"Big Germs" — short fiction by Rudy Rucker

Zoe sits on the steps behind her family's house. Her dog Bowser lies flopped on the damp earth. It's April in California. Zoe savors the neighborhood sounds, copying her sensations and comments to an uvvy patch on the back of her neck. 

Zoe is making a tangle, based on sights, smells, sounds, and memory flashes. The process? She elaborates her inputs into a virtual quilt. And then, to make it a tangle, she wraps a flow around the quilt. The flow is a network of links or, looked at another way, it's like the script of a film.

Once you've got your tangle you teep it to someone wearing an uvvy. The tangle settles in and—the user gets a sampling of your memories, yens, and dark dreams. And it's never quite the same. A tangle has a mind of its own.

Zoe's early tangles were abstract, the style like high-tone gallery art.  Sounds, not words; shapes, not things. Her tangles resembled silk scarves inside dusty suitcases. Open the lid, and Zoe's visions afloat.

And then Zoe changed her style. She started collaborating on her tangles with her pal Bix.  More ironic now, more commercial. Barbie Doll houses, Ukrainian Easter eggs, Mondrian paintings. Cheery, antic, off-kilter. Fun.

But all that was then, and this is now. Thing is—three months ago, a school shooter murdered Zoe's younger brother Nick. Nick with his shrill voice, his many opinions, his skinny, lively legs—eternally active, except when he'd sink for hours into hand-drawing levels for imagined video games. He liked to pretend he was a superhero, leaping at Zoe from a perch atop the couch. But none of that kept him safe.

After the murder, Zoe kept obsessing that there was something she could have done. Like keeping Nick home from school that day, not that she could have known the day, but what if? Or at the very least, she could have helped Nick dream up a strategy for escaping shooters.  

Zoe had nightmares, and she cried a lot while she was awake. The grief surging at her like a foul, oily wave. She felt guilty about all the times she could have been nice to Nick, but hadn't been. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

She got into such a state that for a month she blanked out. Lay in bed all day staring at the wall. Frozen. Finally her friend Bix had jolted her loose by snaking the garden house in through Zoe's window and seriously drenching her.

"Hydrotherapy!" Bix had cried, with her face a mask of forced joviality. "Be happy!" With her eyes full of tears.

It made Zoe feel sorry for Bix. Sorry for someone other than Nick and herself. And that was a start. She got better. But let it be said that Zoe's Mom never really did forgive Bix about the damage to the bed and the carpeting. Not that Mom wasn't glad to have Zoe back. "But did you really have to use the garden hose? On top of everything else?"

Bix convinced Zoe to get back to making tangles with her. A good move. The tangles obscured the looming specter of raw grief. Working on art has a way of driving off the other thoughts.

 Zoe and Bix worked their way back to making semi-pro tangles. The latest one was Dough Ray Me—about a sun god made of cookies. Very pretty, very happy-dust, very meh. Zoe regretted it.

Bix was saying they could workshop Dough Ray Me at today's Sound Off jam in downtown San Jose. Not far from their yup burb Los Perros.

But Zoe's thinking that if they're going to the Sound Off, they ought to bring something better. That's what she's doing sitting on the back steps. Make something cool. A crooked kraken creeping from a crypt.  And who knows how. Just start it and finish it. 

Zoe believes that if you're really tuned in, the synchronicity feeds you the clues you need. It's like the Muse says hi, and the world collaborates. Zoe can feel her mind bathing the neighborhood like heavy sunbeams.

A car drives past. An assassin. The wind in the trees: the universal mind, unheard. The jabber of the neighbor's gnome-bot. Vision of a periwigged colonial gent snipping the gun amendment out of the Constitution. A woman coos to her quacky tot. Her ponytail is a fountain of tears. Birds in the hedge,  triangular beak-cheeps, a bullet factory. A carpenter hammers a nail; the blows rise in pitch. The killer rakes his fire across Nick's thin chest. Sodden blurts of blood. The sad boy's final cry—cut off. Too much? Leave it in. People need to feel it. End with coroner samples of Nick's blood cells, ultra-high-res loops of the live cells jiggling.

"Yo, Zo!"  Enter Bix, shyly smiling.

Zoe draws a deep breath. "Greetings, comrade," she says, in the light tone they use together. "What news from the front?"

"We're in! I demoed Dough Ray Me to the gatekeeper. She slobbered over it. Your back-story helps. We'll show it this afternoon. First session of the Sound Off workshop!"

 "Plucky gals in tangle tango," says Zoe, talking weird for her recording. "Come none, come tall."

Bix pauses, assessing the situation. "You're starting a new tangle?"

