Sample last updated on 9/29/2022
Chapter 1 – Can You Hear Me?
Of the nine humans I’ve lived in, nobody feels as deeply as Wren Gatly.
I hear his every word, see his every sight, listen to his every thought. Lately, those thoughts seem leeched of hope, and the resulting hormone storms are starting to kill off my counterparts.
If I don’t find a way to comfort him, I could be next.
The others think I’m crazy for even trying. “Humans can’t hear us,” they say. “Give it up and get on with your life.”
But I have no other life to get on with. My colony is made up of over fifty-two million cells, and each one wants to tap this nerve ending and listen.
It’s 9:29 a.m., EST, which means my human will awaken and start another lazy day in the summer of 1998. Well, it would be lazy for any other seventeen-year-old male. But knowing Wren, he’ll read all day at the local library. Knowledge will flood his brain and, by some miracle even we bacteria don’t understand, thoughts will vibrate down his nerves like ghost currents.
I’m not the only listener. Every so often, Polsoml joins me. It’s the closest thing I have to a friend, and even it thinks my obsession is strange. Right now it’s releasing proteins to stamp out inflammation from last night’s taco supremes. I should help it, but I can’t spare my cells for anything but listening. If I ever manage to speak loudly enough for Wren to hear me, maybe I’ll tell him to lay off the habaneros.
“Hey Orom!” It’s Grersin, one of the many lactobacilli on my intestinal fold. If a bacterial colony could smirk, it would be doing it now, judging by the tone of its voice. “Wait till the milk and cereal flow. The host isn’t coherent until then.”
I morph a cluster of cells into the rough shape of a hand with the forefinger raised. “Shh. I’m trying to listen. Wren’s feelings get stirred right when he wakes up.”
Grersin waggles tendrils of cell clusters at me with short staccato bursts—the bacterial version of a mocking laugh. “Calling the host by name and mimicking human gestures won’t help your reputation.”
“On my list of concerns, reputation is so far down I can’t see it,” I shoot back.
“And you think the boy’s feelings matter?” Grersin says. “Other than cortisol and adrenaline spikes, why would we care? He stresses and we dial the hormones. That’s all we can do. You realize we can’t keep him from worrying in the first place, right?”
I withdraw my hand-shaped cluster and return it to the mucosal wall, trying to ignore it.
The lactobacillus colony starts to swim away, then stops. “You’re looking thin. You’d better stretch out for a breakfast grab because he doesn’t eat lunch until after two.”
Surprised at his uncharacteristic concern, I hold out a motionless bundle of cells to acknowledge it.
With a flick of his many flagella—which are rare for his kind—Grersin takes off toward his villus, which lies on the next higher fold from mine. A few centimeters closer to the stomach and the brunt of its acid. I look around at the swaying villi, the millions of tiny fingers extending from the slimy tubular wall, and pity my friends in the colon who don’t enjoy such a view.
The nearest colonies regard me with amusement as they stretch out to prepare for a bowl of Life cereal. They place bets on whether it will be cinnamon or regular this time. They could just tap into Wren’s optics and read the box, but that would be too easy.
Because I’m not hungry and much more interested in snugging up closer to the nearest nerve, I tuck deeper into the mucus, push through the basement membrane and against the wall of muscle. This also gets me out of the way of colonies who extend themselves into the open canal that humans call the lumen. That enormous tunnel where all the food comes flowing through.
We bacteria have our own names for every piece of human anatomy, but Lord Clerost mandates we use the human terms instead. It even makes us speak the primary language of our host, falling back on our own only when the host language lacks a word for that thing. Over the centuries, I’ve spoken Mongolian, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and English.
The neural pathway surges with emotional signals. Wren is waking up.
I shout against the muscle, right where I sense a nerve ending, then listen for a response. Over the years, I’ve settled on a system, trying to make contact at different times of day. I try as he wakes up and falls asleep. When he’s undergoing REM cycles and when he’s in various moods. Nothing’s worked yet, but colonies farther up the small intestine have heard me. That fills me with hope. One day, I might just succeed. At first, only lactobacilli in my section of the jejunum could hear me. Then those up in the descending duodenum could too. Last month, my words made it to a rare colony in the stomach!
