Contest #247 winner 🏆

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Science Fiction Speculative

Do not ever step foot on the ground. Charlie had been told this his entire life, but it never really sunk in. He didn’t understand the deep-seated fear everyone else seemed to harbor. He thought it was incredible, a beautiful problem to be solved. Until he was laying on the floor of the lab staring at the ceiling and blinking away tears.

The first time Charlie ever saw the ground consume a person he’d been twelve. What the tree-top teachers referred to as “live mummification” was a quick, disturbing process. Dirt crawling over skin to create a sort of exoskeleton. A casting of the human body, like those papier-mâché spheres they’d made in class years ago. It’d been an elderly lady that first time. The pulley system keeping her safe had malfunctioned and she’d lurched off balance. It was a code yellow bridge and wasn’t fully enclosed. The old lady stumbled to the side and was pulled right over the edge. Charlie caught only the first flash of the swarming ground on her skin before his mom had ushered him away. As the crowd around them shrieked and cried, Charlie craned his neck for a better look.

He’d liked to have claimed this moment as the catalyst for his obsession, but really that had occurred years ago. It was maybe a few days after his seventh birthday, and he was crossing that old rope bridge by his house. It’s been built in a rush by early survivors trying to escape their houses for supplies. He was not supposed to be on it, but that had only made him more intent on using it.

One of the rotten wood planks had splintered under his front foot and sent him toppling forward. It was only due to some notion of luck that his hips didn’t fit through the empty space and his arms had gotten tangled in the ropes. His leg hung down, exposed, ten feet off the ground. And then his new shoe, a size too big so he could grow into it, slipped off his foot. It landed on the dusty ground and tipped over sideways. Charlie’s breath caught in his chest, but nothing happened. The shiny shoe glistened under the sun. He wanted desperately to stick his finger in that restless dirt, just to see what would happen. He stayed put for way longer than was logical just in case, but the ground remained flat and lifeless. The shoe was not alive.

The second time he saw someone be consumed by the ground he was 18 and on the verge of declaring a major in Microbiology, specializing in the study of those tiny organisms that made the ground hungry. This time the fall had not been an accident. He’d been crossing a major intersection of bridges when a commotion piqued his curiosity. A young woman who looked barely older than him had crawled out onto the roof of a one-story house where no one would risk following. Her auburn hair floated in the wind. People crowded against the railings to watch her. A few kind souls called out things like “You don’t have to do this!” and “Things will get better!” but the girl ignored them. She stared straight ahead and stepped off the roof. For a millisecond it was as if she was walking in the air, and then she plummeted to the ground and landed with a heavy thump. Immediately the soil surged up to meet her. She didn’t make a sound as it closed over her. Charlie came back every day for two weeks to observe the hardened cocoon. Inside, he knew that the body was being decomposed, drained away. The microorganisms in the dirt would suck the nutrients from her. Then the cast would collapse in on itself and the ground would smooth over once again.

It wasn’t surprising that these events would have a lasting effect on him. The unexpected part was the nature of the effect. Where others would shy away and realize how dangerous the ground was, Charlie felt himself drawn to it. He wanted to understand the little beasts that terrorized his people. So, it was inevitable, really, that he’d want to see this forbidden phenomenon again.

The lab he was assigned to was on the upper floor of a university no longer in use. The building was old, made of even gray bricks. He had to duck through the fifth-floor window that had been fashioned into an entrance to get in. The walls were off-white, and the floors were so stable it made him feel somewhat unbalanced. His feet, used to the bridges and tree-top platforms, weren’t accustomed to the solidity. The equipment in the lab was well maintained: microscopes, autoclaves, incubators, centrifuges. He felt like a child in a room full of new toys. On one side of the room, where a balcony had once been, a ramp had been fixed that led down to the ground. The space before it was taken up by a deoxygenation chamber used briefly to asphyxiate any rogue organisms.