"We can't use Dough Ray Me," says Zoe. "It's vapid. Like an ad for moolk. If I'm showing at this jam. I want to stink."

"I hear you, girl. But—do you think we can finish a whole new tangle in the next three or four hours?"

"I'm amassing clips, hooks, and scabs as we speak," goes Zoe. "My quilt billows. Almost done.  Five minutes long. This sad old world is beautiful. As for your side of things, I'm thinking we use the same flow you made for Dough Ray Me."

"Use the same flow twice?" cries Bix. "You don't understand flow at all. Showy strutter that you are. Leg-kicking Vegas Rockette."

"Your pique is counterpoint to my torque," goes Zoe.


"Now for the quilt's final patch," says Zoe, unperturbed.  "Bowser!"

As he awakens, the old dog begins scratching his neck, same as usual. His rear leg thuds repeatedly against the damp ground. Zoe nods to the beat, digging it. Bowser staggers to his feet and does a full-body shake, flapping his ears against his head.

"Lucious," murmurs Zoe. "It's a metaphor, Bix. And yes, I do grasp that you'll need to change your flow a little. But less than you imagine. Everything fits. Always."

Bix is getting curious. "The fleas are the victims, and Bowser's the school killer?"

"The fleas are the guns," says Zoe. "And Bowser is our tangle. The Nick tangle. We'll be the horsemen of the catalyst. Terrorizing the gun fiends."

"Would be nice," says Bix.

 Zoe raises her hands, as if addressing a crowd. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. The long nightmare ends." She opens her mouth wide and wheezes from the back of her throat, emulating a cheering crowd.

"Brave little trumpeter, you," goes Bix, pacing back and forth. "But how does the Nick tangle do anything real? It's just sounds and shapes. Visions and vibes. Yes, a tangle is alive, and it spawns copies of itself. But—it destroys guns—how?"

"Nick's blood cells are inside the tangle," says Zoe. "I copped nanoscale lab videos. Add a few touches, and the simmie cells will morph into true slime warriors for our cause. A cell is as smart as a human, you know. Wolfram's Law of Computational Equivalence."

"Pile on the bullshit and keep a straight face," says laconic Bix. "I want to believe. Say more about how your simmies will morph into matter?"

Zoe looks uneasy, maybe even embarrassed. "Okay, right, we'll get help. From, um, someone at the show?"

"We're on at four with Schrank, I Did Not, and the two Swillies. They're sisters."

"Schrank is teen horror," says Zoe, thinking it over.  "I Did Not is fun with mirrors. Never seen the Swillies live. Are they dank?"

"Tingling tent-worms. Puddles of smeel."

"We join forces with them," says Zoe. "They'll dig your wry, crab-sideways flow."

Bix thinks for a minute, then nods. "Why not. We act like morons and wrap your Nick quilt in my Dough Ray Me flow and see what the fuck happens."

The women sit side by side on the back steps, running the fused Nick tangle, in full teep contact. The tangle feels like it's much longer than five minutes. It's hella dank.

"Queen of quilts," says Bix, elbowing her pal. "Sometimes finds even the blind hand an acorn."

This is a saying the girls like. It comes from Bix's self-effacing Hungarian grandmother, who says it, not without irony, whenever she gets something right.

"Note that the tangle will is a little different every time it runs," says Zoe. "You know how they are. Not a circle, but an upward helix. Tangles evolve. For sure the simmies of Nick's blood cells will learn to do a no guns thing. And then, by god, they'll turn real."

"Visualize, realize, actualize," says Bix.  "Blind hand. Ball lightning. Those blood cells are truly Nick's? Tres sick. We'll pep them up, yes."

The women touch their heads together for a deeper level of teep. Bix shapes her flow into a sculpted river with bulges. Not a flat river, you understand, an intricately knotted loop in space.

Zoe cannonballs a virtual Nick into one of the river's bulges. Then another and another. The dog-paddling Nicks whoop and wave. Bix and Zoe channel mental energies around the loop. It glows like lazy neon. And, yes, the grisly blood cells are morphing into kindly, cozy microorganisms. Paramecia and amoebas. The little Nicks whistle to them. They tumble like a cheer squad.

"Big germs," says Zoe.

"I wouldn't exactly call them germs," protests Bix. "Don't germs have to be bacteria?"

"Any small critter is a germ," insists Zoe.  "Colloquial usage."

"Whatever you say," goes Bix. "Quilt queen Z. You started out with a baby carriage, a ripped Constitution, some birds in a bush, a carpenter, and blood cells. And look now! Sometimes finds even the blind hand—"

"Oh shut up with that. Tell me more about this shindig we're going to."

