**Chapter 1 – A Good Day**
Until two hours ago, Dr. Aster Good had never left Fortress before, and she isn’t sure it was a good idea.
She leans forward towards the window. The ground outside is lined with what looks like long stands of twitching muscle tissue. This is what got caught in the tracks. The Armoured Penetrator II, although capable of reaching deeper into infected territories, is not meant to go to the heart of them. That it got as far as it has is a combination of good luck and careful driving.
Hoping to break free, she revs the engine one more time. The vehicle whines at her then lurches forward about an inch before snapping back. A flashing light alerts her it’s about to overheat again.
*I’m not too far. I should be able to make it*
Aster crawls into the small compartment at the back of the vehicles, where she finds a bag, a small black book, an injection gun and a shotgun. She holsters the injection gun to her side. She places the notebook in her bag, among lots of fruits wrapped in plastic and protein bars.
Her actions are fast, although not yet panicked.
*They’ll converge soon—*
A dull thud from the front. Aster snaps around to see it; a pawn, pink and fleshy with a calcified lump for a hand which it uses to tap the front. *Don’t tap on the glass, it disturbs the fish.* Aster smiles at it and taps back. “Hey there,” she says. “I guess there will be more of you soon. That wouldn’t be great. I’m going to hop out the top and blow your head off then run to Caesar and hope for the best.”
The pawn tilts its head and they watch each other for a moment. Then it starts banging on the window. Small cracks form.
Aster nods to herself, grabbing the shotgun and getting onto the step below the access hatch. *This is mad. I’m actually going to seduce a king. If it goes wrong, he kills me. If it goes right, he fucks me, which might kill me.* Dozens of ways for her plan to go wrong come to mind. She ignores those thoughts. Most of them are out of her control.
She throws open the hatch, is surprised to see the pawn’s face less than a metre of her own, so she screams, fires, and falls back down the hatch.
“Fuck, that’s loud.”
The the back of the pawn’s headless body slides down the front window of the Penetrator. *It doesn’t have an asshole, huh?*
She slings the bag over her back, hops out the hatch and hurries towards the nest. *It should be a straight line*, she thinks. She passes the trees, trying not to get distracted by them. They’re just like the sort she’s seen in the lab, except bigger. These ones seem to reach maybe twelve-feet in the air. They have the same, rough, fleshy exterior, same gaping holes that look like wounds. *They support themselves with bones.*
Something—a pawn—comes at her and Aster tries to leap out the way. She doesn’t entirely succeed and it clips her shoulder. She lifts her gun, gets her bearings just as it reaches her. She fires, and a hole appears in its chest. *Seven shots left.*
Aster keeps on going, gun ready, more alert than before. *I have to do this. Caesar is so close.* As she runs, she checks where she was hit. Her arm hurts but it isn’t too bad. A small graze, nothing more. *I guess I’m definitely infected now.* She thinks back to the immunosuppressant she took not too long ago to counteract the vaccine she and every other Fortress citizen is given.
There’s another pawn in front of her. It noticed her first and is racing towards her. Still, it’s too far away to get a hit in and she fires at it twice. The first shot misses. The second takes a chunk out of its side. That slows it down enough for her to run past it.
She breaks through some dense trees into a clearing. At the centre is Caesar. *Oh wow, he’s big*. Caesar, even curled as he his, is at least four times larger than the Pawns. He’s far less human looking, too: bone-armour has grown out of his skin, and he has six long arms that take up most of his body. He sees Aster, although she’s sure the Forest let him know she was here long ago. He rises to approach her.
She hurries to strips of her clothes. *The pheromones should keep him from attacking me immediately.* She waits until he’s close, towering over her. *He’ll realise I’m not a fertile queen soon.* Her face is almost touching his underbelly: it’s unarmoured, dark-red like dried-blood and wet with a chemical soup.
