by Bryan Brown
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Oh, okay,” Don said, floating pacifying palms as if to temper Celeste’s omens of volatility. “Apologies. Go ahead.”
“Thanks,” she said sullenly. Somewhat more lightly, out of subconscious desire to break the gut-twisting tension, she asked, “Ugh. Where was I?”
“You were a consciousness of pure energy outside your body?” Don managed to answer without wearing his opinions on his face.
Celeste was nothing if not impressed. “Yeah, so I was this energy thing, right? And then I flowed into my own mouth, or maybe my mouth and my nose. Yeah, definitely both. And then after that, it’s just some indescribable sensations and images...”
Cece squinted into another corner of the room as she replayed the movie in her mind, not noticing Don turning more pale with each word. “And then all blank until I woke up on the beach the next morning.”
“Wait. What?” Don interrupted, his color returning between his freckles. “The next morning? I thought I... you know... rescued you the night it all happened?”
“Well, you did rescue me, Don,” she explained meekly. “But no... when you found me in the rain, that was a week later.”
“I lied to you that night in the storm. For the first week, I sort of wandered along the beach, around town but avoided people who might be able to recognize the old me.”
“The old you? What do you mean?”
“Well yeah so... I didn’t always... look like this.”
“What? How did you look? Were you a...” Don stopped and leaned in to whisper. “Oh my God did you used to be a man?”
“Noo,” she said emphatically, squinting and retracting her head to cast away the notion. “Not like that. I just wasn’t as... you know... I wasn’t as hot before.”
“Oh,” Don uncomfortably chuckled. He was fidgeting, trying to find more upright yet comfortable positions leaning on one elbow or the other. “That’s umm...”
Cece could not read what was going on within this man. You could see his gears turning, a calculated, cerebral sort of process. It was the way he looked during tangents about his research during dinner dates. Cece had long presumed him to be the type to intellectualize relationship troubles, retreating to the safety of arithmetic disposition.
Needless to say, the poor girl presumed the worst — or rather what she presumed to be the worst — and with each sentence her regret swelled. Celeste’s secret was an imminent monsoon, formed on the open seas of her torment, at last rolling up to the shores of her lips.
“When I came out of the water,” she said, “I wandered around for the first couple of days. This thing inside me, it started changing me. And the very first thing was that I stopped being as huge as I used to be. That step was easy: tweaking all the metabolic stuff. Manipulating bone, though? Now that was a little more—”
“Cece, I’m not that kind of doctor,” Don interrupted with sudden, dismissive harshness, “but it sounds like you’ve had some sort of serious post-traumatic stress type of—”
“Don, it wasn’t just the weight! It was everything!” Cece sat up more erect with her vital urgency, gesturing wildly at her body. “Head to toe! Gosh, even... even the acne and those little lip hairs I used to have to pluck off, all of it was gone!”
Don stifled any expression of distaste at the mention of a former mustache.
“Maybe,” he retorted arrogantly, “some sunburn and salt water from all those days of walking around confused cleared it up or something. Always worked for me when I was your age.”
Ignoring Don’s condescension-shrouded rationality, Celeste drifted onward. “It was like this thing inside me was making me stronger, more beautiful, whatever we needed to survive!”
“Oh really?” Don said with inappropriate, alien intrigue. The rest of his attention was absent.
Cece was at a loss, unable to even speculate about his burdensome worries. “You know if I had looked like this from the start,” Cece mused, “I bet Zack would have never done what he did. But then again I wouldn’t have really needed a guy like Zack in the first place...”
“It sounds like maybe you need to talk to someone about all th—”
“I am talking, Don. To you.”
“That’s not what I mean, Cece. I’m an immunologist not a—”
“Believe me or not, let me tell the story through. There’s a point. I need your help.”
Don almost met Celeste’s concerned yet stunning eyes, but evaded them before her magnetism could ensnare him. He nodded solemnly without saying another word.
“That’s when I started hearing the voice.”
Celeste paused, knowing how this sounded. Don, surprisingly, did not even flinch this time. Celeste wondered if couples counseling at the end of his failed marriage had made him a master of faux active listening. She had not yet noticed the sweat at his temples, nor his engorged pupils. It was a response out of proportion even to the discomfort of a man who had freshly gleaned his lover’s psychosis.
“Well,” she continued, “‘voice’ is kind of an oversimplification. More like I was sharing my body and my... you know... my consciousness with another.”
Don remained poised but nervous, starkly contrasted by the animated gesticulations of Cece’s tale.
“We’re not totally two distinct entities anymore,” she explained, “but we’re not totally one mind either. We might someday be, though. At least that’s what I think they’re trying to tell me. But it’s funny, it never felt threatening, having to share my head with this other thing. It was actually... God, it was honestly kind of nice.” A teary shimmer emerged over the two deep-green portals to her soul. “It was sort of like another opinion weighing in with the rest of my mind on my needs, my wants, my joys and my sadness.”
By the end of the description, Celeste no longer spoke directly to him, but bathed dreamily in the presence of this alleged second sentience within her.
“But what is it?” Don asked with a sudden burst of unexpected, cut-to-the-chase sort of urgency. Cece was understanding; she had already overstayed her welcome.
“Sorry. We’ll get to that. That’s where you come in.”
