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EP276: On a Blade of Grass

By: Tim Pratt
Read by: Mat Weller
Originally published in the Subterranean Press Newsletter, 2008
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All stories by Tim Pratt
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated PG-13: For language, two F bombs, and some parasitic details…

Show Notes:

  • Feedback for Episode 268: Advection
  • Next week… Rejiggering stuff – really, this time.

On a Blade of Grass
By Tim Pratt

“Interstellar war is about as exciting as playing chess by mail.” The guy who said that had been leaning into the bar for so long I thought his chest might fuse with the wood. I drifted over, because he wasn’t a regular, and I was bored with all my regulars and their regular bullshit.

“Who plays chess by mail anymore?” I said. “With the ‘net and all.”

“Nobody. Guys in jail maybe, I don’t know. Because it’s boring. My point. Inefficient and slow. Just like this war.” He tapped his glass meaningfully. He was rumpled and sleep-creased and middle-aged and smelly, but a better class of smelly than my usual crowd — like working-all-night-sweaty smelly, not sitting-around-all-day smelly. Long enough tending bar and you can tell the difference.

I refilled his glass. He was a pretty good drinker, but the little guys often are. “They say by the time our warships get out there, to their homeworld, the Phages might even be extinct. Like, just from natural processes, long timescales, like that. Or they might’ve evolved into something new, something that doesn’t… you know…”

“Want to eat us?”

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The guy shook his head. “The aliens don’t want to eat us. That was my, what do you call it. Epiphany. They don’t want to eat us any more than we want to explore brave new frontiers. All that, eating and exploring, it’s just, it’s just incidental.”

“I’m pretty sure they want to eat us. Being as, the first time we encountered them, they ate us.” I polished a glass, not because the glass was dirty — it’s self-cleaning nanoglass, I run a quality establishment — but because it’s traditional and makes the customers feel like the world isn’t rushing past them at a billion miles per second. Well. Metaphorically. Nothing moves that fast, because it’s faster than the speed of light, and if things could move faster than the speed of light, this interstellar war would be a lot less boring. At least me and any descendants I was likely to know personally would be dead long before any counterattack hit Earth.

“You know much about parasites?” the guy said.

“Eh. When my wife was pregnant, she made me scoop the shit out of the cat boxes, so she wouldn’t get, what do you call it, toxoplasmosis. That’s a parasite, right?” I mused. “You know, I’m still the one scooping the cat boxes, and our kid’s six years old now. I keep saying we should get nanolitter, but that one cat in Germany got dissolved when the stuff malfunctioned, my wife says she won’t risk it.”

The guy frowned, like my cat shit stuff had derailed him, but he leaned in deeper and poked the bar with his finger. “Toxoplasmosis. Good example. Yeah, dangerous for women if they get their first exposure when they’re pregnant, it can hurt the baby, right, but fact is your wife probably already has it. A third of the people on this planet have the parasite already. Hell, in France, it’s close to ninety percent. Not so many here.”

“No shit?” I said.

“And, see, the parasite doesn’t just make you sick. Toxoplasmosis, a lot of times, you don’t get sick at all. But it changes you. Women infected with it, when they have babies, they have more boys than girls. No one knows why. The parasites can change your behavior, too, they make cysts in your brain, alter your personality. They make men more promiscuous and less jealous. They make people less, how do they say it, ‘novelty seeking.’ Men think women infected with toxoplasmosis are more attractive. Infected women are definitely nicer, anyhow.”

“My wife is hot,” I said. “I don’t think it’s because she’s got cysts in her brain. But if a third of the people on Earth have it…”

“Yes. You see? Whole cultures could be affected by a parasite. Mass behavioral changes. Insidious. And toxoplasmosis, it’s a parasite that lives in multiple hosts. Starts out in rats and mice. And it changes them — makes them less afraid. Specifically, less afraid of cats. The infected rats don’t run away when they smell cats, so they’re more likely to get eaten by cats, and that’s great for the parasite, because it wants to live inside a cat’s guts, that’s where the parasite can reproduce. They hijack the rats. They just use the rats as a means to an end. Most of the creatures on this planet are just, are just vectors for some parasite.”

“How you know so much about this?”

“I’m a parasitologist. A rogue parasitologist.” He lifted his glass and giggled and I thought maybe I’d cut him off after this one. “I have a controversial hypothesis. Grant money’s hard to come by — I just lost the last of my funding, because I was dumb enough to call up the UN Security Council and tell them my epiphany. Would you like to hear it? My hypothesis?”

“I bet you’d like to tell me.”

“I think the human urge to explore new frontiers is a bug, not a feature.” He had the same kind of crazy intent eyes my regular Eddie McMurray got when he started talking about his horse race betting system. “Exploring is dumb. It’s dangerous. If you’ve got a decent life in your cushy valley, why the crazy urge to strike out into the wilderness and seek new vistas? Early explorers tend to die a lot. I don’t just mean people exploring like the New World back in the old days, or doing undersea exploration. We have manned space travel now. That’s idiotic. I mean, space. It’s fundamentally inimical to human life. Why the hell would we want to go there? But so many people, scientists and novelists and thinkers, Hawking and Sagan and Heinlein, they say it’s imperative we go into space, that we must, that it’s what humankind is _destined_ for.” He tapped the side of his head. “I think it’s a parasite. I think most humans have something, some tiny bug, something that gets into us when we’re born, _before_ we’re born, that makes us want to explore.”

