Symbiotic Puppets

by S. Kilroy


part 1 of 3

The sun was lower in the sky now and it was starting to get in Eric’s eyes. He reached up to pull the visor down. His hand felt around, but didn’t find the edge of the visor. He glanced up, found it and flipped it down. His eyes came back to the road just as something, a black thing against the backdrop of the sun’s rays, burst out of the brush alongside the road.

Eric slammed on the brakes and the car quickly came to a halt on the steep gravel road. The black thing bounded off into the thick forest on the opposite side and was gone.

“What the...?” He muttered under his breath. The way the sun slanted in prevented him from getting a clear view of it, he realized it could have been anything. A dog, a deer or even a bear. Still, it didn’t move like any of them. He thought about calling someone on his cell phone, but who? And what would he tell them he saw? Besides, he knew he was getting close to Danny’s house.

At the top of the slope, Eric suddenly found himself on a small flat clearing where the road ended and two-story yellow house sat nestled in the forest. He parked and got out. The side door of the house opened and Danny, his cousin, emerged.

“Hey, you made it!” Danny said with a big grin. The red wavy hair gave Danny a kind of goofy look. Eric always thought it gave him a clown-like appearance. It had been a while since Eric had last seen Danny, Jenny, his wife, and their son Billy.

“I did indeed,” Eric said. He shook Danny’s outstretched.

“So what do you think?” Danny asked waving his hands all around.

Eric slowly rotated around staring into the forest all around. “Very impressive. You weren’t kidding. This place is really ‘away from it all’.”

“You betcha. You betcha,” Danny said, nodding vigorously.

Eric glanced back at him. It struck him as an odd thing to say. Not really the expression itself, but he had known Danny his entire life and there was something subtly odd in what and how Danny had said this simple expression.

“So, how are you doing?” Eric asked, watching Danny a little closer.

Danny nodded some more. “Doing good. Doing good. Just great.”

It was there again. Something odd. Almost a nervousness.

“You’re looking good,” Danny said, stepping back and staring at Eric. “You know, for someone without a job, of course. Volunteer work. Didn’t Uncle Eddy teach you anything?”

Eric nodded. “Sometimes I wonder.”

“So what are you looking for in this Bio-whatever thing? Alien life or something?” Danny asked with a grin.

Eric shook his head. “Biodiversity Project. No, just new ones. The project involves volunteers, mostly from college campuses across the country. We are going to comb through the National Forest. The organizers believe that thousands of undiscovered species may still exist there.”

“Oh, like bigfoot, huh?” Danny said with a smile.

Eric shrugged. “In all probability anything new we find will be in the form of plants and very small-scale fauna. Chances are, I probably won’t find anything.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Danny glanced around them quickly.

Eric made a quick scan at the forest surrounding them. Danny almost seemed nervous. What was bugging him? Was there something about the forest that was making him nervous? Eric suddenly remembered the thing that had leaped out across the road in front of him.

“Hey, you know when I was driving up here...”

“WAAAAAAAH!WOOOOOOH!” A wild scream shrieked out from somewhere up the mountain in the forest.

Eric jumped at the sound. Danny didn’t react at all.

“What was that?” Eric said glancing into the forest above them.

“What? Oh, that?” Danny shrugged. “That’s just Billy.”

“Billy?”

Danny waved it off. “Crazy kid. He’s just playing or something. Anyway, let me show you around.”

Eric started to ask something, but Danny led him off and began a tour around the house. The place was surrounded by the large trees of a seemingly endless forest. In places, higher up, massive rock outcroppings were visible. There were extensive gardens and landscaping all around the house. They stopped next to an odd looking hump alongside the driveway.

“That’s not natural,” Eric commented as he pointed at it.

“You aren’t kidding,” Danny said with an odd look.

“I take it that’s the well,” Eric said, staring down at the fake rock cover.

Danny nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. The well. One of the most expensive wells in these parts.”

“Oh?”

Danny sighed slightly. “Yeah. They started drilling that and I thought they were never going to find water.”

“How deep did they have to go down?”

“A thousand feet.”

“A thousand feet? That sounds really deep. Is that common for places this high up in the mountains?”

Danny shook his head. “Apparently not. It was the deepest well the drillers had ever done. Usually, I guess, from what they told me, the water table rises and falls with the terrain so they should have hit something long before a thousand feet, but they didn’t.”

“So they hit a spring or something.”

Danny nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. They said it was strange. They said it was like the drill bit almost dropped in. They thought maybe they had hit on some kind of large pocket of water.”

“So was it good water?” Eric asked. He didn’t really know much about well drilling or, as he thought about it, the details of household water quality.

Danny nodded again. “Yeah. Tastes good. They ran it through the normal tests and nothing bad showed up. Ready to see the inside?”

