They Grew Strangeness on Their Face

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They were neither dead nor alive, but contested between the animate and the inanimate. Orange-and-green veins of lichen, red-and-black mold bloated and ready to release tufts of spores. They were growing collections of skin that resembled what they imagined their environment to be: beyond what is, beyond when is, beyond who is, beyond where is. They were their own world, and were worlding a new one.

They absorbed anything that was in their path and, in the same way as nothing leaves the earthbound realm without considerable effort, they shed first the land and then the sky. They recycled their own waste with such efficiency that there was none. Things went in, but things did not come out. It seemed as though they were building up their strength to rival the planet – for that was their potential, the potential to planetate.

After the Event, a motley collection of displaced survivors were all that remained, I among them. As time went, it became harder and harder to trust other people’s capacity for humanity. Altruism was rare if not extinct. It had me wondering if this slight return to the Great Outdoors was not unlike an addict’s period of withdrawal when entering rehab – before it got better, it had to get worse.

I did not doubt them, I believed in them. It was the revocation of privileged societal liberties that they were desperately coping with through fear-laden violence. It was not human nature that made their lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; murder, war, annihilation, these things were all the expansion of freedom’s prison.

More and more, I would come across the remains of things that were suspended somewhere between what they were and what they were being reanimated into, contorted and deranged like the warping of extreme time.

Its reach was not selective. The mold spread out like a field of traps, a permeable membrane of total inclusion without any indication of segregation, just a net of dark ecology entangling a struggling nature. In its strangeness it would digest animal, plant life and artifacts as though there was no difference to be found in metabolizing them. It removed the difference and repetition out of things. All prey was equal.

Some of those that were exposed to it were already dead, but usually the case was that there had been the unmanifested symptoms of it in them while still living. We travelled where it wasn’t, or at least, we tried to avoid it at all costs. We had seen one too many infected human to know that it was impartial to us.

In the half-light, when camp was set, you could hear them roaming about at the edge of the night, a confused staggering, as if what they had caught was not yet them but also no longer fully themselves, either. When night fell, they glowed with the luminescence of deep sea creatures, like jellyfish floating through the great unknown.

The meat of the animals they caught were a spoiled and rotted compost of soupy proteins. Inside, the mobile, cocooned creatures, were relatively docile as though stunned by paralysis. A slow decomposition was taking place, like how a carnivorous plant ensnares an insect in its fruiting body, drowning it by its own exhaustive efforts to escape, drowning in its flesh.

One day, I split one of the cocooned ones open to see what appeared to be the festering remains of a deer. It was hardly recognizable from what it was; the shape alone held the idea of a prior form, the details now gone. What a horrible, blurred being! What a cascade of grotesque images that now ensnare my mind.

The malign machination of a slow vivisection was taking place, rooting mycelium deeper and deeper into the organism’s tissue, as if knitting threads of itself into the fabric of the deer-thing. It was clear enough that it had gone straight for the central nervous system. The creature operated as if a zombie, ignorant of the mold that had first entered its lungs as a harmless atom of a spore, creeping up the spine and into its brain from the corpuscles of the respiratory tract. It weeded through to the circulatory system’s arterial vessels, similar to how vines creep vertical structures, to finally burst through the pores of its root hairs into flowering arrays of tumors and slime.

Along with those I traveled with, we were quickly aware of the symptoms that occurred in human subjects. A kind of hallucinatory estrangement from the group was common. In the same way as a cold is no longer contagious when you are showing sickness, the bursting pressure of what was harbouring itself inside was only an after effect. As the mold spread out over the skin, the hallucinations increased to the point of brain damage…

And then a wild and immense scenery generated, from their blood, to their vision.

“Faces on the surface of everything! Faces, so many faces, what do they want?!” That was what we heard the most of, before we heard nothing at all. The infected member of a group would, with the sickly mold encrusted areas growing out of their scalp, hidden conspicuously by the mat of hair, rambled about how they could see faces in the wood grain, in the leaves, the stones, the sky, faces everywhere, faces and still more faces.

Once their mind went to the creature, the person would become quiet and utterly disassociated. It would follow the group for a while, as though it thought the friends or relations wouldn’t notice their abnormal shift in behaviour, that something was just wrong about them, or that the imitation of clothing that imperceptibly grew out as an overgrowth of the articles below. Among the last incomprehensible things that the victim’s partially digested vocal cords had seemed to be saying, with the guttural rasp of its larynx, was that it knew them now.

