomach compelled me before every utterance to say what the man wanted to hear. To capitulate. But other things came out of my mouth. Pure unfiltered thought wafted without hindrance through my mouth. I said what I said without ill intent. The thoughts floated from the outside in through my skull, as if they’d been passing through the air and needed an outlet, or happened to pass through a sentient creature who decided in an unfettered moment to give them an outlet. The thought became word and there was barely a distinction between the two. This is what so aggravated the man, who lived his life chiseling out thought to create suitable word.

“The City gave you life,” he answered, through almost-clenched teeth. “Because of the City you are able to synthesize your food. Because of the City you can turn poison water pure, and bathe yourself with dirt, sleep comfortable in what our A.D. ancestors would have considered a lifeless barren wasteland. Because of the City you can build a place to live and can maintain a suitable body for your soul.”

“I didn’t ask what the City gave me. I asked what it gives me. I have a de-salinator and can make a new one if it breaks. I know a hundred methods of synthesizing the essential nutrients without any help. I know the inner workings of the desert and I have a roof over my head. I can weave rockclothe and can dry sheets of rockpaper. True, the City taught me how to survive, and I can. The City made life easy in an environment that A.D. man wouldn’t have survived a day in.

“That is all fine. But what does the city give me now?”

“What if every citizen thought this way?” he said pounding the table and shaking the liquid inside the teacups. “What if every citizen were to break the contract and live as free entities? Then who would tend the libraries and continue our development?”

“Well, it seems that many do feel this way. If people are swimming.”

He paused.

“Yes, people are swimming. We don’t know how to deal with it. Except for dampening the catalyst.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“But the fire’s been lit. What will getting rid of the spark do now?”

“Prevention.”

“Against?”

“Further unruliness.”

“The social contract is the combined will of the people. Not what you think is right. Maybe the people want to swim. Maybe the people don't care about the grotesque bloated bodies at the bottom of the Lake. Maybe the citizens want those bodies removed. Maybe the citizens want to go swimming without flakes of dead skin floating in through their nose and mouth and into their ears. Maybe the will is changing.”

“The people wish decisions to be made by a representative force that has the express power of the prophets, the angels, and God.”

“The people want to swim.” I said, crossing my legs and pulling my robe tightly around myself. The room seemed to be getting colder.  Bertrand stayed silent for a moment or two. The wrinkles on his brow ruffled as he formed his next sentence. He leaned in close to me.

“You have been severed from the City. Your responsibility to the contract is dissolved, and now you must suffer the consequences of your freedom. You may think you have all the knowledge to survive as an individual. But soon your possessions will begin to break down and you will have no means of fixing anything. Then what?”

“If that happens, I suppose I will die.”

“If that is your decision. But Clara, don’t take any budding members of our society with you.” He looked deeply into my eyes, letting me know that he was privy to all my inner secrets, and knew about Madeline and I.

“If this behavior persists,” he continued, “the Quorum will confiscate everything you own, and make sure you are exiled. It is one thing to allow a broken member of our society to live amongst us, it is another thing completely to allow her to contaminate our youth.”

He was very serious.

“Where would you expect me to go? To the Forest?”

“I’m afraid we wouldn’t be able to provide transportation to the Forest.”

So it seemed I was to be ousted from the City bounds and left to my own devices in the desert.

“Doesn’t the social contract exempt me from such treatment?”
“You are no longer a part of the contract. Now, Clara, you will live a life of probity until your dying breath, or you’ll wither away in the desert. But you cannot carry on as you have been.” With that he stood up, swung his robe around himself and walked to the door. “Thank you for the tea,” he said before he turned and left.

 

I slept easily that night, dreaming again of giving birth to Conrad. We were in the Great Salt Lake, and the birthing pyramid was not over us. We were exposed to the dense clusters of stars spilling into every empty space in the night sky. The air was brisk and swept a cold chill across my cheeks, but the water was warm and swirled around my naked skin. I held Conrad in my arms and we touched our cold cheeks to one another. I didn’t have to work to wade in the water, for I was completely buoyant, as if held in the arms of the Lake.

When I opened my eyes I saw the shadow of a figure standing above me. I thought it was Madeline at first, but as I let my eyes relax I could see the manly features carve themselves out of the darkness. It was the same man I’d seen a few nights before.

“Who is it this time?” I whispered.

“It’s Conrad.” The voice was youthful but deep. His eyes flickered for a brief instant casting a quick light over his pale blue body.

“I’m happy,” he says, stepping closer and holding out his hand. In it is a twisted mound of brownish purple matter. It is shaped as if hundreds of human muscle fibers had been fused violently together, but it was obviously a fruit of some sort. I reach out to take it, feeling my heart race in my chest, beating up against my ribs. Even now, even after I’ve broken from the morals of the City I still can barely bring myself to touch natural life. My fingertip is within one inch of the fruit when I hear a rapping on the window. I start up in bed and the man pulls the fruit back, smiling. He then turns and walks away through the kitchen and straight through the sandstone wall to the outside. As he is leaving I see two stunted growths twisting out of either side on his backbone, like two bulbous clumps of clay. Like deformed, stunted wings.

Within a moment Madeline walks in through the front door and drifts towards my bed. She leaps up and embraces me immediately.

“The Quorum is watching us,” I say to her. “You better leave.”

“What will the Quorum do?” she says with a derisive scoff.

“They’ve threatened to exile me.” Madeline searched my eyes for any sign of a lie. When she couldn’t find it she sank without a word into the bed and pulled the sheets over her. She pulled her body in close to mine and drifted off to sleep without responding. I too was soon asleep.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 11th

 

Madeline awoke before me and stepped outside. Immediately after she left the house I heard a shriek and the sound of a struggle in front of the house. I could hear sand being kicked up, and bodies struggling against one another. I burst out of bed and ran to the door without dressing. I pulled on the door knob but it wouldn’t budge. I pulled and pulled again, but it wouldn’t so much as shake. I ran to the back door, through the bathroom, and it was the same. It wouldn’t open. In desperation I went back into the kitchen to try the main window. It too would not open. Through it I saw the smug, pathetic face of that Quorum emissary who had come to visit me some days before, and in the distance two men were carrying Madeline away across the street.

