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Science Fiction Fiction

You, my reader, used to do science experiments. Bianca did too. She got a kids’ chemistry set in third grade, and stained her mother’s rug blue with copper sulfate. Her baby safety goggles imprinted pink into her skin; she looked quite funny as Mother fussed about the rug. Mother wanted a freaky-geeky genius kid. She didn’t want the mess. 

Hunger coiled like a fat worm in Bianca’s stomach then. She fed it with experiments, mud pies, scabbed knees, Mother’s makeup smeared grotesque onto her babyface. But everyone told her (maybe you too) that this wasn’t right. They said the hunger craved love. Romantic love. Kissy love. Bianca believed them. You did too. 

Childish hunger transitioned to adolescent obsession. She fed herself her own thoughts about boys who flirted, unthinking, with everyone, never meaning what they said. Bianca’s tweenage diary came with a lock, and was bloodied by her glitter pen, pages and pages of love letters scrawled and unsent. 

She kept up the habit, and Adult Bianca’s gotten good at writing. She enrolled in grad school-- science journalism. That makes her parents happy. The science part, at least. 

But, something’s wrong now. Adult Bianca feels it. You do too. The hunger never goes away. It lies latent in Bianca’s stomach; she tries to not think about it. You too. 

She goes out with girls from grad school. They bind their boobs in sleeveless crop tops, wear matching stretchy short skirts, and, stinking of drugstore floral perfume, slink between bars, drawn like giggling moths from one light to another. They gripe about being single. They complain about class. Bianca joins in. 

One night, they look for a speakeasy. It’s not easy to find. Her five friends circle the block six times, searching for the door. 

“Google maps said it should be right here,” one insists. 

“I mean it’s a speakeasy. They’re like supposed to be hidden,” replies another. 

Chicago is smeared with rain, and street lights blot yellow into the night. When lightning crackles, the girls scream. It’s kind of embarrassing. 

They finally figure it out: that brick-red piss-stinking door is indeed the entry. Their hair smells wet, their mascara leaks, their shirts clump as they shiver into a dark hallway.  

Further down is the bar. It’s dim. The bartenders wear vests. The walls are wine-red and stacked with framed photos of naked 1920s girls. Millennial hipsters eat that shit up. Google users give this place 4.8 stars. 

A wooden stage rises a foot high. Tonight, Timmy is playing. The girls huddle around a table spitting distance from the stage. Timmy polishes his trumpet.

The jazz band swings under gold dusty light. The girls sip watered-down drinks. Bianca taps to the beat on her sweating glass. She’s bored, and feels bad about that. 

Timmy’s a cool guy. His short hair is cropped close to his skull. Beige trousers sit above his bony ankles. He is long, loose, jaunty. His fingers bounce like fleas over trumpet keys. Bianca likes the music, though it’s the same old covers, “Autumn Leaves” and all that jazz.

“I like the vibe here,” one girl says. 

“We should come back next weekend,” coos another. 

They do. For seven straight weeks, they return to the speakeasy. Sometimes, it’s just them. Timmy nods their way from the stage, in recognition. Bianca notices he looks at her longer. He smiles, too. She fills delusional diary pages about that. She spins conspiracies about what it could mean. (Reader, I’ll be honest -- he just does that. No reason for it). 

Class is alright. The journalism part is. The science labs, the mandatory hands-on component, Bianca stumbles through. I think she’d be quite good -- steady hands, a head fit for numbers -- but she doesn’t try. 

The hunger grows. Bianca can’t ignore it. She wants more. When she’s offered a two-week summer stint reporting on research from Venus, she takes it.

The girls go to the speakeasy the night before she leaves. Bianca leans on the bar with both elbows, begs the bartender to come hither with her eyes, but he’s milling about in the far other corner. Bianca just wants another drink, please, and her friend wants another seltzer also.

The night’s show is done. Timme leans on the bar too. The show’s done. He’s parched. 

Inches between them feel electric, but Bianca’s sure only she feels it. Timmy is a trumpet player with a few thousand followers, hardly a celebrity, but still, she feels the shyness of being so close to a star. He smiles, a sweaty nod of recognition. 

She must say something. “I loved your show.” 

“Thank you. What’s your name?” 


Timmy raises an open palm to the bartender, who floats over immediately. 

“Bianca. I’ve seen you at our past couple shows.”

“Yeah. I’m gonna miss the next couple. I’m going to Venus for a few weeks. I’m doing some reporting for my capstone project.” 

“You know they call Venus the planet of love?”

A bit corny, Bianca thinks, but the guy’s got a brand to maintain. The bartender sets an amber glass before him. Timmy wipes his middle finger around and around the rim. He picked that up from film-noirs. 

“Well, it’s a shame you won’t be here,” he continues. “We’ll miss you at our shows. Tell me all about Venus when you get back.”

“Um yeah. Sure.” 

Timmy smiles so warmly. He follows Bianca back on instagram. He says such niceties that border on flirtations and maybe he is serious. She does have a crush on him, the way we all do on talented people we see regularly and from afar. But what’s the point? She’s going to space. 


