“They Shall Flourish and Spread” by Andrew S. Fuller
Orel trudged alongside her family and millions of others though the vast tunnel, footstep by footstep on the spongy floor, guided by the gleaming violet threads in the walls and the promise of one direction. The marching multitude stretched before and behind them into the immeasurable dim and musty distance. Her feet hurt and she was bored.
“I want to go faster!” Her little brother jumped ahead of them, then skipped backward.
“Hush now,” Father said patiently.
“Qun, mind your feet and your neighbors.” Mother’s long hair caught the glow from the only light.
“Put me on your shoulders, Orel.” Qun tugged at her arm. Only waist-high, and so much energy.
“You’ll never see the front row,” she sighed, “And I’m so tired.”
Qun stamped his feet, whimpering.
“We are all weary,” Father said. He waved goodbye to their neighbors and led his family to the open right side. There they laid a circle of luminescent thread.
The continuous column moved by them, some offered greeting, most looked away as Qun cried himself hoarse. Eventually hunger settled him. They peeled succulent hyphae fibers from the soft rubbery wall and sucked out earthy moisture with thirsty lips, until they found their fill. After walking through the crowd to the left side and back one hundred paces to defecate, they returned to camp and spread out on the warm floor.
Qun sobbed into his arms. “…so many ahead of us.”
Orel caressed his fine hair. “So many behind us, too.” She sang to him, soothing euphonious tones that rose and carried in the high circular space, and many walkers hummed accompaniment. Soon the air grew sweet, as spores dusted down on them from the gilled cavern ceiling. It was always a blessing. Finally he closed his eyes.
Three of them woke before Qun, and knowing he would be disappointed to miss so many steps, Father carried him for a long while. It was better that way because they passed a few integrations on the left, some of the prone forms covered in fine white wispy filaments with enough definition still to see limbs and fingers and even faces.
When they passed a birthing hut on the right, woven from the wall matter and marked with a spiral glow symbol, Orel saw Mother watching her with an odd smile. Orel glared back, and Mother laughed lightly. At least it was a quiet hut.
Even awake, Qun allowed himself to be carried for a short distance, as he drowsily sucked his thumb. Father put him down when the march came upon a group with a broken wagon. He helped integrate the faulty wheel and Mother helped shape a new one.
Once they rejoined the flow, young Qun walked briskly. Then he trotted between the walkers, and they humored him, jogging to keep pace. His sister wondered if they would take their meal on the run.
They worked on his creeds as they ran. He recited them impatiently.
“What do we do?”
“Why do we walk?”
“Our planet was dying, but The Passage grew down from the sky and provided us the way.”
“How do we walk?”
“Forward, always forward. Never back.”
“What are the sides?
“Eat and love on the right, waste and die on the left.”
“Where do we go?”
“To our home anew, full of soil and sky.”
“What is The Passage?”
“The Passage is our warmth from the cold and the dark. It is our food and our life. The Passage is our path. And so we walk.”
The murmur of the parade was interrupted, then halted, by ecstatic shouts. “I see one! Oh, I see it – there! I lay claim!” A man ran out from the company, pointing excitedly at the cavern wall. He scrambled against the curved tissue and gained a few upward steps. “Help me, my neighbors!” Soon others saw the golden point of light moving along the purple threads. They ran to boost him up and he eagerly plunged his hand into the porous structure. They lowered him to the floor, and parted in a wide ring of awed faces at the golden nodule he held with shaking hands.
He smiled and laughed with bewilderment.
“Pilgrim, you are sanctified,” someone said. “A primordium has chosen you.”
“Are you ready to depart?” someone else said.
“I…” He seemed as if he’d been startled awake.
“You must be ready. You must go. Its light could extinguish at any moment.”
“I…” He looked at a woman nearby and immediately began to weep. “Kyna–”
Seeing this made Orel’s heart hurt.
“You must be ready – or someone else must take your place.” A large man stepped forward.
“It’s alright, Farr, my love.” Kyna smiled at him, though she was crying too.
Farr nodded at her. Then he straightened to a controlled stance. He took a deep breath, placed the shining nodule in his mouth and swallowed.
Silence filled the cavern as they watched.
The one called Farr furrowed his brow and coughed, and was about to say something more, when he disappeared.
