By Paul Evans
Doctors Bøje Møller and Elsebett Nilsson stood in numb silence as the closing doors connected, attenuating the moan of the Antarctic wind and the engines of the departing Hercules transport plane.
The majority of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station workforce had just departed for Christchurch via the thousand mile distant McMurdo station. The sudden absence of such cumulative anguish left an emotional void in their wake.
Møller stole a sideways glance at the singularity of his secret affection.
In her late thirties, the professionally brilliant Elsebett Nilsson was attractive even in grief. He noted she had unconsciously covered her nose and mouth while the door was open. A wedding band reflected the overhead lighting. Møller surmised that her decision to wear it until the divorce was finalised would be reviewed given her wayward husband had surely perished.
Møller needed to declare his feelings. She fuelled his soul. But this wasn’t the time. It was never the time. He extended a hand to provide a reassuring squeeze, but she turned and headed further into the geodesic dome.
Deep in a rain forest that would much, much later form part of Brazil, an ant conducted its business. The dark, humid world beneath the dense canopy was rich with construction material. Industrial-level collection was easy with a six millimetre-long exoskeleton.
However, this camponotus leonardi ant was infected.
Having silently entered via a cuticle, the fungal yeast spread toward the ant’s bulbous gaster tail segment, producing brain-altering compounds.
The ant’s actions became erratic; its purpose alternating in and out of focus. The catalyst for the hive to turn on the hapless creature was its erroneous, convulsion-induced signals and subtle alteration of pheromones. Recognised as a threatening biohazard, an instinctive banishment programme ensued.
Deposited far enough from the hive to cause harm, the ant obeyed new urges as the body-consuming alkaloid chemicals invaded its mind.
Commencing its terminal tree-climb with wasting limbs; the former rhythmic scuttle reduced to a spasmodic crawl. Sequential failure of the three pairs of legs ensued; each ravaged extension was dragged behind the segmented body, further hindering the laborious act.
With failing reserves of strength and overwritten will, the insect traversed a leaf, fastened itself to the stem with powerful mandibles, and died.
Later, tendrils of mycelia sprouted from the body, further securing the miniature corpse to the leaf and issuing an anti-microbial secretion. The host was suitably positioned and preserved.
The head split open, pushed apart by a darkly pigmented fungus. Thrust outward by the following stalk, the spore-laden ophiocordyceps unilateralis extended to continue the macabre cycle.
More than forty million years later, the process continues to maintain equilibrium within the rain forest; but such regulatory mechanisms – by their very nature – have a habit of adapting to new circumstances.
It had been two weeks since most of the team had hurriedly left to find their families. The LC-130 Hercules had subsequently been re-roled by the Red Cross and would not be returning in the near future. The station could not credibly sustain refugees and its future was undecided. A re-supply mission had recently commenced the forty ‘day’ transit of the flag-lined McMurdo-South Pole highway.
Atop the vast submerged Neutrino Observatory Møller stared mournfully through the window of the IceCube lab. The familiar luminance of the aurora australis interrupted the six-month night, providing a green backlight for the speeding windborne snow.
Each of the remaining thirteen scientists and support staff had dealt with the decimation of the northern hemisphere differently. Those least visibly affected appeared to have derived strength from religious faith. Others, such as Møller, had coldly immersed themselves in work. But two had sought comfort with each other: Elsebett and ‘Aiden’. The unguarded sounds of their exertions broadcast the ignition of their physical relationship. Møller had struggled to maintain his composure – and a forced expression of mild disinterest – as he was innocently informed by a colleague that this had been brewing for months.
Møller’s core ached unbearably with the piercing anguish of rejection, as billions of human bodies decomposed untended, providing compost for continents of deadly fungus.
It was speculated that the mutated variant of o-unilateralis had coincided with deforestation-induced monkey migration. The wrong simian consumed the wrong ant and – devoid of malice or agenda – conceived a product of mass destruction.
Human patient zero was a cameraman, one of a remote crew making a nature documentary. After his initial traumatic symptoms prevented the team’s helicopter rendezvous he scaled a tree overnight unseen. Undiscovered, he spawned above the search party and remaining colleagues, who returned to their countries of origin.
Spores promulgated along the inter-tropical convergence zone and into the north and southeast tradewinds. Within the week it took to recognise a widespread threat existed, infection had spread throughout the northern continents.
Corpse-laden rooftops, climbing frames and improvised human mounds extended flora to the heavens. Localised flame-throwing control measures proved ineffective. Air filters blocked. The hidden emerged for water and succumbed. Following a period of placid, shuffling self-destruction, cities, schools and cribs grew silent but for murmuring wind and the song of fattening birds.
Enveloped in darkness, Møller contemplated a future unencumbered by societal constraints. Whenever his heart began to heal he tore it open with forced thoughts of Elsebett. Sweet despair was his anchor to humanity.
Neutrinos penetrated the planet and continued to do so until Earth was consumed by the expanding sun.