• Published 27th Mar 2020
  • 148 Views, 6 Comments

The Mysterious Case of a Wood Near a Golf Course - Alias_The_J



Sandy, an Earth Pony who immigrated to West Virginia, finds his knowledge of both Earth and Gaia tested when the Park Service is called out to a local golf club to handle an odd problem.

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In Which Something is Odd

“Well, at least I didn't drive out here for nothing,” Jason said, gaping at the trees lining the end of the golf course.

I was too busy trying not to gag to reply. The park service had gotten a call from Speidel Golf Club about some sick trees in the wood encroaching on the course, with a special mention of a “distinctive odor.” Evidently, the human sense of smell was even worse than I figured, because it smelled like raw sewage a quarter mile out from the site.

“Well, this is...something,” I said at last, as my urge to wretch died down.

“Damn right it is.”

We paused, walking into the copse. The trees were bad, leaves starting to wilt, bark peeling off. The undergrowth was worse; I stared at strings of brown, wet ivy and creeper, and stepping over patches of black, slimy moss.

This looked like nothing I’d ever seen, and weird things had been happening in the 8 years since Princess Twilight opened the portal from the other human world. I made sure that my West Virginia Park Services ID was in my saddlebag; humans were fussy about such things, even if my cutie mark should have taken care of such things.

“All right, Sandy,” Jason sighed, “let’s get some soil, leaf and wood samples. Can you feel anything?”

I felt out through my hooves, earth pony magic flowing into the surrounding soil. “There’s faint magic here,” I said. “Underground, but not deep. But it feels weird…not like pony magic.” I felt out the plants as Jason got out some baggies and a narrow metal tube- a soil sampler. “Nothing in the plants themselves, though.”

“About how far does this go? Where?”

“Deeper into this wood. It feels even weirder out there. Fades out to…not sure. And over there,” I pointed behind us, “out to the edge of the golf course. About ten feet, maybe. Any earth ponies should feel this. Does the course have some?”

“Go and check when we’re done here.” Jason paused, holding the soil sampler. “Go and collect some leaf samples. Healthy, sick and dead. Just a few, we’ll come back out here and survey this later.”

“Sure!” I replied as I got out some tweezers and tubes of my own.


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


As it turned out, the course owner did hire earth pony help. Even better, they were here right then. Jason, however, was less than impressed.

“They’re minimum-wage part-time teenagers, how much help do you think they’re gonna be?”

“They’re earth ponies like me! Just give them a chance.” I pouted; yes, I'll admit to that.

“With Mrs. Perfect Mane and name there?” I forgot that Jason was immune.

Straight Cloud, with her white coat, soccer ball cutie mark and ridiculously-curly light-grey mane, glared at Jason. “Why? Afraid an Earth Pony could beat your car in a race and look fabulous doing it, pastyface? Or him?” She pointed at me with the last one.

“And what’s that mark?” The other filly- Patty, I think- asked. “Get two trees confused?” Both fillies tittered.

I pointed to my cutie mark- apple and orange branches- and grinned. “My special talent is grafting trees together, actually,” I said, putting on my sincerest smile. “Pleasure to meet you.” I stuck out my hoof.

Patty stuck her lime-green hoof out first, ears back, wincing slightly. “Nice to meet you, too,” she said, abashed. Straight bumped my hoof in turn, grimacing like she touched something gross.

At least one of the fillies remembered to be nice.

“Now,” I began, “we just have a few questions about this area over here…”


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“Can either of you two feel anything?” I asked them.

We were all standing at the edge of the grass.

They looked at each other, before shaking their heads.

“Sorry,” Patty said. “But neither of us have ever been really good at feeling plants.” She ran her hoof over her short green mane. “Sports have always been our thing. That’s why we work at a golf course.”

“And I don’t wanna keep smelling this… Celestia-knows-what wood is,” Straight added.

Jason raised an eyebrow.

“She spent a few years in a cabin with a bunch of other ponies, just over there,” Patty explained, pointing into the wood. “Bunch of local Witnesses, broke up when everypony got stir-crazy.”

“Ah,” I said. The Witnesses were a case of ‘separated by a common language,’ a pony Christian sect that grew up around the missionary activities of the Jehova’s Witnesses when we took everything they said completely literally. Jason and I stared awkwardly at the two teenage ponies for a few more seconds.

“Well, ladies,” Jason began, “thank you for…”

“Shaddup!” Straight interrupted. She turned, and walked away; Patty, smiled awkwardly, waved and followed.

