The Mules
by Jennifer Jeanne McArdle, 3.49am July 10th 2022

Jordan had been riding mules since she was a small child. She knew to trust their intelligence, especially Yule, whose wide ears twitched towards her as he breathed in deeply enough for her to feel his ribs expand under her legs. The AFR infected areas had their own unique beauty, she remembered as she followed the trail of sun rays that had found their way through cracks in the thick canopy of waxy, spiral leaves hanging over her. A puffy white spore landed on Yule’s nose. He sneezed.

“Bless you,” she whispered as she pet his dappled gray fur, and urged him forward. She always liked foxes, so she tried not to look at the corpses of a few cubs, their skeletons and bits of wet orange fur intertwined with the spiral green leaves. The plants that had been growing here before the infection were dead or dying, their leaves having dropped off and their stems wilted due to lack of sunlight and the AFR sapping all the available water and nutrients from the soil. AFR forests were always especially quiet; corpses of song birds were strewn about, and the legs, wings or bits of other insect parts floating through the air, dirtying her goggles. The leaves of the AFR softened any noise, like fresh snowfall.

Yule, her handsome and strong mule who had been born on Christmas seven years ago, reached a sure-footed trot, avoiding tangling his hooves in the AFR vines or corpses. Jordan was sure they weren’t far from the source of the AFR infection now and hoped to uproot it and destroy it before nightfall.

Her mind began to wander. When Jordan was in high school, she had been taught by an English teacher who wore floral prints on unenhanced fabric, used a handheld mobile phone, spoke with a vocal fry, and therefore seemed truly old fashioned. She had once assigned them a bunch of old, historic feminist essays. As a teenager, Jordan wasn’t sure how she felt about feminism and often wondered if it applied to her.

She had read one essay a couple of times, turning a few of the sentences over and over again in her head. The writer described how her society assumed a biological destiny for women, trapped by their monthly cycles, and the physical and emotional burden of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Society determined that just because women could carry children, they must.

 

Jordan had realized then that although she could not give birth or breastfeed, she too was trapped by biological destiny.

Yule stopped when they reached a thick green curtain of AFR vines. He pawed at the ground. Jordan pulled an apple from her pack and offered it to Yule. He had always been such a brave creature; many other mules got spooked the first time they were brought into AFR infected areas, and some never got over that fear.

Alien Fungal Root spores had first been brought to Earth from the Jupiter moon where they had been identified as a potential cure for the growing human infertility rates. However, the lab where the spores were being housed was attacked by anti-science terrorist groups, and the spores were released into the wild.

Jordan got down from the animal and pulled her machete from its holster in Yule’s saddle. She put large headphones over her own ears and then put ear plugs into Yule’s ears. She began hacking at the green curtain, wincing as the AFR vines emitted a piercing whine each time they were cut apart. The leaves here were especially thick; the area of this infection was far from the major cities, so no one had noticed it for some time.

AFR wasn’t able to reproduce on its own; rather it infected the reproductive cells of animals as a means to reproduce itself, but the process killed the host fairly quickly. The initial infection that began an AFR colony only succeeded if a spore was able to enter an open wound and if the animal’s immune system was already weakened. Then the fungus needed hospitable soil, where it could plant itself and grow a network of roots outward.

Now that Jordan finished hacking through the curtain, she saw the deep magenta flower at the center of every AFR network. It pulsed; puffy white spores burst onto her face. These spores, emitted in the proximity of an established AFR root network, became more potent. They only needed to be breathed in; the gametes of animals were then infected and transformed. The spiral leaves grew from inside the creature until they too could reach the ground, sending their own roots towards the main network, strengthening it.

She could swear that the AFR colonies were conscious to some degree and that this one had just spit at her. She returned the gesture and walked back to Yule. Jordan had no fear of the spores. While most infertile people made eggs or sperm that were of a poor quality or something about their reproductive organs was ill-formed, Jordan had been born without any reproductive organs and was incapable of producing any reproductive cells. Most mules, due to mismatched chromosomes, were also incapable of producing reproductive cells, making them the best pack animals for travel into an AFR infected area.

Jordan found a red flare in her pack and walked away from Yule towards an open spot in the canopy. The flower continued to pulse, and Jordan had to wipe her goggles a few times as she set up the flare. She stepped back and watched it burst into the air and explode. The AFR disrupted most electronic devices, and the spores and other debris often jammed delicate mechanical contraptions. The one red flare was a signal to other Professional AFR Uprooters on her team that she had found the major root.

