(in six chapters)
It was a dull day, and very little to look forward to tomorrow. The snow from the last blizzard was taking its time to clear off, and the sky was gray and otherwise formless.
I didn't need a boyfriend: the last three boyfriends I'd had were washouts. I couldn't keep a cat – the apartment's lease prohibited them. “Fish, birds...” my landlady said. “But no cats...they're sneaky.” I'm middle-aged, no kids, work for Wyvern University Library. You'd hardly know I was there, though, unless you need something from the Stacks. Then, you'd probably see me walk up to the desk, drop off your book, and go back through the Employees Only door. It's calm, steady work, and just the kind of thing for people who have a high IQ and a rich inner life: it keeps me in a crappy apartment, eating the very finest of budget cuisine, and buying books now and then, which took me to the University Bookstore.
Feeling somewhat lonesome, I decided to buy a stuffed animal, and plunged my hand into a bin of marked-down Valentine's/Easter specials. Something kept butting my hand at the bottom of the bin.
Pulling it out from the bottom of the pile, I found a strange creature, looking very much like a large black bean with fur similar to that of a Siamese cat. Further, he had large bright blue eyes. “No?” he said, in a puppetlike voice. “Um, don't have any cuts do you? Open sores?”
“I'm sorry, but I'm not into that kind of relationship. Not with strangers, at least. But who are you?”
“Um, I'm Yersinia pestis, the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death! Fear me!” He looked at me with the ferocity of a hostile kitten.
I remained unfazed.
“Can't I infect you – just a little?”
“Please – I wouldn't eat...much.” He looked sad.
“If I let you in, you'd get fat and split in two. And soon there'd be a lot of you, but no me.”
He thought this over for a bit. “I would not get fat. I like you.”
“That is, if you're lucky. I'm resistant.”
“Resistant?” This seemed to worry him. “So, I can't drink any of you? I'm hungry.”
“No. My white blood cells wouldn't like you. You'd get eaten.”
“Eaten?” He was genuinely worried now, blending into scared. “What if I could make them like me? I could ride around inside you, and see the world!” He brightened, though he still looked desperate. “Then, I could figure out how to be useful, and I could be a commensal, or even a symbiote!”
“Well, I might catch a a sore throat, and take tetracycline. You'd be poisoned.”
“Poisoned? Eaten?” It- he shivered. “Tell me that you'll never do any of these terrible things. Please?” He rolled on his back. “Pretty please?”
“What if I take you home and you sleep on my bed during the day? Then, at night, I could keep you warm and we could talk.”
“But I wanted to go out and see the world! It's boring living in a dirty old flea! On a rat! And I'm hungry!”
“Well, right now you can have a ride in my briefcase. It's safe, and you can poke your...head out and take a look around.”
“Are you sure you're going to be OK?” It was two hours later.
“I've never eaten tomato soup before. Is this like people?”
“I can remember it's been used as a substitute for agar, which is what people feed microbes. It also has milk, which has fat in it from an animal. What I mean is, is this going to mess up your fur?”
“I stayed clean inside a cargo hold. Now lower me in. I'm hungry.”
We were at the Sandwich Box, where one (and with luck, two) of us was eating lunch. Truthfully, I couldn't figure out what a 10^6 magnified bacillus ate – it had no mouth, rear end, or for that matter, any features whatsoever other than large blue eyes and fur. It could move – slightly, and a little faster than a snail, by shimmying its fur like a bristlebot. No indication how he could have eyes, a knowledge of English, or a charming voice.
The clerk had charged me $10 for him...a bit stiff, I thought, for his size, and he'd obligingly stayed limp all through the operation. Aside of the fur, he felt like a water balloon full of jelly.
He was, however, somewhat forthcoming in biography. Scion of a rather dull colony in the stomach of an Asian rat flea, he'd spent a rather dull formative period until he'd found himself inside a rat. It was then that he'd conceived of the plan to emigrate to a higher life-form. “I love humans.” he said somewhat mistily, turning over in his tomato soup. “They're...I just can't say enough about them. You're so big, so clever...and you smell wonderful...”
“So why are you – or at least your relatives – so intent on killing us all?”
