It’s the middle of the night before we can take a break. Getting out of the valley was tougher than getting into it. Cleve had promised a robot and some electronic parts in return for the EMP grenade, so we have two robots now, one completely busted because of what I ripped out of it, and the other just turned off. We piled the broken one on Cleve’s disabled one and then had to push the stack uphill out of the miasma, sometimes through mud, sometimes through brambles. All the time in the dark. Cleve did what he could to cover the tracks we left, but who knows what that area will look like in daylight, especially if wind happens to clear the miasma. Next time Morgan sends people out this way, they will know that someone took the security robots. If the vegetation hasn’t grown back yet, they’ll probably have a good idea which way the culprits went. And if Morgan knows anything about Data Haven’s location, that’s probably who he’ll blame. Although, by then I imagine Dr. Citali’s factory virus will have shut down some production, so maybe the Stepdaughters of Chiron will seem the likely culprits. At any rate, we’ve left no evidence of ourselves personally—Cleve was able to find his dropped rifle—so we three are in the clear.
It’s nice to see Cor looking happy; she seems more like an excited teenager now. She really enjoyed the job, both because she stuck it to Morgan and because she demonstrated some new competencies. She’s bouncing the whole time we wrestle with the robots. Me, I’m really starting to flag. If I weren’t leaning on a robot, I’d be leaning on my cane. When we finally have a chance to make camp and settle down around a fire, I’m uncharacteristically quiet, focusing inward on my own new abilities with my eyes closed.
Across from me, Cleve and Cor chatter away. “That was super cool! I hacked the node. I hacked a robot! And Cleve, you did an awesome job keeping that robot off our backs. Mariah, you too, way to get me in. But, yeah, I feel like I’m going to crash hard in an hour.”
“Uh-huh,” Cleve says, unaware of the drug cocktail in her system. “So… you succeeded?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Got the old tap right here,” she pats her jacket pocket, “with all the data collected on it. New tap’s in place. Mariah had an extra data stick to shove in, so we did that, too.”
“Good job,” he compliments her, sounding proud.
“And we got a robot—well, two robots. I guess Mariah gets credit for taking out the second one.”
As their conversation goes on around me, I recapture that cool, soothing feeling from before, and the ache of smashing my head against a solid robot finally clears. It’s balanced by worsening pain from the chemical burn on my neck and hand, though. I haven’t got this all figured out just yet.
I hear some shuffling, and then Cleve’s uncertain voice. “Uh, Cor, what’s that?”
“Uh, Mariah? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I feel better,” I answer Corazon as I open my eyes. Cleve is all tense, with his rifle out and pointed at something in my direction. I turn to look behind me to see what the threat is, but there’s nothing there.
“Okay… because you’re, like, glowing? Is that a leftover planetfaller radiation thing?”
I turn back around to my companions and hold up my right arm to regard it. “Whoa! I am!” We aren’t in the fog of miasma here at our elevated encampment, but motes of twinkling purple float before me. It’s like when I looked out at the rivers of xenofungus and saw them sparkle red and purple, only here, coalescing right around me. As I move my right hand back and forth, they move with it. They slowly wink out, though, and soon everything is back to normal.
Except for Cleve. He’s still wound up. I suppose from his point of view, it might look like I was being attacked by purple sparkles. “That doesn’t seem good,” he says nervously.
“No, no, it’s—”
“Wait, are any of the rest of us glowing?” Cor interrupts me. “Is this some trick of the miasma? Or, wait, am I hallucinating?”
“No, I saw it, too,” Cleve tells her.
“Wasn’t that cool?” I can’t contain my excitement, but my companions don’t share it. Cleve worries that there might be some reason for us all to be hallucinating. Corazon’s hung up on radiation, though, and asks whether anyone has a Geiger counter. That actually makes Cleve laugh.