So, if my voice keeps getting louder, it may one day reach the brain. If that happens, Wren will get such a jolt of surprise that I couldn’t help but feel it, and I’d hear some thought in response. I’ve often wondered what he might say, and how he’d react when he discovered whose voice he was hearing. What would we talk about? Would he be too scared to hold a conversation, thinking me some hallucination? I can only hope his natural curiosity would overcome fear. Even now, he thinks about the books he might discover today.
The other colonies say he’s a nerd, and they’re probably right. But this part of him keeps me trying. His curiosity might help him be the first to hear the microbial world.
He already responds to hunches more readily than most. What humans call a “gut instinct” is more accurate than they know. Indeed, our voices sometimes touch the very edge of their consciousness and nudge them on key decisions. That’s the closest we ever come to true verbal communication. And all other colonies have learned to settle for that.
Not me, though. I want more.
Something in my own gut (so to speak) tells me Wren will hear me someday, if I don’t give up like the others have. They don’t dare chalk this up to youthful optimism, because I turned 217 last month. I’ve spent about an average of twenty-five years in each human before switching to a baby during childbirth—the rare occasion that I slip down the colon and out the hatch. Wren doesn’t turn twenty-five for another eight years, but I won’t leave him. Even if he undergoes multiple courses of antibiotics, I’ll just put my cells to sleep and wait it out.
He’s been healthy enough so far, but his lonely spells are churning up inflammation in a big way. The kind of loneliness we bacteria don’t usually see until middle age. I’m desperate to help him pull out of this. Perhaps that’s why I try so hard to speak to him. I might lead him to more friends, or better connect him to the one he has. He likes Oliver, but that friendship doesn’t help as much as it should. Oliver’s a nice kid, but he just can’t feel as deeply as Wren does. The two of them are too different at their core. I knew that even before Oliver’s colonies told me all about him.
If only I could help Wren find the right person.
He wants a girlfriend, and perhaps that would help a little. But what he needs is a real friend. Someone who can see him. Feel what he feels. But I’ve checked the personality profiles that other colonies post to our data stores, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone nearby who’d make a good match.
The wall of muscle contracts hard against my cells in that way all gut flora recognize by instinct. Peristalsis. The ripple that signals digestion. The others let out a squee of spontaneous delight.
Wren still can’t hear my shouts. I would sigh if I could. Might as well go out and feed.
I back out to the mucosal surface and reach for some chyme. I know the composition of Life cereal all too well. This particle has whole grain oat flour, sugar, and some corn flour. No cinnamon in this one, so this must be the original flavor. I chew more and taste the Yellow 5 and 6, along with some salt. Good. I needed salt more than anything else.
“Somebody tell this kid’s mom to buy yogurt again!” someone shouts from a few villi over, and others laugh.
“The mom only buys the Parton Farms brand,” Grersin adds. “And only when it’s on sale. That won’t be till next week, according to the grocery postings.”
All colonies watch the grocery postings with unqualified zeal. Knowing what food to expect based on tips from friends in the guts of supermarket stockers proves awfully useful. The predictions have become so accurate that most bacteria regulate their personal stockpiles accordingly. If potassium will be scarce for the next month, we’d better ration today’s banana to hold us over.
My appetite sated, I return to the muscular wall and listen for Wren’s mood, which should be taking a satisfied shape about now. Instead, the signal blazes down the neuron like acid fire, stinging my cells and making them flinch away. Then comes the thought:
I wish I could talk to my parents about what I’m learning.
I can’t relate to the sentiments humans have toward their parents, since bacterial colonies didn’t really have parents of their own. But I’ve spent enough time inside people to know how special that relationship is to them. This wasn’t the first time Wren harbored this idea, but it never scorched as it does now. And, like most humans, Wren isn’t even thinking of the root of the problem behind his pain. If articulated perfectly, the thought would be “They only listen when I’m talking about topics they care about. They don’t love me enough to listen when the topic is one they have no interest in.”
With the same fervor that other colonies stockpile nutrients, I record my observations in my data storage cells and tap the muscle wall again. It’s still flared up with sadness, but I make myself press in until I become acclimated. Gradually, his sorrow becomes mine, swelling me with feelings of inadequacy. I can only bear it for a few minutes when Wren’s like this, but it’s important that I share his every feeling. To experience life as he does, as best as I can.
In order to speak to him in a way he can hear, I must first listen.
Even if he never knows how much attention I pay to him, what I do matters, though I don’t know why. Besides, it’s fun to discover the profound beauty in him he can’t see. I keep hoping some other human will discover the same things and tell him all about them. A teacher perhaps, or a random stranger. To give voice to the words I shout to him every day. I see myself in him. If I were a human, I’d be a lot like Wren.
