Fungal Dreams of Xerxes Sigma

by Alexandra Fresch

Three scientists, sent on a routine survey mission, crash-land on the remote planet of Xerxes Sigma. One lies unconscious, in critical condition. Another, the ship's captain, falls prey to an alien sickness. The last tries to keep his comrades alive and continue their mission as they wait for rescue, recording his scientific findings and personal experiences—even as he struggles with strange, unwanted feelings for his captain that grow stronger by the day.

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R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



Personal Log: Gregory Asher


First Only Xenobiologist, Xerxes Sigma Exploration Team


Mars Base Registered Mission #106478


Day One.


Well, it’s a hell of a way to start a routine planet-survey mission, but we’re all still in one piece. In a sense, anyway. MacDougal’s still unconscious, but his vitals are fine, and Captain Burke and I just have a few scratches. Could’ve been worse. That fuel leak could’ve gone unnoticed until we tried to lift off next year and either sent us sky-high or stranded us just after we’d used the last of our supplies. As it was, we crashed pretty close to where we were going to touch down anyway, and the impact was mild enough that we’ve still got our ship AI and automated facilities intact. While Burke was sending an alert back to Mars Home Station and starting MacDougal on an IV, I put on an EVA suit and poked my head out. Xerxes set hours ago and it was too dark to see anything. The moons were up, though. Sort of a greenish color.


Damn it, I miss Matt already. The AI says it's almost sunset at our house near Olympus Mons. I wish I could be there with him, watching the sky.




Xerxes Sigma: Day Two.


My God, it’s beautiful out here. Even Burke looked impressed, and she normally doesn’t give a damn about anything she can’t measure with a barometer. We suited up while it was still dark, headed out—her with her weather balloons, me with my sample jars and spring-loaded traps—and then Xerxes came over the mountains and lit a magnesium fire over everything. The jungle here just bursts out of the ground, filled with strange half-animal shapes towering to the yellow-gold sky; the vegetation’s all this bright, cruel scarlet with blue and violet accents. After living my whole life with the browns of Earth and the dull reds of Mars, Sigma's colors make me dizzy. And it’s a small planet; this ecosystem type covers it almost from pole to pole according to the preliminary orbital photographs we’d been briefed with. Even the soil is a rich, vivid black that seems to suck in the hues next to it. MacDougal would have loved to get his instruments on that.


I set and flagged thirty small Sherman traps in a radius of about five miles around camp, then went in circles gathering plant samples while Burke calibrated and released her weather balloons. The orbital survey probes said that Xerxes Sigma’s atmosphere had a gas composition similar to Earth’s, but Burke wants us to keep our EVA suits on until she’s gotten some of her own data. She’s always so cautious.




Xerxes Sigma: Day Three.


Mars Home Station says they’ve received our alert and will send a retrieval ship within forty local days of our crash. Easier to bounce radio signals through hyperspace than bulky ships, I guess. Matter can only exit or enter into real space at the edge of a system, beyond its star’s gravity well, so then you’ve got all that travel time to factor in. Anyway, hopefully we can get at least a little surveying done before pickup. It’d be a shame to get nothing out of this mission but wasted fuel and knocks on the head.


Speaking of which, MacDougal still hasn’t regained consciousness. His pupils still dilate unevenly. He alternates between shallow, rapid breaths and periods where he almost stops breathing entirely. Burke decided to intubate him for nutrients and oxygen. What else can we do?  Without more advanced medical AI and equipment, we can’t tell the location or the extent of the trauma, let alone reverse it…or even do much if his condition takes a turn for the worse.


No catches yet. Have set an additional fifteen medium Shermans and two large Tomahawk traps. The life of this world still takes my breath away. This isn’t the Nature of Earth—we’ve beaten and muzzled that for our convenience—or the domesticated, bottle-fed Nature of Mars. Sigma is really wild. It’s… magnificent. That’s the only word for it. A powerful beauty. A beautiful power. It’s not hard to imagine it swallowing me.


