The moment she stepped into the Glass Hall, she felt a brief shudder, but she chided herself and was still. She was here for her husband. He had married her with pride, and she would do her utmost to ensure that his pride in her was justified.
The Glass Hall was not all glass; only the walls were glass, as were the skylights. Past the processing lab were hallways with cots, some empty, some occupied. Through the glass walls, the residents could see the bamboo forests outside the lab, a calming environment for their last days in service.
She had brought nothing in with her, only what she wore: a simple short sleeveless dress. She would need nothing else. Her fingers twisted in her lap as she walked in, the doctors in their masks and full body suits behind her. The decontamination chamber they had passed through hissed as it ran a spore check. She wondered if the chamber was where the first spores took root, since the doctors wore their suits, but passing through the airtight doors, she shook her head.
There was some ventilation with a little oxygen that the facility pumped in, but the air felt musty, thick. Of course it was, she told herself, what with the spores drifting about.
Doctor Feng gestured to the cots. “Pick any empty one you like. You can sleep anywhere, really. Some women move from bed to bed until they take root, as it were.”
The other one made some snarky comment about how sexual habits carried over into the Glass Hall, but she gave him a cutting glare. She wasn’t here because she had been unfaithful; quite the opposite, in fact. She wouldn’t let her stay here begin with an insinuation that she was less a wife than she should be.
“Where are the hygiene facilities?” she asked.
“There’s a corner for you to, ah, relieve yourself.”
“But… only one? Surely, with this many women….”
Behind his mask, through the reflection on his visor, she thought she saw the lines around his eyes crinkle with amusement. “You won’t need it in a short while anyway.”
They passed through the antechamber into the hall proper. It reminded her of a hospice she had gone to once, a long time ago, as a small child, visiting a great uncle. In his senility, he had been unable to walk or even move, soiling himself and barely breathing until he mercifully passed. She would have a cleaner death, she hoped.
There were the women she would share the rest of her life with. A few who were still capable turned to her, fewer still nodding in acknowledgement of her arrival.
“You understand what you are to do?” Doctor Feng asked.
“Honour my husband, serve his vitality, fill his coffers,” she recited out of long habit. It had been drilled into her all through marriage school.
“Yes, yes, I meant, when you are here.”
Oh. “I’m to report any leakages I notice and call when a growth has matured.”
“And you recognize the signs of both?”
She nodded, a bit impatiently. She was not a child. Before she was moved here, she had run an entire household, ensured maintenance and repairs, attended to every slight symptom of illness. Her husband could have found no fault in her as a housekeeper. She had taken to studying her new position with due diligence as soon as she had been informed she would be retiring from wifehood to the Glass Hall.
“And what do you do when you suspect a leakage?”
“I pull any of the lockdown levers. There are three on either side of the exit doors and one by each cot, as well as on each pillar.”
“Very good. I’ll leave you to it then. Goodbye, Miss Fei.”
She reached out to stop Doctor Feng.
Not Miss Fei, she thought. She was Mrs. Keo. Yes, she had been sent to the Glass Hall, but her husband had not divorced her to do so.
Instead, she asked, “What if, you know, it doesn’t… look right? Can I call you?”
A pause, then, and again she fancied the crinkle of his eyes. The reflection of the fluorescent bulbs on his mask made it hard to see. “Certainly. Wouldn’t want to ruin your husband’s product, hm?”
“What should I look out for, then? It’s supposed to be white, isn’t it? How off-colour should it be before I report any, uh, aberrations?”
“There are variances in colour, and you’ll notice we have a few different varieties. You needn’t worry, Miss Fei. I’m sure the end result will be useful regardless.”
Unlike her womb. Still, she insisted on knowing. “Which variety is the best one?”
“They are all equally valuable, Miss Fei. And we have no way of knowing which one you’ll be the most suitable host for.” Doctor Feng waved her away. “We must be getting back to work, Miss Fei. We’ll see you soon.”
OUTRAGE SPARKS ACROSS GALAXY OVER ORIGINS OF HIGH-END COMMERCIAL CORDYCEPS
The first day, she didn’t panic. She chose a cot in what looked to be the junior wives’ corner and introduced herself to her new neighbours. They had already started exhibiting the telltale signs on their exposed skin, beatific as they showed off the marks of the product they grew: blisters, raised bumps, cysts, and in one case that elicited coos of amazed jealousy, a network of dark lines just under the skin.
