2004-present: Conclusion and Current Research Trends
The customs, inspection, and quarantine procedures put in place in 1969 to facilitate the reintegration of the United States and Canada with international travel and trade networks were among the few success stories giving hope that the plague could be brought under control. The first overseas outbreak did not occur until September, 1999, and it was suspiciously small in size, strangely sporadic, and highly localized, with casualties limited to the residents of individual apartment buildings in Moscow on September 9, 13, and 16. A fourth incident on September 22 was exposed by an off-duty bus driver who alerted local police after witnessing three men manhandling several shabbily dressed individuals (mistakenly identified as kidnapping victims because they were restrained and had plastic shopping bags over their heads) into the basement entrance of an apartment building in the town of Ryazan. By Halloween, the three men, branded CIA agents by state media, had reportedly committed suicide while in KGB custody; the bus driver who helped lead 19 people to safety had been posthumously declared a Hero of the Soviet Union; and Premiere Gorbachev had retired to his dacha after his political allies fell silent and Pravda began heaping praise upon KGB General Vladimir Putin for his supposed leadership in containing the outbreaks and apprehending the three suspects. By year’s end, both détente and Gorbachev were dead, and Putin was beginning to consolidate his position as head of state with a series of assassinations and show trials that would climax in 2004, when the Soviets seeded outbreaks in England to cover the exfiltration of Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB defector and vocal critic of Putin’s kleptocracy, in Okinawa to eliminate the largest American military outpost in Asia, and in the United States in hopes of landing a knockout blow (UK Home Office 2014).
While British authorities reacted swiftly and evacuated London in time to save the city, the Japanese government was initially lulled into complacency by Okinawa’s distance from the home islands. At the eleventh hour, it was decreed that the country’s nuclear power plants were to be defended at all costs as “the foundation stones upon which we will rebuild a modern industrial society”, and given a strategy — any strategy — the Japanese people made it work. The governments of the U.S.A. and Canada found years of military planning and training were suddenly inadequate, if not actually working against them, as the nature of the threat changed when the Soviets attacked with a new biological weapon in the heart of the continent.
The so-called “running dead” emerged without warning from the lake country of Wisconsin and proved so virulent in urban areas that Milwaukee descended into chaos literally overnight. National Guard units in Wisconsin failed to mobilize or were defeated in detail during deployment, as were three entrained Army brigades en route to their assigned redoubts that were retasked to support the evacuations in Chicago and Minneapolis after Milwaukee went dark. The armed forces were shocked by the unprecedented speed and aggression of the enemy and their swift emergence from an area where past outbreaks had spent their force against rough terrain and experienced militias who took pride in their ability to hold the line, freeing up Guardsmen and regulars for reclamation. But in the summer of 2004, this stronghold was the first area to fall, opening the way for the new variant undead to spread through Minnesota and break out into Manitoba and the plains states. As runners circled the Great Wall of Winnipeg like religious pilgrims gone mad and streamed out of Chicago and Minneapolis in search of prey, wild populations of undead across North America were gathering and descending on towns and cities throughout their range.
For once, though, the rising of the dead was almost welcome, as the broader outbreak limited the spread of the variant population. Not only were the variants denied a pool of victims as the civilian population retreated into redoubts, but where the new variant undead came into contact with typical ghouls, mutual hostility led to cross-contamination with the result that the variant microbiome was outcompeted by the original. Thus, runners attacking or feeding upon walkers became walkers and were attacked in their turn by other runners. The runners were self-limiting biological weapons, engineered to spread rapidly until they came into contact with wild ghouls and then die off almost as quickly to eliminate the risk of blowback. Interactions with walkers, over 30,000 of which were airdropped into afflicted states and provinces in vintage 1970s USAF parachute pods, are believed to have driven the variant population into extinction in the fall of 2004.
However, military losses at the beginning of the outbreak necessitated redeploying other units to cover their redoubts, resulting in further force attrition as columns were attacked in transit or reached their destination only to find the gates wide open and the civilians all turned. The loss of so many regulars early on left many redoubts critically short of troops, and a few were simply lost in the shuffle and left ungarrisoned. Lack of military resources to protect Civil Defense centers and convoys led to the chaotic collapse of evacuation efforts in several cities outside the area affected by the new variant undead, leaving nearby redoubts not only short of troops but half-empty of civilians, as well.
