The Lights of Wonderland
by Rebecca Birch
It’s never truly dark here on Rigel Five, or Wonderland, as Alison and I re-christened it upon making landfall. Nighttime is a heavy blue blanket softened by the bioluminescent fungus forest, its mushroom caps gleaming rose, periwinkle, and violet. We wandered among the thick blue stalks, swathed in our enviro-suits, gaping at the landscape that seemed more hallucination than reality.
We used to sit by the viewport on those first long nights, fingers entwined, watching the colors throb, matching the steady thrum of Alison’s pulse under the pad of her thumb.
She had finished a preliminary analysis within weeks. “It’s perfectly safe,” she’d said, a passionate gleam behind her eyes. “Oxygen levels are well within tolerance. The fungus isn’t toxic. There’s no reason to stay in these ridiculous suits. Just think, Jack. We’d be the first to breathe Wonderland’s air. The first to really be a part of this place.”
I overruled her. Our mission was exploration and study only. We couldn’t risk cross-contamination, safe or not.
She disappeared less than a month later, and she’s been gone for twenty days now. I’ve searched a full grid around the lander three times now and found no sign.
Supplies are dangerously depleted. If I don’t leave in the morning, I won’t make it home.
There’s time for one last search. The pale blue of daylight is nearly gone, but the swiftly falling night doesn’t frighten me. Not nearly as much as accepting the truth that my Alison is gone. That I’ll never again hear the sound of her quiet breath or feel her warmth draped close around me.
I walk deep into the forest, my shadow my only companion. Standing at the base of a stalk, I touch it with my gloved hand. The sturdy fibers sink inward and emerald light radiates out from the point of contact.
“You did it, didn’t you?” I whisper, though there’s no one there to hear me. “You couldn’t resist the temptation.”
I’ve tried to understand, but I can’t. Alison was the impulsive one. The first to race toward danger. I always considered myself wiser. Careful. Deliberate. But even with all my caution, I owe my life to Alison twice over, thanks to her reckless bravery.
I’ve tried finding her my way. Maybe it’s time to search with her eyes.
Before I can change my mind, I pull off my glove and rest my bare palm against the stalk. The emerald light pulses warm beneath my skin. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. The same sweet beat as Alison’s heart.
My own heart races in response, fluttering at the base of my throat.
I glance back toward the lander. Last chance. Put the glove back on and go home.
I retract my facemask.
The air tastes of moss and rain and something earthy I can’t put a name to.
I yank off the other glove and press both hands to the fungal stalk.
Thump-thump! The stalk convulses and the mushroom cap releases a shower of gleaming golden spores.
I draw in a startled breath. The spores fill my lungs.
My heart slows, matching itself to the pulsing light of the forest. Colors I’ve never seen before dance in the air that had been empty a moment before. They swirl away in a breeze I can’t feel, but smells like Alison’s hair.
My feet move without volition, following the ghostly river of color. Even the ground is alight.
Time stretches around me like spider-silk, drawing me onward until I step into a clearing. She waits for me there. Her skin’s the color of jade. Her arms, fingers, and hair are fungal hyphae stretching to join with the forest. Every pulse of light mirrors the steady thump-thump.
Her head turns slowly and a beatific smile spreads across her jewel-toned face. Jade-green hyphae stretch toward me.
It’s all right, Jack. Don’t be afraid. Her voice is more a taste than a sound.
Wonderland. A single hypha strokes my cheek. I’m so sorry.
There has to be a way to bring her back. To return her to the Alison know. The Alison I love.
There’s no return for me. Sorrow tinges the lights to deep cornflower. But it’s not too late for you. Go back to the lander. Take the anti-fungal medication. Go home.
“And leave you here?”
I will live. As a part of this place.
“Then I’m staying, too.”
Are you sure?
“I love you, Alison.”
Her hyphae sink into my skin and suddenly my senses broaden. I feel her thoughts wrapped tight around me. See, feel, and breathe through every fungus.
We are Wonderland.
We are one.