The face smirked at me and I scowled back. Soon he averted his gaze and bent down to pick up a sandstone plank. He and another boy who didn’t dare look at me then methodically began securing sandstone planks across the window frame. A dull reverberation swept through the house with each hammer stroke as they drove metal stakes through the ancient clay. The kitchen utensils rattled on the shelves. As did my brain inside my head. I went to the small window in the bedroom to watch Madeline being dragged off down the road. Then, as the sun spread out across the City I saw neighbors gather around in front of the window.

Hundreds stood in a staggered crescent to watch the house boarded up. I saw friends of Marco’s. The Ecology students who had come into my house with Madeline. I saw Charlie and other cousins. And they all merely stood there, staring. Some would lean over and whisper words to those standing beside them. But most just stared straight ahead. Charlie once caught my eye through the window. I could see they were tear-stained, but soon after he looked away and slipped off through the crowd.

Soon there were multiple hammer blows, from all corners of the house. They shook my bones with a syncopated chaos. There was nothing I could do, so I laid down in bed and waited for the racket to finish. I closed my eyes, and tried to relax, to incorporate those ominous hammer blows into my being, to let things fuse together into a peaceful medium. Soon the hammering was right above my head and I could feel the dark spreading across my shut eyelids. The window above my bed was soon boarded as well. Then the hammer blows stopped, and I heard footsteps walk off across the sand, and then a hundred or more footsteps disperse through the street. With the relief that accompanied the new silence I realized how profoundly tired I still was. And, in the absolute darkness I was now shut within, I slept.

 

At about mid-afternoon I woke up. I really had no way of knowing the exact time. I lit a candle and drank a cup of water. Looking into the almost empty basin of water I wondered how long they would keep me in, whether they intend for me to die.

There are voices screaming inside me, but thus far I’ve kept quite. I haven’t begged for help, I haven’t said a word. Surely that would be satisfying for any of my captors who may or may not be standing just outside, anticipating such a pleasure.

Now I wish I’d kept some form of timepiece in the house. At this rate days will blend together, and surely I will die without even knowing if the sun is out.

I ate some stew from the night before and went to bed again.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 12th

 

There is no escape. I’ve tried everywhere. I’m in a thick clay tomb, and I suppose they will just wait for my death. I always imagined that in the event of my imminent death I would pour out all the pent up thoughts and emotions that failed to surface in my life. But I find no urge to do anything. My life suddenly feels insignificant.

I drink water when I’m thirsty. I eat when I’m hungry. By the end of the day there will be no more food or water.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 13th

 

I heard a bashing on the wall today from many sides. I heard the sandstone boards over the window smashed repeatedly and footsteps rushing around the house. I heard Madeline whispering ‘Clara, Clara’, through the boards of the bedroom window. But once I’d kneeled on the bed and pressed my ear to the window I heard people rushing in from all sides and carrying her away. Then more footsteps approached the house and people were carried away in all directions. At one end of the house there was a short-lived scuffle that ended in the blunt sound of a heavy tool hitting flesh and a collapsing body.

My head aches. The gas and candles are running thin. 

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 14th

 

Today I dug up the floorboards of the house in the kitchen to try and reach some minerals underneath to synthesize. But soon after I realized they’d disconnected my wind wheel. Even if I found suitable minerals, I would not be able to use any of my tools.

I will prepare to die.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 15th

 

The gas has completely run out, I’m writing this in the dark. The blackness of the surrounding room has begun to blend inseparably with the blackness encroaching on my inner senses. I’m becoming detached from the processes of my body. I don’t know when I have my eyes open or closed.

I have all the time in the world for thought, but there is nothing significant happening in my head. It is as if all ideas have been shut out by the boards, along with the sunlight, and Madeline, and life.

I have nothing to write.

 

Clara’s Diary –

April 16th

 

Hallucinations. For the lack of stimuli my mind is filling in the blanks. In the corner of my bedroom I saw a shriveled lump of brown skin vaguely in the shape of a human baby. It was beating as if it were a heart stranded from its body, but still operating. It turned towards me and its white eyes blasted holes through the darkness and sucked the warmth out of me.

“Conrad?” I asked. And then, over the course of a second or two the body expanded, filled out with flesh. Its brown skin was smoothed out and fat grew around its limbs. Soon the child was standing, and over time it grew into a man. The same man I’d seen before.

He stared at me, adumbrated against the darkness. Then he came to me and leaned over, holding out that same grotesque, distorted, inharmonious purple fruit. I took it from him and held it by my side, under the bed covers. I didn’t want to play into my own imagination. There was no use pretending to have food.

The man then leaned over to kiss me on the cheek and in a quick instant fused into me. Things rushed through me. Images of the Forest, of Marco, of my life. I closed my eyes, and the hallucinations playing out against the back of my eyelids were colorful and animated.

This is the last line I will write. Soon I’ll retire to my bed and let myself be carried away by the gift of my imagination, which quenches thirst and satiates hunger which, in the end, is all a human needs in life and death.

. . .

 

 

Part 4: The Forest

 

David closes the diary and stares off at the greenery at the far border of Niche Algaric. A flock of blood swallows is heard in a clumped procession of flapping to their left as they bring an Ederesapiens safely to the ground of a neighboring outgrowth. The birds then break off swiftly and burst into a hundred directions throughout the Niche.

“Has anything changed?” Ares asks.

