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Gut Reaction

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#StorySaturday is a Guest Blog weekend experiment in which we invite people to write about science in a different, unusual format – fiction, science fiction, lablit, personal story, fable, fairy tale, poetry, or comic strip. We hope you like it.

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“I never meant for this to happen.”

Photo: Jenny Morber

Photo: Jenny Morber

As Mark clicked on the recorder he heard her throat tighten. President Rhee’s voice was steady, but hundreds of interviews had trained Mark’s ear. She was digging in, steeling herself. She was preparing for something painful.

He placed the recorder on the table between them and looked up. Upholstered chairs and rugs decorated the room like an old English library. The furniture must have been fifty years old, but the fabric was not worn or stained like the pieces he was used to. It looked pristine. The silk and velvet caressed his palms. Could this be the self-healing nano-tex he had heard his father talk about? He had thought the stories to be myth. Mark rubbed the cloth again. Where were they?

The President had gone to some lengths to conceal their location. Mark had to change vehicles three times to get there. Just speaking to her was risky, and at one point he had not been sure that he would arrive alive, but Mark was betting that the story was important enough to her to ensure his safety. So far, his gamble was paying off.

Mark inhaled deeply. The room must once have been a kitchen storage locker. The decorations could fool the eye, but they didn’t hide the smell. At one time the room had held cured meats and cheeses, honey, wine, crates of butter. His stomach growled. Mark couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten butter.

“I wanted a chance to make things better. I thought that I would help to turn the country around – return us to former glory. We needed a radical change. Most of all, I had to defeat Beckman.”

Beckman. Mark remembered the Republican incumbent in the 2016 election – “The Final Election”– from his youth. He was everything Rhee was not. Old. Moneyed. An upstanding family man with conservative values. He had run his campaign on his stability. “Stay the course” his campaign flyers cried. He told the people to be patient – it took time for policies to make change. His smear campaign against Rhee had been particularly nasty.

Mark studied the President’s tattoos. He wondered why she was telling the story now.

“The race was close. Polls showed that I was leading Beckman by three percentage points, but I was sliding. The environment was going to hell. The water was poison and the animals were dying, but Beckman had managed to increase wages and decrease the price of gas. He did it through some shady dealings with suspected terrorists, but nobody cared. All anybody cared about was the money in their pocket.”

The President’s face contorted in disgust. Mark suppressed the urge to ask how much the furniture had set her back.

“I was getting desperate. We knew we had the youth vote, but it wasn’t enough. We needed to convince people that their lives would be better with me as President. I was unusual, rough. Some people were afraid.”

“So you sent every voter in the US a package of food.” Mark cut in.

The President’s bold political move had become famous. The plan had worked brilliantly. Recession had stretched incomes and environmental catastrophes had increased food prices. The once-rogue candidate had given voters’ something tangible to show that she understood them, cared about them. Just one week after the food deliveries began, President Rhee rose in the polls to a lead of 65%. She won easily.

“We spent nearly every dollar we had on that food. But it worked.”

“I remember that box. It had some tasty stuff.”

The President’s face grew cloudy with an expression that Mark couldn’t read. She looked past him for a minute, then came back.

“Yes, we made sure of that.” She said quietly. Rhee hesitated. “It wasn’t just the food, but what was IN the food.”

“Yes! The vitamins and minerals. My parents were so excited that I actually ate it.” Then, recognizing that the confession made him sound like a child, “Must have really helped out those families having a hard time.”

The President turned toward Mark, looking straight at him for the first time.

“Are you familiar with the work of Professor James Leeds?”

Where was this going? “Uh, no, I don’t believe so.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t be. He wasn’t well-known even back then…Back when the election was close, when it looked like it might have been slipping away, one of my young campaign promoters suggested that I speak to him, said that he thought I might find his work interesting. ”

“And what work would that be?”

The President rubbed an imaginary spot on her chair. “Gut bacteria.”

“Gut bacteria?”

“Did you know that your body harbors more bacteria cells and DNA than human cells and DNA? Ten times more?”

“No. I don’t believe that.”

“It’s true.”

“What does all of this have to do with your campaign?”

The President pretended not to hear his question.

“Even more creepy, Leeds’ work showed that these bacteria affect the people they populate. They influence immunity, body weight, even…the mind.”

“The mind? What? Are you telling me that you think we are controlled by bacteria in our gut? Like robots?” Mark’s tone bordered on condescension. He was sure that the woman had gone batty.

“Not in a ‘left turn, right turn, smile’ sort of way. They INFLUENCE us, make us more likely to do one thing or another. Do you remember what else the food said it had?”

Mark shook his head.

“Probiotics.”

“Probiotics. Like in yogurt? For, ah, regularity?”

“Probiotics are live bacteria. And yes, they can improve regularity, but that’s not why we added them. We added them…” Rhee’s previously pained eyes gave away a glint of pleasure as she remembered her former power, “for mind control.”

For a fraction of a second Mark looked at The President with his mouth half open. Did she just admit to engaging in mind control to win the election? He had eaten this stuff. Her mind had to be slipping. You can’t control someone’s mind with yogurt. Can you?

“Gut bacteria influence the mind. The mind influences decisions. Decisions influence votes.” We thought, “What if a political candidate harnessed this power? It wouldn’t take much – just a few percentage points. So Leeds and I cooked up some bacteria that increased what he called ‘tolerance for risk.’ Remember I was the unknown – wild, young, dangerous. We wanted to make sure that people weren’t afraid to take a risk at the polls. Turns out that there were already bacteria that could increase risk tolerance, we just…enhanced them a little.”