“Okay. You’re the expert. Me, I never wanted to explore brave new worlds.”

He shrugged. “Maybe the toxoplasmosis damped down your novelty-seeking behavior. Who knows, maybe parasites in cat shit destroying our urge for the new could have been the salvation of mankind, if we’d achieved a hundred percent infection worldwide, but… Too late now. We’ve climbed the blade of grass. The sheep have eaten us.” He tapped his glass again. I pretended not to notice.

“You lost me there, pal. We’re sheep now? Or are we grass?”

“We’re ants. Listen: Dicrocoelium dendriticum. A parasite that lives in sheep. The parasite lays eggs, which the sheep shits out. Now, sheep don’t eat their own shit, so how do the little baby parasites get back inside a nice woolly baa-baa belly to spawn their own generation of kiddies? I’ll tell you. Snails come along and eat the sheep shit, along with the parasite eggs.”

“Circle of life,” I said.

“The parasites hatch and get expelled in the snail’s slime trail. Ants love snail slime, they eat that stuff up like, like I eat up these peanuts.” He jiggled the bowl of bar snacks before him. “So now the parasites are inside the ants. But they’re still fucked, because sheep don’t eat ants — they eat grass. So what does the parasite do?”

“Makes the ants climb the blades of grass.”

He blinked. “How. How’d you know?”

“You said it earlier.”

“Right. Right. The parasite gets into the ant’s brain. Normal ants aren’t stupid, at least not about ant stuff, so they stay on the ground during the day and go home to their nests at night. But after the parasite takes over, the ants have this uncontrollable urge to climb as high as they can when night falls. They climb to the top of a stalk of grass when it gets cold in the evening and just cling there ’til it gets warm again in the morning, then go back about their business. Except for the ones who get eaten by grazing sheep first thing in the morning. They die. But the parasite doesn’t. It lives on, comfortable and happy in a sheep’s guts.” He shook his head and tapped his glass, more insistently. “Parasites are the secret masters of the world. Not just the world. The universe. We think so highly of intelligence, like intelligence is the pinnacle of evolution, but that’s crap. Parasites use our own intelligence against us.”

“So what do you mean when you say we’re ants?”

“Ah. My hypothesis. We went into space, right? We sent a ship with some people on it as fast as we possibly could, out, exploring. Because the human spirit strives for greater knowledge etc.? No. Bullshit. Because some unknown parasite made us want to explore. And we found aliens! Aliens as different from us as a sheep is from an ant — which isn’t as different as it seems, I mean, both carbon-based, they can eat each other, right? But they look pretty goddamn different. And those aliens tore open our ship like a bag of potato chips and ate the people they found inside. Why? Who knows why. Maybe they just eat everything. Maybe they’ve got some parasite of their own, something that makes their first reaction to new things consumption. Maybe that’s how they, I don’t know, say hello, by consuming flesh and analyzing it chemically.”

“There are lots of theories. I’ve seen ‘em on TV. But who cares? They ate us. That’s war right there.”

“Sure. Slow, boring, multi-generational war. But my theory, my hypothesis, is that the parasite, the one that makes humans want to explore, that parasite needs to complete its life cycle — or at least continue its lifecycle — in the gut of the aliens we call the Phage. Or maybe in the gut of something that eats the excrement of a Phage. Who knows? Parasite life cycles can be complicated. I think the whole human urge to explore is just part of a parasite’s plan to get into the belly of an alien.”

I poured myself a whiskey, and then, because it seemed like the thing to do, I refilled his glass too. “That’s fucked up,” I said at last. “You got, you know, proof?”

“No. Needed to do more research. But I thought it was important — I mean, we sent warships! To their homeworld! Or what we think is their homeworld — so I went to the military with my theory, and, kaboom. No more grant money. ‘That’s crazy,’ they said. ‘You’re saying we have no free will,’ they said. ‘We thank you for your contributions to science,’ they said. And here I am. Drinking my woes away. Fuck it. I’ll be dead, anyway, before the shit starts raining down.”

“What was your, you know. Solution?” A guy like this, I figured, would have a solution.

“There are ways to kill parasites. If I could find it. If I could find out what it is. Wipe it out, parasite genocide, and maybe after that people… would be content. Go back to living in their valleys. Stop pushing and pushing and taking and taking. Stop going into space. Stop getting eaten. But it’s too late. We sent warships. The Phages will come back. They’ll eat our great-great-great-exponential-great grandchildren. All hail the parasites.” He opened his wallet and put some money on the bar, a pretty good tip, I guess for all my listening. “G’night.”

He left. Eventually my regulars left too, and I closed up the bar. Out in the parking lot, I tilted my head back and looked up, into that big black deep sky full of stars and planets and black holes and pulsars and dust and comets and asteroids and man-eating monsters. I’d never thought about it before, really, but I had to admit.

It all looked pretty inviting.


Creative Commons License

On a Blade of Grass by Tim Pratt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at escapepod.org.

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