“Is it painful?” she asked.
“Oh no,” said Sai, the youngest one of the lot, even younger than her. She was large-boned and wide-set, and her face was pockmarked. There had been a pox outbreak recently, and she clearly had been a victim of it. The scars were filling in, like tiny nestled flowers. “It feels very nice. Much better than hives!”
This relaxed her. All the existing literature she had read before coming here had said so, too. The Glass Hall was spartan, unlike the home she had just left, but it would be comfortable. It resembled the marriage school she grew up in: the cots; the silence; the women, then girls, reflecting on their possible futures. Here, they thought of their possible glory in death.
As a child, her parents had noted her burgeoning beauty and determined her best future would be marriage. The Golden Mountain Marriage School had been a huge expense, but it had been the right investment in her future. She had studied hard, dutifully repeating the daily chants and performing the daily chores so perfectly she had risen the ranks to the top tier of marriage candidates. There, the lessons became less physical — estate management, so she could never squander a husband’s assets; social etiquette, so she could grace his side at any event; sexual preparation, so she could always be pleasurable in the marriage bed.
She knew she had not failed him in any measure of the school’s teachings. It had been her body, her womb betraying the union through its uselessness. She had been exemplary otherwise and was exemplary still, ready to make her body useful to her husband regardless of any past failures.
STOCKS CRASH AMID ACCUSATIONS AGAINST CONGLOMERATE LEADERS FOR ROLE IN CORDYCEPS FARMS
She panicked the next day.
When she opened her eyes, she was on her back looking up at endless sky. It was still dark, and the stars seemed so close, too close! She thought she was going to float away into space, and she thought for a moment she was still in the space transport that brought her here, with its zero-gee environment that made her sick. She screamed and leapt up, running through the hall. There were no walls!
Everywhere around her was death: the slack-jawed empty expressions of the women who were maturing, the glassy-eyed smiles of those with new growth. One woman had become all bark and nothing else; another was a mass of puffy green mold, like a rotting fruit.
She didn’t want to become rotting fruit! She ran away from this vision to the other direction, where the heads of ghost after ghost creaked curiously to her direction.
“Husband! Come back!” She found a glass wall, beyond which a peaceable bamboo forest swayed gently in the wind. “Take me home! Please! I’ll try again!” She couldn’t be sure that there was a forest outside the wall, since there was no sound. She slammed her hands against the glass, and the dull thudding noises seemed absorbed by the miasma around her.
“Another doctor,” she whispered. “Try another doctor!”
“Miss Fei,” came a soft voice behind her.
“It’s still possible for me to have a child!” she wailed. “To have your child! I’m still young! It’s only a slight difficulty!” Only a few miscarriages, surely fixable.
“There’s no one else for me!” she sobbed, sinking to her knees. “There is only you. Please, please, please take me home.”
She curled up against the glass wall, straining to hear the sounds outside, if indeed there were any. She thought about her husband, on their wedding day, garbed in his formal robes shot through with gold embroidery, his face crinkling as he smiled beatifically at her approach. She had come to him straight from the marriage school, a top graduate, at a premium rate that only the truly affluent could buy. He had her dress sent to the school so she could be dressed in it when they first met, an extravagant confection of silks and lace, with a long train of gold leaf glittering in the sun. He hadn’t needed the whole welcoming wedding ceremony, hadn’t needed to be at his front door, with his friends around him to marvel at his new bride trailing stars in her wake, but he had done it anyway, because he was so proud of her, and she had delivered herself to him gladly, ready to be of service.
The marriage conductor had declared her a new wife with such panache, such flair, that many of the attendees were moved to a standing ovation. Her husband had swept her into his arms and declared himself well-satisfied.
She sniffled, running her sleeve under her nose sloppily.
Sai was sitting on a cot nearby, watching her gravely through eyes that were starting to cloud over with fine mycelium.
“I’m fine, Miss Sai,” she rasped. “Please excuse my behaviour.”
“It’s forgivable. Many new residents have such moments of panic before the onset of growth.” She smiled. “When they finally take root, you won’t feel so bad anymore.”
“I really shouldn’t have to start with,” she huffed. “I graduated from the Golden Mountain Marriage School. I should have known better than to act that way.” She hung her head in shame.
