It began its life as a spore on a moon inundated with fungi. Its genetics were precisely calibrated by architect-slime, and to accelerate its growth it spent a season in the warmness pits. There it was comfortable, and its first non-ancestral memories were of two sensations only: suspension and expansion. But in time the pits were drained, and it was expelled onto the fronds of becoming, where it would receive its final body. Cold dark surrounded it, and it waited as tendrils connected and reconnected to those at its side.

Whether the error occurred by chance, negligence, or sabotage cannot be said. The autonomous specialization process was to have given the fungus the body of a Shepherd, a slow-moving yet capacious hulk whose task was to aid in controlling and recycling the Unruly that flourished upon the Core Mycelium. But the instructions misfired, and it became not a full-sized Shepherd but a runt barely larger than two Burrowers stacked beak-to-root. The error went unnoticed, and the Shepherd was itself herded to the vertical fields.

At first it attempted to do its job, lifting its meager heads and scything its fingers, but the Unruly ignored it, laughing with their movements. It thought it just had to learn through experience, and tried harder. Other Shepherds plodded by and the spongy ground shook. The Unruly quailed and it regarded them with wonder. It chased them, trying to learn by watching the secret of their size, but soon it received instructions that it was to remain in its own zone, and it did not dare countermand an instruction.

It soon became clear that it could not properly shepherd its zone. The Unruly, that never took the same form, feasted on the tender Mycelium that itself ate the Iron Core, and instructions came to other Shepherds to contain the threat. The giants plodded through its zone, and the Unruly fled. It met the eyes of one, far above, and thought it saw the other sigh infinitesimally.

It believed it knew the source of the problem. In a season of rest, when the Unruly waned, it sneaked in darkness to the warmness pits, where it remembered its first expansion. It sloughed into one, submerging into slime, and, without knowing it, crushing a generation of macrospores. The moon reeled. Instructions flared. Tendrils seized the interloper, who had disobeyed.

At the base of a vast region of unburrowed stone, there is a single shaft blocked by a muscly valve of white fungus. It is shot-through with black veins. Forty Shepherds stand outside it. To this, the tendrils bring the runt. The valve cracks wide enough for its body to pass. Beyond, a dim purple light breaks upon the perfect blackness of the undermoon. It feels fear – maximum priority self preservation – but cannot act. It receives its final instruction, which does not resemble any it has received before: “Kzassllud. Imperfect.”

The tendrils thrust it into the purple glow, and the valve closes.

Published on May 12, 2014
Written by Cameron Higby-Naquin