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Hanging upside-down by a bundle of alien mycelium in a subterranean cavern was not Doctor Bashir’s choice of holiday, but he remained philosophical about the predicament. It would not do to panic, even though his EV suit computer showed that integrity had been compromised and some of the spores had somehow made their way into its atmospheric system. It would not do to panic at the thought of those alien spores winnowing into the air cyclers and thence to his lungs. It would not do at all to think about the effect that Elachi spores had upon various humanoids. Even though these were not Elachi, they were probably distant relatives of some sort, and their effect would likely be deleterious.
It would not do, so he decided to retain a certain level of bemused detachment instead.
“Bashir to Aventine,” he called through his comm system. “Things are becoming a bit more urgent here.” He hoped that his voice carried an undercurrent of amusement rather than concern.
The voice of Captain Ezri Dax came back, loud and clear. “Don’t fret, dear. We’ll have you back up here in…” There was a pause. “…my chief engineer says about three minutes, so just try to stay comfortable.”
“Wonderful,” the doctor replied. “If you could shave a few seconds off of that figure, I’d be happy to make that dessert you love so much tonight. From scratch, mind you - no replicators.”
“Ahem,” came the crisp voice of Lukari Captain Kuumaarke as she broke in to the channel at the end. Her signal was a bit more static-laden. “Does the first person to rescue you get dessert, Doctor? If so, I believe I will be able to render assistance before the Aventine.” In spite of the oppressive gloom of the mist-filled cave, her voice was still chipper. “I’m quite fond of peanut butter cupcakes.”
“First come, first rewarded,” replied Bashir. He craned his head up – down, relative to gravity – and his suit’s lamp shone into the deep pit below. The slight movement in the distance was just the mist. Certainly the mist. Couldn’t be a life-form – nothing here but fungi. He took a deep breath and did his best to resist the urge to try to untangle his legs from the mycelial webwork that ensnared them.
A few moments later his external mic picked up the scrabbling sound of Kuumaarke making her way over the rocks. “Here you are, Doctor,” she said. “You’ve gotten yourself quite well stuck!”
“The fungal network here was so thick that it was impossible to tell that the ground was unstable,” he replied. “Care to give me a pull back up?”
“Of course,” said Kuumaarke. She moved to the edge of the pit, then started tugging at the fibers. “You could have just used your tricorder,” she said, a bit teasingly.
“She’s right, you know,” came Ezri’s comment. “Those come in pretty handy when you need to analyze your surroundings.”
“Now don’t you two team up on me!” said Bashir. “It was a natural mistake. I was calibrated to scan the bio-signs of the fungus, not the geology of the cave. I was just trying to get a good, close reading of one of the large nodes.”
Kuumaarke pulled and some of the fibers tugged at Bashir, but he didn’t move. “I’m not sure I can reach you from here,” she said. “I feel the odds of my dessert victory are getting worse.”
Ezri broke into the comm channel again. “Afraid so, Kuu. Transporter energizing in three. I’ll see you two in the main Transporter Room.”
Then the fiber snagged around Bashir’s leg snapped, and he fell.
“What happened?” shouted Ezri over the comm, even as Kuumaarke let out a yelp and fell over backward. Bashir windmilled his arms ineffectually, letting out an indiscriminate yell, then his fall stopped suddenly as he splashed into a pool of muddy water some fifteen meters below.
“Julian? Julian!” shouted Ezri. “Transporter room, do you have a lock? Bio-signs-”
Bashir replied mid-sentence, saying, “I’m all right. Some mud broke my fall. It’s… uh… it’s leaking into my suit, I’m getting a little damp.”
Ezri tersely said, “No more excuses, transporter room. Bring them up. Now.”
Bashir and Kuumaarke both sparkled and vanished, to reappear in the soft illumination of the Aventine. The crewman at the transporter controls worked furiously and blushed as Kuumaarke bent down to help Bashir to his feet. “Sorry, sir,” he said, looking nervous. “I’ve never had to transport someone in motion, I couldn’t quite get the lock until you… uh… hit the ground.”
Bashir stood and waved off the young man’s excuse with an airy hand. “Don’t worry about it. I think I’ll be fine, aside from bringing some of this mud aboard.” He unlatched his helm and leaned forward, which caused a small fountain of muddy water to pour out over the lip of the breached suit’s collar.
Kuumaarke likewise unlatched her own helm. The crewman stood by nervously, not sure whether he should leave his post, shifting from foot to foot.
With a whoosh the transporter room door opened and Ezri entered in a rush. The crewman looked slightly ill as he stood straight up at attention, but the captain had no time for him; she immediately stepped up to the transporter pad and took Bashir’s arm.
“Julian, what were you thinking,” she said sternly. “You could’ve broken your neck in that fall. Or gotten infected when your suit was breached. Or any number of horrid ends.”
“I know, I know,” said Bashir, looking abashed. “You’re right. I just got a little… carried away, is all. Mycology isn’t my specialty but we’ve run into so many strange fungi lately – the Elachi, the Imaga megafungi, the Ketracel precursor – that I’ve gotten rather caught up in cataloging all of their similarities and differences.”