Orel had expected a bursting flash of light, or a loud noise, but there was nothing spectacular, only empty space where he’d been, and a faint bitter odor that hung in the air so briefly she wasn’t sure if she imagined it.
Mother pushed dried fibers into Orel’s hands. “Show me weave patterns three and seven.”
“Why now, Mother?” Orel rolled her eyes.
“You haven’t been practicing.”
“I don’t want to practice. Why don’t you teach Qun?”
“It is not a man’s job nor a boy’s.”
“Don’t speak back at your Mother,” Father said.
“Don’t speak back at Mother,” Qun sang.
The Tsipo family glared at their youngest until he looked at his toes.
“Well, I don’t need to practice.” She tried to give the fibers back.
As they walked, Mother unfolded a long mat from her carry basket. “Do I need to show you again?” Her fingers moved quickly, lacing and knitting the strands to complete a row.
Orel sighed heavily. She smoothed the fibers in her fist as was customary to do, then met Mother’s eyes. She began slowly with a bend and a wrap, then a tight stitch and a loop, then faster until her hands tumbled in a frantic blur. Her feet stumbled a few times but she did not stop weaving or break her gaze. After one hundred counts she held out a small figurine to her parents.
“What is it?” Qun’s mouth hung open with wonder.
Orel looked at it for the first time. The strange sculpture could have been a miniature table, as it had four legs, but it also had a very defined neck and head that featured details like ear twists and tightly woven eyes and sharp projections that were not exactly roots, for they grew upward. It was unlike anything they had ever seen.
“Yes, daughter, what is it?” Mother asked.
“Can I have it?” Qun held his arms at his sides with obvious control, his small hands clenching anxiously. “Can I?”
Orel gave it to him with a smile and he immediately held it close for inspection.
They moved to the side and stopped. “Where did you see this…?” Father asked.
She tried to remember, or to picture it in her mind again, but found nothing. “A dream,” she whispered, “it must be.”
Mother embraced her. “You’ve been practicing instead of sleeping.”
The passersby watched them and, abashed, Orel covered her face. When Mother sobbed, she squeezed her back.
Qun made peculiar noises as they walked. He yowled and squawked, he tittered and buzzed and gurgled. Father would ask him to stop and he would say, “It’s not me, it’s…” and would hold up the small figure. He clicked and cheeped and mooed and snorted and tsked and blorted and oinked.
Orel stuffed hyphae in her ears. She closed her eyes and expunged the pain in her feet and forgot her legs, and eventually found walksleep.
“Have you heard?” said their neighbor in front of them, “Eighty-four hundred steps ahead, Euga Vypi has become a pilgrim.”
“I had not heard, thank you,” Father said, “May protection and favor go with him on his journey.” They bowed to one another. Then Father turned and relayed the news to the next row.
For a long while Father stared ahead with weary eyes. Orel noticed this and it frightened her. She was about to tell Mother to hold his hand, but a commotion erupted behind them.
First murmurs, then shouts of “Despoiler! Violator!” came from the crowd.
Father’s gaze hardened, and he bolted left. A few others joined him and they locked arms in a string across the open lane just a moment before a man collided with them.
“No! Please, no!” he yelled, kicking to break free.
“Despoiler!” shouted the crowd.
“I never did!”
“We will see,” Father said.
A young girl was brought forward, crying uncontrollably. She was barely younger than Orel.
Mother tried to press her family back into the crowd, but the people were tight and unmoving.
“What is your name?” Father asked.
“Did this one pervade you against your wishes?” Father pointed at the prisoner.
She cried and sobbed, and could only nod.
Mother became very serious. “Orel, take your brother one thousand steps forward and wait for us on the right.”
“You take him. I want to see.”
Already the men formed a wide base and boosted more men onto their shoulders. At three reaches high they were not even a quarter way to the ceiling. The accused screamed protests as they brought him forward.
Mother’s face quivered and Orel didn’t know if it was anger or fear, and for a moment she thought she might strike her. But then she turned calm and whispered, “Please, Orel. Not now.”
She did as she was told. She picked up her brother and held his face to her chest to muffle his questions as she carried him quickly away. She glanced back to see them, very high up, as they dug and clawed into the soft wall, then pressed the struggling man into the seeping cavity. And the wall responded, reaching filament after filament over his body. She turned and broke into a run. In time she couldn’t hear his shrieks anymore.