“We're not. Or at least I'm not. I'm just trying to get by. Most of us don't even like humans. They like squirrel blood, and other animals.”
“And you kill those, too.”
“Not all the time. Most of us live really dull lives, inside our little fleas, eating whatever comes through...bits of squirrel and rat, mostly.... getting fat, dividing...Just minding our own business. It's bad if the flea dies, because then we all die, unless we can move to the squirrel. Fleas don't live long. Now, if I could move to a human...”
“Humans don't live very long, either. Not with you around.”
“That's true, but I wish it weren't that way...we could get along...if only we were commmensal.”
“Let's say that we had all kinds of food to eat. Rat, soup...all kinds. Now say I like rat and you like soup. If we just ate what we liked, there'd be enough for both of us. That's being a commensal.”
“But what if I'm paying for both the rats and the soup? Or you were riding around on me and eating me eating soup?”
“That's a parasite. But what if I helped you get these things? That's symbiosis. That's what I want to do.”
“I can't see how.”
“Maybe we can both figure it out.”
And that's how I came to have the Plague.
Chapter 2 – Getting to
took him home. At first, I let him sleep on my bed during the day –
but he got thirsty easily, so I took to putting wet rags over him.
Then the chlorine made him uncomfortable, so I used spring water. It
also turned out that agar wasn't the best thing to feed a giant
microbe, since agar was used to slow down microbes enough to make
them visible. Since Y. was already quite visible, the problem wasn't
slowing him down, it was getting enough nutrient into his skin. The
Internet was not forthcoming on the subject of pet bacteria, only
bacteria on pets, which was not at all the same thing.
does he hate himself for doing what he did? Or is this just a case of
'This is how God made me'?” I was talking to James, a friend at
work. He was a militant conservative Christian, 'for cultural
reasons', which included being a Creationist.
actually, this is evolution in action. I mean, I'm only immune
because I'm a kind of mutant. Lord knows what his story is. He wants
to be a symbiote – about the best he's gotten is benign parasite.”
disgusting. Listen, he traveled on a flea – “
a rat, in a cargo container. Doesn't that tell you anything? He
killed a lot of people –”
Besides, if he infects someone, he divides, and no more
Y-the-individual. Instead, there are another two Y's that are – not
him. Most Y's are simple, dull bacteria that live completely boring
lives far away from anyone. They live on marmots,
for Pete's sake – all you can say is that he had some ancestors
that killed some people – “
lot of people – “
is about what you can say about anyone's ancestors.”
least mine were human.”
of them. We are related, you know.”
gotten back a response from BioPunk. Mostly, they were interested to
know exactly what I'd captured. Apparently, the field of microbiology
wasn't quite as complete as I'd hoped: all I could say is to hint
that it was rod-shaped, with hair, dark in color, and off a flea
found in a shipment of stuffed animals from China. Oh, yes, it was
also very large. Finally, I got a tweet from someone named #simak:
it wouldn't be something like a plague bacteria, would it?
Care to have coffee at the Sandwich Box?
Simak was a nice guy, about my age.
it's possible you may have gotten a harmless mutant, or perhaps a
variant.” He began to sketch on a napkin. “Bacterial chromosomes
are interesting since they only have one, joined to its end to form a
circle. But Yersiniae are especially interesting, because they can scavenge
chromosomes from other bacteria, and therefore may be altogether
individual...How large did you say this specimen was?”
brought Yersinia out of my briefcase.
you sure it's unicellular?” he asked. “It has eyes...”
not sure exactly what it is.”
shimmied across the table, and looked curiously at Dr. Simak.
it's clearly intelligent. It also moves. Yersinia pestis is not
looked distinctly annoyed.
what is it, then?”
don't really know. If we could take a sample...”
don't think so.” Y said. Dr. Simic's restraint was admirable.
question is, can I keep it in my apartment? And what can I feed him?
He kind of likes tomato soup, but I'm worried it might be too acid.”
you tried spirulina? He would seem to need a lot of iron. And
broth...ever make homemade stock?”
love to cook.”
here's a few websites, but he really belongs in a lab...”
Chapter 3- Doin' the
my kitchen was beginning to look like the lab of a benign
Frankenstein. Spirulina tanks covered the available counterspace,
bubbling happily. Y's home tank was in a spot that got just enough
Sun, and we always had dinner together, before we both went to bed.