Now she had two hours to pull the root from the ground, poison it, burn it, and douse all the AFR leaves she came across in flammable chemicals. Other Uprooters would start dousing their own sections of the infected area.

She needed Yule again for this part. She took thick ropes from Yule’s pack and began wrapping them around the flower. It continued to spit spores at her, continued to pulse, and screamed when she dug metal hooks into the base of the flower. At each end of the rope were metal clasps that attached to the harness around her waist and to Yule’s saddle. She attached each end and patted Yule’s rump. She sneezed a couple of times and Yule shook his head.

Jordan had been a new Uprooter apprentice and twenty-years-old when she saw Yule being born; his mother was a large draft horse. His gangly body had looked so small next to hers. Jordan’s grandparents owned a farm. Her parents had separated her from her brothers and sister when she was ten and sent her to live on that farm where she could learn to care for animals firsthand.

Because she was born without a biological sex, and she was related to someone who trained mules for AFR Uprooters, it was assumed since she’d been a small child that she would one day become an Uprooter. Before Yule had been born, Jordan was a little bitter that no one even entertained the idea that her future would be any different, that she might want a different profession.

But Yule, sweet Yule, was a curious, precocious creature. He seemed to know when she was sad and nuzzled her shoulder. He was courageous and treated each mission as a new adventure, as though each AFR infected area they traveled through wasn’t something diseased, cast off, or blandly repetitive, but a magical otherworldly experience, transporting them across space to a moon in some far-off corner of the solar system. She tried to explain this feeling to one of her brothers.

“I mean, maybe he’s just confident because you’re confident.” Her brother told her. “He’s just an animal, and he’s not quite as impressive as a horse. Although, I guess Uprooters are something like modern day knights or samurai? Instead of demons, you exorcise aliens.”

Jordan stepped away from Yule and began walking forward, pulling the rope taut. Yule took her cue and began pulling as well; his back legs bending low as he strained. He brayed deep and loud, and his breath could be heard puffing from his flared nostrils. Drool dripped from his lips. She pulled with him, but of course, her power was nothing compared to that of a mule weighing over a thousand pounds. But she knew Yule; she knew that seeing her pull with him was the best motivation. Sweat dripped down her forehead, and her heart pounded in her chest. This was a stubborn root, but she and Yule were more stubborn. A horse might have given up, and donkey would have lacked the power, but the mule, this marvel of human genetic engineering before humans even knew exactly what genetics were, would pull and pull until the task was completed.

Finally she heard and felt the flower rip from the ground. They tugged together for a few more moments to drag the main root from its hole so that Jordan could cut it open and burn the core. Jordan stopped pulling, dropped fully to her knees and sucked air into her lungs. She began coughing; some spores had been caught in her throat. She felt hot breath on her cheek and reached up to pet Yule’s nose.

“You are a good boy,” she whispered into his ear as she used his body to get back on her feet. Sometimes thinking about mules made Jordan believe in some kind of god or supernatural force. What luck to humans that this animal existed or all life might have died out due to the AFR infection.

“Man made the mule,” her grandfather reminded her often. “They’re unnatural and sterile. There’d be no mules without man.” Still, she thought. What luck that this experiment worked. Man didn’t make life.

She made her way over to the uprooted flower. With her machete, she sliced open the thickest part of the root, which was now exposed. The core was a neon pink liquid. Tiny bits of the bones of whatever animal had been infected by the spore bobbed on the surface. She opened a flask of poison and dumped it into the core.

After she had moved to her grandparents’ home, she hardly ever saw her siblings or her parents. Her older sister and brother were already married with small children. The rest of her family wasn’t wealthy or well-educated, but their fertility had somewhat elevated their place in society while many other struggled to conceive.

Her nieces and nephews wrote her emails or called her sometimes. Next month, she was supposed to visit her niece’s kindergarten class to talk about her job as an AFR Uprooter. Most Uprooters weren’t like her, completely sexless. Some people and animals had a natural immunity to the AFR spores. Still, it was a dangerous occupation for them as sometimes that natural immunity broke down and the AFR succeeded in infecting them. Prolonged exposure to the spores and the chemicals used to kill them also sometimes caused diseases and cancers.

During the long, quiet nights on the roads in between cities or infected areas, Jordan wondered what she would be if AFR never came to Earth. Would people have mocked her oddly shaped body and childlike features?

“You’re my hero,” her niece had told her after she agreed to come to her class.