The Sound Off workshop is in the San Jose civic auditorium, a 1930s building styled as if made of adobe, with creamy curves and arches. The arena's wooden floor has tables and stools, with, um, only a hundred attendees, and maybe two hundred more in the low, smooth, adobe benches along the walls.

Tangles aren't yet a popular art form. You need to be wearing an uvvy to view them, and a lot of people are paranoid about having a biotweaked sea slug on the back of their neck.

"Little does this raggedy-ass crowd know that our demo of the Nick tangle will be historic," Zoe says to Bix as they walk into the arena. Trying to swagger,

"Little do we know," says Bix. "Don't glare at me, girl. I'm totally with you. I'm rational, is all."

The Schrank crew are dressed in Goodwill chic. Non-binary, like shaggy cartoons. Three of them. They raise their arms for attention and the crowd quiets. Everyone's uvvy picks up a bombastic trumpet fanfare, as if for some primeval rock show.  And then the users get their Schrank tangle downloads. It's called Granny Goose. Sounds playful, but it's not.

Zoe sees, or senses, or is in a dim room with an antique mahogany wardrobe. Dull varnish and a zillion drawers. It's up to her to explore. She picks a drawer in the middle. It's full of writhing maggots with human faces. Ick.

"My schoolmates," says a voice-over. The tone is somber, meditative. "Who would have known that—"

"We'll take the  next drawer over," interrupts Zoe. 

This one holds a Garden of Eden. It's pastoral, with glass skyscrapers along the horizon, not really skyscrapers, more like medieval fever dreams. In the garden are Adam, Eve, and Jesus with a halo. Pale, wispy figures by a little blue stream.

Zoe has Adam's point of view. Jesus extracts a loaf of bread from the center of his chest, beaks open the loaf and—oh shit—those same human-faced maggots come pouring out.

"Let's float up," suggests Bix, who's inside Eve, right next to Zoe.

A harp zings, and the women are in the mild blue sky, wearing their normal bodies, but far from alone. Flocks of flagellates and ciliates swoop and wheel like starlings at dusk. Giant microbes.  Zoe feels these are her creations, engendered by her hi-def animated images of Nick's blood cells.

Down below them, Adam and Eve are killing a snake while Jesus cheers them on.

The lights go out and the audience applauds. Zoe looks around the hall, wondering if the others had seen what she did? Hard to be sure. She doesn't want to ask.

"I thought it was icky," is all she says to Bix. "Except for the flock of big germs. It's like we contaminated the tangle."

"But what was Jesus doing in there?" says Bix. "Was it supposed to be a Christmas card or what?"

The next presentation comes from the I Did It group. Two of the crew are male gender and two female, with four identical bobs of blonde hair. They do a little routine in the center of the arena, marching in place, and swinging their wigs back and forth. And then their tangle settles in. It's called Offshore.

Zoe and Bix are Polynesians in an outrigger canoe with a basket of coconuts between them. The hull of a two-masted schooner looms overhead. A whaler. Two crew members lean over the taffrail, gesturing. One of them proffers a roll of calico cloth, the other a spool of shiny ribbon.

"Come woo us!" yells Bix, just to get something going.

As in a dream, the outrigger becomes a large bed, rocking on the sea. Zoe and Bix wear lengths of brightly patterned cloth around their shoulders, and their hair is adorned with bows. The men are shirtless, quite handsome. They're brandishing mirrors.

And now the sex begins. Or no, it doesn't. The outrigger mattress is pitching and yawing too hard. Also nobody's interested in sex anyway. Mirrors are the thing, mirrors on every side, with double and triple reflections.

The teep and the mirrors promote a sense of merge. All is One in the glass. Zoe is thinking about the protozoa saw in the last tangle. And sure enough, here they are again, translucent and gleaming, bigger than dogs. Nuzzling the sailors.

"They're more detailed now," says Bix. "That's thanks to me. I'm polishing their genes." She cracks open one of the thin-shelled young coconuts, and offers it to the paramecia. They're wild about the slimy meat.

"There's got to be a way to teach them to destroy guns," Zoe says to Bix.

"I'm almosting it," she responds.

The huge, obnox blast of a horn ends the session.  Applause in the hall, less than before. The infected tangles don't make sense.

"Our turn now," goes Bix. "First us, and then the Swillies."

"I'm anxious," says Zoe. "I have a feeling that, compared to the Swillies, we're kids with ukeleles. And they're Tawny Krush with the Kazakhstan Guitar Army."

"Who's that?" goes Bix.