The grimmest moment of 2004 came on a sunny September day when Washington was overrun and the nation lost its first president of African descent, Colin Powell, and 29 minutes later his successor, President Gingrich. Though a certain amount of anarchy is expected during outbreaks, and to some extent even tolerated — troops involved in reclamation often find looters to be among their best sources of intelligence on the strength and recent movements of the enemy, for example — never before had rule of law collapsed across the eastern half of the United States, complete with multiple claimants to the Oval Office after many Republicans refused to recognize the presidency of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and the elected Democratic Representative of a liberal congressional district in California. Though President Pelosi won the popular vote in November, 2004, no path to 270 electoral votes existed with chaos in the eastern states precluding any possibility of holding valid elections there. As in 1968 and 1984, the presidential election was thrown to the House of Representatives, but so swiftly had the end come in D.C. that the House lacked a quorum. With Inauguration Day fast approaching and no transition team yet in place, the Supreme Court cut the Gordian Knot by in essence appointing George W. Bush to the presidency because the Republican candidate was acceptable to the pretenders in the East and would prevent the nightmare scenario of rival governments emerging and splitting the country.
The Bush administration was widely criticized for not putting enough boots on the ground and failing to plan for securing and rebuilding the eastern half of the country. Lax accounting and oversight facilitated the theft of billions of dollars, some of it from planeloads of cash sent into eastern cities to help jumpstart their economies but most of it through less visible fraud as contractors stepped in to fill gaps in security, transportation, construction, facilities management, and administration left open by the light military footprint. Complicating matters, where previous reclamations had proceeded in an orderly fashion from west to east with an emphasis on relieving redoubts as quickly as possible, the military instead made a dash by land, sea, and air to retake Washington, D.C., and then concentrated on securing military installations and civil infrastructure held by rival claimants to the presidency, leaving soldiers in fortified Green Zones and Forward Operating Bases dependent on long, precarious supply lines. Redoubts were stripped of their troops and received fewer and fewer supply drops as resources were diverted to sustain military operations. Many collapsed for lack of federal support, most notoriously in 2005, when New Orleans was lost to the dead following Hurricane Katrina, and in 2006, when at least 20,000 starvelings broke out of a redoubt in Cleveland and tried for Interstate 80, not 15 miles away, only for the few hundred emaciated, exhausted survivors to be gunned down by private contractors guarding the highway who claimed to have been unable to distinguish the living from the dead. Those redoubts that survived did so by systematically looting surrounding towns for food and supplies, often distracting the risen during raids with music, strobes, or fireworks to offset their numerical advantage.
Aside from “liberating” a few showcase cities, shoring up highway fortifications, and securing some abandoned redoubts for crops and pastures, the Bush administration showed little enthusiasm for reclamation – perhaps because they knew that confronting the Soviets could be put off so long as the nation was preoccupied with reclaiming its home territory, and that any such conflict would likely be a losing proposition given the military’s limited ability to project force and the deterioration of its remaining strategic assets since the détente of the 1990s, a yawning maintenance deficit Bush chose to ignore. Rather than securing reelection by securing the country, the easier path to victory in 2008 went through the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, conditions in the redoubts grew so poor that after Moscow’s most faithful client state fell to the undead in 2011, over the next few years the Miami Boatlift transported more than half a million desperate Americans to safety and freedom in Cuba, where entrepreneurial survivors were selling real estate to refugees as they reclaimed their island with machetes and screwdrivers. Bush’s successor in 2012, President Romney, didn’t even publicly announce his interest in the presidency until the Electoral College met in what was essentially a formality before the election was thrown to the House when no candidate could claim 270 electoral votes (Beschloss 2014).
The endless War on the Dead and the failure of two successive Republican administrations to reclaim and rebuild small cities and towns, securing Wall Street while ignoring Main Street, led to the Trump insurgency of 2016. Despite calling the election fraudulent because the president was really chosen in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of Congress, the populist Democrat won “the Red Wall” of the plains states by less than 80,000 votes, all told, along with Texas and Arizona. Trump charged the Bush and Romney administrations with using American troops as bargaining chips to bribe and bully Representatives from the eastern states into submission, threatening Democrats with their withdrawal and promising reinforcements to expand Green Zones in Republican districts. Trump’s repeated intimations that Bush made examples out of New Orleans and Cleveland were coded references to an internet conspiracy theory that the Republicans were withholding supplies and removing garrison troops from redoubts in and around majority-minority cities such as Atlanta, Memphis, and Philadelphia because Karl Rove’s plan for a permanent Republican majority called for the ethnic cleansing of minorities, liberals, and blue collar Democrats, and then the Republican Party would turn on the religious faithful and anyone else with a working moral compass before enslaving the survivors within Green Zones. Donald Trump’s erratic, improvisational campaign succeeded despite many gaffes, earnest calls for a peace treaty with the Soviet Union to end the Cold War, repeated assertions that NATO is obsolete in a world where zombies are the primary threat to national security, and his demand that Mexico tear down the wall that has protected its people since the mid-1980s.