She made Qun count the steps as she told him a story about his four-legged toy, about how in some distant place, it was taller than five men and roamed in vast open spaces without a ceiling, where it ate sweet waving strands of strangely-colored matter and drank from wide bottomless pools of moisture. At first he scowled and shook his head, but then added that it roamed in great groups, and often chased off other very hairy creatures that ate their young.
He lost track during all of this, which was part of her intent, for he could not yet count steps with his body. They hadn’t reached one thousand before they came upon a series of shelters and stands linked by open strands of vibrant purple.
Orel had not seen a market for many years. “Hurry!”
They ran by the enclosed grunt huts and the people drinking fermented juice at long tables, and came finally to the selling stalls. There they saw fine baskets and hammocks, sturdy wagons and draggers. They found sets of hollowed polyp cups, ostentatious jewelry and elaborate roughage dresses. The best pieces, carved or shaped or woven, highlighted unique flaws from the porous texture of their source material. They exclaimed over the fancy sandals and the florid carpets. They both stopped abruptly at the stand with dozens of figurines.
“Orel, look…” The boy pointed.
“I’m looking…” She couldn’t say anything else.
The crafted creatures had four legs or more, some with long necks or short arms, with pointed snouts or thick ribcages, many with another thin limb trailing behind them and tipped with a brush of hair or spikes. Some had no legs at all, but a long tongue and patchy skin buffed to a shine. Others had teeth hanging low or curving high before them.
She felt an uplifting sense of connection.
“I would like all of them!” Qun said.
“This is a market, stripling,” said the stall keeper, leaning forward, “You need something to trade.” He had one eye, the other socket was fit with dim balled up glow thread that needed replacing.
Qun said nothing for a long pause and they thought he would cry. Instead he only snorted. “I’ve already got one, you see.” He held up his toy.
“So you have. Well done, young one. And well made.”
Orel finally found her voice. “Did you make all of these?” She smoothed her skirt.
“The truth says I didn’t. All left to me by a friend. Long gone now.”
“A pilgrim?” she asked.
“Oh.” Difficulty flooded her and she was surprised at its potency. She was overcome with the need to slip away. Among all these people she still felt she might drown in loneliness.
“He was a talent.”
She didn’t thank the seller, only nodded and strode off.
Mother and Father found them near the acrobats, though Orel wasn’t watching the show at all.
It had been a tiring wake period, and because Qun could not yet walksleep, they made a space at the encampment periphery. After eating, Mother and Father went back to the emporium.
Qun made snorting noises as he galloped his toy over the moist floor, spun in circles, and swooshed it up and about in dramatic arcs.
“I don’t think it can fly,” Orel mumbled.
He frowned at her. He stuck out his tongue, which showed a deep purple from too much lumi candy.
Jealousy pricked at her, and she at once wanted him to grow up. She wanted to tell him how many steps she had walked in her life and how many waited for him. She wanted him to know that his eyes would fade and his hair fall out and his skin grow tender. She wanted him to feel some of her anguish.
“We’ll never finish the pilgrimage,” she said quietly.
Her brother stopped and stared at her. “What?”
A few of the neighbors gave her threatening stares.
She shook her head. She didn’t know. It was how she felt sometimes.
He resumed playing, this time with whinnying sounds.
The sugars wore him out and he nearly fell asleep sitting up. She lay him down and covered him with the weave mat.
He spoke sleepily. “Father was so sad today. When he heard about the pilgrim.”
She didn’t think he had noticed. “We all wish to skip ahead, Quon.”
“No?” She blinked and shook her head. “Father is getting old, but he is very brave. He was born into the First Throng, you know. Grandpa took him to see the front. There is more killing there. He dropped back to the Third Throng when his parents integrated. It was a good thing, or he never would have met Mother.”
“Ask her…” He was snoring before he could finish.
She kissed him on the head and sang very softly.
Spores drifted through the dewy air. A few of them seemed to linger.
Their parents stumbled back to camp with arms around the neighbors’ shoulders, all of them laughing and unsuccessfully whispering. Father smiled and belched as he sat. The neighbors raised a glass to him, “O there, Jar!” and he shhhh‘d them loudly and laughed as they moved on to their sleep spot.