"Bless you my child," goes Zoe, sweetening her voice.  "May you never grow old."

"I'm only a month younger than you," snaps Bix. "Fool."

Zoe ignores that. "Are you ready?" she shouts to the crowd.

"Ready for Nick?" echoes Bix, right with it.

The friends get into a back-and-forth chant. At first it's out loud, but as they send the Nick tangle to the users, they switch to teep, and it's not even clear who's saying what.

"Nick's dead."

"He lives!"

"In our tangle."

"The bangle-wangle!"

"A killer shot him!"

"We're gonna take the guns away."

"We'll grow big germs."

"We're gonna take the guns away."

The tangle kicks in. It's similar to the show that Bix and Zoe designed, but—more edgy and jittery. The stage fright is in there, and the dread of seeing Nick die again.

The big germs are busy in the tangle, more of them than ever, blobs on every side. Zoe teeps Help Nick as the killer appears. And, yes, as the assassin raises his assault weapon, a paramecium channels a bright beam that crumbles the misshapen rifle into bright dust. And with that, this run of the Nick tangle ends.

Zoe is agog. Their plan—it can work! The hall fills with cheers for the brave save. And under all that are—bellows of anger? Yes, it's a pair of gun lovers. Low crude beasts with moronic slogans on their T-shirts. One has a beard, the other is bald.

Are Bix and Zoe going to be safe? Odd that Zoe hasn't thought to worry about this before. She's been so blindly sure of her triumph. But, at least for now, the haters aren't coming for her.

"We're with you," says a tall woman with flapper-style helmet-hair. The leader of the Swillie duo. "I'm Long Sue."

A small, intent woman stands next to Sue. Her lips twitch, but she doesn't talk. 

"We want to move the big germs into the physical world," Bix tells Long Sue.

"Actualize them," adds Zoe.

"We know," says Long Sue. "We teeped all your plans when you got here. And, yes girls, we Swillies have the upgrade."

"You're nimble," says the admiring Bix.

Before Long Sue can say more, the smaller Swillie punches Sue's stomach as hard as she can. With a practiced twist of her body, Sue evades the full force of the blow.

"My kid sister," says Sue. "Jeen. Don't expect her to talk out loud. She's past the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Anyway, get this, Jeen's new tangle isn't actually a tangle. It's—"

Jeen clobbers Sue again, harder than before.

"She doesn't want me to ruin her big surprise!" says Sue, laughing off the pain. "Here we go!"

The new Swillie tangle spreads to everyone's uvvies. Zoe sees a movie marquee, with a title in lights. Saint Nick. A heavy stage curtain hangs from the marquee.

An elfin chorus sounds—and the curtain opens.

Zoe and the others imagine themselves to be walking through the opening—and then they're in the San Jose civic auditorium, same as before, right where they started, and they're not watching a tangle anymore.

Yes, they're back in the actual real world—but wait. Something's changed. Scores of big germs are bumbling around, mostly paramecia. Live, translucent mini-blimps the size of hogs. Physically present. Very highly detailed, with nuclei, mitochondria, ribosomes, cytoskeletons—and some spiral organelles that glow.

For no good reason, one of the big germs darts forward and slips its mouth over Zoe's head. The mouth is like a pouch in the critter's side. Zoe beats her fists against the floating jelly bag. She tries to scream, but it's muffled.

The big germ's outer surface is coated with slimy fur, or no, coated with cilia. Zoe can see the cilia without using her eyes. Teep. The beating cilia reminds her of tall grass in a breezy field. A second big germ latches onto Bix's head. Somehow—even in these dire straits—the attack on Bix makes Zoe laugh.

"Oo gloob-a-gloob," says Zoe's big germ.

"Ufga floop," says Bix's.

"Talk English," says Zoe.

"Or use teep," goes Bix.

"We're present in your reality," says a blurry voice in Zoe's mind. "I'm Franklin."

"I'm Eleanor." says the other big germ. "It's surprising that you meat bags are as smart as us. Good for you."

"My understanding is that you want to get rid of guns?" says Franklin, still perched atop Zoe. "Easily done. We'll decohere them."

"I don't like having my head in your mouth," says Zoe. "Why do you have to do that?"

"Makes our teep exchange stronger," says Franklin.

"Don't fear that we'll digest you," says Eleanor in a reassuring tone. If, that is, telepathy from a giant paramecium can be reassuring.

By now Jeen and Long Sue have big germs on their heads too. Silly and laughable, but at the same time it's scary. The four humans hold hands in a circle. The big germs hum to them via teep, with cascades of images flying by. A vision of things to come.

Zoe heaves a deep sigh. This is going to be okay. This is going to work.