She took a breath. “When we won we had no way to be sure that the bacteria had worked. The food itself was pretty compelling, and Leeds had told me that it would be difficult to replace the bacteria that people already had even though he developed a particularly hardy strain. He estimated that it would only take in something like 2% of the people who ate our food. So, I mostly forgot about it and got to the job of running the country.”

Mark sat almost in a daze, aware and not aware of the silence between them. Then he remembered what had happened just three years into The President’s term. “Until.”

“Yes, until. Turns out that risk tolerance doesn’t only translate at the polls. At first it just seemed like a run of bad luck – exploding mortgages, wall street megalomania, social and environmental apathy, an uptick in accidents, murders and suicides – all bad news, but they could be explained away. These things had happened before. After two years though, it started to seem like nothing we did made it better, so I called a few statistician friends to look into it. They confirmed that this was a trend unlike anything that we had seen in recorded history. I knew what had happened. The bacteria had destabilized the country.”

Mark waited. The President took a breath.

“And of course, the people always blame the leader. Only this time they were right.”

When the rioting started The President had tried to declare martial law, but she had waited too long. The military itself had grown beyond her control. Since then she had gone into hiding and the country had been ruled by a series of ineffective mafia lords. Most recently, each state had seceded to become an independent country. Some measure of stability had returned, but stability doesn’t instantly bring prosperity. After the revolt other countries afraid of similar uprisings cut ties to the US. Halted trade had plunged the country into depression that it didn’t seem to be able to claw its way out of.

“But I thought you said that the bacteria would only take hold in 2% of the population. That couldn’t have been enough to cause such a huge movement.”

“Initially yes, but it seems that life finds a way to survive. Infants and those who have recently received antibiotics are particularly susceptible. Like I told you, we engineered a tenacious strain. Leed’s research tells us that every time it had an opening, our strain moved in. Infants grow up. People get sick and need medicine. Natural selection is moving it forward. Now we believe that as much as 85% of the population harbors these bacteria.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I need you to tell this story to the country.”

“Why?”

The way The President looked at Mark made him shiver.

“There’s something else.”

“Oh God.”  There was more?

“I felt responsible for this. I had wanted to IMPROVE the country, not plunge it into lawlessness and depression. So again I sought Dr. Leeds to find some kind of cure. I had to kill this thing that we had created. We came up with the idea of using a virus to attack the bacteria. To reduce the chance of it evolving some kind of defense we engineered the virus to only shut down the part of the bacteria we cared about –its ability to increase risk tolerance. We wanted to bring people back to their normal state.”

“But you already screwed up. Why do this again?”

“We thought we had it this time. We tested it in animals, then ourselves. Finally we released it out into the population.

“It didn’t work?”

“It worked perfectly. The problem was the human brain.”

“The brain?”

“We knew that the bacteria changed behavior, but we didn’t think about how. The brain of infected people ENJOY taking risk. They find it pleasurable. To them it’s like eating chocolate, having sex, enjoying dinner with friends. Taking risks flooded the brain with pleasure signals –so many that the brain acclimated to it. When we took it away, people became unable to feel pleasure of any kind, then they lost the ability to feel any kind of emotion. They became shells.”

Mark realized that his fingernails had been digging into his palms.

“How do you know this?”

“Leeds. He’s gone. He’s been sitting over there the whole time.”

Mark jumped three feet out of his chair. He hadn’t noticed the figure of a man sitting in the corner behind Rhee. The figure hadn’t moved.

Rhee ignored his reaction and kept talking: “More robot than a man. I’m next.”

Mark finally identified the look that had been playing across the President’s face during the entire interview. It wasn’t remorse, or sadness. It was fear.

“You have to tell the story so that someone can find a cure. The virus is working its way through the population. Have you seen reports of children? Increases in social disorders – it’s the virus.”

Mark looked at the President in disgust. She had caused this – had caused everything – and in a few weeks she wouldn’t care.

“You have to run the story before it takes hold of the entire US. Before the symptoms manifested in Leeds he was working on a vaccination. You will give his notes to the CDC. Maybe they can figure out what he was working on. People will need to have fecal DNA tests to see if they have the bacteria, and then a vaccination once the CDC creates one. You will have to convince people that this is one shot they cannot skip. Will you do this?”

“I will certainly try.”

Mark looked down at his recorder. He was going to have some story to tell. As he checked the power a movement caught his eye.

“The President raised something heavy and metallic.

Mark jumped toward her, overturning the table with the recorder.

BAM!

Mark’s ears screamed in protest as his hand sunk into something fleshy and wet.

Leeds had tilted his head slightly in reaction to the sound.

The bright red blood that pooled on The President’s chair rolled off onto the floor. The upholstery remained unblemished.

Leeds finally spoke: “Someone is going to need to clean that up.”

 

Jenny Morber About the Author: Jenny Morber is a vertically challenged freelance science writer and editor with diverse and eclectic interests. She holds a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering with a focus on the intersections between nanomaterials, magnetism, and biotech. Earlier in her career, Dr. Morber worked as a consultant and co- grant writer for nano-enabled defense technologies. Recently she has become fascinated by the philosophical implications of recent research into parasites and the microbiome. Based in Fairfax Virginia, she is somewhat in love with Washington, D.C. and often takes her young sons to appreciate the art, architecture, and wealth of information available there. This is her first work of science fiction. Follow on Twitter @JRMorber.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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