I sighed, before calling out “Have a nice day!”

Jason glared at me.

“What?” I asked. “You can still try to be nice.”


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“You sure you can’t stay?” I asked Jason as I put a dead piece of vine on a slide.

“Sandy, there’s no reason for me to stay,” Jason replied as he prepped a petri dish. “It’ll take time to get useable samples from these, and then I just need to fill out the reports. I go home to my family, you go do whatever you ponies do, and we don’t burn out the overtime budget.”

“Fine.” I shrugged, then began looking at a wilted leaf on the dissecting microscope. That’s all it was: wilted. No disease. I frowned, then moved on to another slide- another leaf, though starting to brown. It was dry, though, so probably not the cause. I made a few notes, then moved on.

Most trunk wood was drying out, but not otherwise sick. Vines were rotting right out of the ground, but were otherwise unhelpful. The soil samples were the most helpful; roots were rotting, and even the mycelial networks- those mixtures of fungi, things like morels and mushrooms that grew all around plant roots, giving them additional nutrients in return for a little sugar- appeared to be dying.

That fit with what we saw. Something killing the plants at the roots. Fungi were dying too, so either protozoan or bacterial. We’d want to use the petri dishes for that, though. Everything done, I cleaned up the lab, checked to make sure Jason had the incubator set correctly, and turned off the lights. Jason had, naturally, already left for the day.

I still smiled as I left. After all, I’d get to see my roommates tonight, and Jason tomorrow.


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“Hoo boy,” Jason said as he took out his petri dishes.

“Is it just me, or do they smell more than normal,” I said flatly.

“Yes, they do,” he replied.

“Wait, really?”

“Take a look.” He placed them carefully on the table. The bottoms of the dishes were all a splotchy mix of off-whites in the growth medium. The bacteria had evidently done very well.

“We’ll need to send some samples to the lab,” he continued. “Get DNA results.”

“I’ll get the paperwork started. We might get the results Thursday!” That’s one miracle of human technology I hope I never get used to; we were never able to interact with DNA at the cellular level. Honestly, just thinking about it makes me excited for the Pony Genome Project!

“And I’ll do some other basic tests,” Jason added. “We’ve got plenty of samples, so I’ll dye a few, see what species turn up.” He paused, then continued. “Or at least, what their cell walls are made of. You check out some satellite photos, see if we have anything from the past several months about our little magical mystery sickness.”

“On it!”


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“These gram-positive bacteria are actinomycetes,” Jason said, “and I’m not sure what this gram-negative patch is. They look almost like Rhizobium, though I doubt it.

“So in conclusion, the soil samples appear to be vibrant and healthy.”

“Or hazardously fecund. Did you find anything on satellite pictures? I want to know where we need to look.”

“Yes, I did.” I started showing Jason a number of screenshots. “These pictures were taken two years ago, and show a number of trees dying at the bottom of this hill, in a gulley. The sickness has spread since, always showing the same symptoms. The center is recovering now, which is good news, but that still leaves a lopsided fairy ring more than a mile long. That golf course isn’t too far from the middle; it should be a good place to pick up more samples.”

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing really important. Mostly, it’s just woods. Used to be some houses, but most look abandoned.”

“Could they have left because plants were getting sick?”

“I don’t think those places even had water and sewer connections to the rest of the city. When property values took a hit, it was probably just cheaper to abandon them.”

Jason stood silently for awhile. “I guess, then,” he said finally, “that we have our work cut out for us tomorrow.”

“Bright and early. Pick me up here, and we can be there by eight.”


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We arrived at precisely twenty-two after eight, pulling into the parking lot out of rush-hour traffic.

I hopped out, feeling the weight of my saddlebags and the multi-purpose hoof-boots on my legs. “I so hate these things,” I muttered as we walked back to the little wood.

We were quiet the rest of the way there, me smelling the fresh morning air and feeling the cool breeze under clear skies, wet grass tickling my hooves. The wind was calm, so I couldn’t smell anything out of the ordinary.

Finally, we walked (or rather, I trotted, and Jason trudged) into the wood. We began taking samples, starting at the grass and working our way in, recording plant species and location each time. We quickly developed a set routine; He’d record information about the sample, I’d collect it and get the GPS coordinates, he’d pack and label the sample, and I’d carry it. We continued this as we walked into the increasingly diseased wood. Thankfully, the raw sewage smell abated away from the edge; deeper in, it was more of a musty, earthy smell, even as the leaves turned from green to black.

That wasn’t the only thing that changed.