The audience of course has no idea what's going on. They're cringing away from the pullulating big germs. As a matter of fact, they're leaving the building. And the two jerks who yelled are, how typical, pointing pistols at Zoe and Bix.

Jeen teeps to the big germs, and Zoe watches the signal go by. It sounds like an elf chorus, and it means, "Sic 'em."

 Big germ Franklin projects a jittery beam of energy that zings the men's pistols into dust. Just like in the virtual reality of the Nick tangle. But this happens in the real world. The big germs are fully actualized.

The disarmed guys run toward Zoe, fists clenched. Big germ Eleanor takes her turn. A sizzle runs across the men's bodies. They wet their pants, howl "Ki-yi-y!", and run outside like frightened dogs. How satisfying.

The San Jose civic auditorium is deserted except for Zoe, Bix, and the pair of Swillies. Plus the big germs on their heads. The big germs lift themselves free. The humans slump to the ground, as if asleep. Their minds are now tuned into the roving germs' feeds.

Zoe sees Franklin's jellied shape around her self-image. As if she's riding in a wobbly god's-eye. And Bix's is inside Eleanor nearby. They exit the hall, with the Swillies' minds in two big germs as well.

Thousands of big germs are on the loose outside. An insane crowd of humans swells by the second. Wild rumors fly. People aren't sure what's what, but they want to witness.  They cheer, chant, bray, pray, and scream.

"How far will your big germs spread?" Zoe asks Franklin.

Nimbly Franklin and Eleanor connect the women's vision to an orbiting spy satellite. Looking down, Zoe and Bix see big germs as pinpricks of light. The germs spread across the planet with exponential speed—infecting every available uvvy with the Saint Nick portal. Big germs bubble forth from each uvvy, unstoppable, like water from an unseen global pool.

Looking away from Earth, Zoe and Bix admire the exquisite spangles of interstellar space. And, more than that, they see the paisley seething of the all-pervading subspace whence the big germs have come. Exquisite manna for the soul.

The rattle of automatic weapons fire snaps them back. They hover in their big germs above the now-tripled crowd in San Jose. Passions run high. The word is out: big germs will end guns.

Bix and Zoe had their minds in space for longer than they realized. Aggrieved militias are marching in, weapons raised. They're blazing away at the big germs, as if hunting ducks. This doesn't last long. In a concerted effort, the big germs ooze out a blanket of summer lightning that settles onto crowd, coalescing  into nodules that find each and every weapon, sizzling them into coruscating dust.

Cries of impotent fury.

The next wave of protest is a squadron of killer drones, heading toward the entrance of the San Jose civic auditorium, bent on destroying the four comatose humans within. Zoe notices an image of Jeen within a big germ nearby. She sings an elf-song, and a many-branched thunderbolt zaps all the drones at once.

A tasty zzzt. Bright dust falls.

Escalating waves of attacks roll in. The big germs are nimble, implacable, and for real. They zap metal guns, plastic guns, grenades, artillery, helicopter gunships, fighter planes—the works.

The big germs take the invasion as a to-do list of things to eliminate. They teep the news to their fellows worldwide. All that shit-nasty crap is gone before long.

Meanwhile the day has turned to night. And here comes one last attack, something reallly large, plummeting down from a great height. It's an H-bomb that some wack war-monger is delivering C.O.D. to poor old San Jose.

Zoe, Bix, and the two Swillies get to deliver the zap for this one. They have the hang of it by now.

Fa-toom. An exceedingly large amount of decontaminated pixie dust drifts down.

"Oh, lord, that felt good," goes Zoe.

While the big germs get busy eliminating all the other nukes worldwide, the four humans return to the now-sacred confines of the San Jose civic auditorium—and rouse their bodies.

"How will people live without the joy of killing others at a distance?" asks Bix.

"Thoughtfully," says Zoe. "In kindness."

"And if the aggro idiots can't handle that, they can fight each other with clubs and knives and fists," suggests Long Sue. "Same as before."

"What if they drag the rest of us into it?" goes Bix.

"Not so easy anymore," says Zoe.

Jeen sounds an elf-chorus tone that means, I can still tweak the big germs.

"Wouldn't want to go too far," says Long Sue. "Don't want a namby-pamby police state. Not a goody-goody kindergarten."

"Bix and I will keep things loose," puts in Zoe.  "We're nasty."

High five.

Rudy Rucker is a writer and a mathematician who worked for twenty years as a Silicon Valley computer science professor. Rucker is regarded as contemporary master of science-fiction, and received the Philip K. Dick awards for his cyberpunk novels Software and Wetware.