It wasn’t hostile to us; it was too occupied with the other sedated insect in its tenuous web. There was a kind of superiority in how it took something over, a dark tranquility. Although it continued to move like a human, we knew at some point in our travels that there was nothing underneath the mere impression of humanality left to it. Just a motile hedge in the misenchanted garden it was keeper of, tending, stewarding, with a strange shade of humanness about it, the impressions of the things that it stored but could not be.

Then, it stopped following us. It veered off course, pressed itself to the concrete wall of the deserted industrial facility of yet another collapsed-in city, and started to sink into it, like lichen over the stones of a garden wall. It must have ran out of energy, having fully digested the person within its smart stomach. No husk of brittle bones or decomposing skull to thin to the marrow of time, just the heaping of slime on slime.

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It’s colour depended on the food source. It was an omnivore if there ever was one. A god-size hunger. When it finished dissolving a creature in its endless bowels, it went into the vegetative stage of its dietary cycle.

You knew it had recently fed on meat if it was blue and active; If it had been only eating vegetation, it would give off a green pigmentation and lethargy followed; Yellow was a photosynthetic stage in which it fused with surrounding infrastructure for support; Vermilion was a sort of hibernation, a low energy state that led to the reproductive form it took; Complete inactivity was black. After the spores were released, it turned the color of charcoal, like a frosty dead limb.

The deep purple of its hibernation was a starry night, so deep it was almost off the visible light spectrum and your eyes had to adjust unnaturally to it like you were the first human to see it, demanding something new of your optics. It was said to have been seen in areas of high radiation, or possibly after consuming the irradiated biomass accumulated in larger members of the local ecosystem. It was the only colour that meant aggression. We weren’t exactly sure what aggression meant.

The mold had a muscle memory for the creatures it had had an appetite for. Sometimes you would come across what looked like something else but in reality, was a decoy of skin that grew in a similar pattern to the things you thought you saw. It was all a mirage of light and texture. Externalized thought of the things it had a taste for. Its memory full of skulls, its movements full of hunger.

For some time, I had been journeying alone, joining one nomadic mission for another. Eternal movement was the way. I came to realize it was better for me to travel alone in these times. The people I had travelled with were beacons of disease. The larger the number, the slower the decision making, the quicker the spread of contamination. If humankind had learnt anything from our troublesome past, it was that monstrous qualities emerged in the large numbers of anything, individual realities overshadowed. So I avoided larger groups, and only traded or spoke with them if I was certain they had not reverted to savagery, or the neo-primitivism that was unique to this dark age.

Because the slime mold found its way into the folds of everything, made the meat of hunted creatures bad and blighted the edible vegetation, cannibalism and murder and other taboos that disestablished moral valence, solidarity unraveled. And since humans knew how to better protect themselves from breathing in the spores, they were the unpolluted ones on the table.

The day I met the child, I wasn’t sure whether it was a real human child, or a mere simulacrum that rose out from the slimy skin of the mold, a hand puppet on the arm of that organic intelligence. The child had never seen the old earth; it was only as old as the coming of the new. Raised feral and wordless.

It was living in a heavily infested region of the forest. When a patch of land was this concentrated with the mold, it began to round out and uplift, as if the growth of soil and other organic material were a cancer to this earth, forming a tumour that swelled upwards with the malfunction of a dying globe, and the otherworldliness of a New Life World. It kept gaining parts of the world, while we kept losing them.

Migrating through this region was becoming more and more dangerous as the years passed. In all direction were massive cults that combated with one another for the resources that scarcity had made rare. Their rituals were absurd. They worshipped new gods that were neither pagan nor monotheistic. They worshipped the chthonic slime that heaped together larger and larger masses. They made offerings to it, usually children and infants, but also entire cults would vanish completely, their forlorn villages emptied out. I assumed that this was how the child had originally arrived there. These were sacred grounds, and it was forbidden to walk through them. It was because of this that I went unseen each season.

Across this vast and waveless ocean, the appearances of human heads, animal heads, and all the heads of the things that went into it, would tread the surface like a swimmer treads water, glistening dark heads, coated in an oily slick, only to withdraw back into the inhuman calm of it.  I myself felt inhuman, looking at this distorted landscape that had no place for me.

