Short Story
                                             The Ecosystem
                                                                     By Jim Mountfield


      Jackson looked into the Arab’s face and recalled the saying about eyes being windows to the soul.
This man’s eyes resembled windows because they were glassy and seemed to have empty spaces
behind them.

      The Arab slid a packet, made from a sheet of newspaper that’d been folded several times, across the
table-top.

      “This is it?” Jackson asked as he picked back the folds of paper. In the packet’s centre were six white
capsules, each about an inch long. He touched one, expecting a soft plastic texture.  Instead it felt hard –
like a shell.

      “Yes, friend,” replied the Arab. “It’s good stuff. The best stuff.” He stared at Jackson, trying to convey
sincerity. But his eyes were too glassy and empty to convey anything. “It will give you the best night of your
life.”

      Jackson wondered what might be flitting through the rooms behind those eye-windows.

      Soon after, he stepped out of the shop and into a flag-stoned Medina alley. Since the revolution, the
tourists had stopped coming and half of the alley’s shops were closed. Those still in business sold not
souvenirs but wares for local people. He walked past the shutters of the closed shops and past the
masses of knock-off T-shirts, jeans and trainers hanging like jungle-foliage around the entrances of the
open ones. Occasionally, he passed a coffeehouse where old men sat at outside tables, played cards and
sucked at hookah-tubes while water bubbled in the glass flasks the tubes were attached to.

      When the alley ended and he emerged from the Medina into the surrounding city, Jackson
encountered the first foreign tourist he’d seen that day – a scrawny, straggle-haired youth in a T-shirt,
shorts and flip-flops. His skin was baked brown by the north-African sun. As he went by, the youth
whispered in an Australian accent:

      “Got some hashish to sell, mate, if you’re interested.”

      “No, thanks,” said Jackson. “I have something already.” In his pocket the capsules rustled between the
folded newspapers.

                                                                                  * * * * *

      Jackson sat on the bed in his hotel room while overhead the blades of a ceiling fan creaked around
slowly and softly. Two at a time, he put the capsules in his mouth and washed them down with swigs from a
bottle of wine. Then he set the wine bottle on the wooden chair that acted as the room’s bedside table and
dresser – his clothes were draped over the chair’s back – and lay flat on the bed.

      Time passed. A fly flew up and down the room, its drone becoming audible above the creaking ceiling
fan whenever it neared the bed. The light was off and the window was covered by a slatted shutter, but the
sun entered between the slats and the wall opposite the window was striped with alternating brightness
and shadow. As the afternoon surrendered to the evening and the sun sank out of the city sky, the stripes
of light melted off the wall one by one. When the final stripe disappeared, a wail of the muezzin summoning
the faithful to evening prayer came from the minaret of the neighborhood mosque.

      Jackson noticed three things once the muezzin had fallen silent. The first was the presence of a strong,
cloyingly-sweet smell. The second was the fly buzzing more loudly. In fact, he realized, he heard many flies.
He looked towards the window and saw how its shutter was covered in black hairy blotches – clusters of
new flies that’d entered between the slats and were about to take off into the room.

      The third thing he noticed, after he wondered how he could see those flies now the sun had set, was a
white glow filling the room. He raised his head off the pillow and saw that the glow came out of his own
body. It passed through the tissue and skin of his torso, which had become translucent. His ribs cast bars
of shadow on the ceiling just as the shutter-slats had done on the wall. The light’s source were six fiercely-
shining flecks grouped below his lowest left rib.

      As Jackson watched, the six things started moving in different directions – across to his liver, down
into his abdomen, up beneath his ribs. They must be burrowing through flesh but he didn’t feel pain.
Jackson fancied that his head, with all his thoughts and perceptions, had somehow separated itself from
his body. Gradually, still luminous, the flecks grew longer and thicker until he could see they had
segmented outlines that undulated as they moved.

      Despite his sense of disconnection, he managed to raise his hands and place them on his glowing
belly. It was coated in a thick, sticky sweat that seemed to be giving off the sweet smell. He also noticed
how black patches had appeared on his skin. These were the flies that’d penetrated the window-shutter.
Drawn by the light and smell he was producing, increasing numbers of them landed on him. Immediately
their legs got mired in the treacly sweat oozing out of him.

      The black patches expanded while more flies alighted and got trapped. The buzzing from their
struggling bodies became cacophonous. Meanwhile, the light inside Jackson dimmed as the growing
mantle of flies blocked it out.

      Part of the mantle suddenly bulged up and ripped, releasing a squirt of blood as the skin and tissue
under the flies bulged and ripped too. From the opening emerged a small glowing head that was horned
and armored like a samurai’s helmet. The front of the head split apart and revealed two hooked
mandibles. Then the creature lunged around it and started scooping up mouthfuls of flies.

      Jackson’s hands fell back against the bed and he had no more sensation in them.

      More of the glowing larvae burst out of him – two, three, four, five, finally six. They wriggled free,
unsheathed their mandibles and set about devouring the flies. In the process, they also scoured up strips
of Jackson’s skin, strings of his flesh and globs of his fat. The flies disappeared and left the larvae with
only him to feed on. Their mandibles dug into his stomach, where they’d hatched a short time before. They
tore free his liver and intestines and attacked them too. As they ploughed through his body, it became a
bloody morass.