“I’ve seen more changes in my lifetime than you can imagine. But I’ve stopped seeing it as change, girl. Now I see it as a single rolling wave with the peak and the valley passing tumultuous foam between them.”

Ares stands up in a single motion and walks to the edge of the outgrowth and peers out over the top onto her peers below, now in the final stages of their transformation. She can see their skin has taken on a grayish blue, and their hair is falling out in clumps into the sap pools. She is disgusted, as she always is when she sees this transformation. She turns around to look at David.

“We don’t belong here,” she says, loud enough for anyone down below to hear. “We’re humans.”

David has accompanied her on every trip into Niche Algaric, and every time she has decided to postpone her Incorporation. But never before has she reacted as such. Usually she sits in quiet introspection, sometimes flipping through ecological reports, sometimes watching the curious movements of the Ederesapiens. But not this. It seems to David she is slowly losing control over a force she’d just tentatively kept at bay until now. She pulls her fingers through her hair trying to regain composure, but the action just makes her more tense. She tries breathing deeply, but every atom of air in Niche Algaric that enters her lungs just fuels the twisting of her mind.

“We used to be!” she cries out, failing to find any words with more clarity. David stands up and puts his hand out in attempt to calm her.

“Ares,” he says, “Listen to me. Do you realize how vulnerable those young people are below you? There is no turning back for them. Do not say things that could disturb them mentally, or there may be no reversing the effects.” Ares is about to open her mouth, still in hysterics, when David steps forward, and adds, “I’m serious.”

Ares thinks this over, the streams of rationality in fierce conflict with the weltering complexities of emotion rushing through her. A single line of thought can barely hold its tenuous path to conclusion. She shuffles and stumbles and steps in closer to David, breathing heavily. The deep breaths do help, but each one seems to bring her a severe pain. When she is near David he supports her by the shoulders and she slowly lifts her eyes from the ground and pierces into his. She speaks to him in a slow, scratchy whisper, as if a boiling pot under pressure is letting off wisps of steam, just enough to keep from exploding.

“I want to tear this off,” she hisses, scratching at her isolation vest. “I want to tear this thing off.” David tries to answer, not in an attempt to make things clearer for her, but to cool the flames, but she cuts him off before he can begin and continues with a rapid chain of hissed whispers. David can only listen now, satisfied that at least she is out of hearing range of the students below.

“I’ve been reading about A.D. you know. Do you know how many people were on this Earth then? Do you know how many religions? So many Gods. Everything was a question. Even morals. Basic morals. Everything was a question. And yet nobody sought to answer it. We all dealt with questions by asking new questions and soon that is all we were. Anything that only offered answers was scoffed at. Soon religions were scoffed at. Religions that had answers. Questions were the only God. Questions and insecurity with yourself and what you know. Then there were the people who thought they knew, who didn’t need questions because they had answers, but of course there were so many who thought that their answers were the right ones, and that everyone else was wrong. So even their insistence on solid answers just fueled the environment of endless questioning.

“We know the Second Prophet was an idiot in the eyes of everyone around him. Self-professed too. An idiot because he didn’t know the answers to any questions, when most people at least knew some, but none would dare attest to knowing them all. But he knew that this state was not that of original man. He knew we’d deviated. And he knew the disaster of the emergence of the Forest was a chance to find that lost thing again. To erase the questions. To rediscover humans that had been lost among the questions.”

“Quiet down Ares,” says David, holding her shoulders firmly, gazing into her eyes, showing her that he is listening to every word. She trembled slightly, her eyes wide and bloodshot, but continued in a renewed whisper, madness yet unabated.

“There are caves in old Europe that early humans painted the insides of. Real humans. They scuttled amongst wild animals, dodging in and out of survival, bent low into caves, sheltered amongst the trees, bathing in rivers, leaping through valleys. They learnt all they knew from pure observation. It was observation unhindered by questions, but an unending series of little enlightenments. They were painting in one cave for 5,000 years. The same figures. The same animals, slightly evolved, only slightly, for that is how things naturally work, but the same animals. 5,000 years apart, humans, unchanged, painting the same animal on the same cave. What is time to them, or death? What are questions to them other than answers? Once we began to doubt immediate truth we started to tear a gaping void in our humanity. A place where dreams have no resolution and life has rules set by man and not by nature.

“The Second Joseph knew this, and he knew we could make it back. Did we? I don’t know. But you read the reports from the turn of the new era. You read the diaries of those who suffered starvation and every affliction to preserve their humanity. And why? Because they believed humanity still offered something after so many thousands of years. They thought it was still honorable to hide from the bowels of the enigma. For without enigma, then what are humans?

“Joseph knew. He filled the gaps in our humanity with magic again. While technicians toiled to develop new foods for humanity Joseph weaved amongst them, reminding them always that the planets were angels, the stars, and the sun, the lake, the desert, the clouds and the Oceans were angels. Even the Forest, who rivaled God for the hearts of humankind, even the Forest was an Angel to be respected. And God ceased then to be a man and became the body created by the bodies of angels.

“People believed him. The formerly logical people believed him because their souls were re-stitched, their dreams again had resolution and their lives direct instruction. Their dreams became again an extension of their life.”

Ares went into a series of short gasps, eyes still trembling, fixating on a point just behind David, through his head. To him it was obvious something had been allayed, at least momentarily, that some nexus of entanglements had managed to unwind in the space between their minds. But she wasn’t finished. She continued, encouraged perhaps by David’s supporting grip on her shoulders, and sweat began to permeate her clothing and spread across her face.

“The City was united. We were the collective minds of a waking life, and it is as if every time an Ecologist or an adventurer stepped into the Forest, they ventured in fact into the depths of our now tamed, segregated, and compartmentalized unconscious. For we had no more need for unconscious: things were said aloud, desires understood, met, punished, acted upon as a community. That was the City. Those who went to the Forest were devoured by the enigma outright and fused into her very structure.