If it were just me, I might let it. But there’s Burke and MacDougal here, too. And Matt, waiting for me. Earth and Mars. There’s a whole species that expects us back. And if Xerxes Sigma would make a good colony planet, there’s a whole crop of humans waiting somewhere in the future for us to give the all-clear.


I feel guilty writing this, but I hope we find something wrong with Sigma. I hope it doesn’t make a good colony planet and we can just leave it spinning, growing, out in the stars.




XS: Day Five.


The plants seem to all have a higher copper content than I would expect, given the data we already have on Sigma. They’re tough, too—very hard to macerate, or even tear off the branch. But that’s not the strangest thing. They all have some sort of black material running in strings through their vascular systems, right down to the smallest capillaries. I’m also having difficulty extracting any sort of photosynthetic compound from the leaves once I do manage to macerate them. Too bad MacDougal isn’t awake to tell us anything more about the soil. Other than that, very boring around here. I’ve checked the traps twice a day, but haven’t caught anything yet. Maybe Sigmanite animals don’t like peanut butter? Will change the bait when it stops raining… The local rain is unpleasantly acidic.


I can tell Burke is bored, too. She’s even more irritable than usual, and she keeps scratching herself.




XS: Day Six.


I miss Matt every night, but last night was especially bad. The rain was drumming on the roof and the images of him just kept floating past, one after another. His thick dark hair and green eyes. His small, wiry body and tight butt. Our long conversations curled up in bed on Sunday morning. His expressions: what I always call his “mathematician face,” lips pursed and forehead wrinkled as he works on a difficult problem. That subtle little smile he keeps just for me. The way his face crumples and blooms in pure, overwhelming pleasure when he—


For Christ’s sake, I can hear Burke scratching herself from all the way over here.




XS: Day Eight.


Let it be known to all that on this day, I, Greg Asher, caught three whole, live Sigmanite animals! The biggest one was roughly the size and shape of a weasel, but eight-legged, with wrinkled, naked skin and a nasty carnivorous dentition. The other two were a different species: only four legs, with elaborate, almost feather-like scales, stout claws, and a large bulbous growth on their dorsal posteriors. All were a dark shade of green, as if to purposefully contrast the vegetation and mock the color scheme of Old Earth. I’ve separated each into its own isolation glove-box for observation.


On the bad side, Burke’s getting thinner. At first I just thought she was stressed or having trouble sleeping—her eyes looked sunken and she moved slower—but this morning I glanced over as she was changing her shirt and I realized I could count her ribs from across the room. I reprogrammed the ship’s kitchen for larger portions when she was out resetting her rain gauges.




XS: Day Nine.


I’m definitely not imagining it. When I woke up I saw her sitting at the AI diagnosis machine. She’s sick with something. But what? We still haven’t gone outside without EVA suits once, and we go through full decontamination whenever we come back in. We couldn’t have carried anything inside the ship. And all exploration teams get multiple full physicals starting months before launch.


She changes the subject whenever I try to mention it. But she looks scared, too, even as she’s brushing me off. She knows something’s wrong.


MacDougal is getting worse. At night in my bunk I’ll hear him suck in one slow, quiet breath, then more than a minute of silence before the next.


After lunch I dissected one of the smaller animal specimens and found the same black, stringy substance that I’ve been seeing in the vascular tissues of Sigmanite plants. The substance runs in tendrils throughout all its body tissues, but it is most concentrated in its dorsal sac and seems to originate from there.


I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what to do.




XS: Day Eleven.


I have decided to suspend all field activities and look after Burke instead, by which I mean keep her inside. She tried to go out again today after breakfast and kicked up a hell of a fuss when I stopped her. She seemed to have no patience left, and when she tried to physically push past me, I just held her arms and let her wear herself out. Her eyes were very bright, her cheeks and lips were flushed, she was breathing hard from such a small exertion… She may be the captain, but she needs to lie down and just let herself be taken care of.