“No, we’re not hallucinating,” I assure everyone. “Hallucinations were a side effect of the drug that Corazon took to help her in the miasma. You and I, Cleve, have no cause to hallucinate. None of us are hallucinating.”
That answers Cleve’s concerns; he gets up and goes on patrol. Corazon, though, simply reframes her worries. “Okay, am I hallucinating this whole conversation? Poke me,” she suggests.
I humor her, reaching my cane over to jab her a couple times. “This sort of thing is not at all in the description of what you might hallucinate based on the medical documentation from Dr. Citali,” I tell Cor. I pull the drug information sheet from my satchel and return it to her. She looks through it, and I hear her mutter something about seeing Pablo, so I guess Saba wasn’t the only person she dreamt up on this job.
“Shimmerflies don’t attack, right?” Cleve calls, looking hard into the dark mushroom shrub forest.
“Uh, yeah,” Cor says, in her that’s obvious tone.
“They’re not dangerous,” I agree. I’ve both heard that from Corazon and read it in the wildlife zine Dr. Citali gave me. “Calm down, Cleve. There’s nothing out there. That was me.”
“Okay, but why glowing?” Corazon asks. “Is there some residual miasma effect?”
“Yeah!” I say happily, brimming with excitement.
“Shouldn’t you be concerned about this?”
“No! Did you—? I—?” I’m tripping over my words, trying to articulate the experience.
Cor turns to Cleve. “Is he normally like this? Oh, you don’t know him that well either…”
“I can do something with it!” I insist.
Cor raises an eyebrow. “It sounds like you’ve got fungus on the brain.”
I’m not alarmed by any of this at all, and I think my demeanor finally registers with her. “I can do something with it,” I reiterate. “It’s like a medium.”
“I mean… I guess so. As long as you’re not choking on it, right?”
“When you shot me with the fungicide, I could feel the miasma burning up.”
“Yeah, that’s what it does,” she says, not understanding. “It burns fungus and miasma.” Cor’s memories of her hallucinations must be a little patchy, because she suddenly realizes the implications of what I said. “Oh, I blasted you! I’m really sorry I shot you with the fungicide.”
I don’t blame her; she didn’t know it was me. “I’m sure the burns will heal,” I tell her, brushing that off. “But I could feel it burning the miasma.”
“Like heat?” Cleve asks.
“No. Not that I could feel the by-product of it burning. I could feel it burning.”
“Did you take any of that drug too?” Cleve asks.
“No! I haven’t taken anything. I can just… do something with it,” I insist. “It’s like when the wolf beetle came over and was friendly with me.”
“Look, that one was probably just a domesticated wolf beetle that had gone feral,” Corazon says.
“I don’t think so. I think there was a real connection between me and it.”
“Well, can you clear the miasma?” Cleve asks, ever practical.
“Yeah, what do you feel like you can do?” Cor backs him up.
I look around, trying to think of what I could demonstrate for them. The miasma levels here right now are sufficiently low that it’s invisible. Well, when it’s not flickering, anyway. I settle my attention on a section of xenofungus at the edge of our camp, seeing if I can nudge it out of the way to make the area easier to walk through. All I manage to do is make it quiver, but, hey, that’s something!
Cor reacts nervously at first, reaching for her fungicide gun, but when the xenofungus gently waves back and forth, she settles down.
“Weird,” Cleve says. “But could be useful. What is the skill?”
My concentration collapses at that unexpected question, and the xenofungus stills. “What?”
“What is it you’re doing?” Cleve clarifies. “What did you do on Earth that did this?”
I laugh at the absurdity of that.
“Oh, is this a planetfaller thing?” Cor asks.
“No, this is something here. This is something to do with the fungus or the miasma,” I insist. “This is not…”
“This isn’t a skill you had before?” Cleve presses.
“No, I didn’t. It’s not a skill. I didn’t learn this in school. It’s a thing I just figured out.”
“I mean, I know LA’s not that weird, but you hear stories about telekinesis and stuff,” Cleve says.