I found he could dance! Somewhen I was bathing him, the radio
began to play a set of vintage Clapton. I started to boogie in place, and
he began to shake, and –
danced through “I Feel Free” and “SWABR” with him zooming
around the tank with his cilia, with shouts of “Unicellular Bop!”
and “Trans-Eukaryote Love!” from both of us. We listened in awe
to “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and made plans to go to the beach.
ocean of unchlorinated water!” I said.
I could pick up some one of those wild aquatic bacteria. I heard
about them in the cargo hold.”
thought you were asexual.”
life seeks company, now and then. When you're in bed, I'll tell you a
upon a time, the Earth was new, and the land was an unknown country.
The sea, however, was warm and shallow, and all the Small Kind, lived
in peace, in a huge colony, floating on the water, which was as
luscious as soup. There were all kinds – light-sensors, who could
see the beautiful sky, and motiles, who scouted the Earthsea and
helped move the colony towards new sources of food, and even more
wondrous beings, living on the waters...There was so much more
sunshine back then, and ever so many more stars in the sky, and we
lived happily, in joy at the new Earth and the Sky from which all
good things came.”
can't say you could think!” I said
with enough of us, we could. We were as smart as you are, but we
didn't make things, because we had everything we wanted. But one day,
a volcano threw a rock in the middle of all of us. “
took a long time for us to get together again, and a longer time to
get back to our usual numbers. But things were never quite the same.
The new Small Folk were different, and had met Old Ones in the
mud...Old Ones who didn't breathe regular air...they were
creepy...and there were others, too...They didn't even
recognize us anymore...”
Tower of Babel.”
it's an old story. Not as old as yours, though. Go on.”
were things that weren't even properly alive, that fed on the
Small folks, bending them to their will...poisons...” He shivered.
“Some of us banded together...Some tried to fight them on their
own...And then, some decided to join the Big Folk.”
not nearly so big. But...big.”
His voice became dreamy again. “They became...part
of the Big Folk. One creature, sharing...yet still creatures
together. But it wasn't the same.”
wasn't like the Colony. But you are. You're big and wonderful and you
can do things the Colony could never do!” His eyes shone. “You
have bones, you have hands, and you can move around fast.”
why do you hate us so?”
we're not used to you. We're from way out in Siberia, where
it's cold, and there's barely enough to eat for squirrels, or fleas,
or even us. Squirrel blood is very thin, and human fluid is very,
very rich and smells heavenly.” He sighed. “It's just too
much. We never knew that the world could be warm and rich again, and
we're just...we get...greedy? Is that a good word?”
Greedy. People are like that, too.”
people are always the fattest, when they get enough to eat.”
you...there's never going to be an end to your good soup.”
as long as we're both together.”
you try it with pig bones next? Pig smells nice. I'd like to try
next pig bone goes in your soup.”
I hope all life will live at peace. One life, one planet.”
night, Yersinia. I love you.”
love you, too. Good-night.”
Chapter 4 – Some
He couldn't say boo to a goose. He's got the feelings of a
three-month-old child: everyone's his friend, he startles easily, he
frets when I don't change his water or I'm late with a feeding...He's
amazed if I take him out to see the cherry trees in bloom, and gets
mixed up when he watches cartoons.” I told James.
I'd wonder. Ever since you got that scratch on your side...You look
was true. I'd been feeling run down the last couple of days, ever
since I'd fallen against a shelf, though I couldn't tell why.
went home, changed the water in Y's tank, put on some dinner, gave Y
a quick rub, and started eating. In order to give Y some intellectual
stimulation, I'd taken to keeping the radio or TV on (to mostly
innocuous material – why disillusion him too soon?) but over
dinner, I found myself answering such questions as “Why does
Phineus have a head like a triangle?”, questions that soon had me
all over laughing.
though, I ignored him until he butted my hand. “Later, Y. I'm
sure to rinse well after your bath.”
That's what this was all about – the place was getting, not messy,
but certainly kind of grungy. Nothing awful – it wasn't dirty in
the sense of visible grime, or dust, but it didn't quite smell like
an antiseptic, artificially flowery 21st century
apartment. Instead, it smelled like pickles, or cheese – there was
something not quite right there.
however, was not an easy thing. I kept feeling like turning over. And
when I did sleep, I kept getting crazy dreams.