Ezri gently took Bashir’s arm and led him down from the transporter to the deck. “Doctors who become obsessed with fungi meet bad ends,” she scolded. “I remember reading a paper back in the 23rd by… Stamen? Stanton? I can’t quite recall. He was convinced that fungi had a formed a giant multidimensional network. A little off his rocker, I think.”
“Well…” said Bashir, considering. “Fungi do form mycelial bonds that can range for kilometers underground. And that’s just the Terran specimens. Some of the extraterrestrial megafungi have colonies that are massive, even planet-wide. And with the Elachi, we have fungi that have a kind of consciousness! Though we’re still not sure if that’s a subverted consciousness of the host, or a dormant consciousness that awakens in the mycelium when it infects someone.”
Kuumaarke stepped down after Bashir and said, “Slow down, Doctor. Surely you don’t mean to imply that these fungi were some kind of… computer?”
“No, not like that,” said Bashir, removing his gloves and pouring out yet more muddy water. “Though otherwise isolated fungal nodes do transmit genetic information and biological material through their networks. And they do respond to evolutionary pressures across the entire linked organism as a result of stimulus from one area. And they can interact with other isolated fungi via their spores, which usually have a very wide range of dispersal mechanisms. So, ah, in a sense, I suppose, yes.”
Kuumaarke shook her head after removing her own helmet and said, “So what does that mean?”
Ezri smoothly replied, “It gets Julian some mushrooms in his head if we don’t get him to sickbay. C’mon, doctor, time for you to be a patient.”
“You know doctors are the worst patients,” he said with a grin.
“Don’t remind me,” said Ezri, rolling her eyes. Crewmembers of the Aventine scurried out of the way as their captain escorted the pair to the turbolift. “Great doctor, terrible patient. Great researcher, terrible counselee. Great husband, though. Most days, anyway.” She spared him a brief grin, then barked to the turbolift, “Sickbay.”
The turbolift whirred and moved smoothly through the ship as Bashir dripped and Kuumaarke remarked, “Do you really think they are all related, then? That these fungi have some kind of connection from… prehistory… due to spreading through space?”
Ezri rolled her eyes, but Bashir said, “It’s not as absurd as you might think at first glance. Consider that many humanoid species are all related due to the spread of the Preservers. The idea that other species might be related in a similar fashion due to the spread of a precursor organism isn’t too far-fetched.”
“Interesting,” Kuumaarke replied. “That may well be the source of a great many of the varied species in the galaxy that don’t fit the humanoid template, like the Hur’q and the Tholians.”
“Indeed,” said Julian with a grin. “There could be other proto-species, precursors that seeded their stock in the dawn of time. A reptilian species, perhaps, as a precursor to the Saurians and the Gorn. A fungal origin for the Elachi and many of these other forms of fungal life, whether intelligent as we understand it or not.”
“And then there are the strangers,” added Ezri. “The truly divergent ones that defy categorization, like the Medusans. Perhaps they arose from independent evolution, whereas humanoids were the result of cultivation from Preserver stock!”
“Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” Julian replied. “Some fungal spores are hardy enough to survive transit in space; even without consciousness, it’s not beyond the possibility that something, somewhere, made it across the cold void from one planet to another.”
“All right, doctor-poet, out of the suit,” said Ezri as the group entered sickbay. “Clearly the fungus has gone to your head. You’re getting elaborate in your fantastical whims.”
Bashir obligingly started unlatching the suit, still dribbling bits of tepid water. One of the orderlies quickly moved to assist Kuumaarke as she did the same for her Lukari encounter suit. “Seriously, though,” Julian said. “It’s not that far-fetched at all. Imagine the possibilities for just a moment. Computation across vast distances, instantaneously. Ability to respond instantly to feedback or environmental disturbances. Why, some of that ‘spooky action at a distance’ that the Vulcans have with their telepathy might be exactly the manifestation you’d expect from a mycelial consciousness.”
Ezri knelt down and helped pull off Bashir’s boots. “That research paper from antiquity said much the same, but you’d think if they’d made any progess, all of our ships would have instantaneous communication by now.”
Bashir demurred, saying, “Well… just because nobody could figure it out then doesn’t mean we couldn’t do something with it now. After all, there was a time when we didn’t have transwarp. Or even warp drive.”
Kuumaarke finished removing her suit and said, “But, Doctor, isn’t this dangerous? Fungi tend to infect life-forms like ourselves.”
“There’s always a little risk,” agreed Bashir amiably. “You mustn’t forget the destination. This is a mechanism of connection that is biological. Tying consciousness to time and space. It’s almost like those old chemical experiments on Earth in the 21st century, trying to tease out how we perceive notions like ‘the present’ and ‘here.’ Time, space, consciousness – we still barely understand the humanoid brain, but perhaps understanding a nonhumanoid brain might give us clues to the connections. And who knows what we’ll find then?”
Ezri stood and motioned over the orderly, who began a perfunctory scan of Bashir’s vitals. “Maybe you’ll find something that ties them all together. In the meantime, though, you’ve been playing in the mud, my dear husband, and all you have to show for it are wet socks.”
“We came from mud, my dear wife,” said Bashir with a grin, “but that didn’t stop us from going to the stars.”
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