When Caeaser is about to grip her in one of his hands she presses the gun gently into his front and fires. *He probably won’t feel that.*
Caeser lifts her with his front hands and she wonders if he’s about to crush her. *If there’s a delayed reaction … he’ll kill me and maybe fuck my corpse. It might well come back to life, but the brain damage—it wouldn’t work.* If her corpse isn’t just absorbed into the forest, if it does get infected and repaired by Blossom, she’s certain it wouldn’t retain any of her memories.
The reaction is not delayed.
Caesar’s penis rapidly blooms from the space between his legs. It’s thick and muscular, and twitches its tapered tip in search of an inviting hole. Aster pushes herself into Caesar, positioning her hips in his path. She breathes faster as it slides over her legs.
She can feel its strength.
This close, she can feel the chemicals on Caesar’s body and they make her skin tingle. It grows alternately hot and cold and she can’t tell if that’s an effect of the chemicals, or just a result of her arousal.
She licks his chest, hoping he might like the feeling. He seems to: he holds her tighter so that she can hardly breathe.
*This is no less intense than I hoped for.*
His organ slides up her thigh, leaving a trail of his material, It’s even larger and warmer than it was second ago. In fact, his whole body is far warmer now, almost too hot to touch. *Has it stopped growing,* Aster wonders as the edge reaches the crevice between her pelvis and legs.
“You’re almost there,” she tells Caesar and she tries to shift to position it in front of the hole. She finds this difficult, being suspended in the air. She is struck by an idea and pushes her hips even more into Caesar so her rear hole, far more easily found, is in position.
Caesar wastes no time.
All that he can fit is thrust immediately upwards. There’s a moment of intense pressure before her anus splits and her colon tears. She screams but isn’t aware of it. She isn’t aware of anything until the pain subsides. When awareness returns to her the first thing she feels is the sensation of her body bulging and relaxing as the organ slides in and out. She realises how hot it is, and that there’s some liquid running down her legs.
*Blood? Semen? Pee?*
Aster doesn’t care. She just focuses on the feeling. Thinking in words becomes an effort so she reduces the scope of her focus. She thinks only about Caesar and their union. Not of her experiments, or life, or the pain, or what kind of person she must be to still enjoy this even as she loses blood and her body is ruined. She’s dimly aware of the last two, but only Caesar and their union are at the forefront of her mind.
Pawns in the distant let out sounds that indicate a mixture of approval and arousal at witnessing the event. Something that isn’t a pawn does similarly. They watch from the sidelines, their own sex organs growing (of which most have two, corresponding to the typical male and female organs in humans).
Aster’s mouth twitches between a smile and grimace. She has gotten used to the pain, in some sense, though it is no less intense. Her screams have died down to moans that sound like they’re coming from someone else, someone far away. For a while, the moments seem to pass with no order. It’s all more or less the same moment, repeated: her and Caesar joined, sharing their bodies, giving each other something they want. The details change, like the intensity of Caesar’s pulses against her damaged, liquifying, insides and the strength of her moans, but every moment is the same previous moment of union.
And then, somehow, that moment ends.
Caesar goes still and holds her so close she can feel her bones click. If she had the strength she would hold him back. For now, she weakly rubs her head against his chest, although even that soon becomes too much effort.
Her moaning finally subsides into a sharp, shallow breaths. Caesar’s organ starts convulsing and soon litres of his fluid burst into Aster, burning hot and more or less like what she imagined it would feel like. The delivery of the fluid seems to last a very long time, partly because she slides in and out of consciousness as it happens and partly because it does, in fact, last several minutes.
Aster realises she wouldn’t really mind dying this way.
*Not now, though. Not yet.*
Aster pushes the tendrils away pulls herself to her feet. She has to use the tree to support herself as she waits for her disorientation to pass. Caesar is resting in his nest. To each side of him is a creature the same size as him, perhaps even larger. They are four-legged and much stockier; Caesar’s rooks, powerful enough to crash through walls if they wanted to
Aster is sure they weren’t here before. She can’t think about that for long though because of a splitting pain in her temples. She almost doubles over with the pain and it’s a few moments before she can stand again. When she does, she notices a floral scent. It eases her aches so she focuses on that. *What flower is it?* She can’t figure it out.