The strangeness of the area, in the years that I have made my way through it, had become an impossible place to recognize. It held stranger and stranger properties. As it expanded, the quality in the air changed. Hallucinogenic pheromones were radiated off of the accretionary mass of topological mold to create what seemed to emit with it, its own spacetime. I wondered if this was a kind of atmosphere for it to breathe in an alien oxygen, a personal sky. I had developed a tolerance for it, though in my youth, it had affected me terribly. I still experience an initial perceptual shift from the norm, seeing it all spiral through mad, kaleidoscope eyes.

The deeper you went through the thick of the elevated woodland, the more the sense of weightlessness inspired a floating feeling in your gut. Objects that were not part of that dark ecological binding would go against gravity, unbound, floating skywards like a soap bubble adrift. It was a sort of anti-gravitational zone where the laws we knew no longer applied. A floating forest. The earth was growing a limb into the sky.

My migrational pattern was the result of my interactions with a changed climate. Originally, I went north and inland, as the southern plain was an enormous desolate horizon, desertified by the ozone holes that allowed the sun to tunnel into that burnt land each day.

The coast line and those nameless cities along it, were sunken. The ocean had become a leviathan, and if the ocean was now a leviathan, the epidemic that grew on the mainland was a behemoth to it.

With the receding shorelines being lapped away by the tongue of an antediluvian beast, and the rising giants that ascended into the vastness, the narrow passages of the growing abyss below, the places for humans to coexist, had become ultraviolent.

I found a new frontier reveal itself in the northern melt, with the glaciers gone and the people many. Although the land was exposed, it was barren, nothing grew, even with the increase of several degrees across the globe. Life did not last there. The winters were still cold, if not colder than before, and so it was not advisable to stay for more than a season. I figured that this would be my last chance to use the route I carved in the ever constricting landscape. The abyss was too dark and deep, too bizarre, too suffocating to remain hopeful of maintaining safe passage. Everything pushed up horribly close to everything else, and making contact was inevitable. There was simply nowhere left to go, no room to be human.

I was in my time of dying. There was no doubt in my mind that I was on the other side of an Event that did not provide the human species with the means to be human, the means to exist as we always had. I was unquestionably on the other side of our extinction. There was no distance between us and it, and we needed that distance, because we are the distance.

Each breath sounded like my last to take. The air quality that had been filtered through the thread count in the fabric of my veil, my entire face like a religious garb of no significance, was just enough to disallow the rather large spores from entering me. Nonetheless, it had made my lungs asthmatic. My muscles were atrophying from lack of food and the tendinous joints and bone that held me together were hardening into an arthritic stiffness. The violent encounters I had had with my fellow humans had left my body misshapen and crippled.

I limped with the assistance of a staff to brace my gradually diminishing weight, as I ventured through the uncanny zone, mildly hallucinating in its magic realism. I was astonished at the degree of heaviness that had been alleviated from me on entering this time around. I was nearly levitating and had to swim the gaping expanse, grabbing onto whatever I could in order to anchor myself, while climbing through the bat winged branches of the treetops of the floating forest.

It was as though Atlas, after an eternity of existentially shouldering the burden of the globe, was on the verge of shrugging the globe sphere into the void of the celestial sphere. The strangeness of the growth was that it appeared to be terraforming. Everything went in, nothing ever came out. This was the conclusion I came to, after having passed by it for so long, that whatever had the frightening extent, the expanse, that it had, was not intended to stay.

The child glided past me, a disgusting cherub. It was covered in the strange growths of the mold, but it did not turn invasive in this case, no, it and the child were symbiotes. Clothing was grown out of its skin, forming a protective collar around the mouth to prevent spores from entering. Control seemed to be had over the shapes it changed into, the shapes of creatures in the memory of the mold would become the child’s body – wearing the skin of others. Looking like all kinds of metaphorical monsters of Greek mythology, the child’s thoughts manifested in space itself, like a reptilian camouflage. A tendril that reminded me of an umbilical cord tethered the child from its stomach to the tiny planet, like a fetus connected to its strange mother, an astronaut to their space station.

I kept my distance as it orbited me in suspicion. By the time that I regained myself and was again earthbound, the child was pulling and tugging the cord tight. Over my shoulder, I could see that the child continued to watch me hobble away until I was out of sight, with fixated eyes that pretended to be human.

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It was the struggle to make the impossible and the mundane match up, separate worlds that were grotesque and normal, new and old.