Charlie was integrated into a group that exclusively studied the microorganisms in the ground called Vitae Suffocent. Life suckers. The study was relatively new, they’d only recently worked with engineering to create a protective suit. Before then, the scientists would lean out the window with a cup fastened to a long pole and scoop up a small bit of the dirt. With the help of the suits, they had been able to set up a secure mock habitat to observe the specimens’ behavior.

The group was small, a handful of young students of which he was one, along with six seasoned scientists. For the first time, Charlie found himself surrounded by people who were just as interested in the ground as he was. The obsession that had set him apart from other kids in school was now reflected all around him. There was a girl who’d started at the same time as him- Tori. She was short and had thin black hair chopped short around her ears. Because they were new, they were often assigned projects to work on together. He wasn’t sure if he liked her, but it didn’t matter much.

There was an ongoing experiment that needed a fresh test subject, someone to stick a finger into the Life Sucker habitat. Charlie volunteered immediately, exhilarated by the idea of being able to touch the ground. He pictured it being magical, a borderline religious experiment. He worked himself up over it for days, so that when it was finally time he was almost bursting with excitement.

The scientists heading the experiment placed him in the deoxygenation chamber with the container. Around him, they gathered clipboards, pencils poised to jot down any and all details. His forefinger was swiped clean with an alcohol wipe that made the skin feel dry. Tori unlocked the circular compartment in the top of the container. Slowly, breathlessly, Charlie lowered his hand into the habitat. The tip of his finger brushed the dirt. It was soft and damp as he pressed the finger down. Charlie blinked and the soil began to stir. It tickled the pad of his finger. He watched in fascination as the hidden organisms began to climb up his skin. It was a strange sensation. The soil was cool and light, it felt more like a caress than a smothering.

Tori clicked the stopwatch in her hand and began to count aloud. By the time she reached seven, the organisms were up to his wrist. He withdrew his hand. The seal on the opening caught most of the dirt and held it back, to the irritation of the organisms. He held his hand away from him, not trusting it. Tori latched the contained shut quickly. Someone on the outside of the chamber switched it on. They held their breaths as the oxygen rapidly drained from the room. A loud whirring assaulted Charlie’s ears. His chest tightened. For a minute they all felt like they were suffocating, then it abruptly stopped and the doors to the lab popped open. Oxygen flooded back in. Charlie sucked in a deep breath.

He examined his hand. It was tingling and covered in little red blotches, but otherwise, he was fine. No damage had ever been recorded from less than ten seconds of exposure. Charlie glanced at the other set of doors over his shoulder. The ones that opened onto the ramp that led down to the ground. He longed to go through them, wanted to dig his hands in the ground and laugh as the organisms consumed him. He turned and walked back into the lab.

A month later he was given a protective suit and given the chance to wear it for the first time. He and Tori had been assigned to walk, outside, to a big oak tree and back. Charlie was thrilled. He stepped into the suit and pulled it up over his arms. A tech zipped him in and checked him over. The suit was a stiff layer of slick rubber designed to lack tread so the organisms wouldn’t be able to climb against gravity. The boots they were given were thick and clunky. They were tall, reaching up to his knees like a pair of extra-long rain boots. A device attached to the top of the boot sent out vibrations that they’d found would deter the organisms. The hood of the suit came up over his head and the visor was clicked into place. He saw the world through a glass partition.

Then they were in the chamber and the doors behind them were closing. It was midday and the sun was shining. A breeze spirited a few brown leaves past the glass. The doors to the ramp opened. Charlie stepped out first. His heart pounded in his chest. It was right there, the ground. He walked quickly down the ramp, Tori following behind him at a more reserved pace. He paused at the end of it. The dirt was disturbed, as it always was when the organisms were present. It looked almost fluffy.

