by Bryan Brown
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“It’s a colony of blue-green algae, or more correctly, cyanobacteria. I looked that up because they gave me an urge to. I think it was on day two, when they weren’t even speaking in words yet. They made me feel I had been addicted to reading about algae for twenty years.”
Celeste remembered the second morning after the incident, when it first began: a vague, nagging urge to find a library and gorge upon the corpus of humanity’s knowledge of marine biology. The notion of reading those textbooks and learning every last drop suddenly possessed the allure of red wine and lovemaking on a balcony somewhere in the tropics. She remembered how she courted the volumes, walking among the shelves in sandy bare feet, and how the librarian who came over to remove her ultimately buckled under her unintentionally seductive gaze.
“Wow,” Don said flatly.
“They probably wanted to know what we know. Anyway, these cyanobacteria must have learned some of the tricks from the other bacteria! Don’t you get it, Don? It’s like they’re at war!”
“Ohh,” Don groaned in fake revelation.
“Human beings... we’re just the collateral damage. But the algae are different; they wanna make peace with humanity and stop the highjackers from ruining the world! And since then, we — I mean, they — have been trying to warn everyone about these bacterial invaders and stop them in their tracks!”
“Mhmm,” Don managed to leak out, nodding along throughout the monologue.
Abruptly, Celeste ran out of things to say. The silence felt thick after such a mouthful of words. She waited there, her pretty eyes idling upon Don’s encrypted countenance expectantly.
“So hold on,” Don started, spontaneously reanimating. He looked down at his argyle feet, deep in thought. “Whether or not this is all true, this means that you tracked me down because of my work, pretended to be caught out in the rain, and then made me... made me fall for you?”
“I mean,” she paused to choose her words before saying, “I guess... originally I sought you out and well, yeah, I just needed to meet you. So I staged it a bit.”
“You seduced me!”
“No, Don. Please don’t say it like that. I mean, at first, all I knew was how important it was that you help me, and the more you liked me the more possible that could become. But I had no idea what I was doing! Remember that a week ago I had never won anyone over by my looks, especially not without even trying!”
Suddenly she saw the Don she knew, as if his genuine melancholy had bitten back against his inner sarcastic demon. He was crestfallen. Celeste scrambled to pick up the pieces of the scientist’s heart.
“But you were so sweet from the first moment, Don! I wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t even know it was possible. Honestly. Everything from the time I got in your jeep until now, that was all really me.”
“Don’t you mean the two of you?” Don said in cruel jest. Alas, his demon had held fast.
“Please, Don,” Cece begged. “I know you have every right to be upset, but don’t mock me like that anymore.” Her eyes were welling up again.
“Well, what do you expect, Cece? You’re the one clearly missing a few screws, but you still managed to turn me into the bigger fool!”
Celeste froze and held her breath for a moment. His cruel alter-ego was evidently returning to help him cope. Maybe he wasn’t just an “intellectualizer” after all. A tear dripped from Cece’s right eye and fell until it absorbed into the man’s shirt that loosely covered her immaculate, elegant frame.
Then she spat out, “If you meant any of that crap about how lucky you were to have me, then I think you can find it in your heart to—”
“To do what?!” he interrupted in frustration. As his face flushed, some of the fainter freckles fell away like stars against the mauve of dawn. “What could you still want from me?”
“Here,” Celeste said, shoving her forearm out in front of him. “Biopsy this.”
“I don’t get it,” Don said so dismissively that Celeste felt her chest wrench. “What am I even looking at?”
There between the sun-bleached, feminine hairs of her tan arm was a solitary, blue-black bump.
“This wasn’t here last week, right?”
“How should I know? I mean the sex was good and all, but I’m not so obsessive that I’m going to remember every single—”
“Shut up, Don!” Celeste shouted when her raw anger staged a coup against the rest of the forces in her head.
“That’s a mole,” Don said. “You should see a—”
“It’s a granuloma. We made it grow there and filled it with—”
“A granuloma? You have done your reading, that’s for sure! But what for? You’re one of those wackos who scours the internet for hours just trying to—”
“It’s a granuloma full of cyanobacteria, a small offering from among the countless that make up their presence within us now,” she insisted over his banter. “Those in my arm have been relegated to self-sacrifice, just so you can see! So you can believe!”
“Cece, Cece,” he laughed. “I am not going to biopsy you.”
“Why the hell not, Don? What are you afraid of? It’s not that complicated!” She and the others inside her grew equally enraged. “If you don’t find any damn chlorophyll or whatever in there under your stupid microscope—”
“I’d put my bets on some skin cancer that’s gone to your brain and made you say stupid delusional garbage out of—”
Celeste slapped Don across the face as hard as she could. All the air in the room petrified into a frozen solid. Then Celeste started sobbing and time returned to its scheduled pace.