“I wish I had graduated marriage school,” Sai said wistfully.
“You’re not…?” She had thought only wives were sent to Glass Hall.
“No. My family sent me here after the pox outbreak.” She gestured to her face ruefully. “Couldn’t get married off, after what it did to my skin.”
“I’m sorry,” was all she could think to say. Men did also peruse the marriage catalog for physical attractiveness.
“It’s okay. I’m a big girl. I’ll grow lots of product to recuperate my family’s loss. Come on, you didn’t get to meet everyone in the Glass Hall.”
CORDYCEPS CONTROVERSY CONTINUES: CANNIBALISM OR UNCONVENTIONAL HUMAN REMAINS DISPOSAL?
Her husband had taken cordyceps regularly in his daily life, despite its rarity and expense. She found herself impressed by the quality of the fungi that grew in the Glass Hall, especially when she was recruited to prepare one of the fully-matured growths. No one in the Hall remembered that woman’s name; the women who could still speak said that she had been mummified by her mushrooms by the time they had first arrived.
“Does it take very long?” she asked, curious.
“It depends on the species,” one of the women sitting close by answered drowsily.
She, Sai, and two others were the only ones who were still able to move the full-grown cordyceps to the cot closest to the door. She couldn’t help but touch the dried-out skin that still covered the mushroom face. It flaked off onto the floor easily.
She wasn’t sure if it was Doctor Feng who entered with the collection crew. They loaded the petrified woman into a large transport canister. The doctor took a moment to examine the readings on the canister’s monitor. “Hundred pounds, ophioglossoides.”
“Is that good?” she asked.
“Is that a good one?”
“Well, yeah. It’s not called ‘golden threads’ for nothing.”
She and the other women erupted into a little squealing hubbub of excitement at this, so happy for this member of theirs whose name they did not even know. “She must fetch a high price!” she gushed. “My husband loves golden threads tea!”
“Yes, yes, that’s nice.”
From them on, she watched her skin carefully, expecting the blisters to show.
“Any day now,” Sai said to her encouragingly.
MARRIAGE SCHOOLS: VOCATIONAL TRAINING FOR WIFEHOOD OR SOMETHING MORE SINISTER?
There was no day per se in the Glass Hall. There were always stars in the sky above their ceilings. Sometimes the sky was lighter, with a pre-dawn glow. Sometimes it was so dark, even the stars were not visible, only the clouds of spores lit by the fluorescent grow lamps. She sometimes thought they looked like the clouds of summer skies: some spores released as cumulus clouds, others as stratus streaks across the ceiling. Other times, they replaced the stars in the sky, parasitic nebulae caressing her face.
After determining that there would be no visits from the doctors, she would stand up, take off her clothes, and breathe in deeply, as if she could will the seeds to take root in her lungs, on her skin. Then she would sit down and contemplate the view beyond the glass walls. Sometimes she wondered if the bamboo forest was not really there, and the walls were not really glass, but images projected onto the walls to give the residents something pretty to look at.
There were two other women in the Glass Hall now, both older women past the prime of their lives. They didn’t speak her dialect and instead bickered with each other in their outer-space-colony gibberish. She wondered how they could have gotten to the Glass Hall, which she had always been told only accepted refined ladies.
She thought it a good sign that she no longer needed to eat, drink, or void herself after the first few days. That was the first sign of internal growth: the fungus would ingest her lesser functions first, and she thought it made sense that such base needs would be done away with first.
She checked her skin every day, inspecting every cranny, expecting even the shadow of a different colour on her pale skin. She had been praised for her clear complexion; her husband’s friends would comment on how she seemed to glow at those society events she helped host. They complimented her demure behaviour and called her husband a lucky dog for finding such a prize. She thought he glowed too, chuffed that his wife was the talk of their circles.
Perhaps they still talked about her: the wonderful wife who still served her husband even away from his side! Who, although barren of children, willingly went off to serve as fertile ground for an important health supplement that would contribute to her husband’s vitality long into his old age! How they must envy him this wife who would profit him even beyond her first crowning function!
With such assuring thoughts, she would turn her face upwards to the clouds of spores, mouthing the mantras she had been taught on wifely duty over and over, praying to become a good harvest. She would put back on her dress, modestly buttoning up.