Despite the difficulty of travel and the logistical challenges of accommodating so many visitors within the Washington Green Zone, a crowd of over 1.5 million cheered the new president as he promised to “eradicate the undead completely from the face of the Earth,” and that “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Spectators cheered even harder when Trump spontaneously deviated from his plan to walk the entire distance from the Capitol to the White House and waded into the friendly crowd, seeking out those who had been unable to find a spot on the Mall or along Pennsylvania Avenue and were literally partying in the city’s streets. These revelries easily doubled in size on Saturday and didn’t end until Sunday, when Trump won the internet by asking everyone to go home so the government could get back to work on Monday morning and then tweeting, “You darn kids....... Get off my lawn!” with a picture taken from atop the Washington Monument showing the massive Inauguration Day crowd filling the Mall. This enthusiasm waned and turned to anger within months as Trump stacked his cabinet with billionaires and generals and steadily tacked right to woo Republican crossover voters, failing to fulfill and then apparently abandoning key campaign promises such as single-payer health care and free college for all American students.
Commentators have suggested that a major reason why the public seemed to tolerate the dismally slow pace of reclamation during the Bush/Romney years was rapidly improving scientific understanding of the undead giving Americans reason to hope for the future. The problem of identifying “the zombie plague organism” had been reduced to tracing a biological process that proved to be analogous in some ways to inducing mature cells to revert to undifferentiated, pluripotent stem cells in vitro, though the mechanism causing these changes is initiated by hypoxia-inducible transcription factors previously associated with cancer growth and metastasis and achieves a vastly higher success rate, likely because DNA damage is necessary to the final outcome of a deterministic process rather than a barrier to the success of a stochastic process (reviewed by Takahashi and Yamanaka 2016). In response to low oxygen levels, hypoxia-inducible factors activate genes within a cell that switch it to an anaerobic metabolism and can induce it to become a cancer stem cell capable of seeding a new tumor elsewhere in the body. In cancerous tissue, hypoxia results from a tumor growing too large for its blood supply to keep it oxygenated; hypoxia-inducible factors are also released by healthy cells thrown into metabolic panic by low oxygen levels as they are overgrown by the bacteria of the undead microbiome. However, the genes that trigger cell death in response to DNA damage and hypoxia to prevent the emergence of cancers and the growth of tumors, p53 being the textbook example, are silenced or destroyed after the process is set in motion, and the mechanisms they govern are commandeered by proteins, microRNAs, and small molecules released by the bacteria. A key messenger molecule controlled by the bacteria is the RIP1 kinase involved in crosstalk between autophagic (a cell consuming itself), apoptotic (a cell feeding itself to its neighbors), and necrotic (a cell blowing up like a balloon until it ruptures) mechanisms of programmed cell death and which suppresses adenosine diphosphate/ATP exchange across the mitochondrial membrane, a necessary first step in devolving the mitochondria into endosymbiotic bacteria (reviewed by Northington, Chavez-Valdez, and Martin 2011). The manipulation of these mechanisms supplies raw materials for rebuilding the mitochondria and making other modifications (autophagy), exports nutrients to support the growth and reproduction of bacteria (apoptosis), and breaks down key parts of the cell at the beginning of the devolution process (necrosis, which includes karyolysis, or the rupturing of the nucleus that is characteristic of undead cells). In a very real sense, human cells undergo programmed cell death mediated by the invading bacteria and are revivified by the metabolic activity of the devolved mitcochondria as they begin to release hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Even at the cellular level, the dead rise.
With the Sixth Kingdom Hypothesis discredited, the leading explanation for the genesis of the undead was the “selfish cell” hypothesis. This was in essence a restatement of the observations that devolved undead cells engage in lateral gene transfer to regain the metabolic diversity common in prokaryotes, and that the metabolic pathways acquired by each cell are tailored to the nutrients available to it, so cells in the body’s extremities adapt to a low-nutrient environment so they can survive on the leftovers and waste products from bacteria closer to the nutrient-rich environment around the stomach and intestines. That is, the cells put themselves ahead of the body, not unlike cancerous cells.