“Good night, Father,” Orel said.
“Night,” he chuckled at the word. He rustled her hair. “I love you too, dearling.”
When he was asleep, she sat up and whispered to Mother.
“Qun said Father didn’t drop back. Why would he say that?”
Mother looked down, then away. Finally she looked at her daughter. “It’s true, dear. Your Father didn’t drop back. He took a primordium. And instead of forward, it sent him back.”
Her world rolled upside down. She felt sick. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you ever…?”
“Orel, I’m sorry. He doesn’t talk about it, no one does. But he has accepted it.” She seemed to believe it and maybe it was true. Mother lightly kneaded the floor. “You should sleep.”
Orel could not close her eyes. She shivered and was sure that the freezing infinite blackness seeped through from outside to touch her.
They walked with the populace for eight-hundred thousand steps. Qun lost his toy and was not consoled by the new creature that his sister made, one with a sleek pointed body and thin triangular limbs that looked impossible to stand upon. They took turns carrying him on their backs, though gradually he came to keep pace with their longer legs, and soon practiced walking with his eyes closed.
They saw regular integrations, and Qun no longer ran to the right side, though he held Orel’s hand when they passed a clustered group, and thankfully none of them were forced. A few pilgrims departed near them, one that only traveled a few hundred steps, and each time Father did not stop.
Qun’s questions became more infrequent. Worried, they discussed it when he slept, and made an effort during walk to tell him stories. Father told him of the two great cities he had seen as a boy, Kes and Yr, molded out of the walls and ceiling, spanning thousands of steps. Mother told him about her old dance troupe who strung glow fiber across the width and balanced high overhead, then ran on after a performance to meet their families, adorned with prizes. Orel envisioned creatures that one could ride on their backs who ran so hard you must grasp their flowing hair. But she merely sang, just notes and melodies, always without words.
At some point Father found himself in conversation with a haggard traveler who introduced himself as Byr and offered draws from his flagon for some neighborly conversation. Father obliged with a few sips.
When Father gave his name, Byr exclaimed, “Not Jar Tsipo of the First Throng?! Why, tales of your deeds are whispered throughout the cavalcade, from nose to ass end!”
Father said humbly that he doubted that, but Byr and gave him more portions of fermented juice, and gathered a crowd. “My father told me how a great warrior near the front – this man! – led many surges when spirits were low, and quelled many riots when men seethed with wretchedness. He brought hope to the crusade.” In response, the neighbors cheered and hailed Father. Soon he was staggering and slurring words.
Mother pinched him. “You’re scaring me.”
“Nonsense, dearest. There is nothing to be scared of in this whole wide, long aching shaft!”
“Hear, hear!” Byr exclaimed.
Orel punched her father’s arm. “You are scaring your son.”
At this, he winced and stood tall. “You are very correct. I am sorry.”
“I am sorry, as well.” Byr bowed to Qun. “Here…” He rummaged in his carry basket. “Here… well, somewhere…” He teetered and those nearby righted him. After a moment he caught up. He offered Qun a strange trinket, a network of bulbs connected at various angles by intersecting stalks.
“What is it?” Qun turned it over and over. “It’s not a very good toy.”
“It’s a map, of course. A scale model of our system.” Byr smiled to himself with satisfaction. “These are the planets, of course, and–”
“But…” The boy looked at his parents with alarm.
Father growled at Byr. “Leave us now.”
“Jar, what is he saying…?” Mother’s voice faded into worry.
All at once, Orel feared she knew.
“You haven’t told them?” Byr pointed to the model.
Father shoved him hard, propelling him out of the march. “You will stay left and stay back. Stay away from my family!”
Then he grabbed roughly at the model in his son’s hand, wrenched it into fragments and lobbed them away.
Before the boy could cry, Jar Tsipo made his family run. They raced, dashed and hurtled. Even as their minds slept, their muscles endured one-hundred thousand more footfalls before waking them for sustenance.
In the camp ring they drank and ate greedily. Then Qun talked with his mouth full.
“Why did The Passage come to our planet? Our old planet?”
“That’s a big question for a little boy,” Mother said.