Eric was still staring down at the fake rock that covered the well. “In the well?”

Danny looked at him funny, then pointed back over his shoulder. “The house.”

Eric looked up. “Oh. Of course.”

* * *

Eric woke up. He heard the birds of the forest singing in the morning sunshine. It was very peaceful and pleasant up here. He could see why Danny had chosen to escape the city for a place like this. There was a feeling of calm and peace in a lush landscape such as this place and a fresh fragrance of... wait, sausage? Yes, that was sausage, but that too smelled pretty good right now. Eric threw on some clothes, stepped out in to the hallway and followed his nose into the dining room.

“Wow, that smells good,” Eric said as he entered the room.

“Pick a chair and have a seat,” Jenny said with a smile.

Eric sat down across from Billy, who seemed to be attacking the sausage on his plate with a certain fierceness. He looked fairly disheveled, but then it was first thing in the morning.

“Hey, Billy,” Eric said as a greeting.

Billy glanced up briefly. There was dirt smudged across his face as if he hadn’t bathed in days. He stared at Eric with a thinly veiled wild and unfocused look. The look made Eric pause for a moment. There was something unnerving about it.

Billy finished snapping up his sausage and dashed out of the room.

“Uh, good talking to you, Billy...” Eric said, long after Billy was gone.

Jenny brought a plate of sausage over to Eric. “Is he okay?” Eric asked, waving off in the direction Billy had disappeared.

Jenny laughed lightly. “Oh, he’s fine. He’s just in a hurry. He can’t wait to get outside these days. Can’t hardly keep the boy indoors. Just loves being out in the forest.”

“Well, I guess there’s worse things for a boy to be into these days,” Eric said.

“Sure is,” Jenny said as she put the plate down. Her hand shook a little.

* * *

He was puffing considerably in the heat as he moved up the mountainside, examining small flags stuck into the ground. They marked out a rough grid. Each volunteer, armed with laminated pages held together with a single circular metal clasp depicting the most common plants and animals typically found in this area, was to comb through a grid section.

If the volunteers found anything that was not on their sheets, they were to call over one of the project’s biologists. The biologist took the first step in determining if the find was a known species or something new. In this manner they could thoroughly cover a fair-sized section of mountainside.

Eric stared at a flag and checked it against the number written on the first laminated page. It matched. He sighed. He was thankful he didn’t have to climb any higher, at least for the moment. He was a flatlander. Walking up these slopes was a lot harder than he had imagined.

“Excuse me, but you are standing in my world.”

Eric turned. Behind him and to his left stood another volunteer. She looked at him with only the barest trace of a smile.

“Oh, I, uh... your world?”

She waved a finger around in front of her. “My world.”

“Oh.” Eric glanced down at the flag again. “I think, I mean... my number matches this.” She was kind of pretty, and for some reason that had caught him off guard.

She shook her head and pointed past him. “That’s your world.” She spoke in a voice that seemed flat and friendly at the same time. She brushed a lock of short black hair back from her face. She was clearly waiting for him to move.

“Sorry.” He stepped back on the other side of the flag into his ‘world’. “I’m Eric.” After he said it, he thought it sounded stupidly awkward.

“Then you have the right name tag,” she said.

Eric glanced down at the sticker on the front of his t-shirt. “Yeah. Well, lucky thing, huh?”

She gave a short nod and turned moving back towards the far corner of her designated grid section. She had turned before Eric could read her name tag.

“I assume you have a name too?” Eric said trying to continue the conversation.

She only half turned as she continued walking away. “Yes, thanks.”

Eric shrugged and headed for his corner. As he had been shown to do he started moving slowly, inch by inch, through his section from left to right, identifying species on his sheets. Several times he glanced over at the girl, but she seemed completely focused on her work.

It was tedious, back-breaking work, bending over and staring intently at minute objects on the forest floor. It was a floor tilted at an absurd angle covered with natural debris that made clumsy human footing difficult at best.

Finally, he heard the call for a lunch break from down below at trailside. He marked out his position within the grid, as per his instructions, and headed down the mountainside. He was pleased that in spite of his weariness he only slipped down onto his butt once on the way down.

He got in line, received the box lunch that had been provided and looked for a comfortable place to sit down to eat. He spotted his grid neighbor off by herself at the far end of the group of volunteers. He walked over to her.

“Is this mountain taken?”

She looked up with a bit of surprise. She shrugged. “It’s a free mountain.”

Eric sat down.

They sat quietly for a couple of minutes, eating.

“I noticed you’re not really in to socializing.” Eric said indicating the rest of the volunteers sitting and laughing amongst themselves up the trail a short ways.

“You noticed right,” she said.