Given the presence of archaeans in the undead microbiome — the first pathogenic archaea to be identified — many microbionecrologists found this explanation to be unsatisfactory and sought to understand how the undead fit into a broader biological context. Ultimately, a cohort of researchers came to see the risen dead as walking bacterial mats, and their evolution as a reassertion of biological primacy by single-celled organisms, perhaps nothing less than an attempt to undo the triumph of multicellular eukaryotic life that culminated in the Cambrian Explosion 542 million years ago (Booth and Doolittle 2015).
The first hints of this line of thinking emerged from the study of diseased corals during the mid-to-late 1990s. Black band disease is the oldest known and best studied coral disease, having first been described in the literature over 40 years ago (Antonius 1973, Garret and Ducklow 1975). It manifests as a dark stripe that slowly sweeps across a coral colony like the shadow of a sundial, taking months to overgrow and kill large corals, leaving behind the dead, white skeleton of the colony as it progresses. Researchers in the 1970s and ’80s studying the biofilm with light and electron microscopy proposed several candidate bacteria species as the causative agent, but none fulfilled Koch’s Postulates. Eventually, on the basis of genetic assays it was proposed that black band disease has no primary pathogen but is instead a diverse consortium of opportunistic bacteria that cooperate to overwhelm the defenses of coral polyps and break down their tissue to extract the nutrients within (Richardson et al. 1997).
As a mobile, predatory biofilm, black band disease may be an evolutionary relic, a “living fossil” exemplifying Earth’s earliest apex predators (Hall-Stoodley, Costerton, and Stoodley 2004). Prior to the evolution of multicellular life, the highest form of organization achieved by single-celled bacteria and archaea were large, stratified biofilms called bacterial mats in which each layer of bacteria fed upon the waste products of the layer above; the topmost layer normally hosts photosynthetic primary producers that keep the mat going by converting sunlight into organic carbon, though in permanently dark environments, mats can develop based entirely on secondary production from the decomposition of detrital matter. The oldest fossil evidence for bacterial mats dates to 3.42 billion years ago (Tice and Lowe 2006), and genetic analysis points to a burst of bacterial evolution occurring in the late Archaean, peaking about 3.25 billion years ago, that was marked by massive levels of horizontal gene transfer and gene duplications (David and Alm 2011). While correlation does not imply causation, bacteria exchange genes most readily not with other species within the same genus, but rather with nearby bacteria inhabiting the same environment, and thus the development of bacterial mats may well have been the spark that set off this explosion of evolution, perhaps analogously to the invention of cities setting off an explosion in the development of human culture by facilitating the exchange of goods and knowledge. Indeed, the peak period of genetic innovation was followed about a hundred million years later by similarly high levels of gene loss, suggesting specialization and the division of labor as bacteria adapted to ecological niches in a changed world in which competition between individual species mattered less than competition between bacterial communities. Membership is fixed in monocultures and syntrophies; the evolutionary “killer app” of bacterial mats was their flexibility, allowing them to recruit new species to help them compete for space and resources on the seafloor — and they could also steal the genes that made a new recruit useful, get them working in an established member of the community, and then expel the new species to conserve resources.
Because more space allowed a larger mat to capture more solar energy and more nutrients, competition between neighboring mats was fierce. Defending against the chemical weapons of one’s neighbor demands a significant investment of energy, so the strategy of abandoning the whole idea of defending territory and instead putting everything into aggression is a potential winner. However, seizing the nutrients needed for growth by invading and consuming established communities is a high-risk, high-reward strategy — failure means death. A toxic, predatory biofilm dependent on a single primary pathogen to kill its prey would prosper only briefly before mat communities acquired resistance in response, so evolution instead selected for biofilms in which multiple pathogens cooperate against any defense their prey might mount. Like a barbarian horde, these aggressive communities must keep moving forward into greener pastures to survive, a very strong selection pressure favoring the most toxic biofilms.
Defensive responses to the evolution of increasingly toxic bacteria led to a biological arms race between predators and prey, the so-called Archaezoic Marine Revolution, that further stoked the genetic innovation of the late Archaean. David and Alm (2011) argue that the emergence of predatory biofilm communities was both inevitable and ecologically desirable, as “kill the winner” trophic dynamics opposing the establishment of monocultures encourage biodiversity, thereby increasing the overall resiliency of an ecosystem. Reexamining Costerton’s hypothesis that the undead evolved in reaction to the widespread therapeutic use of antibiotics and sulfonamides (Stewart and Costerton 2001), David and Alm suggest that from the microbial perspective, these compounds could have been perceived as salvoes in an arms race and set off a burst of genetic innovation in response to the sudden increase in the toxicity of human beings. Our efforts to cure the sick may have triggered a 3.25 billion year old hardwired evolutionary response from Earth’s resident masters of chemical warfare.
