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The Nature of Parasites

By Moh Afdhaal

2022 Science Fiction Short Story Contest- 1st Place Winner

 

Ally Lee/ shutterstock

 

Parasitoid wasps follow one of two main schemes when implementing their parasitism: they are either koinobiont, allowing a host to continue to feed, grow and live; or they are idiobiont, immediately paralysing a host. Independent of the strategy employed, the inherent purpose of the parasitoid remains to seize control of the host and complete its lifecycle.

 

***

 

When I was twelve the Planetary Congress sentenced my parents to an early death. Their research was deemed to be non-compliant with the Academic Tribunal’s Scientific Ordinance. While I had appreciated the bequeathment of my father’s techno-entomological research and the release from life as a sample for my mother’s neuroethological studies, it was the ruthless exhibition of power by the Congress that had captivated me. The callous dispatch of my parents for infringing on its authority incited in me a hunger to wrest and eventually transcend its extent of control. 

The next seventeen years of my life were spent moulding my parent’s research into the creation of my metabionts: the foundational agents of my grand design. The gestalt of it would secure the control I sought; meticulously choreographed to usher in an age of unrestricted scientific development, unperturbed by the petulant human vices that plagued our existence.

The idea was a simple extrapolation of natural parasitism. Implant the metabiont; an almost-imperceptible cluster of picobots designed for airborne delivery through a human ear canal, equipped to perform routine surgical perforation and restoration of soft tissue, including the tympanic membrane, and administer engineered neurotransmitters encrypted with neural code directly into the cerebrospinal fluid at the temporal bone. The neurotransmitters are then remote-activated to apply the code in the prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain’s cerebrum controlling judgement and reasoning, thereby impressing my directives onto the host.

I forewent the non-human in vivo testing of the metabionts. Animals would have proved to be a frustratingly unreliable and lacking medium for experimenting with cognitive corruption, especially considering the complexities of human innovation and linguistics. The resultant distress patterns on animal subjects could have been observed, their survival mechanisms tracked, and the efficacy of the syntax and code readability measured. However, for human implementation, the results would have been obsolete.

Once the necessity for intensive human testing was apparent, I executed a straightforward psychosocial program to secure the required test subjects. Posturing as a philanthropist spurned by Congress, I co-opted a pre-existent rebellion and served a multiple-year-long charade as its benefactor. The rebels, fuelled by the zealotry of its puppet leaders, were keen proponents of the overthrowing of Congress and its tenure of despotism. Under the guise of equipping this rebellion with biotechnological advancements, I acquired sufficient human test subjects for the clinical trials of my metabionts.

Two deaths into the testing, the problems with my idiobiont approach became apparent. The immediate paralysis of the cerebrum stripped hosts of all semblance of individuality, thereby rendering subsequent interactions unnatural. By the death of the seventh subject, I had tested code that circumvented the inhuman uncanniness and need for micromanagement of basic judgement. It proved effective, but solely on hosts within optimal parameters, the key measurables being temperament, resolve and self-preservation. In any case, implanted subjects perceived a lack of control, thereby overstressing somatosensory responses, entering a catatonic state and eventually requiring euthanising. As these factors greatly reduced the sample of potential hosts for successful integration of the metabionts, I pivoted to the more complex koinobiont strategy.

The rerouted experimentation continued over twenty-six more necessary deaths. Koinobiont implantation of control required code designed to ensure the host retained an illusion of autonomy and had minimal impact on other cognitive functions. This led to the revamp of the metabionts to convey neurotransmitters with singular executables, instead of the multifunctional “paralyse-and-control” code of the idiobiont neurotransmitters. The subsequent refactoring of the firmware set it to function as silent whispers within the unaware hosts, existing behind a façade of freethought. Hiding the foreign code as intention, incubated in the undercurrents of the frontal cortex neural activity, I instilled in the host an indisputable desire to facilitate all my directives without exception. The failed idiobiont code found a more eloquent purpose as a kill switch that simulated brain aneurysms, to be activated when the implantation didn’t take the intended path.

Within four years of the first successful trial, I had control over thirty-three percent of the Planetary Congress. Adhering to a self-enforced rule of necessity, I left the other sixty-seven percent metabiont-free. These were the naturally-occurring ectoparasites that fed from the self-thinking fraction of Congress; the myopic aberrations that sought control by leeching off the influence of the more powerful. 

The atomic arrangement of humans in society allowed for this selective use of metabionts. By targeting influential patricians within select aliquots of humankind—the magnetic conductors that orchestrated the metrical rhythm plebians played to—my control rippled through society like a perpetually tipping mosaic of human dominos. Anomalous acts of insubordination by uncontrolled individuals were instantly extinguished, either by metabiont control or by metabiont kill switch.

Wielding the power of my hosts, I raised the curtains on a new world order, free of scientific and technological restrictions. A world secure under my control.

 

***

 

To cure themselves of parasites, certain caterpillars medicate with Asclepias. The milk produced by the plant is toxic. With the right dosage, it is a partially recoverable infliction on the host, albeit deadly to the parasite. However, without sensing the loss of control in the early stages of infection, the caterpillar is incapable of breaking this bondage.

 

***

 

The evolution of the hosts’ defence was an eventuality that I had prepared for. 

Evolutionary traits manifested as anatomical defects in an organism; subtle deviations designed to circumvent the action of the metabionts, which given sufficient time in heredity, would eradicate any implanted control. I had to evolve the metabionts at a faster rate than that of the resistive human traits. So, I developed a predictive model that sought the evolutionary path taken by each new trait, assigning value to its threat—the potential for resisting metabiont activity, thereby warning me of the more troublesome traits requiring technological innovation. Or immediate surgical removal.