Bianca’s parents are of the Earth-bound generation. Her mother had cried into the phone when Bianca first said she was going to Venus. 

“Imagine how happy your grandfather will be!” Mother said so sappily. 

Grandpa Steve, a former engineer for an oil company, had spent a lifetime collecting pictures and films and tidbits of quotes and facts and snippets of interviews about rockets. Space travel came too late: by the time it was easy, he was too feeble. 

Bianca doesn’t think about him. She feels ungrateful. People break through Earth’s atmosphere all the time nowadays -- six of her friends went to space for undergrad study-abroads -- and also, her first days on Venus suck. Constant sunlight and a slight change in gravity nauseates the mammal within her. She’s in bed, blinds drawn, choking down vomit. 

The atmosphere of Venus is damp, rich-scented like mildew. You can breathe there without equipment. Doesn’t mean you should. The air is peppered with spores; they lodge in lungs and spew poison. Bianca doesn’t know. No one on her team does. Four people -- her, the two PhD candidates, the senior researcher -- spend their time outside unmasked. 

Training begins on Tuesday. Does it make sense to measure Venus’ fast orbit and slow rotation in Earth’s days? I don’t know. In this program, they do. All four team members must report to the main cabin for safety procedures, research protocols. There’s five cabins altogether, used by the rotating groups of students, researchers, and occasional tourists that cycle through the planet each month. The cabins are built with aluminum. Four are for housing, and the main, larger one’s for gatherings, and doubles as the lab. The cabins are but a few feet from each other. Bianca can’t make it that far. She still can’t stand without throwing up. 

The PhD candidates, Viv and Tom, are tall, with dry muscles like beef jerky. Their brains are scalpels, slicing through the confusion of flesh and sensation, distilling life into spreadsheet data points. They’re young, but older than Bianca. Perhaps they don’t take her seriously because she’s a baby. Perhaps it’s because she’s only the journalist, tasked with the simplest lab stuff, there mostly to -- write? Maybe? Either way, no one cares when she’s not at training. 

When her space sickness ceases, it’s day four of fourteen. Time for the team’s first expedition. Viv and Tom wear hiking boots and cargo shorts. They’re joined by the senior researcher, a 4 foot something woman with a face like a walnut and a mind like a nutcracker. Her silver hair is in two braided ropes down to her stomach. The trio stands beside the main cabin, discussing something serious. When Bianca shows up, they fall silent. When they take off, on foot, they let her carry the backpack. Inside are vials, machines, measurement tools. Bianca’s not really sure what else. 

Much of Venus is green and fuzzy. There’s acres of forests of fungi. The growths rise as high as Earth’s trees, and are shaped like its stalagmites, green rounded pillars soft and moist to touch. The ground is green too, and Viv and Tom’s boots leave deep prints, like walking on wet sand.  

The farther they go, the higher the growth. The sun is soon blotted out by a fungal canopy. They’re in the cool heart of an undisturbed forest. 

Out come the steel needles, the vials, the long-wired gauges and gadgets, snatched out of the backpack and pierced into the malleable trunks of the largest fungi. Bianca is glad to stop walking. Those three hike so fast. 

She watches them work. She tries to take note of procedures. She’d taken a course in astromycology just last semester, but passed only because she sucked up so much to that professor. She has no idea what Viv and Tom and the researcher are actually doing. 

They’ve split apart, Viv descending even deeper, hopping over the protruding dark green mycelia. The researcher is prodding a trunk, her hands peeling away fuzzy, as if she touched mold. Bianca stays behind, near Tom. He’s pretty cute. Bespectacled, with a stubbled chin, because geniuses in space have no time to shave. His clothes are kind of crumpled. His young face is already lined; so much frowning from serious contemplation of serious things. He’s like the math tutor you have a crush on. 

Bianca considers starting conversation. But he’s deep in a squat, elbows between knees, bending over a device with a glowing screen, writing down numbers in a notebook. She won’t disturb him. She contemplates the scenery instead. She’ll remember all this for her report, the sensory stuff. She’ll catch up on and fill in the science stuff later. 

Gold-amber sunlight streams through in strips, highlighting the spores rising like flecks of dust. How similar this dim light is to that of the speakeasy. She breathes deep, wanting to remember the scent. Millions of the spores that will eventually kill her settle inside her with each inhale. 

Now, reader, you surely dream of faraway places. Beaches with white sizzling sands crawling with crabs; sun-bleached ruins of older, wiser civilizations; outer space; all-included B&B; arctic cruise liners; the cool arms of a cool girl who really gets you for you. But it’s you that’s there. With all your gross human petty aches and desires, and your small stupid clouded mind stuffed with stereotypes and preconceived notions. Places don’t really change you. Isn’t that sad?

Bianca feels bad, but she’s bored. Tom’s still doing something. She sits down. She yawns. She hasn’t been sleeping well. She thinks about the bed in the cabin, a creaky and flimsy construction she can’t wait to return to. She thinks about her bed at home. Maybe when she returns, she’ll splurge on one of those mattresses they advertise all the time with the cooling foam and the sleep number. It’s premature to think about Timmy in that bed with her, right? Still, she lingers deliciously on that daydream. 

