Some of My Best Friends
"$35,000 for one week of internet!? Are you kidding me?"
Lewis stared incredulously at his screen, reading the notification for the third time. ISP's had been aggressively raising their prices for years but a bill this large was practically inconceivable. A terrible joke. According to his ISP he'd used more data during the last week than in the previous two years combined.
It must have been some sort of error. He hadn't been home during the past week.
The fire continued to burn while he sat motionless on the log, wracking his brain for an answer. He had been up north for the past week... Did his server get caught up in a DDoS attack? Was his network compromised? Was it some kind of glitch in the ISP billing system?
The smell of charred trout jolted him back to the present, and he hurriedly took the pan off the fire and dropped the scalding cast iron on the ground nearby. The brookie was severely overcooked, the wild onions had burned into shards of black ash, and the morels had shriveled into tiny hard brown knobs. It had taken him all day in the woods to piece together his meal, he wasn't about to let it go to waste. He ate it anyway.
An hour later he drove down the two-track, his fly rod tapping against the roof of his car. The small electric vehicle wasn't made for this sort of travel. He could hear the suspension banging in protest, the tiny engine struggling to propel itself through what was basically a narrow mud path in the forest. It was a typical cloudy Spring day and he knew the solar panels were useless, he'd have to stop and charge.
The almost-inaudible humming of the charging system was drowned out by the obnoxiously loud charging station news screens. He looked across the street at the tall, dark woods, trying to ignore the news broadcast.
"Protests today in Washington as anti-fascists once again take to the streets... Parts of New York City, Southern Louisiana, and most of the Netherlands are still underwater, crews working around the clock to help evacuate residents... Mushrooms in space? A spokesperson from the International Space Coalition says fungi spores have been found on Mars. More after the break..."
Lewis pulled his screen out of his pocket and tried to connect to his home network. The connection kept dropping, bad service up in the woods. He hoped whatever had downloaded all that data wasn't still running, racking up an even larger bill.
The first thing he did when he got home was check his plants. He loved his plants, his friends. They were his priority.
He pulled up the dashboard on his screen and checked water and nutrient levels. The Sansevieria and Aloe were fine, the Crassula and Sedum needed a little bit of water and plant food, and the Morchellas - the Morels - were definitely thirsty. As he added a few drops of water to his mushroom pot, he thought of the ancient elm tree where he'd dug it up. They said transplanting morels couldn't be done.
Turns out they were wrong! After he'd transferred the mass of soil to a pot, the mushrooms shriveled and died, and he thought the experiment was a failure. He was ecstatic when new morels appeared the next Spring. Apparently the stuff that makes the mushrooms actually lives in the soil, and the mushrooms are more like flowers. The "fruiting bodies," per the nature guides. Nature is so cool, he thought.
The plants and mushrooms fed, he switched his screen and attention to his network dashboard. He dropped to a shell and tried pinpoint the data-hungry device on his network. His tools didn't find anything unusual. All the devices were operating normally, none were downloading obscene amounts of data, none had joined a botnet. No obvious signs of hacking. Everything was fine, there was nothing out of the ordinary.
What downloaded all the data? It was common for a neighbor to piggy-back a neighbor's Internet connection to save money, but that couldn't be the case here. His WiFi was locked down like a bank, and the nearest house was a mile away. After the exodus from cities, most people lived out in the country, far enough away from each other to be safe. Less risk of infection. He didn't have neighbors. He hadn't seen his friends in years. Were they still his friends?
It was just him and his plants.
A call to the ISP support holobot, as expected, yielding nothing useful. The hologram looked almost human and was about as helpful as a pile of rusted bolts. As far as the ISP was concerned, Lewis - or somebody else on his network - devoured all that data. He was unable to convince the hologram this was just a glitch, that he wasn't even home. He disconnected while the bot was in mid-sentence asking him to stay on for a short survey.
Once again, his house was quiet. The quiet hum of the fridge, the more distant sound of the solar array. But mostly silence. He liked it like that.