Until one day, she found she didn’t care anymore as doctors came in to collect another product while she sat by the window, nudely meditating.
CONGLOMERATE ACCUSES BIO-TERRORIST GROUP OF UNDERMINING STOCK MARKET
She was awakened by a commotion by her bed. She shrugged and sluggishly sat up, yawning as she blinked. She almost asked Sai what was going on.
Sai, of course, could no longer speak to her. Spongy fingers extruded from the corners of her eyes and nostrils, and in what seemed like a short time, her teeth fell out, replaced by the mushroom taking over her body.
She knew she shouldn’t be jealous of Sai, because Sai had been there before she had arrived, so of course she would mature her product by now, but she was anyway. To make matters worse, the two older women who had come in after her had rather quickly grown their mycelium, too. One of them already had horns protruding from ears and nostrils, reaching for the sunless sky. At the tips of the horns were rounded caps that reminded her of more intimate moments with her husband, and she would blush to remember.
“Miss Fei? Wife of Keo Sayjin?” The voice sounded very far away, as if reaching her from a distant star.
She smiled, delighted that someone recognized her husband’s name. None of the other women here had shown any inkling that they had known. Of course, most of them had had all cognitive functions relating to memory pushed out by the cordyceps by then.
“Yes,” she managed to say, happy and proud, “serving my husband to the last.”
“Good. Please remain still.”
Of course she did. She could not really move these days. Impassive, she watched as the attendants set up a glass enclosure around her bed, cameras blinking at every corner.
“Rhizopus stolonifer.” The voice was starting to sound very loud. “The stolons are probably deeply-rooted by now. Her skin’s just as white as the visible mycelium, so it’s hard to see that it’s already growing.”
She felt pride swell up in her.
Which cordyceps was that? It didn’t matter now; she would remember it eventually.
“Seal it,” ordered the lead researcher on the team, identifiable by the tablet he carried in one hand. “And start the broadcast to the sister labs. Hopefully they’ll have started their own prelims and we can fix this problem sooner than later.” He shook his head. “Ugh. I’m glad we caught this so fast. The way it looks at first glance, it looks just like cilium lecanii.”
Problem? She cocked her head. “What’s the matter?”
“Hm? Oh, nothing to worry your head about, Miss Fei.”
“Is there something wrong with my product?” she asked, but the researchers were already walking away, examining the other women.
“Doesn’t look like the others have been affected.”
“At least we caught this one early. The last one, I can’t believe the mold growth got so bad, and we didn’t even notice until the product had practically caved in on itself!”
She tried to remember if she had seen that. She had a faint memory of running through the hall, panicking at the sights of the other women, before she understood that they were not ugly dying women but beautiful cordyceps, full of nutrition. There was one woman who had startled her so with the appearance of rotting fruit, her skin turned green and several parts of her body leaking out of indented cavities.
Anxiety swelled in her. Was that the problem with her? She forced herself to look down and examine her skin, her gaze moving inch by inch. Nothing visible. Nothing green. But what if it did turn green after? She tried to move her hand, to wave at the men’s receding figures, moving her mouth to breathe wind through a disused voice box. Instead, there was a tickling sensation in her throat, which put her in mind of wind blowing through the cattail grasses at the edge of her husband’s lake.
Some time later, she saw it: the blooming of cilia across her skin, fluffy like tulle or perhaps organza. She could feel her tear ducts filling with the little white pompoms that reminded her of the ornamentations on her wedding bouquet.
She posed herself for the cameras, hands folded on her lap, ankles crossed, and knees pointed to the side. She tilted her head down demurely, just as she had been taught in marriage school, and stared directly into a camera lens, minding its red blinking light. There had been a camera at her wedding day, too, and she had replayed the festivities over and over again, the way her dress had flowed around her as she danced with her husband on that shining day. Even through the more recent years of disappointment, she had found the wedding recording a comfort.
She was growing a new wedding dress, she thought as she felt, rather than saw, the soft patches of white fungus spread across her body. She was reaffirming her marital vows. She might not be able to speak them anymore, but she thought them all the same, as she hoped that the camera was still on, broadcasting her love to the rest of the galaxy. She hoped her husband would be proud.
CORDYCEPS INDUSTRY SUFFERS: COMMON BLACK BREAD MOLD FOUND IN MULTIPLE SITES ACROSS SECTOR