She doused the flower and the core in flammable chemicals and lit a match. The growth burst into to flames. She adjusted her breathing mask over her face as the foul-smelling smoke began to rise and fill this area of the AFR forest. She put a mask over Yule’s nose and climbed up to sit in his saddle. Then, she tossed balloons filled with flammables as they rode out of the AFR infected area until they finally cleared the orange sticks that marked the perimeter of the infection. When she reached her team’s truck, a couple of miles away from the infected area, she shared dinner with her teammates.

Now that the core of the infection had been destroyed and the signal the AFR emitted that messed with electronics was weakened, jets could fly over the area and drop bombs, incinerating the AFR forest. Fire trucks zoomed past them towards the infected area to keep the fire from spreading.

At the truck, they were sprayed with disinfectant to kill any errant spores. Still, some spores would escape, and eventually new AFR infections would grow.

****

Years later, when the bank and government employees came to close down Jordan’s ranch and reclaim the land, Jordan watched as each mule was led out back and shot. Then the men loaded their bodies onto trucks; each thud as their bodies landed on top of the other animals felt like being stabbed in the heart. She heard a few of them would be stuffed and preserved, others would be chopped up for meat and frozen. In the future, when real meat would become rarer and rarer, someone might pay for the novelty of eating mule, even if it wouldn’t taste very good.

Jordan and Yule had spent a couple of decades on Uprooter teams around the world. They had climbed glaciers to find infections that had started in herds of wild reindeer. Another time, they had got lost in a sandstorm for days until they both met at a tower of alien green, its core at the center of a watering hole in an oasis. They had scaled canyons covered in twisted vines, ripped an infection from what had been the nest of a falcon on a cliff-side tree. They trudged knee-deep in infected swamps, still filled with a species of hungry mosquitoes that were naturally immune to AFR.

Jordan had tried, when she could, to collect samples of the dead animals and plants. The AFR infections had finished off a number of flora and fauna just barely hanging on to existence, and for a while, most people believed the planet was doomed. But eventually, the Uprooters had succeeded in saving the planet; AFR infections seemed to be completely eliminated.

“Were you a part of the team that got that infection a few miles outside Chicago?” a woman in a bank employee uniform asked her, maybe to distract her from watching the ongoing animal massacre.

“Yes.”

“Er. Thank you. The house where I grew up wasn’t too far from that infection. You stopped it before it reached us.”

“A couple of the animals in that pile were on that mission, too.” Jordan continued to watch the culling. The woman watched for a few seconds before turning away and leaving Jordan’s side.

After the Uprooting teams had been disbanded, Jordan used some of her savings to buy acres of empty prairie land. She had built the Hybrid Heroes Ranch and Museum for Yule and the other retired mules. The mules had spent their days running over rolling hills, kicking up dust over the short grasses and little flowers.

Jordan had obsessed over the presentation at the museum, which featured rooms on the history of AFR, pictures of infected areas, and old tools and outfits Uprooters had used. One room had even listed the names of Uprooters and mules who had passed.

Jordan watched as some of the government men now raided her museum for any artifacts they felt were worth saving for other, better museums before they demolished the building.

After Jordan had first opened Hybrid Heroes, people had come from all over the world to see the mules, to pet them, to ride them, or to see the artifacts. They had donated money and other supplies. Her nieces and nephews had brought friends and then their own children to see her on the ranch. Her family, except for her, remained extraordinarily fertile. They spent a lot of time bragging about how scientists were studying their genes to help the human race.

Jordan had spent her days caring for the animals and cleaning and rearranging the museum rooms, telling and retelling her stories to any visitors who would listen. But, as the years passed, fewer visitors came and less donations were received. People remembered that the planet was running out of resources. They had less time for art, or music, or history.

“What exactly do the mules do now?” more and more people had begun to ask her when they visited. Jordan always felt taken aback by the question no matter how often she heard it. Hadn’t they already done enough?

“Would you let me take him for one last ride?” Jordan asked the government men on her ranch about Yule before they could shoot him. They eyed human and beast suspiciously as they both stood on thin, wobbly legs. “This is my own mule, which I rode into the alien forests for years. I trained him since he was born. I should be the one to shoot him.” Perhaps some latent guilt about the way retired AFR Uprooters had been poorly treated and cast aside caused them to relent to her request.

At one point during her their career, Jordan and Yule had been well-known and won awards for their skill and dedication in stamping out the infection. They were all over social media, in memes, and had appeared a few times on television or on magazine covers. Jordan got letters from children all over the world, and a toy horse company even asked Yule and some of the other mules to model for a collectors’ series.

