FIELD TEST • by Karl Lykken

Courtney swore she heard the hiss of ten thousand shrubs and grasses stung by the electric shock shooting through the mycelial network connecting them. She looked up at Professor Schechter, who calmly tapped on her tablet.

“We’ll take another sample from the orchid in an hour,” Schechter said, still staring at the screen. “Then we can head back to campus and check the nutrient content. Obviously, I’m not expecting the same kind of gains we got in the lab, given the more complex network and myriad of other, competing signals. But if we can get even a five per cent gain in a few of the key nutrients, that would be a huge step towards controlling resource sharing between plants.”

“Yeah, that’d be amazing,” Courtney said, listening to the rustling of an ever-growing circle around them. “Professor, do you think the electric current hurts the mycelium?”

“It didn’t cause any notable physical damage in the lab; I don’t see why it would here.”

Courtney sucked in her lower lip. “Right, but I don’t mean hurt as in ‘cause damage’ so much as ‘cause pain.’”

Schechter suppressed a smirk. “I don’t think so, Courtney. I know it can be tempting to anthropomorphize the fungi and plants we work with, but really these are very simple organisms. They don’t have a concept of pain. They don’t have concepts at all. They just react automatically. We wouldn’t be able to manipulate the mycelium into pulling nutrients from all the other plants in the network and sending them to our one specific target plant if they had a lot going on upstairs, would we?”

“Right, I see what you’re saying, Professor. I was just thinking that, you know, if fungi and plants can co-evolve in complex ways to adapt to changes in their environment, maybe they have their own form of intelligence that—”

Courtney trailed off as Schechter shook her head gently. “Careful about ascribing intentionality to outcomes. Random chance, that’s all there is to their evolution. You and I are the only intelligent lifeforms in this whole field.”

Courtney looked down. “I’m sure you’re right, Professor.”

“It happens occasionally.” Schechter grinned before returning her attention to her tablet.

Courtney sat stiffly, conscious of the grass crushed beneath her. She remembered reading once that there could be several kilometers worth of mycelium in a single teaspoon of soil, and she tried to calculate how much there must be in the vast field around her. But the calculations fell away, forced aside by the sizzling grass that she couldn’t help but hear. She glanced at Schechter, still absorbed in her work. Courtney debated saying something to her, but what?

What did she even want to express? And how could she possibly string together a coherent thought over that incessant noise?

She covered her ears and scrunched her eyelids, sure she couldn’t last a full hour, or even another minute, when suddenly she smelled — what? She had never smelled anything so alluring — earthy, musky, overpowering.

Overcome, she crawled instinctively forward towards the source, but Schechter raced to beat her to it, digging furiously in the soil with her bare hands until she unearthed a pale sphere. “Tuber magnatum,” Schechter whispered, transfixed.

“White truffle? I didn’t think those grew here.” Courtney inched in for a closer look.

“Yes, it’s quite the discovery.” Schechter brushed the dirt off the truffle, then without a further word raised her rare find slowly toward her lips. The din of the grasses rose in unison, echoing between Courtney’s ears until she screamed along with the field around her. Schechter paused, roused from her fascination, the truffle centimeters from her open mouth. “Courtney?”

Courtney didn’t reply. She half-rose and tumbled over to Schechter’s discarded tablet. She found the control app for their generator and shut off the current — and the screaming along with it. She collapsed back on the grass, bathed in silence, until the ripples of Schechter’s voice broke upon her.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“We were hurting it, Professor. It was crying out, begging for me to stop the current — I know it was. It needed to save itself and it found a way.”

Schechter narrowed her eyes. “We should get back to campus. I’m wondering if you’ve had a bit too much sun.” She took one last sniff of the truffle and placed it snugly in her bag, as the spores nestled snugly in the damp dark of her nasal cavity.

Karl Lykken writes stories and software in Texas. His dark fiction has appeared in Love Letters to Poe, Theme of Absence, and Daily Science Fiction.

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