“But we fixed it. We fixed the problem, didn’t we? We built these shells,” she said, tearing at her isolation vest, twisting her dial violently up and down. David gently restrained her hand and turned it back to 87%. “We built these shells,” she repeated, quieter, shaken by the fluctuations in her genetic exposure, “and again we delved into the absolute unknown.

“So we had questions again. A new world full of questions. Could she, the Forest, merely be an angel, we asked. Could she merely be an angel despite her infinite nature, her varied perceptions, her life hidden in layers and layers, which don’t go deeper but merely recycle until the last layer is the first. Joseph wanted to stall humanity in its evolutionary path, the Quorum was given authority to represent the will of the City’s people and to preserve humanity in that single moment of evolution. To keep us with that genome closest to God.

“But Ecologists started having nightmares, Ecologists were devoured and sucked into the Forest, Ecologists could not believe she was merely an angel, but secretly, and in their own way, began to worship her as a Goddess. For only a Goddess can have that deepness of complexity.

“We call the First Renaissance a great leap forward for humanity. We deride the old Quorum for shutting down access to the Forest after it. We scoff at them for exiling the Young line, and for murdering Clara Young in her own home. But all they were trying to do was protect us from falling again into the endless sorrow of worshipping yet another God.”

She paused, and looked down, as if recollecting a long hidden memory, and continued, much slower.

“Conrad the Younger returned to the City with the grotesque, sinuous, purple fruit of the Primary Canopy. The fruit of the Forest herself, the progenitor of the white seed, of White Bloom, of what we now call consciousness. He returned to the City as the end product in a project started by his grandfather, who infused him with the leaves of the Canopy at birth. We look back on this now and call him a hero, Conrad the Elder. He who sacrificed his son and grandson to further pursue knowledge. Conrad came back with the grotesque purple fruit of the Canopy. 

“When he entered the City the streets cleared to make way. People ran back to their houses, or hid in the temple and prayed. What was this creature? Some called him a deformed angel, two stunted wings bulging from his spine. Some cited the Revelations of John. Most ran from the specter, sheltered their whole lives from the unusual, unstudied in the Forest, unable to wrap their minds around the anomaly. Memories of the Forest had long dissolved from the City, save a few Ecologists. For most the Forest was a dead relic. How then could any have guessed that this was her living ambassador?

“Could they have possibly imagined that this was Clara’s son as he walked without hesitation onto the University grounds and into his ancestral home? Ten years after he’d been condemned to burial in the Forest as a writhing abomination, ten years after Clara rebelled against the Quorum and been shut up in her own home to die as an example to the citizens, ten years after the stonewood boards had been hammered across her windows and doors, ten years after all this had been long forgotten, a demented Angel strode confidently up to the Young house and waited outside the door. Eyes peeked through the windows of nearby houses and from behind buildings, but otherwise the streets were empty. For what emissary of the City had the confidence to approach this monster?

“He, after waiting long, after sensing something was not right, with a strength unimaginable, stripped the boards off the doors and windows of the Young house one by one, the clay and stone splintering through the air, the seal broken for the first time since it was closed. He entered the tomb of Clara Young and found dried flesh still clinging in parts to his mother’s skeleton. An animalistic noise shook the roof of his ancestral home and flooded out into every corner of the City. The Angel walked steadily, silently, across the City to the Chamber of the Quorum. The door had been barred, for they had heard of his arrival and were deliberating about how to respond to the intruder. But Conrad, the Angel, would not give them time. He ripped the two hardwood doors from their hinges with a single sweep of his arms and strode into the Chamber. The bravest of citizens had gathered around the edges of the Chamber to listen. All they would have heard were the mortal screams of old men being torn to pieces. Then, as the din subsided they would have seen Conrad emerge, covered with blood and fragments of bone and flesh. They would have seen him stopping outside the Chamber and taking a bite of that holy purple fruit of the Primary Canopy.

“I’ve read the diaries of the priests who went into the Quorum Chamber many months after Conrad’s arrival. We are not shown those diaries in schools. The bones, they said, the bones were scattered across the great hall. It was impossible to piece the skeletons together. Blood was still caked in fierce splatters on all the walls, the ferrous stench still lingering. And it has been left in that state. I’ve never been, but I assume the stench, all these years on, still lingers now.

“What did people think when that creature of the Forest reappeared onto the streets from the Quorum Chamber, drenched in fresh blood? Nibbling on that twisted fruit, the purple juice and the red blood commingling and flowing down the side of his mouth and down his neck. Did they think: here is the change we wanted; here is our savior; now we can go swimming! What did they think when he walked at a steady pace across the temple grounds, down the central Canal, towards the Great Salt Lake? For those who were saying their confessions, who had not heard news of the creature’s arrival? What did they think when during their winter solstice prayers a naked youth, firmly built and Grecian in the front, two knotted twisted outgrowths in the back, strode without stopping into the Lake? What did they think when they saw the blood of the Quorum Chairmen melt off his skin and settle in clumps on the water’s surface? Did they think: thank God the Forest is coming to us; thank God we are free.

“Then when he reemerged with the bloated, preserved body of Conrad Young, his Grandfather, on his shoulders, bits of flesh coming off the corpse in chunks with the streams of water, did they think back to how Clara was treated? Did they see this youth as her retribution? Did their hearts overload with joy as he paid no heed to the sanctity of the Lake? Did they whisper to themselves: ‘thank God the lake is no longer an angel, but a body of water. And thank God the preserved dead are not ideals of the deceased, crystallized in eternity, but gross bodies that fall to pieces as you touch them.’