The identification of human nuclear DNA in the CRISPR/Cas spacers of Vibrio cholerae, Staphylococcus aureus, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa cultured from the risen dead has been interpreted as supporting this hypothesis. CRISPR/Cas genes are thought to have originated in archaea as an adaptive immune system, as CRISPR can record small fragments of foreign DNA in a prokaryote’s own genome, and Cas, or CRISPR-associated, genes encode proteins that can identify and destroy DNA matching any record stored in a cell’s CRISPR memory. Bacteria and archaea use CRISPR/Cas systems to protect themselves from bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect prokaryotes, and parasitical plasmids, which are loops of DNA bacteria normally use to share useful genes, but some have either gone rogue or been turned into trojan horses, as they can cripple or kill their recipients. However, there are many different variations of CRISPR/Cas, including one that has its memory function disabled and thus clearly isn’t part of an adaptive immune system, and some are known to be capable of affecting eukaryotes; it is widely speculated that CRISPR has multiple functions in prokaryotic biology, and it likely plays a role in regulating host biochemistry in parasitic and symbiotic relationships (Sontheimer and Brouns 2017). The extent to which CRISPR is involved in controlling the process of cell death and devolution is as yet unknown, as is the significance of the discovery that many of the human DNA sequences recorded in the bacterial CRISPR memory are from transposons of viral origin, including LINE1 and Alu which between them have been copied so many times that they now constitute more than a quarter of the human genome (Weidenheft, Sternberg, and Doudna 2012).
The ability to cleave human nuclear and mitochondrial DNA appears to have been acquired between 5500 and 8500 years ago and has been identified in bacterial DNA associated with a significant proportion of ritually murdered ancient corpses from the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and Europe. Tellingly, where DNA has been recovered from the bodies themselves, the degree of modification to the genomes of these individuals broadly corresponds with the degree of overkill inflicted upon them before they were interred. The CRISPR memory of bacterial DNA gleaned from ancient bodies includes spacers marking cleavage points in human chromosomes observed through a microscope in 1969 by Carl Woese, including p53 and other genes involved in programmed cell death, and a new array of human genes were stored in memory in the early-to-mid 1960s, almost doubling the number of spacers derived from human DNA. This version of CRISPR passed horizontally to a number of normally commensal species already known to researchers as reservoirs for genes conferring antibiotic resistance, including S. epidermidis (skin bacteria, allowing transmission by personal contact), E. coli (intestinal bacteria, allowing transmission in poor sanitary conditions), and P. aeruginosa (soil bacteria, allowing the modified CRISPR/Cas genes to persist in the environment). It has been found in bacterial DNA sampled from geographically isolated populations, including the Inuit and Pacific islanders, and is now believed to be present in the microbiome of every living person. Intriguingly, CRISPR subtypes capable of attacking eukaryotic DNA appear to have been widespread and highly active during geologically recent mass extinctions. Adapting CRISPR/Cas to attack eukaryotic DNA may well be an evolutionary fossil that first appeared to counter the runaway success of early eukaryotes feasting upon bacterial mats, but it was discarded as cooperating with eukaryotes became increasingly advantageous. However, these variant CRISPRs didn’t disappear entirely because they resurface during mass extinction events, when bacteria and archaea bloom in Canfield oceans and need to protect themselves from what are collectively known as organic-walled disaster species — various single-celled eukaryotes that proliferate when marine food webs collapse by consuming prokaryotes, and which are preserved in the fossil record as acritarchs (reviewed by Cooper et al. 2018).
The bacterial mats covering the seafloor before eukaryotes evolved were immobile unless they were broken up and scattered by wave action. Even limited to a speed of a millimeter or two a day, mobile consortia of toxic bacteria the likes of black band disease or red band disease would have cut through them like topping forest fires. Corals are sessile animals, and reef-building stony corals are unusual in that they appear to have no innate immune systems but instead depend entirely on their resident populations of bacteria to defend them from pathogens, providing an ecological toehold in the modern world for primitive predators from Earth’s ancient, prokaryotic biosphere.