Not far from the foam’s tiny planet, whose sediment pushed up and down to grow spherically out of earth, there was a house. It stood, or floated, out from  the middle of nowhere. These desolate architectonic beings were scattered somewhat aimlessly throughout the hinterland of the New Earth. I had stumbled upon a few that were abandoned over the course of my life. Every time I came across one, I felt what I had originally felt; it felt like a miracle, even though in reality, it wasn’t so unreal, not so unexplainable, not like the mold, which was the very stuff unreality was made of.

The house in front of me was the height of modernity. No windows or doors. The aesthetic dimensions of the structure almost floated in front of the surroundings with an alien sanitation, neither continuous nor discontinuous with the landscape. Rather, it remained entirely withdrawn in a sort of grounded middle mist until it was activated. Even then, you couldn’t tell the background from the foreground. Only what you needed presented itself to you.

In a techno-capitalist culture, the isolationist elite often moved well outside of society. Society was, for all intents and purposes, self-sustaining. It had closed itself off from human labour long ago, and since then, it was wisest to stay clear of a society that could only communicate to other societies. The architecture of cities had become an inhuman environment and the conditions were too futurist for any fragile creature that wandered into it. It was a concrete divide between nature and society. The skyscrapers had inverted themselves into earthscrapers, structures that tunnelled into the depths of geological time, inaccessible to anything that wasn’t programmed.

Where did the people that made the society go? Well, they had many fates, as destiny is shared amongst all. From what I can tell, most went into the Great Outdoors, trying to find their primordial roots before the innumerable worlds floated away, like balloons at the fair, carrying away the remainder of earth they claimed.

On approaching it, the house looked compact, but once you entered it, everything flipped inside out. The surface of the same blind walls, seen from the outside , became windows and doors on looking out. You could see through every point of contact, exit from every point of contact, and the interior was vast, in fact, it was another outside, only inside. It was a mobius strip; a telltale sign you were in one was if your heart was on the other side of your chest, and your navel was gone.

You had to know what you were looking for if you wanted to use a house like this. Since they were more virtual than actual, you determined its potential. It was in the in-between, half-in half-out of reality. These houses were entry portals to the middle kingdom.

Nothing in it was real — that’s the first lesson. The second is that it was hyperreal. It convinced your body into hyper-agreeing with what it interpreted, so much so that the simulated faith in food would stimulate real reactions in the body, similar to actual food, enough to live off of your own overexcited imagination.

This was where the thinkers of tomorrow dwelled. I could walk out of the house right now and engage with a society as if it were truly right there, when really, it was spread out over the entire nation, the entire world. No one met in person anymore. This was a taboo, an unhygienic, untimely practise, reserved for a pre-modern class who miscommunicated to no end. Since material society ran itself, immaterial society was the only reason to remain social and to remain social meant to be an augmenter, a possessive individual.

This megalithic city I was presently in was a heterotopia: a plurality of virtual utopian vistas that are augmented by those that are nodes of it. The global center was called the United City of Light, and the hegemon were its inhabitants.

Only by reducing the real reality to a grey dystopian goo, one that could be formed into whatever met their desires with satisfaction, could the hegemon then sustain themselves in the Idea of the USL. Immortality required the sacrifice of everything mortal.

I came here to record what I had experienced, bring samples back and answer what I needed to be a straightforward question, but wasn’t: was the slime mold some sort of biological weapon, or something else entirely? It was difficult to answer; weren’t we all capable of being weapons, every person and every thing? This was partially why I survived so much longer than those that I had journeyed with. I did it for danger money. These big tell jobs were high risk, illegal even, but it gave me partial access to the commune and that was better than being outside the quarantine for good, lost and with no way back to the cyber civilization.

Not for the first time, I thought of the child’s eyes, while I logged my reflections on this sojourn trek. How did it survive in such a strange place? Was it the only one? Were there others? Were the others what it had summoned when I passed, the legs and arms of so many extinct creatures? Were they all alive in an indifferent coffin, or dead in a loving coffin, one that preserved the integrity of their ghost’s shell? Did it kill what was inside of it? Would I be food for it? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.

The child was the closest encounter with something that might disprove the theory that the amorphous ooze was a weapon. Who wanted to know? Those that may or may not be responsible for the devastating fallout, perhaps.