“Look at all these mushrooms,” I said. “I’ve never seen so many in one place.”

“It’s the dying plants,” Jason replied. “They’re always in the soil,” he continued, waving at the mushrooms, ”but with everything dying all of a sudden, they have a bunch more food.”

“Then let’s start collecting! I’ve always wanted a mushroom collection.”

“Since when?” Jason stared in my direction.

“Since I had the chance to make one!” No time like the present, after all- and why did humans have to be so gruchy?

Jason sighed, and then we started collecting the mushrooms, again labeling the coordinates. We bagged small white caps and lurid red toadstools, and breathed in the musty air as we also took more soil samples.

After more time passed, Jason called out, “Okay! Just stop!”

“We have fifteen mushroom samples, and maybe…fiftyish? Soil samples. Want to go in farther?”

“No, I think we have plenty of evidence already, and jeans and long sleeves do not a comfortable hike make.”

I rolled my eyes. “There aren’t any mosquitos.”

“What about ticks or horse flies?”

I snorted. “Haven’t seen any yet.” I paused, listening. “Actually, I haven’t seen any mosquitos. Or heard any birds or crickets, either, and you’d think you’d hear something at nine in the morning.”

“I’ll note it down. Anything else you don’t see you need me to take a look at?”

Looking deeper into the wood, a splash of white white against the brown backdrop caught my eye. “Uhh, Jason? We might want to go take a look at that.” I pointed.

We walked over. It was definitely a mushroom. White cap, white stem. It was also definitely two feet plus change high, and at least a foot across.

Jason evidently found something better, calling me about ten yards away, to a wrinkled, tan monstrosity that reached my standing height from out of a rotten log. “Just look at this morel. And yes, it’s definitely a morel, gathered in June! Look!” Jason then proceeded to cut it open, revealing a hollow interior. “And it’s huge!”

No discussion was needed; just put into a bag. We looked deeper. Here, purple-rimmed elephant ears the size of elephant ears in a birch trunk. There, clusters of foot-tall brown caps. Bagged and tagged. A smoking rock? No, a giant puffball, a yard in diameter. A patch of horrible-smelling, black moss on a log, and a giant glob of jelly on a tree? Snag and satchel.

We kept walking inward, and eventually the fungi shrank back down to more normal sizes. Eventually, even grass returned. Well…

“This is all just the same grass,” I cried. “The exact same type! And Nothing else!”

“No, look up. The trees are budding.”

“You’re right, they are!”

Eventually, we came upon an old wooden fence. With that, we turned back. When we got back to the edge of the wood, I took off my hoof-boots and planted myself into the soil. Whatever it was, the magic had spread a little along the edge of the golf course, but hadn’t penetrated in. With that, we left the course and went back to the office for our lunches. We had them later that night, after we got home.


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“I told you I’d get the DNA results by today!” I said brightly. We were sitting back in our little lab, looking over some files that had been faxed over. Jason hated that, but I didn’t get why; faxing was certainly more convenient than opening an email and then printing it.

“By five in the evening,” Jason replied, showing me his watch.

“It’s still the working day!”

Jason sighed. “Seriously, though, I have no earthly clue how you did it.”

“I hired a courier!” I replied.

“That really doesn’t explain anything,” Jason sighed.

“She was a Pegasus, and ponies always help each other.” Jason rolled his eyes, even though it was true. “She got it there fast, and everyone there got curious.” I leaned forward, front hooves on the table. “I think they weren’t too busy, either. And they rehired the mare to come back here.”

Jason grunted. “Let’s see… we have Streptomyces, Clostridium, Rhizobium, …Salmonella? Neorickettsia risticii? Oddly specific. Hold on, let’s see if we can figure out what these are.”

We started checking on the database. “It looks like some of these genera are found in the intestines of both ponies and humans. Mostly ponies.” Suddenly I was happy to have been wearing those hoof-boots.

“Especially ponies,” he continued. “Most of these bacteria were noted for having quote ‘unusual or anomalous’ plasmids!” I whistled sharply. A plasmid was a small stretch of DNA shared between bacteria, even different species. The implications were obvious; it meant that unusual or anomalous genetic knowledge was spreading through the microfauna of a West Virginia forest. Given the magic I had felt…

“Magic’s gotten into the environment,” I whispered. “Influenced all that growth.”

“Obviously. But how? Didn’t you say it was indistinct?” My coworker’s gaze was intense, despite his small eyes.

“Faint, yes, and not like earth pony magic.” I kept a level head as he glared.

