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This short story concerns a parasitic fungus, very similar to the infamous Ophiocordyceps unilateralis in ants. In this story, it was used as a bio-weapon, and has taken over large swaths of America. It is fatal once contracted, and late-stage infected hosts will climb poles or trees and "bloom", spreading more fatal spores.

Setting: It is set in a future post-apocalyptic America, following several nasty bio-terror wars. The USA has collapsed and reformed as the Catholic States of America (CSA) and some splinter groups.

Characters:

  • The protagonist, a male veteran from the war. He lives alone in the forest, and objects to the iron-fisted CSA.

  • A beast-woman, genetically modified to serve as a bloodhound during the war.

  • The CSA, an oppressive fundie government that is the only surviving authority around.

Plot: The protagonist is traveling to his home when he is exposed to a "bloomer". Local emergency crews come to sanitize the area. Protagonist is later diagnosed with the fungus. He is roughed up by CSA goonies for dissent. He is comforted by his companion, the beast-woman. She offers to mercy-kill him to prevent the inevitable end. He tells her to leave their area before things get worse. He succumbs to the parasite and "blooms" himself, furthering the cycle.

This was in a sci-fi short story anthology from the....70's? 80's?. I have searched and searched. Any help from fellow dusty tome readers would be much appreciated.

Similar to this question Sci-fi/horror short story about a disease that took over people’s minds and made their heads explode, but the story I'm looking for is none of the answers there.

  • Aw man... I was about to requote my answer. :) – FuzzyBoots Oct 15 at 5:02
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    Some aspects of this make me think of Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan. – FuzzyBoots Oct 15 at 5:16
  • Clearly modeled on "enslaver fungus" (that's a good screen name), available for ants: Ophiocordyceps. Humans have toxoplasmosis only for now. – David Tonhofer Oct 16 at 11:11
  • Was it called a politician? – Mike Stone Oct 21 at 7:20
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War Dog by Mike Barretta. I read it in The Year's Best Military SF & Space Opera edited by David Afsharirad.

The protagonist is a veteran called William Jackson. The people infected with the fungus are referred to as shrooms. The story starts when Jackson sees a shroom in the last stages of the disease:

From the corner of his eye, he saw a man emerging from the woods. He jammed the brakes and his truck left the road, plowing to a stop into the soft red dirt undercut from the crumbling asphalt.

Not a man, but a shroom. The figure staggered, hands outstretched, and pressed its naked body against the side glass. He could see the delicate snowflake tracery of white rhizome fibers under its skin. The shroom’s eyes glinted clear and blue. Its slack mouth drooled. The creature broke away, leaving a moist trail across the car. Its eyes turned skyward and fixed on a power pole draped with broken electrical lines and wild jasmine. It stepped away towards the pole, cast a look over its shoulder at him, almost as if it was still a person, and climbed.

The beast woman is a neighbour of Jackson's called the Dog:

Then he remembered his only neighbor, the Dog. The wind was blowing from the west. If the shroom fruited, its spores would drift over the Dog’s homestead. Even if they didn’t, the decontamination team would fog the area with caustic chemicals.

The Dog is a mutant created by the military:

He had seen the Dog twice before, and they had acknowledged each other at a careful distance. As veterans, they shared the bond of war, but whereas he had emerged from conflict a respected soldier, she had come out as an illegal gene splice, a piece of dangerous biological equipment.

As you say, the Dog offers to kill him but he refuses:

Predatory eyeshine regarded him with love. She stepped from the pool and embraced him. Retractable-clawed hands caressed the fibrous cluster at his cheek. Her dew claw rested across his throat. She would do it if he asked.

“No,” he said. “I want every minute.”

And the story ends:

By unthinking instinct, he selected a dead pine that offered unobstructed access to the wind. Compulsion drove him to the topmost reaches, and he swayed in the amber morning light, rocking to-and-fro in the breeze. He thought his last thoughts of love and war before bizarre biological processes bundled his memories into microscopic spores that erupted from him in a pink haze to be scattered on the winds.

The USA has become the Christian States of America not the Catholic States of America. In the CSA mutants like the Dog are regarded as unholy and are hunted and destroyed:

In the CSA, the Christian States of America, she was an abomination and regarded as military property to be neutralized by an ordnance disposal team, but he had known about her presence for almost a year and had not reported her.

Jackson is beaten up by CSA goons because he won't reveal the Dog's whereabouts to them.

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    Solved! My gosh, you've found it. What a relief. I was way off on the date, but you nailed it anyways. The anthology is [isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?513884] for anyone else. – Corey Smith Oct 15 at 7:00
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    @CoreySmith oops, yes, I forgot to mention the anthology. I'll edit it into my answer now. – John Rennie Oct 15 at 7:14

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