Lymphocyte had on mirrored shades, and moved slowly from side to
side, like a cop trying to subtly underline the fact that he was the
one with testicles to a woman driver.
been told you've been harassed by certain – undesirables.”
I don't remember any – I'm cool.”
just remember, we're on your side. We did a really bang-up job during
your cystitis, I can recall....and that bum tooth...lost a few on
that one....and during your recent surgery. Many a brave cell died in
that fight...and yet I'm glad I got to see it...
remember, our biggest project yet: CCR5-δ32. Keeping you safe
through repeated, and I say repeated exposures to the HIV virus, we
intend to keep you safe.” He banged at his chest, which rang with
was then, I saw him, lying next to the wound. He was sticky.
And he looked, as much as a black tubular furry glob could look,
– parasite!” I fumed. “I should have bought Lysol. A
prescription for tetracycline. A wooden stake for your nonexistent
was just – experimenting.” He looked up at me, frightened for the
first time since I met him. “And you smell – “
I said. “You couldn't help yourself, could you? I smelled
delicious, and you just had
to have a taste. No telling what you've got yourself – viruses,
prions – I should call Hazmat and have the whole place fumigated.“
didn't do anything...much. I'm afraid of being eaten, myself, you
going to have to put you in the tank for good, now.”
don't do that.”
going to have to...How can I trust you?”
no television.” I said. “I'm spending enough on electricity
keeping all these tanks going.”
shut the kitchen door.
Chapter 5-A Day in the
didn't sleep too well afterwards, either.
truth is, we're perfectly able and within our rights to kill each
other pretty much any time we want to.”
you'd eat me.”
I don't know whether that white-cell thing actually works. I've never
had to use it.”
don't want to kill you.” He looked down.
sometimes, things happen anyway. What would happen if you divided –
maybe not on purpose, but it just happened, maybe without you knowing
it? Maybe the two of you would just be ordinary Plague, and kill me,
and maybe others too.”
don't don't kill me.” He looked at me.
don't want to kill you, either. But we're going to have to come up
with some way to live together.” I took the cover off. “OK,
you're out of the tank.”
But I'm going to put a bandage on my belly. And I wasn't kidding
about the electrical bill.”
could listen to the radio in the daytime. That would give me more
time to practice dancing.”
so, daffodil-time passed to tulip-time, and then, to iris-time.
Yersinia was beginning to change – his fur grew longer and he
became thin and serpent-like. “Maybe I might be getting ready to
divide.” he said.
Simak wasn't surprised. “Yersinia is getting older, and there's a
chance he might become more aggressive. After all, regular plague is
the result when ordinary bacilli are sick, and no longer able to
survive normally. I don't want to alarm you unduly, but we may have
to...” He looked away. “...put him down.”
went far to the edge of town on the bus. He needed to be kept wet
more often these days, so I wrapped him in a cloth, and we talked
about the view out of the window. Then, I put him in the basket.
“It's a surprise.” I said.
walked to the spot where the roses grew. They were warm sunny yellow,
little roses, hardly larger than a coin, but abundant on their
bushes, and put down my blanket. Aside from a few fruits, the foods
I'd chosen were all the work of Small Kind: cheeses, and pate, and
pickles and wine. I lay everything out with care and poured a little
soup into a large pretty bowl.
put him in the bowl and took away the cloth.
I said. “Roses!”
beautiful!” he said.
Siberian roses, very rare, from along the Silk Road, where the
They smell so wonderfully...Let's pretend we're in Siberia, watching
the sky...Is the sky in Siberia this blue, I wonder?”
sure it is.” We lay for a long time, watching the roses against the
the marmots like the roses?”
think they eat them. Many fruits are a kind of rose. And the skins of
rose pods are fun to eat.”
both ate some of the picnic.
think I hear a caravan coming.” Yersinia said.
if we're very quiet, they'll go someplace else.” I said.
we should warn them. Shoo! Go away!”
The Plague is here!”