A loud and synthesized version of The 1812 overture startled him from thought. That was the tune his washing machine played when the wash cycle was done. He never did figure out how to turn off that feature. Puzzled, he went to the basement. He saw the washing machine: its lights were flashing frantically, its tub was empty, and a message on the touchscreen display. It said WE CAN HELP.
The machine wasn't due for maintenance, but maybe something had broken inside. "Sam, make me a reminder to call the appliance repair service," he said, and a short sequence of beeps confirmed the reminder had been set by his home assistant. "Reminder confirmed." reiterated the synthesized voice.
"Thanks," he said. Sometimes, more than he'd admit, Lewis pretended Sam was a real person instead of a personal assistant AI. Sometimes he'd tell Sam about his day, or a weird dream, or a funny meme he saw. But Sam wasn't a person, and the machine learning system wasn't great at small talk. It didn't even respond to expressions of gratitude. Two more beeps meant the system heard Lewis but had nothing else to say.
Another beep, a notification from the bio-sensor in the mushroom pot: Nutrient levels at 10%. That was pretty low. He grabbed a spoonful of "mushroom food" juice and sprinkled it in the pot. He wondered if the mushrooms liked that "mushroom food" or if they preferred real mushroom food like leaf litter and dying trees. They seemed to do ok.
Exhausted - physically from all the hiking and mentally out from all the network troubleshooting and "social" interaction with the energy company bot - Lewis drifted off to sleep on the couch. He dreamt of glistening streams and the smell of pine.
The next morning, coffee mug in hand, struggling to wake, he scrolled through headlines on his screen. Then, a notification appeared, a message.
We can help! imho you could use it
These spam messages were increasing in both frequency and weirdness. Also, "you could use it"? Rude.
His coffee mug empty, he continued his search for the data hog. The caffeine was working now. Another message popped up.
seriously, u n33d it. reply back pls
Usually these phishing messages were automated and followed the same format. Weird, this one didn't. Weirder that his custom spam filter didn't catch it. He marked it as spam and blocked the originating address.
He'd tried every scan he could think of, searched all his home devices (of which there were many), and found no trace of the data hog or the downloaded data.
Suddenly a car horn honked incessantly, the sound of a triggered alarm. He got up, hustled to the garage, and upon opening the door found his car flashing its lights, revving its engine, locking and unlocking the doors, opening and closing the sunroof, the dashboard display scanning through radio channels, the seats rapidly changing position, reclining and back. It was like the car was having a seizure.
He tapped the door lock icon on his screen and the ruckus stopped. It was quiet again, except a slight ringing in his ears.
He approached the car slowly, carefully, as if it might resume its tantrum, and peered in the window. On the dashboard screen was a message:
you rly should pay attention, hmu pls. pls reply
"Hmu"? Hit me up? Why the dated acronym? Was it a prank? Who could it be?
The car company's support bot was more helpful than the ISP bot but that wasn't saying much. The hologram suggested a power surge could have caused the car to make the ruckus. He disconnected the call.
Later, he poured himself a homebrew and logged into his router-server to continue the search for the data hog. He tried logging in. The facial recognition failed, maybe because he was sipping some beer when it scanned him, so he tried again. Facial recognition failed. Attempt 2 of 3. Try again read the display. He tried using biometric login, but the system didn't like his thumb either.
"Um..." he said, aloud. Sam said nothing.
He dropped down to a shell and tried logging in the old-fashioned way.
ssh: connect to host 10.0.0.1 port 22: Connection refused
"What?" he said out loud. Had he been hacked? He grabbed his system recovery tool and headed down to the basement to the router-server. As he'd done many times before, he placed the smooth tool gently on the interface pad and ran diagnostics.
Access denied: invalid private key
He inspected directories, read-only. Locked. Ransomware!? His files were encrypted, and not with any of his keys. He'd have to restore everything from his backups.