When her disorientation passes and Aster becomes aware of a low sound, something between whispers and song. *The Chatter*. She’d heard it been described by others—they always said it sounded like being in a large, crowded space—but had never heard it herself before. *It’s musical. No-one mentioned that.* She tries to stop focusing on it since it keeps getting louder.
She looks to the ground for her bag which she finds entwined in the muscle-like tendrils. They give way as she takes it: she finds some of the fruits partly digested and realises how hungry she is. After some introspection she understands the hunger is not entirely her own: Caesar had ruined her body and the Blossom had repaired it, using some if its own resources. It wants to be repaid.
Aster takes the protein bars and throws the rest of the fruit to the ground. She has no idea if it’s adequate payment. It’s the least I can do, she thinks. Then she pauses. *Is that really my thought? No; I don’t owe it. I’m just using the Blossom.* She takes out her notebook and phone, then slings the bag over her back again. *I’m not going to keep feeding it. I have to resist those sorts of thoughts. *
Aster opens the notebook to the first page:
*If you’re reading this it means you’ve successfully got yourself infected. Congrats! Then the experiment starts now. Let’s go through the details, just in case you forgot anything. Sorry if you remember all this.
You’re testing the Intention Hypothesis: “Blossom can be controlled by a sufficiently strong will.” The reason you came up with this hypothesis is repeated observation of subjects saying things like, “It’s tempting me,” or “it feels good when I let it come over me,” and so on, indicating a person must give in, be coerced, before they succumb to its influence. Details can be found in the rest of this notebook and your files on the university’s server.
Naturally, this sort of experiment is best done oneself. Here’s some advice:
1. Be suspicious of your thoughts. Being sceptical of everything is the price you knew you would pay.
2. Go find David Jefferson. He’ll help you out.
3. Remember who you are: You’re Dr. Aster Good. You graduated with 1st in Mathematics and Statistics from St. Andrews University five years ago, and not too long after the infection broke you became an expert in infected psychology. You’re curious, above all else. You love honest people and the flowers that share you name, and you hate people who think they know better.
This notebook is filled with the most important results (near the back) and your thoughts about yourself (from the front). If you’re every truly stuck as to what you really are, look here. This is a self you can default to, one who you’re certain is uninfluenced by the Blossom.
Good Luck, me*
Having read that and confirmed nothing has drastically changed, she leaves the clearing and returns the way she came, towards the Penetrator. Again, she knows only to go straight. She doesn’t recognise the Forest from this perspective. She keeps watch for pawns. She doesn’t have any means of protecting herself so isn’t sure what good being aware of them will do.
By the time she sees the penetrator, slowly being consumed by the forest floor, she comes across a pawn. It’s shambling around the penetrator and although it seems to notice her it doesn’t rush towards her like the others did before. Instead it approaches curiously.
“Uh,” Aster says. *I don’t feel any threat from it. I know it might smash my face in. It won’t though.* “I’m alright now, see? Sorry about shooting your friends earlier.” She notices its head is much more raw-looking than the rest of its body. “Sorry about shooting you earlier.” She laughs.
It approaches her with its arms outstretched. She’s seen this behaviour before: the pawns in the lab would greet each other with a slathering embrace. And so, Aster stretches her arms out and awkwardly and bumps into the Pawn. They slither against each other for a moment or two before the embrace ends.
*Did I do that right?* Aster wonders. The pawn remains non-hostile so she believes she probably did. She peels off the tendrils from the penetrator; they respond to her touch, becoming limp so she can move them easier. Then she climbs to the top and pauses.
The penetrator damages what it passes over. *It’s not that I don’t want to hurt the Blossom, it’s*—she shakes her head—*it is that and if it was just that I could tear through here just as I pleased. There’s also the fact that how it might react is unpredictable. If I get caught again and they think I’m a threat? I’ll be torn apart.* Going on foot, of course, has its own dangers.
