Our process with art in Strange Horizons is usually like this: we read all the stories scheduled for the month, then we choose one from the bunch that either has particularly strong imagery or could be well-matched by an accompanying illustration, then we choose an artist who we believe matches the story's tone and aesthetics. Sometimes, we choose a story because we already had an illustrator we wanted to work with, and this particular piece fits them like a glove; the famous “eureka!” moment. In other words, the illustrations are made for the story.
In this issue, we wanted to flip that. We bought the reprint rights for a preexisting illustration that had speculative elements and a sense of narrative, and we invited an author to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by it.
The Old Gods arrived a billion years ago, that’s the story you’ve been told. That they waited, patiently, learning what they could. They already knew their atoms, since atoms were the same all across the Universe, but in each small little planet there was something new about the way they arranged themselves to form molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms. But it wasn’t Earth’s time yet. So they waited.
You stand before their temple. Its purpose was lost a long time ago, when humanity wasn’t yet a few haggard groups of people trying to survive in a planet made inhabitable. The elders talked greatly about it, but you never cared. You always knew you’d surrender, too tired to run from the inevitable.
The clothes come off. No one talks to the Old Gods wrapped in plastic. Humans came first, polyester next. Through the soles of your feet on the warm, rich soil, you can already feel their touch, and hear the disciples’ chant at the back of your mind. One of us. One of us.
You cross the entrance. The air inside smells sweet, damp, like overripe fruit. The night paints the temple blue. Thin milky tendrils crawl up the archways, and polypores grow from the walls. You know the temple itself will be gone soon enough, as soon as it serves its purpose. The Old Gods might take their time, but they will leave nothing standing.
The disciples stand, aimlessly moving, lining the hallways or sitting atop the polypores. Humans like you, glassy eyes, staring at nowhere in particular, fruiting bodies growing from their backs. They seem peaceful, though, like they are right where they need to be. You want this peace too. You know you can’t run from it for much longer.
The Old Gods are many and one. You can see one up ahead, at the end of the hallway, but there are more in the alcoves. It doesn’t really matter which way you go. Your end will be the same. So you climb the polypores toward whichever is closest, a magnificent fruiting body of many caps, open arms waiting just for you. It’s a mere formality.
The process is already happening. Mycelia are growing up your calves, reaching your thighs. Your vision blurs, but you can see so much more, know so much more. The chanting bathes the temple in shades of purple and blue you’ve never seen before.
You kneel. The Old Gods don’t speak, yet you sense their joy, your brain overflowing with serotonin and dopamine sent by the other disciples straight to your nervous system. Communication by spoken word is rendered obsolete when there are better and faster ways to reach one another. You wait as they take control of your nervous system, their tendrils reaching your spine, their bodies poking through the skin at the nape of your neck like a spear.
There’s no more you. Yet there is so much more of you. Everything about you breaks down to their smaller parts and flow through the mycelia, as everything about the Old Gods flow through you. You see it now. Clearer than ever before. You arrived a billion years ago because there is no life without decay. And what is decay but an extension of life?
You move. The Old Gods move through you, opening space for the next one. One by one, the humans will see the truth and surrender.