“Okay, did you take any experimental drugs from Dr. Citali earlier?” Cor asks me. “‘Cause I know the Stepdaughters of Chiron are into ecological stuff.”
“It’s been days since I was given a treatment shot to help with the miasma effects of when we first went through the pass. That was almost a week ago.”
Cleve turns his questioning on Corazon now. “So this isn’t a thing people can do here?”
“No, I’ve never heard of someone who can do anything like this. We can’t even figure out how to make xenofungus edible. We can barely destroy it with fungicide.”
“It’s not the enemy,” I tell her.
“Well, I’ve never seen a walking plant or large fuzzy beetle before, so this is kind of all new,” Cleve says, prepared to take my fungus influence in stride.
“Yeah, this is strange,” Cor agrees. “But whatever. It’s a whole new world, right?”
Cleve walks over to the patch of xenofungus that I made wobble and waves his arms around, I guess to see if he can do it as well. When it stays still, he shrugs and rejoins us at the fire.
“I can’t explain it,” I tell them. “But I smashed my head on that other robot, and I was able to use this to get the pain to subside.”
“Seems like something to keep practicing,” Cleve says.
“Do you want to be a test subject?” I ask him. His forearms are covered with bruises from his own tussle with a robot. “I was able to get rid of my own bruise. I could try yours. You were wondering if it was useful.”
“I guess this is the only way to tell, right?” Cleve nods to himself. “All right, give it a go.” He kneels down next to me and presents his arm.
I pick a small bruise to start with, the simplest test I can think of. I hover my hand over his arm, and a purple shimmer slowly becomes visible between our flesh. I move my hand down, and it sinks into Cleve’s skin. The bruise fades away.
“Seems useful to me,” Cleve declares. He holds up his arm for Corazon to see.
“I agree. Definitely seems useful,” Cor acknowledges. “I haven’t heard about it, though. Definitely… you might want to be careful who you tell about it.” I give her a puzzled look. “You could become somebody’s lab experiment, is all I’m saying.”
“It’s not that bad,” Cleve observes, having just been a test subject himself. He pokes at his arm to verify that the ache is gone from the healed spot.
“Wait, do you know of that happening to other people?” I ask Corazon.
“Not this specifically, but Morgan Pharmaceuticals definitely hires people for lab experiments. Not everybody makes it. And there’s a lot of things we don’t understand out there,” she adds, swinging her arm wide to encompass the planet. “People would be keenly interested that you can make xenofungus move—if for no other reason than that you could make it move out of the way. Provided you can figure out how to make it do more than wave. Morgan, definitely. I would assume the Stepdaughters of Chiron—if they’re not already familiar with this—would also be very interested.”
“Can you do it again?” Cleve asks.
“Sure,” I agree. I shift into a more comfortable position, sitting on my left leg with my aching right one bent, that foot flat on the ground. Cleve’s left wrist looks pretty bad. In addition to fresh bruises, there are some tears to the skin as well. I hold both my hands over the injury and concentrate on focusing the strange new sensations there. The now-familiar purple shimmer coalesces beneath my hands, only this time, it’s accompanied by a fiery explosion in my right leg. This feels worse than when I originally shattered my ankle and tibia, and it’s even more shocking because of how sudden and unexpected it is. With a gasp of pain, I clutch my leg, dropping my forehead to my knee. I draw in a shaky breath through gritted teeth.
It’s intense. Too intense. My brain shuts down again to block it out, just like when we reached the end of Miasma Pass on our way to Data Haven. I feel myself falling, and in the last moments before my eyes slip shut, I see something beautiful. In the shroom trees just on the edge of camp, a shimmerfly hovers, its gossamer wings beating slowly. They reflect the firelight. Or maybe they sparkle on their own. Maybe it’s saying hello.
Cleve’s voice sounds distantly. “Em?”
But I’m gone.