Redhead decides to follow Aster, keeping about a metre behind Aster. He’s a good listener since he doesn’t speak. She notices other pawns in her peripherals. They watch Aster as she passes through the sections they’ve been assigned to protect.
“Don’t suppose they’ll give me directions?” Aster asks. “Well, maybe they could. Not that I’d understand it.” For a moment the chatter becomes louder. Aster ignores it. “I’m sure we’ll reach the edge eventually.” Aster takes out her phone and checks the signal. It’s a crude way of navigating, but it’s working. More or less. She plans to call David once the signal gets stable. At the moment, it’s alternating between one and two out of four bars. “This way, I think.”
It's about another thirty minutes before Aster decides she needs a break. *I guess it’s a surprise I’ve been able to walk this far at all.* She finds one of the trees and rests against it. Redhead sits down next to her and watches. “I can’t be more than an hour away now, surely.”
She looks to the sky. The sun sits high and the skies are clear.
“Pretty, isn’t it, Readhead?” Aster says. “I’ll just rest for a little bit.” She closes her eyes and tries to stop the chatter. It’s still loud and getting louder. She bites down on her tongue.
*It won’t stop. I thought I could make it stop.*
*I have to live with this?*
She bites her tongue harder, drawing blood, and moans under her breath. It doesn’t stop the chatter. It’s like uninvited guests outside the door of her house, chanting to be let in and the more she ignores it the more insistent it gets.
*Knock, knock, let us in to sing you songs and stay in your home and (Would you shut up?) and brighten your day (Go away) we’ll never leave, we’ll be right here singing at you to let us in until you do and soon you’ll have to—*
The chatter stops.
Aster opens her eyes to see what looks like a person at first but isn’t. He’s too tall and there are long, symmetric gashes covering his chest. He’s bald and hairless and looking at Aster. Aster thinks he’s smiling yet when she looks at his thin lips they’re almost straight, and his eyes are more intense than happy. Still, the impression of friendly greeting persists.
“Hi,” Aster says. Her tongue hurts and she swallows the excess blood. She gets to her feet. Redhead is watching the stranger, cautiously keeping his distance. *So, this one isn’t from here. But he’s intelligent.*
“You’re very odd. What are you doing here?”
“What *were* you doing here?”
Aster considers avoiding the question, just turning around and continuing her walk to the edge. She doesn’t though. *He’s just curious and that’s what got me here in the first place.* Besides, she wants to know what this creature is and what he’s doing here.
“I was having sex.” Which was true. It also was a small part of the reason she chose to get infected by this method. Whether the stranger detects this isn’t the complete story, she doesn’t know. He remains quiet. “I was doing an experiment. Still am. It’s just started. Now who are you?”
The stranger pauses for a few moments before he answers: “I used to be Nicholas. You can call me that, if you want. At least, that should make things easier since we have to communicate like this.” *You were the source of all the chatter?* Aster wonders. “I’m here to extend an invitation to our territory. We’re a collection of abnormalities who reacted to the blossom in unexpected ways. Just like you.”
“So, you know I got infected?”
“You give off the aura of a king. It’s faint, fresh, but it’s unmistakable. It’s astonishing that you’ve retained all your faculties.” Nicholas looks to the side. “Our territory isn’t far from here. You can come with me now, if you’d like.”
“I’ve got somewhere to be right now. Thanks, though.”
“I see.” Nicholas watches Aster again, unblinking “The offer will remain. Come see us when it’s convenient to you. I’m sure you’ll be able to find us.” He gives the impression of smiling again. “I hope to see you there soon.”
“I’ll check it out,” Aster tells Nicholas.
They part ways then. The chatter comes back, subdued, and manageable. Aster tells Redhead to go away when she feels like she’s close to the end of the Forest. To her surprise, he listens.