After she went back to her bunk and fell asleep, I dissected the other member of the smaller, feather-scaled species. It yielded the same black substance in the same patterns. Since both individuals displayed this sign and were very curious and active during the few days I observed them, it seems that these structures are not pathological, but belong to a mutualistic partner. (I suppose it could be commensal, but since the dorsal sac appears to be a specialized organ for cultivating or storing this symbiont, mutualism seems more likely.)


The weasel-like animal grew visibly agitated at the sight of the dissection, leaping at the clear plastic sides of its glove-box and producing thick red ropes of what appeared to be saliva from between its teeth. I am curious about its process of digestion, so I transferred the body to its glove-box once I was finished. It tore open the dorsal sac and gulped down the black, stringy sludge inside, then picked at the rest of the body apathetically for a minute before lying down to rest. I look forward to dissecting it tomorrow morning. For now, my own dinner.




XS: Day Twelve.


MacDougal died today.


The EKG and EEG machines woke us before dawn. For once, the Sigmanite and Mars Home dawn lined up. We rushed over to his bed. I tried CPR while Burke gave him an atropine IV push and got an epinephrine shot ready. She injected it right into his heart. It didn’t do any good.


We should have immediately started preparations to preserve the body for autopsy, but we just stayed there for a minute quietly. Not watching or waiting—what was there to watch or wait for? Just… I don’t know why. Burke was making a visible effort to stand very still, her mouth in a thin, hard line. At that moment I could tell she felt, as the captain, far more guilt than she deserved. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, to tell her that I would support her, to put my arm around her that came out wrong.


Maybe I should make use of that diagnosis machine myself.




XS: Day Thirteen / 27 days to rescue.


I took the weasel-like animal outside and let it go. MacDougal’s in the cryo-locker but there’s still a weird smell in the air. Not corpselike at all. Sort of sweet; dusty, yet with a hint of muskiness about it, too. It reminds me of Matt in a way that makes me blush and thank God no one can read my thoughts. I tried to follow it to the source, but this ship’s so small and its air so thoroughly recycled that I gave up after ten minutes.


Burke’s breathing gets louder every hour. I think the infection is in her lungs, too.




Day Fourteen / 26 days to rescue.


Holy mother of God, Burke’s got something under her skin.


I queried the AI diagnosis machine over and over, hoping blindly that something new would come up, something that would give me all the answers. But there was nothing. Nothing about black streaks that follow the paths of blood vessels. It’s like the webs of redness that surround an infected wound, except it’s everywhere—running visible through every artery and vein—and it definitely wasn’t there three days ago.


I asked her if she had any wounds and she just moaned. I should check her for wounds and take her temperature while I’m at it, but I really don’t want to… Whenever I get near her the smell is really strong and I just get distracted by her panting, her half-lidded eyes, her reddened face. I don’t want to think about undressing her. No, that’s wrong. I do want to think about it—do more than think about it—and that scares the hell out of me.




Day Sixteen / 24 days to rescue.


I don’t know what made me think of it, but after I ate breakfast today (she won’t eat, or can’t), I went to the equipment locker and looked over the EVA suits. I took the one whose little titanium faceplate-plaque read “Karen Burke” and hooked it up to the puncture tester. Air hissed out. The tiniest blood-smeared tear, almost undetectable, at the back of the knee.


That’s how it got in. Some microscopic native thing that leapt the gulf between organisms adapted to lightyears-distant planets exploded to life under her skin and spread its tentacling hyphae through her body. Is this—fungus, for lack of a better word, for lack of any word—also what’s making me feel this way about Burke? Every animal and plant on Xerxes Sigma evolved on the back of this thing, as integral to life as the grass of Old Earth or the cultivated algae of Mars; they eat it, shelter it, grow in its soil, draw strength from it. Cherish it. Honor and obey. But humans are alien territory. Its effects on Burke and me could be coincidence—the random, extreme symptoms of a newly-jumped parasite blundering around in unfamiliar bodies. Like the emerging zoonotic diseases of the twenty-first century.