“When the body of Conrad the Elder was laid by the strong glistening arms of Conrad the Younger on the temple grounds in the City square, did the people cheer? Did they crowd in and wait patiently to see what new magic and what new questions had been brought in from the Forest? Or did they stand back and hold onto each other, wailing at the sight of the saturated lump of flesh, which had been dumped onto the ground like a slaughtered animal. Did they cheer as Conrad the Younger tore the waterlogged chest of Conrad the Elder open with his very fingertips to expose the preserved organs? Did they balk or did they stand agog with rapture as Conrad stood and bellowed: ‘I have mounted the head of the Goddess and taken her fruit. I have drunk of her blood. I was born with the very pith of her consciousness. Your angels are false. The Forest is the true Goddess and only in knowing her can we truly become creatures divine. Do you want angels? This is your true angel,’ he yells, holding up the purple fruit, ‘I, who was enveloped at birth by her very conscious, and who has traveled to collect her very soul and bring it here unto you.’ Did they kneel and repeat his words as we are encouraged to do now, or did they shirk away with fear as Conrad reached his elegant fingers into the pulp of the twisted fruit and plucked out the white seeds one by one and inserted them into his grandfather’s lungs, his liver, a puddle of pus that had collected in his navel, into his eyeballs, into his muscle fibers. Did they think: ‘this is the beginning of a new great age’ as Conrad rented his grandfather’s head asunder with a single blow and planted one seed in the right hemisphere of his brain, and one in his left, and one in the centre of the undivided fore-frontal Ederesapiens cortex. Did the crowd think: ‘Beatific! Ecstasy! New Life!’ Or did they merely vomit and weep, as they watched the Elder Conrad’s long-dead exposed heart beat as it was infused with the now germinating seeds? Did they delight in the wondrous fusion of life?

“As Conrad then knelt beside the body of his grandfather and shoved a seed between pinched fingers in through his soft chest and into his soggy heart with ease was there applause to accompany that the final act? That famed final act touted as the singular achievement of mankind in every classroom I sat in, around every dinner table. Did they see it coming and offer applause? Or did they watch in stunned and ominous silence as Conrad stood up and looked at them with fierce blue eyes, with the finely carved face of a perfect human genome? Did they marvel at the garden of flowers that grew from Conrad the Elder, my great-grandfather, or were they terrified of the natural life they’d been taught their entire lives to abhor, to fear? What did they think when the first whispers from those flower seeped into their minds, without their control, without their permission?

“My mother, the great Saint Madeline, stepped in from the surrounding group to encircle the growing plants, and was followed by her fellow Ecologists. Were they revolutionaries at heart, convinced that the City needed reordering, convinced that true humanity was being stifled by regulation? Or, were they merely youths adamant on adopting anything that represented the untraditional, anything to set them apart? Did they turn their backs on the crowd and stand in a circle around the growing flowers, hand-in-hand to protect the new natural life, because they felt they were protecting some source of great value and knowledge, or because they were interested in conflict at any cost, and of any kind. My mother uttered her now oft-cited words: ‘The Forest balances. This is the only way the crimes of the City could have been forgiven. The old contract is dissolved. It is time to create a new one. Between all humans, with the Forest as one of us.’ Did those words truly move the masses to agreement, or were they still frightened by the spectacle, ruptured to the core by the sight, so frightened and ruptured perhaps that they would be willing to agree to anything if it meant stability. To claim solidarity with anything that seemed to end the violence and restore peace.

“And the Great Covenant…was that truly the act of reconciliation between the Forest and the City that it is claimed to be. The union between my mother and my father. Between the Angel and the Great Saint Madeline. Or was it merely a blood-inspired frenzy of lust. When she stepped out of the circle and stood from the blooming garden of Conrad the Elder’s consciousness and stared Conrad the Younger in the eyes, when she became the first human to confront him, did she logically conclude that a child between them would serve as a tangible symbol of unification, did she analyze the situation and decide to use her body as a tool for peace? Or was she overwhelmed with a young woman’s lust? Was she overwhelmed by the power of this beast, his skin caked in the salt of the Lake, his fingers stained with the juice of the purple fruit, his chest heaving, his alien sweat producing an alluring scent?

When she walked up to him and dropped her rockpaper dress down around her feet to expose her young naked body, when she brought her breasts up against the skin of this beast, did the crowd gather closer and chant, as friends do for a husband and wife’s first coupling? Did my grandmother and grandfather, Saint Madeline’s beatific parents, did they rejoice in her wise choice of a suitable mate? Madeline wrapped her arms around Conrad and pulled herself up. She dropped down and mounted the Angel’s penis, her legs wrapped tightly around his waist. She moaned, pushing her body up against the Angel’s rips, twisting her hips, urging the semen out of him. The people of the City witnessed all this as the smells of Conrad the Elder’s newly sprouting flowers gained in potency. Their thoughts were overwhelmed with memories of the Forest that were not their own but Conrad’s, and their vision was overwhelmed with this Great Covenant between the Forest and Man, of which I am the product.

“The Angel bellowed and ejaculated his Forest semen into my mother. His body instantly lost the hue of human flesh and slipped into a light blue. His genitals retracted back into his body and his muscles decreased in size. All who saw this knew that he had gotten what he’d come for. He’d been satisfied. Did this all make sense at the time? Was all divine and clear, or were the people desperate for answers, love, reaffirmation, as they saw the bulbous growths upon Conrad’s naked back disappear in the distance and fade over the horizon as he walked home towards the Forest?

“Once the flowers were fully grown and each member of the City had relived the Forest lives of both Conrad the Elder through the redolent fumes that wafted into every corner of the City, from the Eastern border to the edge of the Great Salt Lake, was there a complete unification in the decision to return to a society that revolved around Forest study? Or was there a unification only in words and not in thought? Did people merely want to go to the Forest to escape the constant whispers of Conrad’s life? Were people, perhaps, frightened? Are the people, perhaps, still frightened now as they hear those ghostly voices while they are cooking, swimming, studying, thinking? What is the difference now between my thoughts and Conrad’s thoughts? Am I a being separate from the Great Conrad Young! Or are we one and the same?