“My brothers are hungry!”
away! Pick another meadow!” I called. We both dissolved into
think we just saved Europe.” I poured myself some more wine.
are you up to?” James looked down.
covered the bowl. “Having lunch. What are you doing in the Rose
cousin is having her wedding in the Conservatory in two weeks. I'm
helping scout the area. Are you still obsessed with that – bug?”
is not a bug. Bugs have six legs. Y has none.”
think you really ought to get out more – see real people.”
Y is better than most people. Besides, I've got friends.”
a germ – what have they ever done? Killed people, made them
cheese, wine and pickles – and help you digest them too. Do you
know there are more bacteria on and in your body than you have cells
of your own?”
me. I use hand sanitizer.”
couldn't even think to use it if it weren't for mitochondria.”
evil! He feels absolutely nothing for you! He's only trying to --”
not true! I love her very much!” He angrily butted off the cloth,
and slithered out of the bowl, staring menacingly. “You, on the
Look at him! Disgusting, slimy...”
you brave little guy...” I poured some water on his cloth. “You
should see how he looks when I've --” I rubbed his fur happily. Y
began to make gentle small sounds.
think I'm going to be sick. Where's my – “ He started to search
think it would be a very good idea to leave.” I said, holding Y
protectively. Y just glared at him.
– you're the one who's sick!” he said, taking several steps back,
were we?” I said. “Oh, yes....apples are a form of rose, too.
What were you trying to do? You could have gotten yourself killed.”
I'm just protecting the Colony.” he said.
no mouth, I could see him smile. And I was not happy, at all.
Chapter 6 – It had to
abruptly changed to summer. The warmth of Spring, with its
ever-changing flowers and foliage changed to a muggy adolescence of
the year, when the fully grown leaves lay limp on the trees. It would
seem to be fine weather for Small Kind, but Yersinia was also
listless – even staying in his tank for most of the day, he dozed
or watched TV, except for our time at dinner together.
then one morning...there was a man with a uniform knocking on my
told you're keeping a dangerous animal in here, an --” he looked at
his notes “--Australian Sea Worm. You're also – keeping
a...culture of plague bacteria, which is a felony without a permit,
and...” Two policemen elbowed their way in.
is not dangerous, and we're unsure what kind of animal he actually
is. As you can see, he is able to move by himself, and plague
bacteria can't move. Besides, have you ever seen a bacterium without a microscope?””
also see that you have been corresponding with a Mr. Simak, perhaps
you could tell me..?”
Simak showed up. So did some guys in Hazmat suits. An argument broke
out over whether the spirulina tank should be taken or not. A crowd
began to gather below our window. Meanwhile, Y. was looking at me
with blue, blue eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “But it's for the good
of the Colony.”
don't do that.” I said.
not well.” he said.
know.” I said. “But there's got to be another way...Let Dr. Simak
take you. We'll PCR some of you...”
he said, and jumped out the window.
then, he died.
was nothing left, no eyes, no fur – just a small mass of jelly?
mucus? soaking into the ground.
touch it.” Dr. Simak said. “You don't know – viruses,
immune.” I said, feeling nothing much at all. I tried, and got a
tiny gobbet on my fingertips. I touched my fingers to my lips,
before anyone could notice I was doing it, and walked to the side as
the crowds dispersed.
wasn't no piranha.” some kid said. “Shit. Just some little
took me to the hospital anyway. When they couldn't find anything
wrong with me, they wanted to transfer me to the mental ward. When
all they could get out of me was that I had an odd-looking fish in a
saltwater tank, they let me go.
had to move. I got a new place where they let me keep a cat, and I
got one: a dark Siamese, who yowls and purrs, and gets in the way of
the TV. Sometimes, I pet him and he looks at me with eyes like
Yersinia's. But he's only a cat.
Simak also scooped up a little of the jelly. He's making a virus that
will change Y's brothers happy and healthy, and no trouble to anyone.
They're already talking Nobel on this one, and he's splitting the
going to buy a cottage for myself with the money, and plant lots and
lots of roses...and a stone with some of Y's genetic sequence in a
I hear Stockholm is beautiful right before Christmas.
he wanted to do was be a part of me.
is, yes, he is.
Tiny philosopher, music-makerThe world,
flesh, and devil
thee so little
It's as if
you were a God....