I tap his visuals and see him rise from his dining table. He rinses the bowl, then returns to his cramped bedroom to put on shorts and a t-shirt. Soon he’ll be heading out the door to hop on his bike and head for the library. The dopamine rush and heightened blood flow from cycling will do him good, and all of us, for that matter. When living things convert ATP to ADP at a fast clip, good things happen, and humans are no exception. As long as they’re not fighting or fleeing from some predator, at least.
The only real physical threat to Wren consists of a full-grown Doberman Pinscher that sometimes runs loose on Maple Street, which is why he stopped taking that way to the library, opting for a detour. He could use the extra cycling anyhow.
I see him stepping out the door and down the ratty wooden stairs to his yard where thousands of fleas bed down in the sand. The grass is sparse and a neighbor’s dog comes calling for scraps every day, so this is the natural result. Wren’s ankles are bit up, and he stops to scratch them.
Now he’s walking his beloved beat-up stunt bike across the sand until the dirt is firm enough to ride on. With a green backpack cinched down tight around his shoulders and a skyward glance for rain, he starts to pedal. Blood rushes to the wall of muscle beside me and his nerves calm. Soon the dopamine kicks in and some of the happiest moments he ever experiences begin as he sails along the asphalt roads where he feels free and competent. Wren’s been riding bikes from the age of four. He’d started out on this very street, and I still remember the thrill that shot through him when he first rode without training wheels.
Most houses in this neighborhood are shabby, their yards choked with tall grass and vines, but he doesn’t mind. The traffic here in this sleepy town is mild, and the roads promise to take him anywhere on earth. He forgets his claustrophobic house as he stretches himself out to fill the open sky, breathing as if to pack all of it into his lungs. If only he never left his bike, and every moment could taste like this.
“If there’s one thing our host always gets right,” Grersin begins with a voice that sounds almost happy, “is that he exercises right after breakfast.”
“He’s active after most meals,” Polsoml says while processing his chyme. It’s one of the best colonies at metabolizing food into vitamins K and B12. “Wish the adult I used to live in did the same. He would’ve lived longer. And Wren started lifting weights six months ago. I don’t know about you, but that’s made my job a lot easier.”
I would jump in with my own praises, but Polsoml is doing just fine on his own. Though I wonder if anyone else realizes that Wren hopes weightlifting will make him worthy of love. I doubt they care.
Chatter dies off as everyone returns to digestion. I return to the optic signals and find that Wren is now crossing the railroad tracks into what passes for the rich side of town. Port Marston is not the most glamorous city in Georgia, having one dinky movie theater and one bowling alley. Humans have to drive all the way to Jacksonville, Florida to find any sort of city life.
Still, this row of subdivisions has houses with proper garages, tended lawns, and pretty brick mailboxes. And the streets had sidewalks! Wren likes that feature best. That, and the glorious fact that most of these households keep their dogs inside.
My last few humans festered with jealousy toward the well-off, but not Wren. He barely notices how poor he is compared to these people. How he’s deprived of the opportunities to play sports, travel, and the other enriching activities the children here take for granted.
As long as he can ride his bike, roller blade, shoot hoops, and visit the library, he stays occupied well enough. Trouble is, he does those things alone. Even when he visits a friend—usually Oliver—an undercurrent of loneliness still tugs at him. Every human senses this. The other colonies tell me so. I’ve felt this in Wren’s mother when I lived in her. I felt it in his grandmother, and in the six people before her.
But in Wren, the loneliness never dies off, like a switch stuck in the on position. Sometimes it peaks at levels I can’t handle, and I have to let go for a while. This started around age three and has climbed ever since, making a sharp upturn at puberty. If this continues climbing, he may die in his thirties. Maybe sooner. I combed through the data stores for similar cases, just to see what happens to people like Wren. When the person doesn’t commit suicide, he or she succumbs to illnesses that doctors can’t explain.
This cannot happen to Wren. I won’t let it. I’m not sure what a B. subtilis colony like me can do to heal a human’s breaking heart, but I believe it starts with making him hear my words. He needs to know that I see him.
This is what the other colonies don’t understand. Let them laugh at my obsession. I’ve lived long enough to stop caring what they think of me.
Besides, if I succeed, I might keep his amped up inflammation from killing us all.
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