Of particular interest to microbionecrologists was the confirmation that the black band disease biofilm, while presenting identically from one coral to the next, in fact has no fixed membership but instead assembles itself anew on every coral, and nearby corals of the same species can fall victim to markedly different bacterial populations. Black bands develop as bacteria in the reef environment opportunistically compete to fill the same metabolic niches in each consortium, which can be modeled in simple terms as a three-legged stool: phototrophic bacteria, primarily Cyanobacteria, capture sunlight and help power the biofilm during the day, while at night bacterial respiration rapidly draws down oxygen levels within the biofilm, forcing the Cyanobacteria to switch to an anaerobic metabolism that releases sulfide as a waste product, the fully reduced, most toxic form of sulfur; metabolically coupled sulfur bacteria cluster around both sides of a steep oxygen gradient in a cryptic sulfur cycle, with aerobic sulfur-oxidizing bacteria on the outside capturing the energy released as sulfide is transformed into sulfate, and the anaerobic sulfur-reducing bacteria running the same chemistry in reverse to make sulfide from sulfate, thereby generating a lot of energy by continually recycling the same sulfur atoms while going completely unnoticed until genetic assays indicated the presence of large numbers of sulfur cycle bacteria in black bands; and finally, the saprophytes that release nutrients for the other bacteria in a black band community as they consume the tissue of coral polyps killed by sulfide and bacterial toxins (Sekar, Kaczmarsky, and Richardson 2008).
The bacteria growing on and around anaerobic human cells were for many years dismissed as an unimportant aspect of the pathology precisely because the bacteria population shifted from one ghoul to the next with no clear pattern beyond the obvious transfer of bacteria when a victim was bitten. A number of known and potential human pathogens have been identified in the mouths and tissues of the resurrected dead over the years, many of which don’t normally cause disease on their own in otherwise healthy individuals, and it was thought they overwhelmed the body’s defenses by giving the immune system too many targets at once; instead, they may be decoys to keep the immune system occupied and weaken the walls of blood vessels to facilitate the formation of the undead microbiome throughout the body, where it smothers its victims with sulfide and brings them back to life cell by cell (de Goeij et al. 2008). The general assumption was that the bacteria found in the undead were simply a combination of residual populations of the pathogens that killed them and decay bacteria attacking necrotic tissue, and it was believed that their most significant effect on the dead was to maintain a deceptively lifelike coloration in their muscles and blood by releasing carbon monoxide among their waste products (Grimes and Logan 1977). But with black band disease as a model and the 1982 paper by Marshall and Warren establishing that undead cells participate in the exchange of nutrients within the bacterial community, this assumption was reexamined.
Just as with black band disease, a cryptic sulfur cycle organized around a steep oxygen gradient was generating an enormous amount of energy, but curiously, in the “running dead” this was not efficiently translated into the accumulation of bacterial biomass (Canfield, Rosing, and Bjerrum 2006). It has been known since 1982 that reanimated human cells produce surplus hydrogen, a key energy source for many bacteria, which they use along with surplus nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, sulfur, etc.) derived from the breakdown of organic molecules to barter with nearby bacteria to obtain vitamins, primarily B6, B12, and K, though occasional detection of low concentrations of other vitamins suggest that some reanimated cells may be broadly auxotrophic while others are able to synthesize these compounds (Marshall and Warren 1982, Helliwell, Wheeler, and Smith 2013). Rather than regarding the undead cells as somehow separate entities from the biofilm surrounding them, the “three-legged stool” model ultimately showed them to be the dominant saprophytes in the bacterial consortium (Maldonado 2014).
Researchers who regarded the undead as animate bacterial mats avoided the trap of narrowly focussing upon the metabolism of reanimated human cells when investigating the metabolic differences between walkers and runners. They instead took a holistic approach from the outset and were the first to recognize that the outstanding difference between slow, shuffling, familiar ghouls and the fast variant lay in the nature of the barter exchanges taking place between the bacteria of the undead microbiome and the undead cells themselves. In the variant population, anaerobic bacteria surrounding devolved human muscle cells and spinal neurons were found to be exporting ATP in exchange for hydrogen, mineralized nutrients, and adenosine monophosphate — the ATP economy hypothesized by Margulis but never observed in nature was real, though it was not based on the advantages of an aerobic metabolism but rather the scarcity of hydrogen (Dietrich, Tice, and Newman 2006).
Margulis herself noted that the evolution of early life on Earth can be viewed as a series of adaptive responses to the limited availability of energy and nutrients in the environment (Margulis and Dolan 2002). Photosynthesis appears to be the second-oldest such adaptation, made in response to competition for organic carbon molecules synthesized every day in the surface waters of the oceans by solar UV radiation (Mauzerall 2007) during the late Hadean (Bell et al. 2015); the oldest is likely predation, which is a simpler solution to the same problem. Nitrogen limitation led to the evolution of diazotrophy, a widespread adaptation among bacteria long known to fix most of the nitrogen available to the biosphere. But it was a lack of hydrogen that inspired life’s greatest evolutionary achievements.