Or those effects could form part of a perfectly tuned transmission strategy. There might be a reason why the same ecosystem covers all of Sigma. This fungus could have become not only endemic, but a vital symbiont, the substrate of this whole world. If that’s the case, it must have once been passed between creatures by infection, like a parasite, across the valleys and mountains and continents. And though Burke is its first new host in centuries, maybe millennia, the ancient way it encouraged its own transmission still remains. A stroke of evolutionary genius. Perfect. Irresistible, in every sense.


It’s funny, in a way that isn’t funny at all. Burke analyzed and re-analyzed the air for the safety of its gas composition. All exploration teams are outfitted with laspistols for any large, hostile creatures we might encounter on our deployment planet. But what’s going to bring us down is an organism we couldn’t even see.


She sleeps more and more every day. Soon I’ll have to put her on an IV.




Rescue -21 days.


I tried to jerk off while thinking about Matt last night. I really did. But it kept turning into Burke: her body willowy from sickness, her red, swollen lips and flushed cheeks, the shadow tracing each delicate vein under her pale skin.


I think I’m going insane.




Rescue -16 days.


My body feels hot all over, achy. It’s hard to think about anything but Burke. Touching her. Fucking her. Today I took her head in my hands and kissed her, angry and confused and so hard I couldn't stand it, and she just kept staring into space like I hadn’t done anything. Her eyes were blank. But bright. So bright. I don’t know if she was even fully conscious.


I can’t kill myself. Burke will die, too.




rescue -12


I did it. I couldn’t stop myself.




rescue -11


I’m sorry, Matt. I’ve done something terrible.


I’m sorry, Burke. I know I’m going to do it again.




rescue -7


Today I saw the faintest black outlines under my skin.








she’s dead


i’m turning black too


she’s dead but god she’s still so beautiful






one more time


just one more




* * *


Species: Entomophthora muscae.


A spore of this parasitic fungus comes in contact with a fly, blooms to penetrate its chitinous armor, and spreads nutrient-gathering tendrils through its body at a fantastic rate. Within a few days of infection, furry yellow pillows of fungus bulge out from its joints and between the segments of its grotesquely swollen abdomen. The fly feels an uncontrollable urge to find a high place, glue itself down by its sticky proboscis, and lock its body into a singular position: wings upright, front legs lowered, abdomen raised into the air. The fungus waits to explode out of the fly, killing it instantly, until just before sunset—guaranteeing that its spores will rain onto the highest possible number of sleeping, dew-moist houseflies below.

But this fungus has a second, even stranger transmission trick. In some quirk of visual or olfactory stimuli, male houseflies vastly prefer E. muscae-infected corpses (of either sex) over live, healthy females. They will flock to the fungus-ridden husk. They will court and embrace it, tirelessly, trying again and again to mate. Until a spore touches their flesh and burrows in. Until the great parasitic mass within fills them with a different compulsion and they, too, join the irresistible dead.






Shelton, Anthony. Entomophthora muscae. Biological Control: A Guide to Natural Enemies

in North America. Cornell University—College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Department of Entomology. Online. Accessed 28 June 2012 at <>.


Volk, Thomas. Entomophthora muscae. Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month. University of

Wisconsin at La Crosse—Department of Biology. March 2000. Accessed 28 June 2012 at <>.


Zimmer, Carl. Parasite Rex: inside the bizarre world of nature's most dangerous

creatures. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Pages 86, 115. Print.






Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Fresch

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

ALEXANDRA FRESCH: I was born in San Diego, California but currently live in Denver, Colorado. I am a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a little more than a year from completing a double major in Creative Writing and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I'm doing an undergraduate honors thesis about how people view, discuss, and think about parasites. In both writing and reading, I'm especially interested in science fiction, horror, and fantasy. I am also interested in videogames, both as a newly-fledged storytelling medium and just for fun. I plan to pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing with the eventual goal of becoming a creative writing professor, and if that doesn't work out, I think I might like editing.

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