      Jackson watched and still, somehow, felt nothing. He saw how the larvae’s segmented shells were
also translucent. Their glow came from countless particles of light inside them. Each one seemed to carry
within it a miniature galaxy. He tried to join the particles, the miniature stars, in his mind’s eye.  The
constellations he mapped became evermore complex. They formed grids, spirals, webs, mazes…

      Finally, only a flattened fleshy mush remained of his body. Above it rose his ribcage, stripped and
bloody. On either side, the sheet was red to the bed’s edges. Now the larvae were so swollen that their
shells could no longer hold the matter they’d consumed and they excreted it in long gleaming trails behind
them.

      The glow faded from the larvae as the light-particles they’d contained were expelled too. Instead,
these permeated the excreted slime that criss-crossed Jackson’s ruined torso. The larvae slowed, curled
up and became still.

      The light-particles expanded inside the slime-trails. Some became seed-shaped and burst open.
Fibers went squiggling out of their ends. These rapidly thickened – some squirming down amid the fleshy
debris on the bedsheet, like roots grasping for nourishment, and others squirming upwards to form a
screen of stalks before Jackson’s face. The top ends of the stalks became budded and started to exude
petals. The petals’ membrane was pale and skin-like and streaked with white veins glowing like electrical
filaments.

      Not all the particles became flowers. Some detached themselves from the slime and swirled in the air
above the bed, like weightless spores, before coming to rest again on Jackson’s decimated body. Where
they landed, humps of phosphorescent fungi swelled into view, or a luminous moss appeared and grew
into glowing thickets.

      He lost sight of the curled larvae as the vegetation sprouted around them. It got so dense that he
couldn’t see anything of his body or the bed at all.

      The stalks of the flowers began to bend as the heads on them grew bigger and heavier. They sagged
over Jackson’s face and then nodded in the ripples of air from the ceiling fan above. Out of the centers of
the flowers stuck clumps of white stamen that resembled ghostly fingers.

      He heard new sounds deep in the foliage. Shells cracked and broke open. Then the flowers stopped
nodding their heads above him and started quaking as their stems were violently pushed aside. Showers
of glittering pollen fell from their stamen and in those showers Jackson again saw patterns. Grids, spirals,
webs, mazes...

      Half-a-dozen new creatures broke through the vegetation. Gleaming exoskeletons enclosed their
heads, thoraxes and abdomens. Shimmering forewings and hind-wings extended from their sides. Yet
they weren’t wholly insectoid. They looked vaguely humanoid too, with four limbs instead of six, though
these ended in tarsal claws rather than hands or feet.

      The creatures slashed up with their claws, hooked the flowers and dragged them down. Long
proboscises flicked out of their heads and sucked greedily at the nectar inside the petals. Once the nectar
had been consumed, they discarded the flowers – now in tatters and no longer glowing – and moved
further along the bed.

      They ended up huddling around the pillow where Jackson’s head rested. Their multifaceted eyes
studied his face. It seemed that each little panel in those eyes glinted with light – hallucinogenic light
forming grids, spirals, webs, mazes. The ecosystem, Jackson guessed, had been fashioned with its own
peculiar DNA. He spotted fragments of that DNA everywhere in its mad architecture.

      Meanwhile, out of the creatures’ abdomens slid new tubes, long and pointed.

      He soon felt the points of those ovipositors against his jaw, lips and cheeks – puncturing his skin, then
depositing small loads in the facial tissue underneath. For a time, one creature hovered above his right
eye, as though it believed it was peering through a window. But finally its ovipositor pierced the moist
membrane that filled Jackson’s eye-socket.

                                                                                  * * * * *

      Light had penetrated the window-shutter and the muezzin had commenced his first summons of the
day when Jackson regained consciousness. Slowly, every joint, ligament and muscle in his body hurting,
he sat up on the bed. The sheet rose off the bed too, pasted to him by the copious amount of sweat he’d
shed. He waited for the pain to subside. After a long time, he was able to make himself swivel around on
the bed so that his legs were hanging over its side.

      While his head drooped exhaustedly, Jackson noticed something about his belly. Stuck to the wet skin
and belly-hair around his navel were a half-dozen small white capsules.

                                                                                  * * * * *

      Two days later, on the edge of the Medina, Jackson again encountered the brown-skinned Australian
youth. Again the youth asked if Jackson wanted hashish.  But Jackson, not hearing him, was already
searching in his pocket. He produced a square of folded newspaper. Several small things rustled inside it.

      “Here,” he said, “take this. It’s good stuff. The best stuff. It’ll give you the best night of your life.”

      The Australian unfolded the paper and looked at the capsules dubiously. “How much do you want for
this, uh… stuff?”

      But Jackson gave a strained smile and waved at him as if to say, it’s on the house.

      He watched the Australian wander off with the package, along an alleyway and into the Medina. Then
Jackson’s eyes suddenly felt dry and heavy, like they were made of glass rather than of membrane. Within
him, something seemed to rake across the inside of one of their round panes – the point of a claw,
perhaps.

      He closed his eyes and experienced the grids, spirals, webs and mazes of light that danced, not just in
the darkness behind his eyelids, but in every thought and every cell of his being.
To read other short stories,
click one of the titles below.
About Jim Mountfield

Jim Mountfield was born
in Northern Ireland, was
educated in Scotland and
currently lives in Sri
Lanka.  His work has
appeared, sometimes
under pseudonyms, in
Death Head's Grin, the
Dream Zone, the Eildon
Tree, Flashes in the Dark,
Gutter, Hellfire
Crossroads, the Horror
Zine, Hungur, Legend,
Roadworks and
Sorcerous Signals.