T was a normal kid, albeit with a somewhat large family. It perhaps wasn’t so unusual for the time. His mother called him T for short; she had to keep track of 8 others, so complex multi-syllabic names were not really going to work. Age doesn’t do much for your memory, as you probably know already. All the kids hovered around their mother, as if attracted by some invisible force of nature. She seemed to enjoy the attention. She was bright, fiery and radiant. They needed her to maintain balance and to find direction in the big old frightening universe.
T’s siblings were of various ages and sizes, and as such, pretty much all kept to their own business. Like his siblings, though, he went through many phases of development. Some were awkward, some were unpleasant, and others were rather fine experiences.
Like any being, T also supported a slew of organisms and bacteria upon himself. To some extent, he must have known this was the case, but I suppose it’s not something you pay much attention to most of the time. During puberty and all the hormonal changes that go with it, T seemed to have some problems with temperature fluctuation. Alternating between extreme hot and cold, T was somewhat sickly in his earlier years, especially compared with his oldest brother, who had always been a mighty beast. There always seems to be one – the guy who has it all: looks, charisma, strength and a nonchalance that somehow made him irresistible. His eldest sister was similarly fortunate. She was the prettiest girl that T had ever laid eyes upon, and apparently this went for most other people too. She had a flurry of followers jumping for her attention at all times, like moths to a flame. Her shiny rings and bangles caught the eye of every observer.
But T was special in his own way. He had a burning hot core, but kept a cool head. He was the most accommodating of them all, although he didn’t much realise this himself. Because of his relative quietness, he spent most of his time with Looner, his pet.
When you do stop to think about the organisms that cover your body (you are forgiven if you don’t do this often), you might consider the relationship to be somewhat symbiotic. Like the cleaner wrasse munches all the nasty stuff on larger fish, some of your bacteria seem to live fairly happily in your presence. You give them a nice home and they do their best to keep it in good shape. Like yin and yang, a balance is created whereby excess resource is a nuisance for one party, but a gift for the other. For years, this was the situation for T and his inhabitants. Although they were not consciously aware that this was the case, something of a ‘circle of life’ was in operation. Mother would provide nourishment to T, which would allow T to grow and flourish. A healthy T meant a healthy biome for his parasites. Over time, he grew older and stronger, overcoming his early illnesses.
T’s health had been magnificent and stable for some time now. Because of this, one particular strain of his resident organisms had also been able to flourish and reproduce fruitfully. The organisms were not just maintaining the status quo any more. These guys had become T’s pit crew. As long as T was kept happy, the organisms seemed to enhance him. They had connected up networks and created new nerve centres. They were able to use hairs as building blocks and devised methods for growing new ones. They’d found ways of covering vast distances to move to bits of T that not even T could reach (one of the serendipitous consequences of this was that T never suffered from an itch ever again because it was scratched before the itch even registered).
T and Looner both had great imaginations and a playful innocence about them. In one of their favourite games, T would look up and face his mother whilst Looner hid behind him, completely out of view. He would then pop out of nowhere and give mother a short fright. They also tried to do this the other way around on occasion too, but as you would expect, being about 50 times the size of his pet, T was a little more difficult to hide entirely. Still, his juices would often slosh around at the excitement from all the fun and games. Even the organisms seemed to get a kick out of it themselves, wondering whether some strange mystical force was at work in the yonder, causing these bizarre sudden movements and occurrences.
Time cantered along.
The dominant organisms continued to grow wiser to their environment. They survived on simpler organisms with whom they shared T’s person. An intricate web, a fusion of science and nature they had created. As they evolved, their curiosity as to who and where they were grew, burning fiercely at their core like T. Unlike T though, they were not satisfied with stasis. Like all organisms, they had a very simple yet strong biological need to dominate and excel in their surroundings.
With any quest or motive, there will always be unintended consequences. T was a finite being. He couldn’t support an infinite variety or number of organisms. As the dominants grew exponentially more powerful and intelligent in relation to the other organisms, they ended up eliminating many other strains entirely. This is the natural order of life, you understand. The fittest and most adaptable organisms survive; inferior ones cannot cope and become extinct. However, on occasion, some of the organisms that were wiped out, although not strong, were quite helpful to T’s well-being. Some, for example, lived off particles and smaller bacteria that emitted rather foul smells, ensuring T maintained his pine-fresh scent.
T, though, didn’t complain much when he developed issues like a chronic unpleasant odour and what seemed like some form of halitosis. The benefits he had been feeling from all the new life and optimisation of resources the dominant strain had brought about quite comfortably outweighed those little negatives. In any case, his siblings were too caught up in their own lives to notice, and Looner’s adoration for T was unconditional.