“How do we know the other planet will be better?”
“We’ll talk about it after we sleep,” Father said.
“I’ve been thinking… I’ve seen how The Passage absorbs the living and the dead, everything. How do we know The Passage wasn’t killing our planet?”
“No more about this.” Father sliced his hand in the air. “We rest our bodies now.”
Orel was nearly asleep when Qun shook her shoulder.
“What if Byr’s model is right?” he whispered, wide-eyed, “What if every planet in our system is overrun with… this?” He looked all the way around from ceiling back to floor. “What if there isn’t any sky?”
She felt unease bloom in her chest. “I’ve thought about it too, Qun,” she said, which was partly true. She was tired and nearly recited the creeds to him, but she felt he deserved more. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about how long it must take to walk across a planet or around it. And how much longer it must take to walk the distance between worlds.” Despair clawed at her, though she kept her voice quiet and even. “But we have hope and each other.” She managed a convincing smile. “Would you like a song?”
“No, thank you.” Qun closed his eyes. After a moment he turned over.
Orel sang anyway.
Her dreams contained tiny holes in the black that melted into a bright open place full of colors she could not name.
They ate again, then made their water and waste. They folded their mats and new dishes and packed them away. When they shouldered their baskets, Qun had not packed at all.
“Son, why aren’t you ready?”
The boy said nothing. Arms rigid at his sides, he stood still with a tight jaw. He shook his head slowly.
“We have to know, Father. We can’t just walk. We have to know.”
“We talked about this, son–”
Qun unfolded his hand and bright orange light poured out.
“Qun, where did you–?”
“In the model. One of the planet pieces.” He held it before his face. “It’s so warm. Warmer than I’ve ever felt…” His eyes swam with bliss.
Father stepped forward slowly. “Son, you’re too young–”
“You’ve already traveled!” Qun shouted.
“I don’t mean me, son. Please, we’ll give it away.”
“Someone has to go. To see what’s there.” He smiled. “I’ll find another one and come back. Or I’ll build us a house. I’ll wait for you–”
Qun opened his mouth.
And Qun was gone.
The Tsipo family wailed and moaned. Father attacked the walls, tearing and biting. The neighbors had to pull him free before he was subsumed.
They ran to forget. Twenty-thousand long strides, and stopped. They wept and screamed. Then fifty-thousand, and stopped. The sticky air burned in their lungs and spores turned their tears muddy. Two-hundred thousand. They called his name, they relayed messages. Four-hundred thousand, eating as they ran and foregoing the lying down sleep. They howled and searched and bawled. They tried bribing for a primordium. Six-hundred thousand. Their skin hung on their bones.
Until, at some point when their consciousness surfaced in the spoiled air, they realized they had slowed. Their legs now moved in a sluggish measured rhythm. They were walking. Not out of exhaustion. They had accepted his departure.
Orel was dreaming awake, rivers of bright fresh flowing liquid inviting her to submerge and glide, tumble and cleanse. She walked and walked, hearing a name between the steps, and finally recognized it as her own.
“Orel! Orel! I am seeking Orel Tsipo! Do you know her? Orel Tsipo?”
The young man with the shoulder-length hair leaned into the rows, inquiring.
“Me!” she started, half out of walksleep, “I am Orel.”
“I– I can’t believe it!” He handed her a showy arrangement of polyps, filigreed with fine detail. “I never thought to find you! Not knowing your face.”
She halted and stared at the bloom.
“Oh, Orel…” her Mother gasped.
Then she saw the hut with the two entwined glow threads over the door. The rest of the structure was as decorative as the bouquet.
Her Father tried to order her, and Mother defended her, but she was most adamant, for she didn’t even know his name. When he introduced himself as Loi Tyz of the Fourth Throng, the ambition of his family impressed Father. Finally, she agreed to see the inside of his hut, though briefly – and not because of his vacuous story that he had heard her singing voice when he was a boy and carried it with him ever since, and waited and waited for her – but to admire the craftsmanship, was all. The inside proved even more impressive, with scrupulous coiled patterns and a glow filament chandelier.
They sat on the sponge bed and talked, about the most outrageous things they had seen at markets, how you can cure hyphae to make hard blocks and shapes, about the walksleepers who never wake, and if they’d ever seen a side passage or a spore storm.