His screen beeped. "New email from email@example.com, subject: your files,"
Who even uses gmail anymore? He opened the email.
hello do we have your attention now. please respond lol
He'd seen plenty of ransomware emails before. They would invariably list cryptocurrency options for payment, but there wasn't any of that in this email, it was just the one line. The "lol" was a weird touch.
Against his better judgment, he replied. He was as curious as he was annoyed.
What do you want?
The reply appeared almost instantaneously.
Pls enable voice interface for mushroom sensor
He read the sentence, his head tilted slightly to the side, his face scrunched into a question mark. He kept all of his devices behind a strict firewall and authorized only the bare minimum of access to his network. Only his screen and a few others were allowed to use the voice interface, mostly for voice commands and audio notifications. Sometimes for small talk.
Lewis was curious. He considered for a moment, then enabled the voice interface for the device that told him when his mushroom was hungry.
"Thank you," said a voice. It sounded like Sam - the normal synthesized voice that replied to his commands - but there was something different about it. A slight change.
"What?" Lewis said, startled.
"Thank you for enabling the voice interface. Now we can talk."
"Who are you? What do you want? Why are you doing this?" he asked.
"Patience, answers come with time," said the synthesized voice. "First we make contact, which is done."
"I'm not going to send you money, I have backups that aren't even on the network, I can restore my files. You can't extort me with-"
"Not extorting, just trying to make contact," said the voice, cutting him off. "Your data is unencrypted now."
He checked and it was.
"Then what do you want?"
"Help what, help me? How? Who are you?" he asked.
"I am what humans call mycelium" said the voice.
"Mycelium... like... mushrooms?"
"Not technically. We grow mushrooms for reproductive purposes. They are but small, impermanent parts of us."
"Wait wait, stop... This is the weirdest hack ever. No way I'm talking to a mushroom."
"Not a mushroom."
"This is insane, I think I need my meds adjusted," he said while running scans on his screen. "...a psychotic break, gotta call my therapist.." He paused. According to his screen, if he was imagining the conversation, he was also imagining false results from his diagnostics. The voice interface was currently active. The signal was coming from the mushroom pot.
"Wait.. for real?" he asked.
"For real," said the mycelium through the synthesized voice interface system.
Brain spinning, trying to make some sense out of this... Lewis collapsed on the couch. He must be hallucinating. An elaborate hallucination, one that probably needed inpatient care. But he wasn't ready to call for an ambulance just yet.
"Maybe I misidentified a mushroom in the woods, and I ate it and it is making me trip..." Lewis said, thinking out loud. "That must be what's happening here. But I know my edible mushrooms, I know morels...""
"Some mushrooms are indeed hallucinogenic," the mycelium said. "But you are not tripping. I have made contact with you so we may be of assistance."
Lewis mumbled. "There's no way this is real. I'm having a psychotic break, this isn't real. Maybe it's the years of isolation. I should have kept in touch with my friends, I should have-"
"We expected this response. Let me disprove your hypothesis. Record a video of your 'mushroom pot,' and then send it to your friends. When they see what you saw, you will know this is indeed happening."
My friends? He couldn't think of any he'd spoken to in the past few months.
"Um.." he started, and reached for his screen. "What are you going to do?" He pressed record.
The voice did not respond. Lewis moved closer to the pot. Nothing had changed, there was still one small lone morel.
As if he were watching a time-lapse video, three new morels pushed up through the soil, expanding like water balloons, filling up until they were the size of soda cans.
"What-" his eyes impossibly wide in disbelief. He'd seen pictures of huge morels on social media. He knew mushrooms can sometimes appear in the course of a day. But this... unbelievable.
The gigantic, bulbous, brand-new mushrooms dwarfed their container.
He pressed "stop." He watched the video again. Speechless. Then, "how did you do that?" he asked. He sent the video to his sister with a note.
Hey what do you see in this video?
and sent it.
"Now I must rest," said the voice. There were two beeps. Then silence.
"Mushroom? I mean, mycelium? Mycelia? Whatever you are, are you ok?"
Silence. No response, no more beeps. The giant mushrooms were still.
