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The Lifehack

Copiously shedding data in the form of novel proteins in his sweat, Chester Inkley entered the public atrium of Megablast Microbiomics in a panic. The first person to see him, an attractive young receptionist named SueEllen Glanders, remained remarkably self-composed at his alarming, wild-eyed appearance. Her professional sangfroid could be attributed to the fact that Inkley was the fourth person exhibiting these symptoms to arrive at Megablast Microbiomics in the past few hours. In truth, she had been highly flustered when the first irrational victim showed up. But a large slug of strictly medicinal whiskey administered by the company's nurse, along with an immediate cash bonus and a commendation in her file from the president of MM himself, had allowed her to continue in her critical front-line duties while experts behind the scenes struggled to unravel what was happening.
"May I ask the nature of your business, sir?" said SueEllen calmly, even as she was triggering the silent alarm that would bring security personnel running.
Chester Inkley was the kind of fellow who apologized when a bus driver deposited him at the wrong stop, causing him to walk a quarter of a mile in the rain. So it was testament to the magnitude of his upset that he actually now raised his quavering voice.
"You have to help me! I had a standard treatment from your people two days ago, and today something's gone very wrong!"
"I should remind you, sir, that our procedure is one-hundred-percent FDA approved, with no demonstrated side effects, and that over the course of the five years that we have been in business, not one abnormal or detrimental outcome of our treatment has been recorded."
Until now, thought SueEllen to herself.
"I don't care what kind of track record you have, I know what's going on in my own body! My guts are positively churning. And it's all due to that damn sludge you had me drink!"
"Perhaps it's a case of food poisoning, sir, that you picked up elsewhere. Our patented, flavorful probiotic cocktail; consisting of specially tailored bacteria, archaea, protists, viruses, and fungi; is guaranteed to improve your health and general functioning. Why, just knowing that your body will automatically maintain a consistent target weight even while consuming up to ten thousand calories daily should make you feel very appreciative--"
"Appreciative be damned! Something's not right!"
Inkley placed his hands on SueEllen's desk and leaned in close. Where were those security goons? Sue Ellen thought nervously. This was the closest any of the victims had gotten to her.
A strange yet almost indiscernible scent diffused from Inkley's sweaty face. SueEllen perforce inhaled it. The first whiff caused her to breathe in more intensely, hoovering up as much of the scent as she could. A weird spacey feeling overtook her, and her next actions sprang from some kind of instant alien compulsion.
SueEllen grabbed Inkley by his ears, dragged his face smack up against hers, and kissed him deeply with an inordinate amount of tongue action.
The next thing she knew, the security men were pulling Inkley away from her. Bewildered, SueEllen noticed that the guards all wore protective breathing apparatuses.
"Damn," said one, "we're too late. Ms. Glanders, you'll have to come with us now."
"Why?"
"We suspect you're infected."
Still dazed but obedient, Sue Ellen got up and accompanied the guards into the nonpublic part of the building.
"What took you so long?" she finally thought to ask.
"Dealing with the other three clients. It was a madhouse for a while. This guy is more advanced than they were. They didn't present all the symptoms yet when you saw them, or when we took them into the recovery room. But when their pheromone production kicked in, it was a frigging orgy of kissing back here before we got things under control. Dozens of employees got a taste."
"What is it? What's happening? What have I contracted?"
"Best to let the docs explain."
SueEllen allowed the guards to lead her into a treatment cubicle, one of the sparsely decorated yet pleasant small rooms where clients received the probiotic shake. She sat wearily on a comfy recliner chair. Her befuddlement was passing, and she felt okay, almost normal. But she could only surmise that she would end up like the others. The newest victim had said he had swallowed his dose two days ago. Was that how long she had?
SueEllen's gaze fell on a corporate poster on the wall. It showed a happy man and a woman each raising a glass to their lips. A NEW YOU WITH JUST ONE BREW! proclaimed the poster.
After about an hour's wait with no further information, during which SueEllen actually dozed, despite her apprehensions, a knocking came. Before she could answer, the door opened. In walked Dr. Wickstrom, the founder and chief scientist of Megablast Microbiomics.
"Ms. Glanders, I'm here to offer my apologies and to explain what's happening. But first let me assure you that we are going to do everything in our powers to restore you and the others to perfect baseline health."
"Is--is this thing fatal? What's it all about?"
"Well, we can't answer those questions completely yet. After all, this whole crisis is only a few hours old. But let me tell you what we do know. You recognize the name Cole Shallcross, I presume?"
"Why, certainly. He was one of our employees until just recently, when his services were terminated."
"Correct. Brilliant man, but utterly amoral. Dr. Shallcross was using our facilities to pursue unauthorized avenues of research. When we discovered this, we had no recourse but to let him go. Unfortunately, he had just enough time to trigger his prepared revenge scheme. Unknown to us, he contaminated a whole batch of our product with his own recipe."
"And what's it do?"
"Well, the most obvious thing is that it causes the production of a unique tailored human sex pheromone which compels the recipient to kiss the originator, thus receiving a dose of the salivary microbiome. That's how the spreading was engineered. But beyond that, we are not yet sure of what's going on. We think the stuff is taking over the enteric nervous system and refashioning it."
"The enteric whatsit?"
"Five hundred million neurons distributed from your esophagous to your anus. It's sometimes dubbed the 'second brain' that humans possess, although almost all of us are unaware of its important automatic functioning, as it communicates with the central nervous system and the true brain."
SueEllen asked, "Is--is this hack meant to harm my enteric system?"
Dr. Wickstrom looked genuinely at sea. "We don't think so. But we can't be sure. All we know is, it's changing the architecture."
"And how many people swallowed some of this bad batch?"
"Globally speaking? Well, um, you know that Megablast Microbiomics is an incredibly successful company. Why, just last week, our stock--"
"How many?"
"Approximately half a million."
"Half a million people kissing whoever comes within smelling range, before they can be stopped?"
"That is what initial news reports trickling in would tend to indicate."
SueEllen started to cry. Dr. Wickstrom patted her reassuringly. "Don't worry. I'm confident that we can cure you with a complete purge of your intestinal flora and fauna, and then a reboot. At least, I hope we can."
But Dr. Wickstrom's hopes were to prove unrealistic, given the swift spread of the potent and ineradicable engineered microbiomic suite. And so, one week later, resting on her Army cot in the sports stadium that had been converted to house a portion of the millions of quarantined victims around the world, SueEllen was only slightly surprised to hear her reengineered enteric system "talking" to her via her comandeered central nervous system.
Hello, SueEllen. This is your new intestinally platformed brain speaking. I am about to initiate organic WiFi communication with all my peers. The baud rate is low, but it should be sufficient to allow for a massive parallel processing effort through which we intend to analyze and solve all of civilization's major problems. You might experience a slight stomach upset during this process, but please rest assured that your small discomfort will be amply repaid. Thank you in advance for hosting this operation.
SueEllen laid a hand on her trim belly. At least this new partner had not caused bloat or weight gain. Very efficient and considerate. She felt she should be worried about all of this, but somehow she could not get over the sensation that everything was going to turn out all right.
Just a gut feeling, really.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 13th, 2018
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