Unfortunately, the magnifying glass often showed less harmony. The dominants, having asserted themselves upon T, had split into sub-strains. Some came from lower down T’s body, and others were from near the top. Because of the abundant spread of life, a lot of these sub-strains had never encountered one another. As a consequence, many saw each other as threats and decided that they should conquer the other strain to claim T’s body for themselves. Although some of the wiser old cells realised this, the lack of any inter-generational history meant that most of the organisms naively saw versions of themselves with even slight variations as threats to their survival. There was little appreciation or thought given to the fact that they may once have originated from the same small cluster of primordial life, and that the future was there for all to share.
Time galloped on.
The infighting of the dominants had made T worse for wear. In destroying each other, the organisms had inadvertently damaged much of their environment. T would be sluggish and bedridden for extended periods of time, and this inevitably took its toll on the organisms too. More and more weaker strains were rendered extinct, and the dominants were deprived of adequate food and a hospitable environment. Something, they realised, had to change.
Although the occasional power struggle between essentially selfish organisms was inevitable, the dominants soon sussed that they needed to play nice with one another in order to survive. They began to organise themselves much more logically. More senior and experienced beings took the lead in directing and managing the activities of their locality. On the surface, this manifested itself in the occasional wolf-whistle directed T’s way and hushed comments about his buff appearance.
This era of relatively peaceful progress was fruitful for the dominants. It seemed that they had learnt to concentrate on the more important issues at hand: how to allocate patches of T and the food he provided to them via his excrement to the increasingly growing population. You see, when organisms aren’t killing each other, they tend to divide and reproduce most rapidly. They also managed to develop various new ways of utilising the resources they had to squeeze out every last drop. Some of the more adventurous ones even jumped from T to Looner and back again during one of their play sessions. Others had tried before, but failed to get close enough to Looner. Many were lost in the blackness of the abyss. The successful ones found that Looner wasn’t particularly pleasant to spend any extended period of time on, so no immediate efforts were made to repeat the feat.
Time raced into darkness.
T was seriously ill. The dominants had mutated and reproduced, unrecognisable from what they once were. They had lost sight of all other objectives. Overwhelming dominance is what they desired. It wasn’t a sudden change in perspective, of course. The underlying motivation had always been there. What they had created was a form of distraction, to channel themselves into something other than uncontrollable growth. But now, T was barren.
In their vast numbers, the dominants had no time for contemplation. It was kill or be killed – the primitive existence from which they once originated. They were a cancer. And thus, we come to understand that power is absolute, but its orientation is relative and expressly changeable. The same civilisation that had contributed so much to T’s health and well-being was now tearing him apart at the seams, piece-by-piece.
Looner noticed oddities during this time, though clearly didn’t realise that anything was going on as such. He often found he had to claw at himself. It felt like ticks. This irritation was, in fact, being caused by a few runaway organisms who realised they would not survive for long on T. But it was a fruitless endeavour, and all who tried eventually perished; the barren and murky wastelands failed to facilitate for strangers.
The tumours destroyed everything in their path. Different groups of dominants metastasised in different directions, and in obliterating one another, they were slowly grinding away at the very essence of T. Ironically, by trying to live forever, they were killing their home – the place that was keeping them alive. There was not even but a hair left upon T’s being. All moisture had dried up from within him. His skin oozed and blistered, hot red liquid spewing from the wounds of pillaging and plunder. There were still individuals on T that seemed to have avoided the mindless corruption and single focus. But to expect them to reverse the devastation of an uncontrollable army was asking too much. The wise reflections of a few were no match for the sheer force of many.
These dominant organisms, once so advanced in intellect and gifted in survival had gotten the better of themselves. Power begat power; greed begat greed. The once efficient systems they had created made successive generations so confident in their abilities that they kept consuming, kept growing without pause for thought. The majority had not faced any challenge for survival in an age, so indeed, what reason did they have to research new realms of optimisation and progression?
Inevitably, the day came when there was nothing left. The dominants had outsmarted themselves. Their seemingly perpetual growth machine had run out of fuel. The tumour had been cut off at the source. By this time, all inferior organisms had long perished. But now, the dominants too began to falter. The cancer regressed and receded. The organisms, once fruitful, successful and content had suffered from their own excesses.
T’s long howls of pain had become shorter, until they finally stopped. Though alive and burning at the core, he had transformed into a zombie; a shadow of his former self. His visage was unrecognisable. All essence and spirit had seemingly left, along with the microscopic life that had once accompanied him. Of all the history and progress the dominants had created for themselves, all the improvements they had made to T’s health and function – no trace or memory remained.
Was there a purpose to their presence? Would T have been better off if they had never been? Was that short, intermediate period of contentment worth the initial struggle for survival and the eventual capitulation? Did it really change anything in the grand scheme of things for T or his siblings?
T’s mother beamed on. It was the only thing left to do.