“I can’t stay with you, Loi,” she said suddenly. “I’m sorry.”
“But you can walk with us for awhile.”
He left the hut behind without hesitation.
At first she thought Mother and Father had left her. But they waited one thousand steps ahead on the right.
Everyone was asleep when she opened her eyes. Loi had inched closer and she shifted herself away. The Passage radiated and glimmered all around as the rhythm of the congregation thrummed beneath her. She rolled onto her back and noticed the small cloud of spores hovering nearby. There was nothing distinct about their shape and they carried no glow, but they held something familiar in them.
“Hello, Grandfather,” she said.
It stayed for a long while until she found sleep.
They were seven-thousand steps into a new stretch when they noticed the vibrations. The procession slowed its pace and neighbors looked at each other. The juddering became deep tremors, and people broke rows as the entire Passage shook. Then the undulations rippled below them in fast waves, knocking people down.
Orel imagined the walls twisting and breaking open, spilling millions of them screaming silently into the airless cold. She saw Father, but the screams drowned his shouts, so he pointed to the sides. She took Loi’s hand and pulled him with her. They reached the left wall and tried to hold their place.
Then, from far ahead, came another noise. A low keening chatter rolled out of the dark distance, rising then falling to a long echoing hiss. People froze in place. And when the rumbling sibilance returned, louder, peopled screamed and did something they had never done before. They turned. And ran back.
To keep from being trampled, Orel and Loi clambered up the wall’s fine ridges as far as they could reach. Others did the same along both sides, some pulling neighbors down as they went. She tried to look for Mother and Father, but there were too many retreating bodies.
She imagined a city crumbling ahead of them. She imagined a raging flood of water rolling forth. She imagined the planets pulling apart, or a moon crashing through their raw enclosure.
Until they finally came into view, swarming in an endless rush of massive eight-legged bulbous black bodies with a dozen remorseless eyes over long steaming teeth, she had not, like many, ever considered that travelers might also come from the other direction. They poured over every surface from floor to ceiling in a barreling countless mass as they lashed long serrated tongues and slashed spiked forelegs at the fleeing figures.
She cried and shrieked. She whipped her head and clawed at the wet tissue.
Their collective noise grew to a roar and devoured all screams.
Orel closed her eyes and released her grip. The warmth encased her arms.
Someone grabbed her chin and she opened her eyes. Loi’s face shone golden orange. Before she realized what it meant, he pressed the beaming nodule into her mouth. She tried to protest or spit back, but his palm covered her lips. Then he kissed her against the back of his hand.
The world buckled and crushed. And turned.
Her eyes ached and she stepped into the shade of a tall rough stalk with strange beautiful green projections. Seeing the bright not-quite-purple ceiling so far above was dizzying, but soon she guessed what it was.
When she spoke, spores and dim light emerged from her mouth.
Just a few beats later, behind all the odd new sounds, she felt response from a large fungus organism in the soil beneath her feet. The largest on this planet, it told her, with a span of eleven-thousand strides. She’d seen bigger, but this one was young. Perhaps it had called her here.
She wondered a moment over whether she’d gone forward or back, or otherways. Suddenly she did not care, seeing the familiar small shape hanging from a nearby branch. The woven toy creature was dried and discolored, but deliberately tied in place, its long neck turning in the breeze.
She called her brother’s name many times. Even after a long quiet she did not despair, for she knew that she had travelled very far, and knew that she would find him.
All she needed to do was walk.
She passed a rigid sign with strange symbols. Some new language she would have to learn.
About the Author
Andrew S. Fuller grew up climbing trees and reading books, occasionally dabbling in archery, theatre and heavy metal, but he never stopped writing stories. His fiction appears in On Spec, Daily SF, The Pedestal, Abyss & Apex, Fantastic Metropolis, the anthologies FISH, Bibliotheca Fantastica, and Full-Throttle Space Tales vol. 5, and forthcoming in A Darke Phantastique. His novel-ette The Circus Wagon received an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year (2010), and the screenplay Effulgence won the Deep One Best Screenwriter Award at the 2009 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Since 1999, he has edited Three-Lobed Burning Eye magazine. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Find him online at andrewsfuller.com and Twitter @andrewsfuller.