It’s only when they return to the lab that she realizes: sitting down stained her butt green. Viv points it out, gently. They laugh. 

Viv: “It’s ok! I sat down on my nephew’s chocolate Easter bunny once. It melted all over my jeans. When I got up, he called me poopy pants!”

They laugh more. As Viv removes filled vials and scrawled-over notebooks from the backpack, and Bianca pretends to help, they assume the easy rhythms of girl-conversation.

Tom comes, holding a test tube rack. Seriousness carves into his face. The girls stop laughing. 

“Do you know how to prepare microscope slides?” he asks Bianca. 


“I’ll show her,” Viv offers. 

The lab is cold, bright, gleaming with glass and fluorescence. Viv flits like a bird between stations, grabbing vials and pipettes. She shows Bianca the slides, the steps. Bianca copies like a clever little monkey. This isn’t even hard. She’ll do all the slides, easy. 

Viv trusts her pupil enough, and disappears to her bench. Tom clicks away at his own work. Bianca is concentrating. The slides soon hold small samples of fungus, green and translucent commas atop rectangles of glass. 

She’s a real scientist, she thinks. This is what being a kid with chemistry set was like, pure focus, exploration, the excitement of near-discovery like a sneeze begging to be expelled. 

“Hey, Tom,” Viv calls out. “You should tell Bianca about the time you ate that poisonous fungus.” 

“Shuuuuuut the fuuuuuuuck uuuup,” he yells from his corner. He cracks his first white-teeth smile of the trip. 

“Mr. Mycology Expert here,” Viv tells Bianca, meeting her eyes over microscopes, “Was sooo sure he knew what edible mushrooms looked like, and we’re on this research trip all over Europe, right, collecting spore prints, and we find one he says he can eat, but I think is poisonous, but he eats it anyway, and we spend the rest of that trip in the hospital while he hangs on to life by a thread.” 

“That’s so scary,” says Bianca. To Tom: “Are you better now at figuring out which fungi are toxic?”

Tom rolls his eyes. “Uh, yeah.” 

The flow is now three-way. The trio is chatting, passing the ball of conversation quite easily. A window in the lab shows Venus outside, green and swirling, a promise offered and answered. Bianca is here with her gorgeous scientist friends. The world around her is weird and wild.  This is what she sought. 

Bianca tells them about Timmy. She doesn’t realize how big her movements get. Arms sweeping, eyes wide with her story. A hand flying too fast: contact with the box of slides. They crash, off the lab bench, and spill. The slides splinter. 

Bianca: “Oh, fuck. I’m so sorry. I’ll clean it up.” 

Bianca, all panicky, seeks the broom. Her anxious eyes pass by it six times before she spots it in the supply closet. Hot guilt bites her cheeks. 

She returns, broom in hand. Tom and Viv are bent over the shards. They giggle. Bianca’s soul slides into her stomach, a high school feeling -- they’re laughing at her. She comes closer, but they don’t stop, or look at her. 

Reader, you’ve seen lovers. They pull on each other like the taffy machine, stretching a great big confectionery rope over and over and back together. Tom and Viv are doing that thing that neither you nor Bianca can manage: hunger so deep for another person that you ask to be fed by them again and again. Lovers always find something to say, tease about, like puppies biting each other to make the other chase. Here too, on the planet of love, they manage. On Venus as it is on Earth. 


Two weeks are up. The team is going home, back on the rocket. Bianca is held inside it by x-crossing seatbelts. She’s sat by the porthole. A deep dark lonely cosmos stares at her. She stares back with glazed eyes. Her mind is elsewhere. She imagines talking to Timmy. She composes her monologue for him, not her friends, her parents, or her rocket-yearning grandfather. 

Timmy, you know how they used to say Venus was unfit for life? I can’t believe how wrong people were, even just a few decades ago. I mean, I suppose we couldn’t have known for certain. No one had ever been here before. But Venus is more lush than any sliver  of jungle we’ve remaining on Earth, but with fungus, not trees. I quite like the fungus. I think you would, too. It loves music, just like you. If you lean in close enough to the roots -- sorry, the mycelium -- you hear this humming noise. It’s singing to itself, I think. I wish you’d been here with me. You would’ve loved it. 

How Bianca is so confident that a man she’s spoken to once would love the peculiar atmosphere of Venus, I’m really not sure. 

Oh, right -- reader, you’re probably worried about the poisonous spores. They’ve lodged in the crew’s lungs. The moisture of the tissue draws forth mycelia, which soon will sprout into thick fungus that chokes living organs. 

Fortunately, “soon” is relative. For mushrooms that live millions of year, a human life span isn’t long. It’s 60 years before the fungus sprouts and is toxic. Viv and Tom and Bianca and the senior researcher die from it, but they would’ve been dead by then anyway. 

Maybe you wonder, did  Timmy and Bianca get together? I don’t know. You tell me. It doesn’t really matter. 

July 21, 2023 18:15

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08:18 Jul 24, 2023

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