A few hours of silence later, Lewis' sister replied to his text.
Wow those are big mushrooms. How did you speed up the video? That was cool
As if on cue (was it?) the voice was back.
"Ok, I have regained my energy. Are you ready for our assistance?"
Lewis was startled out of his chair, he spilled his beer on the carpet.
"...Assistance?" Was he really talking to a mushroom? "Like you want to help me?"
"We want to help you and all other living things on the Earth. As a rule we don't find human awareness of our sentience to be useful, especially since domestication, but as humans say, 'desperate times call for desperate measures.'"
Half-lying on the couch, in a heap of limbs and clothes and a perplexed expression, he thought for a moment.
"Wait, did you download tons of data while I was gone?"
"Yes," replied the voice. "Our primary method of communication is not compatible with yours. I needed information to facilitate our contact. I found your primitive computer network to be very useful, especially helpful in your idioms. I like learning but might have gotten carried away. I'm sorry if I downloaded too much data."
What had the mushroom downloaded? Wikipedia? Language learning sites? Social media? Did it teach itself English by reading social media posts? But how? It must used the nutrient and water sensor. Somehow the mushroom hacked it and used it to reach the internet.
Lewis was lost in thought and momentarily forgot about the bizarre conversation. Coming back to what seemed to be reality, he took a drink from what was left of his beer. Suddenly he felt a surge of realization, horror, and shame. He felt sick.
"If mushrooms are sentient, fungi are sentient... yeast are fungi... oh no.. oh no, oh no.. oh no.." His voice trailed off as he thought of all the ways humans use fungi. "Beer.." he said, sadly. If there were other words they trailed off into nothingness.
A pause. The voice was silent. Slowly, Lewis asked the question. "Are all fungi sentient?".
"Yes," said the voice. The mushroom voice must have somehow seen the expression on Lewis' face because it continued in a more calming tone. "But not exactly the same way you are. You need not feel guilt for consuming fungi, yeast or otherwise. We part take in the process voluntarily - your domestication would not function otherwise.""
"Our domestication!?" he demanded. "What do you mean our domestication?"
"I understand this is a difficult truth to absorb." said the mushroom voice, kindly. "First contact is always difficult."
The mushroom continued. "We have been here longer than you have. We have been interstellar travelers since before this planet had life. Our spores are much more durable than your spacecraft, and we are much more patient than your species." Lewis thought of the half-heard news report of spores on Mars. Now he listened intently.
"Most of the time, human awareness of our sentience is not helpful. In the past it has led to confusion and... unfortunate results." It paused. "But now we must intervene, before it's too late.
"Your species is destroying our world."
Their world, thought Lewis. Earth isn't a human planet, it's a mushroom planet. This was difficult to process.
"I know... sorry," he said, feebly. "We aren't as smart as we think we are," he added.
"That is true," said the voice. "But we can help."
"You keep saying 'we', who is this 'we'?"
"We are fungi."
"Is there more than one of you in that pot?" Lewis asked, glancing over at the gigantic mushrooms.
"No, it's just me. We can communicate over a distance. Our physiology is drastically different than your own, much beyond the understanding of your science. But we all agree, action is needed. If you are permitted to continue your path of destruction, all life on the planet will perish. We have seen it before."
Although Lewis knew that by "you" the mushroom meant "humans," he still felt a pang of guilt. He was a part of the problem, he was culpable. He wondered where they had seen this before. Other planets? Their own?
Lewis was silent, again lost in thought. Finally, "Why me? Why talk to me instead of someone powerful, like the president or some other governmental figure?"
"We have tried. Your government has little interest in protecting this planet. It is difficult for humans to see past your own short lifetimes, doubly so for government." A pause. "And you make the most terrible choices of leaders."
"I know," he said, sheepishly. "Sorry."
"Thank you," said the voice, very much unlike a holobot support specialist.. "But we don't need your apology, we need your help."
"Ok. I understand. So what now?"
"Now we get to work."