“Oh?” he hissed with resentment, “do tell,”
“Yeah,” she pressed on. “So over time, this thing learned to really communicate with me: in complete thoughts and complex ideas and everything.” Cece grew ever more excited to finally share these experiences aloud. “By the time of the big rainstorm, it had told me so much, Don. And so that night, I found you, so that together we could pass on a message.”
She searched his face for signs. Above all else, she feared rejection, banishment from this bed and the precious emotional security that came with it.
“And, Don, I know. I’m so sorry, you’re doing so well putting up with me right now. Thank you for not making me leave yet.”
“Sure,” he said softly after a moment. “You clearly need help, regardless.”
She knew what he probably meant by “help”, but no matter. At least for another few minutes, Cece had not lost that small joy in finally knowing this gentle, kind sort of man.
“Just take a breath and get ready for this part,” she advised him. “At the end of all this, if you still don’t believe me — after really giving it a chance — I’ll see all the doctors you want or whatever else and I’ll never bother you again. Deal?”
“Yes, okay,” Don answered with deliberate slowness, though disquiet pervaded the rest of him. “Sounds like a deal.”
“Thanks. So what the voice was eventually able to tell me by the end of the week was this: humans are not alone as the intelligent life of Earth. Over millions of years of evolution before mankind came around, lots of bacteria had already evolved into cooperative networks, linked up and talking to each other. Now I know a lot of your work has to do with bio... biofilms? And making medicines to hit those bugs when they build up those defenses like a team, right?”
“Wow, not bad, Cece,” said Don, smug and aloof, still not looking her in the eye. “Weren’t you a waitress before all this? And you tried to read up on my research?”
Celeste suddenly wondered whether any woman in his life had done him this honor before. “Yeah. No, it’s interesting,” she said, grappling for any remnant of normal, common ground. Despite his acrid tone, she wished desperately to hold on to him, keep him, if she could find a way. “I know you’re probably the best on the island, if nothing else.”
Don shrugged and managed a brief, not-so-modest nod.
“So anyway, through all that time of trial-and-error evolution, some microbe strains learned how to link up, sending little messages back and forth in such a complicated way — so many connections packed together — that they actually formed like... intelligent life.”
“Hmm. It’s a fun idea,” Don admitted, with an obnoxiously boyish tone.
The scientist was irrefutably too collected now, too detached. It was as if a different person sat with her in the pool of wrinkled linens, but to call him strange would be of the utmost hypocrisy. Yet still, what a profound reaction formation, that with her wildest details he appear ever more evenhanded!
“Fun?” she repeated.
“Sorry, interesting,” Don corrected as he scooted to the edge of the bed. He rose to his feet as he mused. “An interesting idea... from a microbio standpoint.” He opened his bedside drawer, found an undershirt, turned back and asked, “You wanted me to be interested, yes?”
He chuckled, and Cece found it unnervingly incongruous with her own present state.
“I... yeah. Yes, I do. So the bugs formed these networks, and instead of just exchanging genes through their little bridges, they transmit chemical signals, essentially a lot like how—”
“Like a brain?” he interjected as the undershirt collar slid over his nose and chin.
“Exactly. So then, not only would they do this on their own and just sit there thinking all day, but they wanted more. They wanted to multiply, to gain control of their environment, to tame those threats around them to which they had always been defenseless. That’s why they figured out how to highjack control of the creatures around them.”
“Huh!” said the loud, increasingly facetious persona that had once been Don.
“We think they started simple, hacking into sea anemones and sponges and stuff.”
“Makes sense,” he said.
Celeste was saddened by his sarcasm but insisted.
“Then on into shellfish and crabs and squids. And, one day, the first fish was infected and then it was only a matter of time before they—”
“Infected a mammalian host?”
“Yes! Exactly,” Celeste said, saddened by her apparent simplicity and predictability.
“Just a guess,” Don replied too proudly as he fetched khaki slacks from his closet.
“So these things rose through the food chain until they could link up with whales, dolphins, you name it! And one day, and no one knows how many centuries ago this might have started—”
“Jumped to human hosts?”
“Yes!” Celeste said, realizing she was breathless. “God, Don what has gotten—”
“That’s what bugs do,” Don noted playfully with misplaced joy and hubris.
“So now, more and more people are being controlled with greater and greater precision by these intelligent bacterial infections! They could be anybody! And nobody knows!”
“Sounds like a lot to be worrying about,” Don said. He sat back down on the edge of the bed to pull socks over his feet. He had snapped into an artificially grim, sympathetic state. “Is that what you think is... inside of you? You’re possessed by microbes that wanna turn the world into an anaerobic hell-scape?”
“Well, no... not quite...” Celeste answered meekly.
“What? No? After all that explaining? Then what was the point of—”
“Hold on! That’s the thing, though. What is inside of me — what they say they are, I guess — is sort of the good guys.”
“Isn’t mankind the good guys?”
“No,” she hastily retorted, “it’s algae!”
“Oh algae!” Don said facetiously with a flail of his arms. “Why algae?”
Even as Cece explained, she was at last allowing herself to hate Don for the insidious cruelty of his sarcasm. She found it to be leagues beneath the honorable man she thought she knew.
Copyright © 2015 by Bryan Brown