Jason looked away and began pacing around the counter we were seated at. “Okay, so magic is influencing all of the growth. We could have figured that out by looking at the mushrooms, but okay. The question is how, and why. And don’t say, ‘it’s magic!’ Let’s look for another pattern.

“Where did we find these in the samples…” Jason trailed off. “The intestinal bacteria are mostly concentrated at the edge of the ring. They’re probably what’s killing off everything. Everything you’d normally find in the soil is there by the time the fungi appear, with almost nothing else.

“What’ve you got, Sandy?”

“Right! Yes.” I pulled out the fungi I’d been comparing. “We have a mix of things here. Mycorrhizal, saprophytic and parasitic. We have the fruiting bodies of just about every species of mushroom in the state.”

“In late June.”

“Er, yes. This is Rhizopus stolonifer,” I pulled out a sample of black mold, “grown to 2.8 cm tall. I also found samples of Penicillium, though I couldn’t identify the exact species. The hyphae are slightly changed, and very thick; they all seem to be growing very quickly. Same for the mushrooms.” I showed him a rootlike mass of fungal hyphae.

Jason scrunched his nose. “Hence morels and puffballs living together.”

“Exactly! I’m not sure why they shrank back down; maybe they just ran out of food. The grass may have had something to do with it.”

“Or maybe they figured out it was the wrong season,”Jason Snarked.

“At least I got further with it,” I continued. “Tripsacum dactyloides, all of it. Eastern gamagrass. Native, and growing surprisingly healthily. No, I don’t know why it survived, and nothing else on the ground did.”

I sighed. “What about you, Jason?”

“A bit more of a mix. I found a bunch of Aphelenchus nematodes close to the grass and by the edge of the ring. Different species, though. Not a whole lot else. Same for the protozoa; a bunch of a few species, especially Platyreta attacking roots and hyphae, few of the others.”

Aphelencus?”

“Fungivores, mostly.”

“So they got magic from the fungi. The plants are rarer, so they probably got magic from the fungi as well. But where did they get their magic? And how do intestinal bacteria fit in?”

“That’s what we’re finding out tomorrow. Sandy, here are the addresses inside the zone. Ask your pony friends tonight if they know something about these places. We’re going to the center of this, seeing if we can figure something out. See if we can find the pony behind this.” Jason sighed. I glared; I’d learned that not all ponies were harmonious, but come on! “You sure you can’t be any more specific about it?”

I shook off my annoyance. “The magic was faint, and felt…weird. Other than that…I can barely feel it. I don’t think others couldn’t feel it at all.”

“Damn. Without anything more concrete, we can’t get anyone higher up to come take a look. Not even the local cops.”

I shivered. This could be very dangerous, bad enough that Jason might be thinking of terrorism. Paranoid nonsense, of course, which we ponies were helping humanity break, but dangerous all the same.


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“Well, it certainly looks cultivated,” Jason said as we slowly drove up the hill.

Well, he said it was the driveway; he could’ve fooled me. At least he was taking it slow, though I think it was to protect the car. It may’ve been government-owned, but it was still a 20-year-old Taurus, and everything from the Great Recession onwards hadn’t been kind on small government budgets. Probably also why nobody could spare some help for us.

We reached the small cabin on top of a small hill, shaded by a few trees, and backing up against an unbuilt, grassy hillside, running down towards a stream. I planted my hooves in the ground as I stepped out of the car; the earth was vibrant, but there was less magic than an earth pony would use, and it felt very different. The effects were profound, though; the area around the house was heavy with the scent of grass and flowers, which bloomed in incredible profusion. There must’ve once been a garden there; I saw some cucumbers and squash sitting amongst the weeds, and I think some of the trees were apples. If this were a pony cabin, then Jason was probably right about the driveway being cultivated.

We started at the cabin itself. It was a small wooden thing, human built, with no real walls besides those around the bathroom and two bedrooms. It was intact, but had obviously been abandoned; most of the furniture was covered with dust, with a bunch of pony adaptations. On a shelf, in a broken frame, there was a picture of about twenty ponies of all ages on blankets, under a banner that said “Watcher’s Witnesses.” On the kitchen counter, there were a few invoices for unpaid bills- yard excavation, septic tank inspection, plumbing, all tinged by the smell of must, and all dated three years earlier. At least we probably weren’t breaking the law; being state inspectors working on a magic problem had its privileges; even if human paranoia about magic was a little excessive, producing something unnatural in this world was important, a part of everyday life or not. Still, there was nothing there.