At the cellular level, life is powered by electrons pulled off donor atoms or molecules, made to do biochemical work powering the synthesis of ATP, and deposited upon a terminal electron acceptor. There are many candidates for electron donors: reduced iron, sulfur, manganese, and nitrogen, while heterotrophs break chemical bonds in organic molecules by removing electrons from them, but hydrogen is widely favored because its single electron can be easily stripped away from the lone proton in the atom’s nucleus. Hydrogen was almost certainly the electron donor used by the first living cells, as it was commonplace four billion years ago. However, Earth’s gravity is insufficient to retain hydrogen in the atmosphere, so the availability of hydrogen slowly declined as it escaped into space. Eventually, hydrogen became a limiting input for microbial growth, and evolutionary innovations began to appear in response. Best known are the Cyanobacteria, which evolved a means of feeding the output of one photosynthesis system into a second system to achieve the higher energy necessary to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, leading to the oxygenation of the biosphere and life as we know it. Similarly, the evolution of eukaryotes — a fusion of an archaean chemoautotroph with a heterotrophic bacterium that fermented organic matter and released carbon dioxide and hydrogen as waste products — was driven by the host cell’s need for hydrogen. And in 1963 or 1964, an anaerobic biofilm festering in the lungs of a Pennsylvania coal miner losing his battle with black lung disease wouldn’t let him die because the microbes needed a source of hydrogen, and they found a way to turn him into one by reverse engineering eukaryotic cells (Fraser et al. 1977, de Goeij et al. 2008, de Goeij et al. 2013, Maldonado 2014, Rix et al. 2016).
Some insight into how single celled organisms are able to commandeer human bodies finally arrived with the recent discovery that bacteria use potassium ion channels to control the electric charge on their surfaces, allowing them to communicate with one another within biofilms via electrical signaling in essentially the same manner as human brain and nerve cells (Süel et al. 2015). The variable time between human death and reanimation as a ghoul is thus largely a function of quorum sensing: when electrical signaling begins, existing neural pathways are reactivated, not only in the brain but throughout a reanimated body, because they are literally the paths of least resistance (Süel et al. 2017). Of course, making use of a human body’s OEM wiring gives ghouls their one fatal vulnerability, as a penetrating wound that admits oxygen into brain tissue will immediately lyse obligate anaerobes, including the devolved neurons themselves, and damage to the brain‘s white matter — the connectome of “brainbow” fame — prevents the organized electrical activity within the biofilm necessary to coordinate different parts of the brain.
Like black band disease, the undead microbiome combines phototrophic bacteria, primarily Cyanobacteria though photoheterotrophs and anaerobic, anoxygenic photoautotrophs (green and purple bacteria) have also been identified; sulfur oxidizing bacteria (including uncultured spp. related to the SUP05 and SAR324 groups abundant in marine oxygen minimum zones per Canfield et. al 2010) and sulfur reducing bacteria clustered around an oxygen gradient and symbiotically exchanging sulfate and sulfide in a cryptic sulfur cycle; and saprophytes that consume organic compounds and release surplus nutrients for use by other members of the biofilm community. That the undead microbiome echoes the functional composition of black band disease suggests that the “three-legged stool” model combining phototrophy, a cryptic nutrient cycle, and saprophytic decay bacteria is not merely ancestral to coral diseases but in fact likely describes a common modality among predatory biofilms of the distant evolutionary past, much as cyanobacterial mats and stromatolites give us glimpses of other survival strategies for a world in which bacteria were the dominant form of life. Indeed, each strategy seems weighted towards one particular leg of the stool: cyanobacterial mats are dependent on photoautotrophy for their formation and survival; calcifying bacterial communities such as stromatolites are uniquely dependent upon biogeochemical cycling; black band disease requires a rich external source of nutrients — predators must kill to live. It may be that developing biofilms lean most heavily upon whichever leg of the stool provides them with a competitive advantage in their immediate environment, meaning that predation is not genetic destiny but rather an emergent property that, like eyes and wings, evolution has discovered over and over again (Rohwer and Youle 2010). That is, if Patient Zero had been a farmer instead of a coal miner, perhaps the opportunistic infection that ultimately killed him would have begun in his skin and be weighted towards photoautotrophy instead of heterotrophy, and the undead would turn into harmless sun worshippers come dawn.