Charlie took a deep breath and lifted one foot. He lowered it slowly to the ground, enjoying the crunch of soil underfoot. He leaned his weight forward, ready to take another step, but paused. The ground was shaking around his boot, pulsing in strange waves. It was trying to climb up his boot, he realized. He tried to pick up the foot but felt resistance. The ground clung to his boot, pulling him back down. Charlie watched, entranced. He continued to pry his foot away and eventually the dirt fell back down. He looked at Tori, whose face he could just see behind the visor. She looked equal parts disturbed and fascinated.

Afterward, he felt like he’d been on another planet. It was amazing, he’d been on the ground, but he couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed. What had they learned during that expedition? Nothing new, nothing interesting. He wanted more. All he could think about was how slow the studies they performed were. They were no closer to understanding these organisms. They needed to study them in action. His plan fell together quickly after that.

Once again he fastened the protective suit on and was checked over by the other technicians. Tori was doing the same next to him. Charlie clapped a hand on her shoulder and with the scalpel hidden in his palm he sliced a tiny hole into her suit, the rubber splitting easily under a sharp blade. She turned and gave him a thumbs-up. He hid the scalpel in one of his pockets.

They walked through the chamber and out onto the ramp. The suit was heavy and sweaty against his skin. Through the visor, he saw the dirt-coated ground come closer and closer. The first step was always the most exciting. His foot hovered over the solid ground, casting a wavering shadow over the dirt. He placed it firmly down. The ground beneath him stirred, trying to creep up his legs but being deterred by the vibrations.

Slowly, the ground pulling at them with each step, they made it 50 feet away from the end of the ramp. He knew they were being watched closely from the observation windows, but at this distance, no one would really be able to tell what happened. Charlie shoved his foot hard to the side right as Tori took a step. The bottom of her boot caught on the top of his and she lost her balance. Her arms windmilled but the suit was too bulky and dragged her down.

She should have gotten up. The suit should have kept the microorganisms at bay. But Charlie had damaged her suit. He gazed intently down at her as the organisms poured over her and into the hole in the fabric. He bent over as if to help her, but really he just wanted to get a closer look. This near, it was mesmerizing. The dark earth swirled as though it was possessed. It rose and fell like a liquid. Tori cried out one last time before they closed over the top of her dark hair. Charlie ignored the panicked voices over his earpiece. Through his visor the majority of the event had been captured (excepting, of course, when he purposefully tripped her).

He'd made a huge leap in the field, no matter how tragic. The footage would help inform scientists for years to come. Except, he didn’t know (no one did) that after a feeding, the organisms laid their eggs. Hundreds of microscopic eggs stuck to his boots and were carried back into the facility. The eggs, not having to breathe oxygen yet, were not affected by the deoxygenation tank. Charlie stripped off his suit and hung it on the hook.

Overnight, the eggs hatched, and those tiny, deadly microorganisms scurried to hide in the dust accumulated above cabinets and at the edges of the room. Charlie was the first person at the lab that morning, still buzzing with the exhilaration of the day before, ready to study the footage and propel their lab forward. When his skin started to itch, he thought nothing of it. Until he noticed the little red dots on his forearm. Then the world tilted on its axis, and he crumpled to the floor. He’d made another major discovery that day. The skin of the microorganisms contained a deadly neurotoxin.

There weren’t enough creatures to make a cast over him. It was a slow death during which all he could think about was how these organisms would feed on him, suck the life out of him. After, they’d lay their eggs. And the eggs would hatch. And the organisms would spread.

His curiosity had doomed their entire town. He’d brought the ground to them.

April 26, 2024 18:50

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68 comments

Oronde Freeman
20:52 May 03, 2024

I enjoyed reading about Charlie's disturbing curiosity and deserving ending.

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Madeline McCourt
19:06 May 06, 2024

Glad you enjoyed!

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Yassin Salem
17:33 May 21, 2024

glad you enjoyd

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Crystal Wexel
20:33 May 03, 2024

What an imaginative and creepy world you have created !

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Paul Simpkin
19:42 May 03, 2024

Congratulations on your win. What an imaginative concept! Good ending.

