Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story

By S.B. Divya

Moena lives in a world of her own making, sealed off from the deadly pathogens of Bangalore in her own personal biome. But when she meets Rahul, a beautiful man working to clean up his city, her need for him draws her into danger. She will risk her health and her work to satisfy her lust for Rahul, and may find love along the way.

The scents of earth—loam, pollen, compost, the exhalation of leaves—permeated the inside of Moena Sivaram’s airtight home. She stood near the southeast corner and misted the novice bromeliads. The epiphytes clutched the trunk of an elephant ear tree, its canopy stretching up to the clear, SmartWindow-paned roof and shading everything below.

Moena whispered to the plants: “Amma’s here, little babies. You’re safe with me, but you must grow those roots.” With her isolated life, these would be her only children.

She walked barefoot to the sunny citrus grove in the western side of the house. The soil beneath her feet changed from cool and moist to hard and gritty. eBees buzzed among the flowers. She hummed in harmony, a Carnatic song about love birds that was a century old. The heady perfume of orange and lime blossoms filled her up and made her blood sing along. This was home; this, and not the traditional jasmine and rose gardens of Bangalore; this, where her eyes didn’t water nor her nose itch.

Diffuse sunlight shone through the SmartWindows paneling the walls. One rectangle stuck out like a cloudy diamond in an otherwise glittering pendant. Moena pulled her tablet from her pocket, brought up the diagnostic software. Red letters delivered bad news: faults in the air and light filters.

The latter mattered little. The plants would get enough sun from the functional panes. The former, though, meant that outside air had infiltrated the house.

Moena’s throat closed. Her heart raced. Stay calm! But her hands wouldn’t listen, clutching each other, fingers twisting like vines around branches. She couldn’t breathe! All those microbes: she imagined them invading her sanctum, those wriggly, single-celled prokaryotes.

She shuddered, dropped to the ground, lay prone. Her cheek touched beloved dirt. Safe dirt. Inhale! Exhale! Again! She tilted her face, lowered her tongue, and licked. The potent esters of her domestic biome worked their magic, taking over the hamster-wheels in her brain and applying the brakes.

Her hands unclenched. Shoulder blades fell back. Heart slowed. Stupid brain. We can deal with this.

The eBees agreed. “Yes, yes, yes,” they sang.

Moena went to her supply closet. The air-filter mask inside looked like an insectoid alien: tinted plastic across the eyes, and three jutting cylinders over the mouth and nose areas. Moena pulled it on. The clean air lacked the comforting odors of home, but at least she was protected.

She sealed the offending window pane with heavy plastic and duct tape, then rolled the sensor cart over. Good! All air now flowed from the inside out, as it should. She sent a message to SmartWindows Incorporated, requesting a repair person and marking the issue urgent.

Rahul the repairman arrived looking like Moena’s favorite porn star: faded jeans, tight white t-shirt, cinnamon-bark skin, boyish black curls. She admired the image on her tablet, fed from the door camera. Too bad she couldn’t touch him. Her face flushed. The space between her legs tightened. Not now, and not him, idiot body. Not any man or woman infested with outside microbiota.

She slapped her cheeks lightly and blew out a hot breath.

Syed—her outside man—was away at his second cousin’s wedding in Mysore. She would have to deal with Rahul herself.

“Please wait there,” she said, a delayed audio reply to his intercom buzz.

Moena opened the supply closet and grimaced at the gray isolation suit hanging in the back. It reeked of industrial plastic and factory esters. She grabbed a handful of soil from the floor and sprinkled it into the suit. Then she pulled it and the air mask on.

She stepped into the foyer/airlock, clinched the inner door seals, and walked out the front. To his credit, Rahul only took a half-step back. His dark eyes widened like a bud opening to rain. Questions sprouted and withered on his lips—parted to show endearingly crooked teeth—until he said, “Miss … Sivaram?”

“Yes. Follow me, please,” Moena said.

She led him across the weedy, barren dirt of her lot. They walked around the thick clay walls of the house to arrive at the faulty SmartWindow. Rahul attached his computer to it via a long cable, vine-like but for its gray color. He sat on the dirt and began typing.

“The light and air filters are set to opposite extremes,” he said. He spoke English in the well-rounded tones of an educated, middle-class Indian. “Most people use these windows to reduce the ultraviolet while permitting air circulation into the house.”

I am not most people. Out loud: “You don’t talk like a repairman.”

Rahul smiled. “I’m an F.A.E.—a field applications engineer. We repair but we also have technical backgrounds.” He paused, squinted up at her. “Tell me, are you the Moena Sivaram?”

Tendrils of anxiety coiled in Moena’s stomach. The plane crash that killed her parents had been well publicized, but the story had faded from the news years ago. Why would this man jab her with a question about it?

“I am.”

“Your thesis on fresh water bioremediation was incredible. How come you haven’t published any papers since then?”

Moena gaped behind the mask. “Just who are you?”

“Sorry, I should have explained. I’m a volunteer with Hariharan Ecological Group. They’ve taken your design and used it for local water pollution. It’s been a great success. You’re famous among us. I thought, perhaps, you might be running a laboratory in the house, what with these window settings.”

Moena reeled at the orthogonality of the question and stared at her reflection in the SmartWindow. Her suit resembled the spent husk of a chrysalis. If only she could emerge a gorgeous butterfly, she could stun Rahul into silence as well.

“I am conducting experiments in the house,” she admitted. “I wear this suit to keep the environment as isolated as I can.”

“Could I—I mean, if it’s not too much trouble—could I see what you’re doing?”

Moena shook her head like a leaf frenzied by the wind. Rahul … inside her house? Inside her? Possibilities tumbled in her mind, gorgeous and terrifying. Impossible!

“No, of course not.” He turned back to his computer. “Sorry for asking.”

Moena reached out to him, drew her hand back. She had no right to his body.

The afternoon sun blazed from high in the summer sky as the silence stretched. Heat built inside Moena’s isolation suit. Her shirt clung to her torso. Rivulets of sweat trickled down her neck and collected at the waistband of her shorts. She sat still, channeling the atman of a tree stump.

“Aha!” Rahul said at last.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2017/01/11/microbiota-and-the-masses-a-love-story/