There was something insidious about the child’s movements, about its semblance. How it acrobatically pulled itself along the length of the tentacle that extended out from its stomach like a feeding tube or a serpent, the way it pirouetted around the floating trees, and the skin that rippled spasmodically in shadowy impressions, and the eyes, the eyes. Somehow, from those labyrinth eyes I knew that even if it wasn’t the will of the child that transitioned through those elaborate transformations, that once there had been a child and that it was real. But, then again, mightn’t it not have been a delusion?

In the USL, it was forbidden to have children without proper application, but if I were to have had one, it put an unfathomable dread in me, to imagine this as its fate. made me cringe to think it could end up like this. To be so imperfectly absorbed, and still retain a fearless, almost endless, innocence that had no care for what it had ever been. Maybe this child was what we had to become to continue to exist? To accept that the way we see beauty is only the ugliness of a narcissistic fear that everything may change, even change itself may change, forever.

Is it a weapon? What’s it like inside? Is it alone, or is it many? How human is it? Is it dead, or will it live forever? The questions carried the answer. I finished my writings with a question mark, and headed out of that house of misperception. For all my looking, the real question was still out there.

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I had seen them depart from earth, before, but never had I seen one so intimately. The slime mold were world builders, constructors of a groundless existence containing all new material. But in doing this, were they also destroyers of worlds? They became bloated with the waste of this planetary dumping ground only to fuse it to the mother, fuse themselves to the mother that was all of them and, when they reached a point at which gravity failed, they fell up, up, up into the atmosphere.

They were the genitals of the earth. Like a sperm germinating an ovum, I imagined that inside of that tiny planet was an entire Life World, an embryo of something much bigger than this earth could handle. A uterotopia. An ark. A future. It was only a monster to humans, not to the universe; the landscape in front of me was proof of that. The new pieces would lift off, too light to be believed.

When I again reached the spot that I had last seen the child, it was nowhere to be found; all that remained were fields of an absurdly nondescript lumpiness, a fleshy sack of rattling bones. From somewhere in the distance, I could hear the chanting of the local cults, praising and damning the growth of strangeness. What would they do when their gods left them? What would we all do when we were back to dealing with each other?

The air was polluted with random objects bobbing in a kind of astral buoyancy. They were suspended in a web of gravitational gossamer, encircling the apocalyptic splendor like flocks of birds around a landfill. I could see a thickness to the maelstrom above me, and below the slime was shimmering a preternatural sequin of ultraviolet that my vision almost failed to detect.

Where does it all lead to? Where do they go? What does it feel like to descend into the seed of a planet? I thrusted my hand into the bowels of the mold, it was like a sponge full of oil. It bled a cyanide blue-black when I squeezed it and smelled of burnt-almonds. My hand stank of that oil, and I thought it must have been a vessel for a sea of death. Inside, all the diversity of nature was compressed into one demonical ether. A black sun of possibilities swarmed.

I could hear the black meat of the creature grinding and vibrating sound within the stickiness, the oil that stained my hand a scintillating wet black that tingled with vitality. A sound that I did not know, one I had been hearing until it now trembled in my hand, a tremor that divided me from myself. The hand was a livid splendor of miscreation and verged me further into the surf of that strangeness, like an undertow beneath the bridge of life.

The monstrosity throbbed. I felt it grow strange strangers over my hand until it was no longer mine to know. It wanted to know more, so that I wouldn’t be so strange to it. It became more, and I became less and less, as it questioned me with its intelligent molestation. I was taken, taken in by the struggle. Taken into the question, by the questioner. There was no answer, only access, only contact. And of course, the one to grip me in its question was a child of the unknown, a child that eerily asked why about everything. I didn’t have any answers for it.

The earth beneath rumbled with Otherness, enough to rupture whatever bonded this Earth to the next. And all at once, I was gone, into the ball of unlife. It knew me now. And in that reservoir a greasy darkness, a viscous shadow realm gurgled and welled up, like a strangled yell from underwater: I know you, I know you now.

In the yoke of that submerged place, a wine dark church tolled the sound that I thought I had heard. The buzzing ring rang swarms of insect, as if the bell was a hive stricken by a stick. It appeared to be made of roots that looked like bones, or in this place, maybe bones that looked like roots. A terrifying congregation dressed in startling clergy vestments emerged from the unliving walls of the church, ready for service. And then the child, the one that had taken my hand, led me to a place where the inverted sun never rises, never sets, though they all watched where it would have commanded the horizon, if there had been one. And as they gazed into the burning eclipse of the abyss, they grew strangeness on their face.


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