While Don nursed his cheek, breathing hard between swears, Celeste turned sharply to the side as if receiving whispers into her right ear. After a pause, she looked up at the ceiling and answered with exasperation. “I know we need him! I’m doing my best! I’m sorry!”
“A little trouble in paradise in there?” he asked sarcastically.
“Don, just look me in the eyes!” she said desperately.
“No,” he answered, standing away from the bed once more.
Cece softly wimpered into her hands and repeated to the voice within, “I’m sorry... I’m sorry...”
Cece felt Don watching her from the wall. His arms were folded as he looked down at her, studying his puzzling specimen with somber curiosity. Or was it boredom?
While Celeste still had her face covered, Don retrieved her now-cold coffee mug from the nightstand. He slurped loudly from it.
“What are you doing?” she said, hardly peeking through her fingers.
“Just your coffee. To help me think. This is some way to start the day.”
Her palms stuck to her and hitched a ride as she nodded.
“Okay. Cece, you know I really cared about you,” Don sounded as if he had collected himself to an impossible degree. Perhaps it was the coffee. “I tried to help you explain it away, but you clearly aren’t gonna take me up on that opportunity today.”
He seemed to be escalating, hastening and emboldening his speech. “So instead, let’s go nuts. How about, for a minute or two, let’s just play out your little scenario you got here. We can just... see what happens. That’s what you want after all, right? My expert opinion? That’s what you came into my life for? Into my bed for?”
Slumped pitifully, Celeste at last lifted her flushed face and met his eyes. She sniffled, then wiped her nose ungracefully with her wrist. Through all the chaos of anger, guilt, love, and conflicting fragments of consciousness, some tucked-away piece of Don found this adorable.
“Okay,” she said, nasal and tentative, “I guess so.”
“Great!” Don swiftly slid into a sort of brainstorming autopilot. “So one issue is that for bacteria to be so widespread but not raise any suspicion or symptoms... Well, they’d have to hide from every immune response we have. Did you think about that?”
“Yeah,” she sniffled. “That’s what they learned to do over time, natural selection and all that. Got into different animals along the way.”
“All right. It’s true that the immune system evolved gradually, so if they did it, they would want to hop along the same path evolution took...”
“Yeah, like I said before.”
“Yes, nicely done. And they would have to be brilliant or pretty darn lucky to change or hide all those antigens that make them get noticed by the host defenses.”
“Right, and I think they learned to make human... umm... markers or whatever so they don’t get detected.”
“Oh yeah? Molecular mimicry too? Yeah, that would be one way of doing it. Sure.” He nodded. Then more to himself, added, “Anergy does the trick, all right...”
Irrationally, Celeste started to feel a bit better. Though she had hurt him, and turned him into this monster of rage, at least she got to have this last conversation for the sake of her cause before he kicked her out of his life forever. He seemed to actually like it on some level, as a thought experiment if nothing more.
She would be heartbroken, but she and the voices would find another way. With each day, they would make her grow stronger, smarter, and perhaps even more beautiful. In return, she would gladly offer up her terrestrial woman form to their noble cause.
“But, man,” Don continued like an unstoppable train of ideas, “could you imagine? Like, Cece, what if they really could hide it all, get really spread in a person’s entire body, but then later decide to become harmful?”
“Yeah,” Celeste acknowledged him. As his interest grew, so did her hope. It was enough for her to put aside his bizarre and hurtful words from moments past. If nothing else, maybe this lab scientist was like many men, and was willing to tolerate even this much crazy when coupled to such intense sexual affinity.
Internally, she graciously thanked the cyanobacteria for giving her this gift of beauty. She felt them smile back upon her. Guessing based on all her reading, their reply was likely a minute yet potent spurt of dopamine to some reward center deep beneath her cortex.
“I mean, if they wanted,” added Don, “they could suddenly just expose their bacterial antigens — you know, their true identity — and, bam!”
When he said this, Celeste felt a headache come on out of nowhere. It wasn’t a sharp pain she could put her finger on. It was more of a vague, feverish, about-to-get-a-cold kind of headache. She was probably dehydrated, or perhaps a little hung-over. Sure, it would pass. Celeste let Don continue his train of thought unencumbered.
“Whoa!” the scientist ventured. “That would be the most rapid, powerful onset of an acute inflammatory response anyone’s ever seen!”
Then Celeste felt her heart pounding faster and faster in her chest. The sensation in her head grew worse. This time she put a hand to her forehead and bent over.
“If you had sentient bacteria — God, that’s a cool idea — who truly had voluntary control over their structure like that, they could throw someone into septic shock like the flip of a switch!”
