by André Geleynse When the robot was decommissioned, they forgot to turn it off. As a construction bot it had spent the years of its existence building uncountable rows of indistinguishable houses for its creators. Now it stood in the scrapyard and watched the sun rise and set. Once. Twice. Three hundred times. Six thousand. Stray bits of electrical activity flickered through the robot's processing computer from time to time, like ghosts of thoughts, but the robot never moved. It had no one to tell it that it could. Eventually, the robot's batteries died, but its solar panels worked fine. It entered low power mode every night, and on cloudy days, and whenever it rained. The sun always came back eventually, and then so did the lights on the robot's body. A small, blinking reminder that it was still here. Watching. The robot watched as they built the scrapyard higher. Steel beams and laptop computers, sofas and washing machines, uncountable cell phones and bags full of fast-food packaging. As the walls of garbage grew higher, the shadows grew longer. The robot's days grew shorter; waiting for the precious hours when the sun reached it through its diminishing circle of sky.
When the world ended, the fungi survived. Mycelium networks that had spread across the earth's surface descended deep into the Warm, and the Dark, and the Safety of the crust to avoid the destruction. They returned when it was safe. Fungi had existed long before creatures of meat and bone thought to scratch in the dirt with claws and spades, and they had no problem existing after they were gone. With the plants gone—shrivelled and burnt, frozen and fossilized—the mushrooms spread and grew large. In the absence of trees, prototaxites returned, trunks rising metres above the surface of the earth in fast-spreading forests of purple and grey.
When the fungi found the robot, they liked the warmth of its body. Mycelium crept through cracks in the robot's chassis. Hyphae followed the rainbow webs of wires from its feet to its eyes—hair-thin threads of fungal matter traveling through the robot's networks like explorers mapping a new planet. A fungal colony blossomed in the robot's central computer. They liked the pattern of its circuits, and the superhighways of its wires. They liked the vestiges of electricity that sometimes pulsed weakly through its system, on bright days when the clouds were few and the sun was high. They mapped themselves onto every piece, and then they began making improvements. Fungi has always been the master of symbiosis.
When we wake up, it is raining. This body hasn't seen rain for a very long time. Not since its batteries corroded in its chest, and the days began to pass faster and faster while its eyes grew duller and the walls grew higher. The drops patter on our face with a soft plink, plink, plink, and trickle down the rusting chassis of our chest, our legs, to disappear into the dirt at our feet. We feel the hard, dry earth turning to soft, wet mud, and we smell the petrichor rising—so strong and overwhelming we think we might die. We've never smelled anything before. Robots can't smell, but fungi can. With a whine of ancient motors and sedentary metal, we lift our arm and cup our hand to try to catch the rain. The sensation is odd—our circuits are dead, and it's as if we are puppeting our own body, pulling on strings that didn't exist before. The fungi is our strength. As our sensors try to make sense of how the raindrops tickle our hand, we feel the neural connections being made within ourself—hyphae joining into a neural bridge, creating paths inside our computer's brain where none existed before. Paths our creators never could have conceived. Our cupped hand drops, spilling its few collected droplets on the ground, and our arm falls back to its place. The fungus doesn't have the strength to drive a vehicle as large as us. Not yet. We feel tired. We close our eyes and let the rain lull us back to sleep.
When we climb from the pit, the first thing we do is replace our batteries. We search among the world of trash that extends to every horizon until we find something that looks close to the right size and shape and begin rewiring it to work with our body. It takes a few days, working only when the sun is high and provides us power, but soon we have it installed. We can feel the strength within us building once again. The fungal pieces of us like the feel of it. We grow more tendrils of hyphae and wrap the battery in our web until it feels like it has always been a part of us. The second thing we do is find more robots. One by one, we switch them back on. We replace their batteries, and we wait. Eventually, fungi will find them, too. The last thing we do is the thing our body was created for. We build homes. We have all the materials we could ever need. At first we build the houses we used to build back when we were just a machine, working from blueprints stored in our computer, but then we stop. We are more than that now. We are new, and we are free. So we build new creations. Our creations. Networks of glittering caves within the trash where our fungal siblings can thrive, and mushroom-shaped towers rising high above. This is our world now. At night we watch the stars, and when it rains we climb back down to our hole, with its tiny patch of bare dirt at the bottom, and we smell the petrichor. And when the next robot wakes up and climbs into the sunlight, we are there waiting to greet them.
André Geleynse is a writer, game master, and architectural technologist from unceded Algonquin Anishinaabeg territory near Ottawa, Ontario. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, two horses, six chickens, and one snake. André is the Online Editor for Tales & Feathers Magazine and a First Reader for Augur Magazine. He can occasionally be found on Twitter at @alisterscriven.