“I was treated like an idol from the moment I was pulled from my mother’s birthing pool. The offspring of God and his mistress, the Forest, humanity and the unknown. But once expeditions to the Forest, in the matter of a few years became 100 times more common than they were during the Second Renaissance, I was forgotten about. The priests used me in their new rituals. The People’s Quorum kept me in their chambers during consultations to draw inspiration from me. But soon I became just another child. 100% human. That is what they tell me. My DNA is just as anyone’s in the City.

“Yet I don’t feel human. I feel as if I have been emptied. Every answer bears questions and every question bears more questions. When before we had angels, now we have more questions, and I cannot take it. If I am to live studying the enigma, if that is my express duty, then let the enigma engulf me. Let these people see what a wonderful beast this Goddess is.”

At that Ares pushed away from David and screamed. The shrill pitch sliced through the very air of the Niche. The voices of the students below, some of which had just completed their transformation could be heard asking questions. Some were running out to the edge of their outgrowth below to look up at the commotion.

“It’s a very delicate job, being human,” whispered Ares. “Throughout our history we’ve gotten it right, collectively, but mostly wrong. I’m sure, though, this was our last chance to get it right. We’ve been through so much, and finally, when humanity was left to fend for itself once again, we found a balance. We found a way to live with each other. But it was a fine balance, and I’m sure it is broken. Soon we will be indistinguishable from the Forest, and we’ll spend the rest of eternity futilely searching through her impermeable enigma. So, I refuse to search. I prefer to be devoured.”

With that Ares ripped at the straps of her isolation vest. She pulled with a superhuman strength only afforded by raving madness, and with a decisive snap the vest was torn from her chest. In an instant the surrounding Forest could be felt to move slightly in towards her. Even the surrounding Niches of Rousseau and De Sade throbbed once inwardly, drawn in by the gravity of a foreign specimen in the Forest. All the elements surrounding her sought desperately to merge themselves with the shifting genes of her every cell. She screamed in pain as each chromosome was shuffled and reordered within each and every nucleus of each and every cell. But her screams were distorted and confused as the structure of her vocal cords rearranged at a painful rate. Her arms twisted into different forms. Her fingers fused for a moment to become wings and then spread wide apart, splitting the very muscles of her forearm. Her body was a battlezone of conflicting desires amongst the quickly evolving cells. The mushroom beneath her crept up and infused itself into her legs, the blood sparrows swooped down in flocks and opened up wounds in her skin, which quickly sealed over and sprouted new and shifting aberrations. The dusty ever-present cloud of falling white seed, bent its downward descent in towards her. She was a whirlwind of change and focus, collapsing and rebuilding a number of times every second.

Soon all the students down below had rushed to the edge of their outgrowth to watch the commotion above. Their skin now had the dull blue tint of the Ederesapiens and their eyes were wide and glaring. Their feet sponge-like, long, and nail-less.

In an instant, Ares’ Incorporation ceased, and standing before David was an unspeakable specimen. Her entire lower half had amalgamated with the fungus below, and her arms were connected loosely from the middle of her torso. Her face was distorted, and the little resemblance it bore to the former Ares was not any sense of relief to David, but more a reason for further disgust. The veins beneath her skin could be seen clearly. Streams of purple blood were evinced moving throughout her body. She had no eyes.

The Forest had resettled, and accepted the new creature as a part of it. Ares then took a deep breath. Obviously the lungs were still powerful. It was long and deep and seemed to pull in every particle of air in the Niche. It was a breath not just of air, but something more profound that David could not begin to understand. When she had finished inhaling, she twisted the leftovers of an ear towards David briefly and then, she seemed to smirk. The human facial expression could still just be read beneath the mutated face, and it was very clear. It was a smirk of superiority. Then, without any warning her body lost all form. Her entire frame instantly exploded into a waterfall of mercury thick liquid. All her misshapen limbs and appendages at once fused into an umbrella of free-flowing molecules and sank into the fungal outgrowth beneath her. The outgrowth rippled violently and a shock wave travelled beneath David’s feet and almost knocked him off balance. He heard the water of the transformation pools splash as the shock wave spread through the outgrowth below. David looked below out onto the many outgrowths, and onto the primary outgrowth itself, and saw the figures of Ederesapiens being thrown about as the shock wave ripped beneath their feet as well.

And then, as all went quiet, David heard the voice of Ares at once inside him, between the very cells of his body, and in the pockets of air around him. He heard her laugh, a whispered laugh, but one that yet encompassed him completely. David shivered as the voice shot away in every direction and disappeared somewhere deep into his body, somewhere he couldn’t pinpoint.

One of the students down below, one who had finished his Incorporation and had watched the whole thing yelled up to David. “What’s wrong? Was that Ares?”

“It was Ares,” David called back, trembling.

“What the hell happened?” the same student asked.

“Don’t worry,” David responded, trying to keep composed, voice shaking, “It was her own choice, but don’t worry. Let’s try to put it out of our minds and focus on the next stages of your Incorporation. You’ll soon be ready to study the myriad secrets of your small section of this great Giant.” He gestured at the expanse of the Forest, trying in a pathetic attempt to ignore what had happened. He was in shock.

“Don’t worry about her,” he continued, trying to search for something to say, terrified and trembling. He had the sudden urge to leave the Forest, this Niche. He felt claustrophobic and trapped, hemmed in by the trees, constricted by his isolation vest.

The students, perhaps sensing the tenseness in his voice looked up at the massive body of the tree and let their eyes wander throughout the Niche, for they too had felt something. It was impossible not to feel, for it shook the foundations of their physical reality, like the chanting of the midwives in the birthing pools, it encompassed everything.