“I’m sorry it had to turn out this way,” a young government employee named Wagner told her as she prepared for her ride. “I always get depressed when we have to kill lots of animals like this. With the way things are going, people can’t bring themselves to spend money on animals not producing anything.”

Most commercial farming had been phased out years prior due to its effect on the environment. Millions of cows, and chickens, and pigs had been slaughtered at once, and the meat was distributed or frozen in special freezers that would keep it unspoiled for decades.

Jordan had been forced to use her savings to keep the ranch alive these past few years. She had written letters to other retired Uprooters. Only a few sent her money. Many of them had already passed from diseases likely caused by exposure to the spores or the chemicals used to kill them.

“I’ve got nothing to send you. We can’t even get donations to save the sick human Uprooters,” one of her old teammates had told her.

“He’s really handsome for a mule,” Wagner told her as his hand hovered a few inches from Yule’s nose. “Is he the biggest one on the ranch?”

“He was.”

Jordan had been riding Yule months ago when she fainted for the first time. At the hospital, the doctors told her she was sick and wasn't going to get any better. She contacted her brothers and sister and told them that she needed their help, but they told her they had no money to spare. They were angry that she used all of her savings on the mules. What about her nieces and nephews? Didn’t she want to leave them something for the future?

“Do you need help packing any of your stuff? You won’t be able to come back to it tomorrow. They’re gonna demolish your house first thing in the morning.” Wagner told her as she brushed Yule’s mane for the final time.

Jordan had been given just a few more months to live. She had wanted to spend them on the ranch and not in a state-run facility the government had designated to care for her. As the days passed, caring for the mules had become more difficult until it was impossible. The money, except her small pension, was gone.

Jordan went inside to get her lunch from the kitchen and carried it out in a cooler. She tied up the saddle on Yule’s back and struggled to mount him. Wagner finally helped her up.

“Are you sure you can do this, Sir? Ma’am?”

“Ma’am is fine.” Her breath made a cloud in the cold air. She gripped the reigns in one trembling hand and shaded her eyes from the sun with the other. “I’ll be back in a few hours, I think.”

“Don’t take too long,” one of the other government men told her. “We’re only on shift until 5pm. Then you’ll need to get your own ride to the nursing home.”

“Do you want to tell us where you’re going? We could pick you up?” Wagner asked her.

She didn’t bother answering, but urged Yule forward. They slowly made their way to the edge of a pond a couple of miles from the ranch. Some people complained the water here contained too much algae to be pretty, but some fish and frogs and waterfowl still managed to live in the pond; it was nothing like the quiet AFR areas.

Jordan managed to get herself down from Yule. From the cooler, she removed two apples, giving one to the mule and biting into the other. She hugged Yule and praised him. He nibbled her shoulder and whined.

Her hands trembled as she removed the pistol from Yule’s saddle. Yule was forty years old now; he only had a few years, or perhaps just a few months left in him. Or did he? Some mules lived past fifty. She thought about chasing him into the woods and leaving him there, but he’d probably starve to death or loneliness would kill him. If she hadn’t been sick, maybe she would have had the energy to find someone to take care of him for the last few years of his life.

She raised the pistol to his forehead. He grunted and pointed his ears towards her. Did he trust her completely and not know what was coming, or had he simply accepted his fate? She and her Uprooter teammates had often debated how smart or aware these animals were. Whatever was true about their intelligence, Yule had been her best friend, perhaps her only real friend. She breathed in deeply.

She pulled the trigger. The contents of his head erupted, some splattering her face and arms. His large body immediately crumpled. Her ears ringing from the gunshot, she mustered what strength she had left to slowly push him a couple of feet into a grave she had dug a couple of weeks prior. She covered him with dirt until her energy was completely drained.

She rested for some time until she could stand again. Then she found the cooler. Under the apples was a small block of ice. She took it out and held it up to the sun. Encased in the ice were a few AFR spores that she had managed to save and freeze years ago.

She put the block of ice directly under a bright ray of sun and stepped back. It was just a few spores; the chances of them actually reaching a vulnerable host and starting an AFR infection were quite low. If the infection was successful, she likely wouldn’t live to see it. Still, she liked to think that there was some chance in the universe that people like her and animals like Yule might be needed again.

As she scrubbed the mess from her body and clothes at the edge of the pond, the ice melted, and a soft breeze carried the few white spores on the wind.