Some humans in the Arctosiberian continent displayed sensitivity to approaching metabionts, developing a preventative plugging of their ear canals with unnaturally adhesive cerumen. My logical solution was the compaction of metabiontware by replacing picobots with femtobots. When grouped into clusters, a femtobot metabiont was five hundred times smaller than its predecessor. These upgraded models could reach the cerebrum through any crevice in the human body, cutting this evolutionary rebellion short.

Certain hosts displayed hesitance in implementing implanted directives. A causality of natural mutations in their cerebral cortex that corrupted the execution of metabiont code. Fortunately, these occurrences were isolated to a troublesome bloodline, the members of which would inflate the hesitance into outright dispute if left unchecked. To ensure the complete removal of the evolutionary trait, I simply erased the family and its defective genes from existence. Thereby extinguishing the opportunity for genetic metastasis through procreation.

On the eighty-seventh anniversary of my control, I encountered an evolutionary element that I had not accounted for. One I had dismissed as an impossibility. It was triggered by a specific individual: a child of my making.

Despite the immense leap in scientific and human advancements under my guidance, I could not shed the limitations of the human body. By mimicking the antioxidant system of the extinct macrotermite in human form, I nudged the upper limit of my life span. But it did not ensure my prolonged existence. Blinded by an obsession with seemingly unattainable immortality, consequent to my refusal to relinquish control, I voluntarily entered the abyss of lineage to construct my progeny. At the time it was a deft manoeuvre to ensure my sentient continuance was assured through the child. 

In hindsight, it was the compulsive reaction of my brain, designed to seek company in familiarity.

I had not foreseen the reluctance on my part to implant control on the child then, nor the causal momentary affection at her first cry that cascaded into abstract thoughts of love and devotion.

However, the child’s rebellion did not take me by surprise. 

Throughout her fifteen years of growth, she showed concerning signs of insolence towards my achievements, defying my persistent attempts at indoctrination. Hers was an arduous upbringing without the obedience that my dexterous metabionts could extract. The mystifying affinity I had felt since her birth convinced me of the need for her pedigree to remain free of control—free from subjugation as a neurological muse, as I had been in my childhood. As my heir apparent, I assumed her eventual acceptance of the necessity of control was a matter of when, not if. An unfortunate lapse in my judgement.

I was driven by an irrepressible need to provide her with the comforts that I felt lacking in my adolescence. Her features undoubtedly sprung from mine, yet the underlying psyche could not be further apart. Our time together was marked with intrusive ideations of a life where I had been in her shoes—with a doting father and boundless affection. However, my belief in control never wavered. Her existence would not be possible without the freedom of science I had bestowed upon this world, an unthinkable burden without my metabionts.

When she was at an age where comprehension of my machinations was within her perceptual capabilities, I introduced her to a catechism detailing my actions, annotated with the scientific and technological achievements that facilitated it. Where I had expected awe and admiration, her response was a teary accusation of tyranny and disappearance in the middle of the night.

I chalked her off as a failed experiment. Sapped of emotion, regurgitating reactions I had only ever experienced at my parent’s arrest, I suppressed her betrayal by redoubling my efforts on accumulating control. The world did not deserve my benevolence, what it needed was my rigid focus. The child was an unnecessary decade-and-a-half-long distraction.

But I couldn’t bring myself to trim this particular evolutionary offshoot, so I let it wander.

When I saw her next, years later, I was staring down the diamond blade of her yataghan, as she demanded that I cede control and surrender her burgeoning rebellion’s autonomy. 

At first sight of her rounded face and burnished copper eyes, I had had to stifle the warm aura of pride that relentlessly blossomed in my chest. A frequent sensation since her introduction into my life. She was a woman, my daughter. Not a failed experiment, perhaps my greatest success.

I saw that she had been captivated by the same control that had first held me many years ago. She fought to gain hers now, in the same way that I had then. Only, her fight came at odds with mine. It was an apt conclusion to our story; a zero-sum game for control.

It did not take me long to contemplate the premature termination of a lifecycle.

 

***

 

Two hundred years before the end of the Second Earth, the biologist Charles Darwin wrote of his disbelief that God could have created parasitic wasps; an intrinsically cruel creature designed to live only by killing and inhabiting the corpse of others. 

Darwin failed to discount that all living things, by nature, are parasitic. To exist, an organism must survive. To survive, it needs control over the factors affecting its survival, including those which seek to control it. It wrestles, fights and kills for this control. The visceral horror of a parasitic wasp’s existence is no different to the unseen horror of any other living organism’s struggle to be.

 

***

 

Now, I lay embracing the painting that garlands my dying body; the strokes of pooling blood that bubble from the diamond blade piercing my abdomen; varnished with tears that fall from my daughter’s defiant eyes. My fingers unravel, releasing her hand and the hilt of the dagger she holds, from my grasp. Through the embers of my life that escape with every breath, I whisper the words I hope would release her from the burden of guilt.

“You are in control now.”

 I let the sombre silence cloak my ears. I let the soundless dusk close my eyes. For the first time, I truly let go of control; knowing my legacy remains intact in her.

 

About the author: Moh Afdhaal is a Sri Lankan writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in MIDLVLMAG, Moonpark Review, Apex Magazine and Simultaneous Times Podcast, among others. Find him on Twitter @mohwritesthings.

 

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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

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