David motioned to the students still looking up at him to go back and attend to the classmates still in their birthing pools, and that’s when he saw her silently scream. A young girl amongst the gathered crowd below, her body now fully Ederesapiens, stood with her mouth gaping, pointing towards the birthing pools, which were obscured from David’s view by the outgrowth he was on. Then other students beside her saw what she was pointing at. And they, too, tried to scream, backed away, fell down and attempted to sob. The bodies they occupied were still new to them and they couldn’t yet deal with the intricacies of its operation, especially the mechanics to deal with such powerful emotions.

“What is it?” called David, his heart palpitating, “What do you see?” But the only answer he got was the continued spectacle of silent screams and the contorted throes of inexpressible emotions. He raced as quickly as his old bones would carry him down the fiber ladder that had been set up for him to the outgrowth below. He ran towards the newly transformed Ederesapiens girl, thinking only to stop any of the students from killing themselves, but stopped in his tracks when he saw what they were pointing at. He looked towards the birthing pools where their classmates were undergoing the last few minutes of their transformation and felt his stomach surge wildly, as if it were collapsing, for there were no longer human bodies suspended in those pools, but something else, something he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe. He looked up at the Ederesapiens tending to the pools. They stood staring into the viscously rippling golden sap, too stunned, it seemed, to even move. Reluctantly, David moved step by step, bouncing with each drawn out footstep on the fungi underfoot, towards the pools. He fought to stifle his emotions although they surged ferociously through him. He had to maintain an air of calm stoicism before his students, or who is to say how they’d react, for many of them seemed teetering over the precipice of sanity as it were. It is one thing to deal with horror manifest in its most potent physical form before your eyes; but it is a different thing altogether to cope with such a thing in an alien body, to be reborn to that horror. If David didn’t manage this situation perfectly the new homes for their consciousness would be scarred forevermore, a weak corporeal frame ready to collapse, and to crush their consciousnesses along with its buckling structure.

He continued forward, and what he saw in those pools battled out between imagination and reality in his mind, until he stood right above a pool and gazed down into it, to have the reality complete and untarnished by his imagination. He saw there not a student, not a human, but a skin. The emptied out casing of a human—hair, skin, nails, eyebrows, ears intact, but the innards gone. An empty sac, without eyes, floating there. His disgust was slightly mollified as he steeled himself, and he stared, and stared, until the apparition became but an object of interest, a scientific anomaly. David was able to put himself into this state, a tactic he learned to cope with after witnessing many of the terrible deaths of the young and vulnerable that priests of the Great Salt Lake are employed to preside over. Those who fail the forty days and whose bodies are emaciated, swept over by the desert sands; those whose bodies cannot withstand the poison of the Second Baptism, they wretch and vomit until their insides are turned gelatinous; the still births he must pull from the birthing pools, bless, and carry for miles to the foot of the Great Salt Lake for burial. So, with an extreme effort of will he was able to detach himself from what was suspended in that pool, and study it, and wonder at his next move, for it would set the precedent.

David turned to the Ederesapiens who had been tending the pool he was peering into and asked for the bamboo rod one was holding. David took the rod in his hand, hesitated briefly, and then dunked an end into the pool. A slow-moving ripple formed and spread outwards, knocking against the sides of the pool and moving back in towards the centre. David took a deep breath and pulled the rod through the sap and caught the skin on the end of it. He wedged the rod underneath the seemingly weightless skin and pulled upwards. As the skin broke the surface David had to put both hands on the rod to support its weight. The rod bent as he braced his knees and lugged the skin up out of the liquid with a guttural grunt, large drops of sap sliding down its edge and landing on the fungus below in heavy splashes. He held it up in front of him, but attempted to keep his body between it and the students behind him, so they couldn’t see. He watched the sap drain off it slowly, and then laid it down at his feet. With a sigh he slipped the rod out from underneath the skin and jammed its end into the fungus. He gazed back down into the golden pool, now flat, the turbulent ripples having subsided. He looked down into the glass smooth pool, and as his eyes adjusted on the reflection, he saw not himself, but Ares.

 She smiled up at him and said, “I’m fine”. He turned around to look at the students lining the outskirts of the outgrowth, as far away from the pools as they could possibly get, trembling in their new anatomies, holding on to each other. It seemed like none of them could hear Ares. He turned back to the pool and the reflection, now twice the size, dominating the entire area of the pool said, whispered directly into his very cells, “They can’t hear me, because I don’t want them to.”

“What are you?” David whispered fiercely into the pool, not wanting to startle any of the students behind him.

“Your questions are pointless. Some things cannot be explained, only experienced.” David was about to respond, but Ares’ voice seemed to expand inside him as if it was crowding out his own thoughts.

“The dead here are planted with the seeds of White Bloom, I’m sure you know. Their consciousness stored forever. For anyone to commune with. But where is this boy’s flower?” she asked, her eyes glancing towards the lump of skin next beside the pool. “Where is his consciousness?”

David was about to respond, but he realized that Ares was already privy to anything he might say, for she occupied every inch of him. She was interlaced within his every nascent thought, she swam through his matrix of questions before they were even made word, she took over the job of narrowing down the cacophony of mental processes and forming it into a sentence for him, and she answered at the very moment she allowed a question to be formed. In the end, despite the inner turbulence, there was only silence. He was jostled about helplessly in the sweep of her infiltration into him, utterly powerless, he had not a moment of mental rest, but on the outside there was only silence. Silence for the terrified students behind him. Silence for the still, indifferent Ederesapiens, still standing beside the pools.