“If you’d rather be alone just tell me. I don’t want to bug you or anything.”

“Actually, I think I was ‘bugging’ them more than they were ‘bugging’ me.” She said staring straight ahead and a small smile that almost seemed mischievous.

It was a cute smile, Eric thought. “Really?”

She glanced over at Eric with the same smile and a nod. “Besides, I’m not really comfortable around people, because I can’t be sure who they really are.”

Eric smiled. “I thought that’s what the name tags were for” — he leaned forward and looked at hers — “Sara.”

“No. I mean inside.”

“Well, that just takes getting to know someone.”

Sara shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. What I mean is... I’m not sure that any of us are who we think we are.”

“Oh?”

Sara looked at Eric for a moment. She seemed to be making a decision. Finally, she gave a curt nod. “Okay. Here it is. I have a theory. It’s really out there and everyone” — she indicated the other volunteers — “thinks I’m an absolute fruitcake. So, you want to hear it or not?”

Eric didn’t hesitate. “Let’s hear it. A lot of theories that are accepted fact today were way out there at one time or another.”

Sara nodded. “Well, it’s like this. Life on this planet began as microbial life. Accepted evolutionary theory has it that over the course of the next 1.5 billion years this microbial life slowly evolved into more complex life forms.”

Eric gave a short nod. “Yeah. Sounds about right.”

“Does it?” Sara looked at him. “The influenza virus that plagues humanity year over year mutates sufficiently in the span of twelve months to render itself immune to the antibodies the human body has generated from the previous year’s version of influenza. Twelve months. One year.

“In the span of 20 million years, from the end of the Triassic period into the Jurassic period, the first dinosaurs went from scrawny little creatures three feet tall to the 30-foot Allosaurus. That’s a tenfold increase. By that point in time, microbial life had existed here for nearly two billion years. Two billion years of evolution.”

There was a pause and Eric felt like he was supposed to say something. “Okay...”

Sara went on with a slight wave of her hand. “Tool-making hominids have been around for what, maybe a million years now? And, in that time, a sliver of the time microbial life has been evolving here, humans point to their capacity to modify and shape their environment to improve their living conditions as one of their greatest achievements. Microbial life has been here for two billion years.”

Eric looked at her. “What are you saying that... microbial life somehow tries to shape its own world?”

“Its world? You mean our world. Why not?”

“Because,” Eric replied, “we are able to manipulate the world around us because we possess an understanding of it. Our intelligence gives us the ability to control the world around us.”

“Really? When was the last time, or the first time, we demonstrated control over weather, or earthquakes, or even the common cold? Anyway, what proof have we that manipulating one’s environment requires intelligence? Tiny ocean-going fish burrow into the sand and create homes for themselves. They manipulate their environment for their own benefit and I doubt, by our standards, we would attribute them a high degree of intelligence.”

Eric watched her for a moment and then stared out at the forest around them. “Two billion years is a long time. So, you think they’re out there planning a revolt?”

A look flashed across her face. It was obvious she initially took his words as the same kind of joking dismissal she typically received, but then, just as quickly, realized that he found her theory interesting. For the first time she looked more closely at Eric. As if she was trying to see into him.

Sara smiled slightly and shook her head. “They aren’t ‘out there’. They’re everywhere. They are in us, on us, always around us. The land, the air, our food, our water, everywhere. And why would they revolt? They’ve done a pretty good job of building a world they’re comfortable in.”

“That sounds a bit creepy.”

“Think so? It gets worse.”

“I’m not sure I want to hear this.”

Sara brushed some hair back out of her face. “Well, after two billion years of evolving, can we really be sure just how well they have adapted at manipulating the world around them? After coexisting within other species for hundreds of millions of years, who’s to say that they haven’t evolved that capacity to influence the behavior of their hosts?”

“You mean they might be controlling us? I find that a little hard to believe.” Eric shifted slightly, finding the pile of dead leaves and decaying forest material insufficient to pad his butt from the rocky ground.

“There are over five billion life forms in and on us right now. Of which we, meaning you and I as individuals, are only one of those life forms. Do the math. We are in a very distinct minority.” Sara smiled again.

Eric laughed. “Well, be that as it may, I will tell that I am the biggest member here,” he pointed at himself, “and I say what goes on.”

“Really?” Sara asked. “Have you ever been lying flat on your back in bed from the flu? A very tiny member.”

From the brief expression on Eric’s face it was obvious that he had. He hung his down for a moment staring at the ground in front of him. Finally he looked up at Sara with a wry smile. He pointed at his name tag. “Hi, we’re Eric.”

Sara laughed, a loud snorting laugh. She smiled at Eric and placed a hand on her chest. “Hi, we’re Sara and we’re pleased to meet you.”

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by S. Kilroy

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