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Madeline McCourt
19:05 May 06, 2024

Thanks! The ending was one of the first things that came to me curiously enough.

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Karen McDermott
11:26 Apr 29, 2024

Amazing. I was totally absorbed. Good to see Charlie get his comeuppance, even if it does also mean the death of the rest of the population! Great imagination displayed here.

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Madeline McCourt
20:20 Apr 29, 2024

Thank you so much!

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Audrey Dimmel
21:45 May 03, 2024

This is freakin' great! First submission too! Congratulations! We all have our super irrational fears, and for me one of them is in fact, "What if the laws of nature flipped and the ground came to life and swallowed you whole?" This is a fear I've had for nearly as long as I can remember, don't know why. Getting eaten by a swarm of insects/bacteria is a slightly less irrational fear of mine. And here you have fused those fears to create one of the most horrifying concepts I've ever read. Like this one goes alongside the nursery from "The Vel...

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Madeline McCourt
19:03 May 06, 2024

Thank you!! I haven't read "The Veldt" but I definitely will now! I really love sci-fi horror so I really appreciate your kind words :)

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Ana M
19:23 May 03, 2024

Amazing story. Congrats to the win!

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Linda Frazier
17:58 May 03, 2024

Wow. I was totally invested. This was so so good. Congratulations for the win. You definitely deserve it! I have no words!

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Madeline McCourt
19:03 May 06, 2024

Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed reading it, that means a lot to me!

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Alexis Araneta
16:39 May 03, 2024

Curiosity killed the cat, I suppose. Congratulations on the win. What an imager-rich tale full of bite and imagination.

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Laurie Spellman
15:45 May 03, 2024

It's very creative and creepy. 😆 And congrats on the win!

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Mary Bendickson
14:35 May 03, 2024

Congrats on the win! 🥳👏 And welcome to Reedsy!

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Lee Kendrick
14:10 May 03, 2024

You have a very vivid imagination Madeline! Charlie's curiosity got the better of him. Tragically Tori suffered for it, and soon so would the town and possibly the world. Congratulations for winning the competition! Best wishes Lee Kendrick

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Carol Stewart
13:22 May 03, 2024

Congrats on the win! A fantastically imaginative piece. The lengths that scientists go to can be extreme, so there's a moral here for sure. Well done.

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Melanie Yorke
11:37 May 03, 2024

Congratulations on the well deserved win!

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Jeffery Young
19:11 May 06, 2024

That . . . was amazing.

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Maya Thoma.MTV
18:56 May 06, 2024

wow. honestly this was great and *LITERALLY* had me on the edge of my seat i do wish charlie got caught for what he did and that he didn't hurt tori but instead himself you should right a sequel maybe many years to the future? just a suggestion. anyway loved it amazing!

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Big Mac
16:48 May 06, 2024

Wow! What an amazing story! I was so engrossed in it! Your story was so creative! Congratulations!

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Heather Eldridge
15:01 May 06, 2024

Great job building the suspense with this one. You are great at immersing us in this foreign world without over-explaining anything. I enjoyed Charlie's detached curiosity, and the twist of how it caught up to him in the end. A well-deserved win!

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Madeline McCourt
19:16 May 06, 2024

Thank you! The hardest part of writing short stories like this is balancing the amount of space you have to work with. I knew I wouldn't have much time to spend on the world so I'm glad it came across.

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Allie Rose
12:07 May 06, 2024

WOAH SO GOOD

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Eilter Barclay
21:01 May 05, 2024

Great story, great ending congrats on your win, as I was really curious how it would have ended.

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Andrew Fruchtman
17:52 May 05, 2024

Loved this, so original. Think about making it into a novel, I think the world you created deserves further exploration. Great job!

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Madeline McCourt
19:13 May 06, 2024

Oh wow, thank you! I could definitely see this world expanding, so maybe I will come back to it!

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