“Don!” Celeste called to him as she started getting faint and nauseated. “Something’s wrong...”
She keeled over sideways at the foot of the bed. Her face grew pale and a cold sweat broke out all over her body. Within seconds she started shivering violently.
Unhindered, Don continued his ponderings as if speaking to an intrigued and invisible audience.
“The organs would all fail quickly. Anyone or anything that tried to fight the spread of the bacteria would be helpless once infected!”
“Don...” groaned Celeste.
“Oh oh-what about this? I’d go with an intracellular bug, if it were me, something that could hide inside of cells and really man the helm from within! Even if some inferior microbial adversary found its way into the human-highjacking business, they would never see that one coming! We’d sneak right past ’em. A nice, insidious Chlamydiae species, perhaps... It could spread by droplets, or heck!” — Don cackled madly before finishing his sentence — “It could make itself sexually transmitted just for the fun of it!”
“Don?” she sputtered, even her voice box quaking with rigors, “What’s happening to me?” Celeste was writhing around, clawing at the adjacent sheets in a crescendo of agony. “Help...”
“Wouldn’t that be a shame, Cece?”
Don was finally acknowledging her presence. As she fell onto her back, he crawled forward over her, a victorious predator. His voice grew louder as he loomed above, letting the spit spray from his lips. His eyes were bulging with excitement.
“Wouldn’t that be tragic? If you got infected with a super-intelligent bacteria all because you slept with some guy you didn’t even have feelings for? That you just wanted to use for his genius?” He rammed his index finger at his temple a few times for emphasis. “And not only that, but you wanted to use him to prevent the rise of God’s most perfect creation on this earth?!”
“I can’t...” Celeste squeaked while panting, “I can’t breathe...”
“Ah, yes yes! Of course! A-R-D-S,” he spelled out between maniacal laughs. “Florid respiratory distress! That isn’t my fault, darling!” Don called down to his suffering victim in a raised voice as though she was down a deep well. “Do you hear me in there? Do all of you in there hear me? You folks had a nice run, a respectable first attempt. It’s not my fault that this human’s own dumb immune system decided to attack its own lungs, like trying to use a nuke to take out a damn getaway car! Hah! I like that actually... getaway car... kind of a funny image...”
Celeste began seizing. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned but ill-prepared cyanobacteria kept portions of her brain awake and alert while the other parts weathered the surge. It was pure agony, and what pleasure signals they could provide were quickly diffused by the electrical onslaught that barreled through her brain. Indeed, her protectors were mere neophytes in the face of the scientist’s deftly wielded scourge.
Don reached down and grabbed Celeste’s chin. He kept her face turned towards him even as the rest of her body jerked and squirmed wildly.
“I had a feeling I recognized you,” he said, beads of sweat fleeing his receding hairline in every direction. “I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but once you got to talking today I thought, ‘Oh yeah... this is that incompetent, dumpy girl from the diner right down the road who gave me eggs over hard when I asked for them runny’. I didn’t want to believe it, Cece... I wanted to believe that whoever you were, we could be together, that you could join us to the... the great overturning of this world! But clearly you were not who I thought you were! So far from it!”
The once-beautiful Celeste was more still by the end of his rant; she made only a small twitch every few seconds. She gasped for air with little success. Her eyes were wide, as if she were staring down the headlights of a jeep about to run her over. A small trail of vomit led down from her mouth onto Don’s sheets.
“Cece, you took my breath away. I’m glad I could return the favor.”
Then Don rolled himself away from her and began milling about. At last in death, her body had lost that supernatural magnetism. She lay motionless the entire time that the scientist finished preparing for work.
He was quiet as he found a new button-down from his tidy closet selection. He beheld her form through the mirror of the attached bathroom as he cleared his stubble with a straight razor and cream. He even sat on the end of the bed to tie his shoes.
“And to you folks — the ones inside — I know you can still hear me through her dead ears,” Don called to the corpse in his bedroom as he combed his hair in the mirror, “Don’t think for a second that you’re getting back to water.” He smiled with sinister smugness as he watched the harbinger through the reflection of the open doorway.
Then he whipped around, facetiously pondering and said, “Hmm... I think what I’ll do is let you guys slowly dry out, and maybe later I can tell you all why there is no chance in the Mariana Trench that your strain has any shot against ours. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lab in need of some love.”
Don’s hand flicked open the straight razor that he had taken from the bathroom. Bending over the foot of the bed, he carefully sliced the tiny black bump from the limp forearm. He paused before impolitely opening the girl’s eyelid with a thumb and index finger. He squinted down at the magnificent, aquamarine swirls that surrounded her pupil. He smiled. “There is much more work to be done.”
Copyright © 2015 by Bryan Brown