For the Sake of Mushrooms by Mary E. Lowd

The red sun glowed like an evil eye on the forward viewscreen. It stared into Irudy’s soul. Once it had been the warmth on her fur and the shine in a smiling sky while she ran through fields, her paws bare against the wholesome dirt. Now it was death’s mocking wink as the cold, stale air of her cargo ship recycled endlessly through algae filters and mechanical pipes.

Irudy steered her cargo ship, angling it into a languid orbit of the red giant, chasing slowly after the burnt rock that had once been her homeworld before the cheerful yellow star called Heffe had betrayed her and her entire people. In a single generation the yellow star had been rushed into an early convalescence as a red giant by mad scientists trying to rejuvenate it. A whole species of canids had scattered to the winds of space, their myriad cultures dissolving into treasured fragments and the half-remembered legends of refugees.

On the star maps, the sun’s name was still the same. But this red giant didn’t deserve one.

It didn’t deserve to be remembered.

And yet Irudy felt called to it.

Again and again she came here, swung past the dusty, scorched world that had once been a glittering green-and-blue gem, and then pointed the nose of her small vessel towards the sun.

Was she saying goodbye? Or was she telling the planet, I won’t forget you. I’m coming home soon. The red giant swallowed your oceans and trees. Now it will swallow me.

In the belly of the red giant, could Irudy find her lost home? Red-furred canids had played chase and tag, running and laughing, barking and singing songs. All in the blink of a red giant’s eye, that was gone.

Irudy could be gone too.

What was there to keep her? To pull her away from the red giant’s gravity, back into the confusing universe that her people had been thrown into? A shipload of cargo. Mushrooms from two star-systems over that would spoil if she didn’t deliver them to Crossroads Station on time.

Except, they couldn’t spoil in the belly of a sun. They’d be burnt to a crisp. Cooked to nothing.

A niggling, useless thought reminded Irudy that these type of mushroom weren’t cooked with heat by the reptilian aliens who’d ordered them; they were brined. It didn’t matter, and yet, somehow it was enough to make her point the nose of the cargo ship away from the sun, back on a course to Crossroads Station.

Irudy could always come back after the mushrooms were delivered. She could, and she probably would.

And yet somehow, every time, there was some piece of cargo in her hold that had to be delivered. An artist’s paintings—and the artist, a koala-like alien, had held Irudy’s paws, squeezed them, and made her promise to be careful with them. Replacement robot arms—and Irudy couldn’t stand the idea of those poor robots missing their arms. Something truly important—perhaps vaccines or a passenger who didn’t understand why Irudy had flown off their flight path to visit an abandoned sun.

Or this time, mushrooms.

It wasn’t a good reason to live.

But today, it was enough.