Again, her mouth moved: “You see,” she said. And at that moment the sap from the pool rose, and spilled over the edges. In less than a second it had seeped outwards and formed a puddle around David’s feet. It spread around the empty skin beside the pool, and expanded into the pools on either side of it. And all the time Ares’ face became larger and larger. Until her eyes were the size of David’s head. David tried to step back, but his mind was too caught up in a frenzy to make a decision. He controlled nothing of himself anymore, for Ares was inside him. He fought inside himself to regain some control, to find the will to make but a simple decision. He fought with her inside of him, as if she were a demon that he was exorcising. He focused intensely, ignored any intrusion of higher thought, which was dominated by Ares and tried to move his right foot. He pulled with all his strength, his thigh burning with exertion, primal noises escaping his mouth for he didn’t care about what the students thought anymore for this had become a fight for survival. His foot eventually became dislodged from the mass of the sap, but strands still stretched from his boot to the puddle below. Balancing carefully on his other leg he reached his right arm down to try and push aside the strands of sap that were holding him down. As his arm descended towards his shoe, he caught a glimpse of its reflection in the sap below him, and realized, just as he was about to touch the liquid that it was not a reflection of his arm at all, but a woman’s slender arm. Ares’ arm. But by then it was too late. The tip of his middle finger had already sunk into the warm liquid and was immediately seized, as if squeezed between a thumb and a forefinger. David understood then that he was done. His hand was pulled by that middle finger down until his whole hand was submerged in the puddle. It felt as if he were pulled down by the wrist. He fought futilely for one moment and then turned to the students behind him. Bent over, about to be pulled down into Ares’ expanding face, he sought to leave the students with one last message. Something that would give meaning to what they were witnessing, some semblance of hope among the suffering. He stared at them, but no words came to his mouth, for he knew not what to say. He had no conception of the world he was in, he had no idea what to offer. Tell them to run? Tell them to kill themselves, perhaps? Tell them the truth: that they should never have come to the Forest. Humans should never have come back. He tried to say something, at last, but only a squeak came out, for he was on the verge of the unknown and had nothing to offer. So, he squeaked, the great priest David, as he was pulled by the wrist decisively into the golden pool.

He instinctively took a deep breath before plummeting in, and held it for one second. Two seconds. Ten Seconds. Peevishly he opened his eyes and felt the warm sap flow into them. The pool had only been big enough for a human, but as he glanced around him he only saw golden liquid for eternity in every direction. He could move his arms and legs freely about and not touch the fungal edges of the pool. Ares had left his mind, and he was alone with his own thoughts. Suddenly a hundred things that he could have said to the students rushed through his mind. He was calm. Although slowly running out of air, and knowing that soon he would die, he was calm. He floated and let the thoughts role through him. He fought complexity and just let the simple pleasure of the moment overtake him. Then, feeling his lungs convulse he opened his mouth, breathing the liquid sap inside himself. And at that moment Ares appeared in front of him, completely suspended, as he was, in the liquid, dressed in white robes that flowed with the gentle current of the sap. These were the clothes she was wearing when David first met her, when she was introduced by her mother, Madeline, at the Sunday Market on the Temple grounds many years ago. She was such a vital young woman then, and this is how she was now, before him.

“Now you understand?” she asked, half smiling. David merely shrugged, for he didn’t want to think too deeply. He felt his mind dying, and although the painful convulsions had stopped once he inhaled the sap, he didn’t want to die full of complexities. So instead of trying to understand he just let himself have the thoughts that would naturally come, the ones that were suspended already in the sap around him.

So, in response, David just lazily shook his head. He felt the haze descending over his eyes. Ares moved up to him, with a tender smile. She moved up next to David, placed the palm of her left hand across the back of his neck and put her forehead against his. David couldn’t help but smile, for he couldn’t remember the last time he was embraced as such by a beautiful young girl.

When David then resigned himself to fade away, he felt her right hand press against the dial of his isolation vest. He mustered up a last reserve of energy and looked up at her.

“Will you die human, or live forever as a part of the Forest?” she asked. There are many things he could have considered at that moment. The words of Joseph the Second, enthroning the consciousness of man as the mode of thought most close to the divine, yet emphasizing always the beauty of transience. The unlimited wonders of the Forest, the killer and sustainer, the epicenter of life. But logic wouldn’t work for him, considered analysis was past him. He could only act on the simplest of concepts and the most basic reactions: a mixture of human instinct and the morality that is so ingrained within him that he doesn’t have to fight to uphold it.

He reached down and placed his hand over Ares’, and looked through the sap into her eyes. He couldn’t help thinking at that moment of Marco Young, in his own pool of sap, the first voluntary incorporation all those years ago. He was now in the same position, suspended in a pool of the Tree’s blood. As Marco had turned the dial on his isolation vest down to zero, to expose his genome to the very blood of the tree, to let go of his humanity completely and let the liquid transform as it would, David would take the opposite action. He held Ares’ hand firmly, pressed his forehead deeper into hers and brought her cheek up against his. He could expire this way, with isolation vest at 87%. With his surroundings translated to accommodate his human senses. He could die feeling the soothing flow of thick liquid against his skin, a warm human touch upon him. He could die, not quite human, not quite a piece of the Forest, yet steeped in immense pleasure.

He grasped Ares’ hand and began to turn the dial to 100%, very slowly. He saw the color of the liquid shifting throughout the visible spectrum until it was no longer color, and no longer music, and no longer anything at all. His senses mingled. Ares’ touch against him was converted from feeling to sound to color to smell, as the dial moved towards 100%. Senses mingled until it was impossible to make sense of what was around him. He faded, his thoughts faded, his senses faded. The last thing he perceived was the click of his isolation vest as it hit 100%, and after that there was an utter emptiness of thought, for he was a human in an environment where human senses don’t apply. He was empty. Himself, a human, but empty of excesses. All he knew was pleasure, and the sensation that his personal story had ended correctly, in the only way that it could have. There was a pride in him, for he was human, and he would die human, and there was a deep empathy for those who had lost their humanity, for they would never die like this. This holy.

 

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