Then we started looking around outside. Most of the plants around here had definitely been meant for pony consumption, and smelled as healthy and vibrant as any earth pony gardener could make them. Alas, new farming techniques meant that larger-scale farming was better for towns and cities, making places like this redundant even in Equestria. Then again, hilly areas were poorly suited to that kind of farming, and there was a lot of land here…

The house itself was in modest condition; nothing had seriously breached the walls, and the windows were intact. I thought I still smelled dry rot, though. And speaking of smells, just a few hundred feet from the house...

“Come over here, I smell something,” I called out. It was an unpleasant smell, one that I couldn’t completely describe. I trotted down to the side of the hill, Jason following. “Here,” I said as he stood beside me, “I definitely smell something. Can you see anything?”

“It looks like there’s a mound over there,” Jason said, pointing to my left. We walked over, to an overgrown pit with a metal tank. I had an inkling as to what I was looking at.

“A septic tank,” Jason confirmed, answering my unasked question. “Probably abandoned for several years.”

“I saw some bills to that effect on the counter.” I paused, suddenly coming to a realization. “Weren’t some of the bacteria we found pony intestinal bacteria?”

“Yes, but how’d they get out there from here?”

“They had bills for septic tank repair on the counter. They had a picture of twenty ponies living here! They overflowed the septic system!”

Jason got it then. “They had twenty magical ponies with magical gut bacteria overusing the septic system,” he said with dawning horror. “Magical gut bacteria with magical plasmids that got transferred to other bacteria when the system failed.”

“And then magic began working its way through the surrounding ecosystem. The bacteria then began killing the plants. Then it passed into the fungi, which could now survive the bacteria and use the newly-dead plants to grow.”

“Meanwhile, protozoa ate the bacteria, which helped them grow stronger and eat more plants. Then, nematodes ate the fungi, and became magical enough to survive. But what about the plants?”

“Symbiotic bacteria and fungi,” I replied. “They let nonmagical plants survive. They let them thrive; that’s why I couldn’t identify the magic! Heck, the fungi may not even be magical! It could just be the bacteria and protozoa!”

“I think that’s how it works in Equestria,” I continued. “Just some soil bacteria and fungi are magical, not the plants, and not very. Only in a few places like the Everfree Forest are things very magical.”

“I didn’t think that magic was supposed to start integrating into the environment for decades or centuries,” Jason breathed.

“Evidently we were wrong,” I said comfortingly. “We can’t know everything.”

We began walking back to the car. “At least, look on the bright side,” I said. “We can change the world with this, warn people about what’s happening. And look at how healthy everything is over here! We can show that even wild magic makes things better! ”

“And we’ll never need to worry about our budgets again, ever,” Jason replied.

Author's Note:

Technically, this is the first story I ever wrote! It's been sitting in my Google Docs folder for almost nine months, so I figured I'd best of publish it now! Comments and criticisms would be appreciated.

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Comments ( 6 )

“She spent a few years in a cabin with a bunch of other ponies, just over there,” Patty explained, pointing into the wood. “Bunch of local Witnesses, broke up when everypony got stir-crazy.”

Who is "she"? This paragraph seems out of place.

You might want to add a little note that this is related to Pandemic. I didn't even realize until ETS was first mentioned.

That said, magic spreading through simple biology, huh? I hadn't even thought of how bacteria from a magical world would be just as magic as the rest of life, and would start spreading once it reached earth through the usual biological way.

10152096
Oops! It was originally, but I edited that out. Guess I missed one!

10152102
Didn't notice this get posted until now. Nice to see it pulled out of the anthology folder and used. I would have still liked to see a little more conflict. Perhaps a dispute with the golf course staff or something about use and ownership of the property vs the golf course wanting to destroy what is likely very important new biological materials that should be preserved and studied, and work towards some compromise. I love the concept, I'd just liked to have seen the story fleshed out some more.

10206298
I was getting that you didn't really want to write the Anthology any more, and it didn't really fit in with everything else anyway, so it just made sense.

Halira #6 · May 9th · · ·

10225152
Anthology had a problem for me; it is a collection of short stories. While I do short stories occasionally, they are more typically quick flashes of inspiration. Anything that I have to sit down and think about inevitably turns into something longer than a short story. It just makes me a bad match to the project, and the primary reason it continually hit a roadblock even when up to trying to tackle it. This one is an example of it, as I would have fleshed it out so much that it would have needed multiple chapters at least, if not a full book. Brevity isn't my strong suite (the majority of the time).

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