That the anaerobic living dead consume oxygen is perhaps not so surprising in light of evidence suggesting that oxygenic photosynthesis first emerged in predatory biofilms to kill prey and power cryptic nutrient cycles during the Archaezoic Marine Revolution several hundred million years prior to the evolution of Cyanobacteria (Canfield, Habicht, and Thamdrup 2000, reviewed by Cardona 2014). Predatory biofilms were thus the first microbial consortia in which the ability to tolerate exposure to oxygen was advantageous, as oxygen was even more toxic to the anaerobic bacteria and archaea of the ancient, anoxic biosphere than sulfide is to modern aerobic eukaryotes. Further, many of the biologically active molecules the ancient anaerobes made could not survive exposure to oxygen, meaning that oxygen was useful not only to kill competing archaea and bacteria but potentially also as a defense against the toxic molecules they fought back with. Using oxygen to poison anaerobes pushed them in turn to evolve ways to protect themselves, such as the evolutionarily ancient phenomenon of bioluminescence, hypothesized decades ago to have evolved as a defense against oxygen toxicity (Margulis 1981).
It is noteworthy that all the phototrophs identified in the undead microbiome are bacteria capable of adapting to very low light environments, and photoheterotrophs are actually averse to bright light. Photosynthesis can thus occur well below the skin (no surprise to anyone who ever shined a flashlight through their hand as a child) and even underneath clothing. As ghouls starve, the bacteria turn on their hosts and consume devolved human cells to sustain themselves, causing them to grow thinner. This reduces the interior volume of an undead body at risk of becoming euxinic because insufficient light penetrates to sustain photosynthesis, in turn increasing the overall efficiency of the biofilm, reducing the pressure to feed on the host, and ultimately contributing to the remarkable resistance of the undead to starvation (Stewart and Frank 2008).
While demystifying the undead may have helped Americans trying to cope with a permanent crisis, as the years went by national security experts worried more and more about what lines of research Soviet scientists might be exploring. To general astonishment, when the Soviets deployed their next-generation bioweapon, they did so not in the West but struck against their own, in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Ukraine, home to Cossacks and kulaks who were respectively privileged and prosperous under the Tsars, has had troubled relations with Moscow since the Communists took power. Some Ukrainians sought independence after the fall of the Tsars during World War I, resisted Stalin’s policy of collectivization as millions starved in the 1930s, and enthusiastically threw in with the Germans after the Ukrainian SSR fell during World War II. As recently as the 1990s, coal miners in eastern Ukraine all but held the Soviet government hostage to their demands for lower quotas, higher wages, more safety inspectors, and better conditions in the mines, as coal from the Donets Basin didn’t just power most of the Soviet steel industry but was still used to heat the homes and apartments of millions of Russians. In 2014, the state moved against this supposed “nest of fascist ideologues, spies, and saboteurs who have long held back the development of Ukraine’s vast natural resources for the general good,” as Pravda put it when announcing the Ukrainian travel ban.
The first indication Western intelligence agencies had of the scale of Putin’s plans were entire divisions pulling back from the NATO frontier and being replaced by reservists. Satellite imagery showed Soviet front line units moving into cantonments surrounding the Ukrainian SSR, ranging mortars and artillery, and running barbed wire from as far north as Kursk to the Crimean Peninsula in the south, from the Don River in the east to the Dniester in the west. Combat engineers were concentrated in the gaps between natural barriers and, in classic Soviet style, built walls of prefabricated reinforced concrete sections topped with a large metal pipe to hold the sections together and deny a handhold to anyone trying to climb over it. On Ukrainian soil, the port city of Odessa, the industrial center of Kharkov, and the culturally important city of Kiev, the historic home of the Rus, were walled off behind enormous outer rings of earthworks modeled on old fashioned star forts enclosing fields and factories on the cities’ outskirts, smaller rings of prefabricated concrete to protect the cities, and like medieval keeps, yet smaller and higher walls within to fortify districts and individual buildings should the worst come to pass.
Millions of Ukrainians evicted from their own cities found themselves at the mercy of “little green men” terrorizing the countryside. Videos that surfaced and went samizdata before the Ukrainian SSR was cut off for good from the Iron Internet showed naked, green skinned cannibals running amok, some of them sporting tattoos associated with Soviet SPETSNAZ GRU special forces units. Ukrainians were on several occasions able to shut down Soviet jamming, sometimes for hours at a stretch, during which time gigabytes of raw data were broadcast in the clear, all of which was received by American and European reconnaissance satellites. The Ukrainians shared everything they learned about the little green men — who, their scientists tersely noted, were green because they had been engineered to host in their skin a consortium of filamentous green algae and diazotrophic Cyanobacteria reminiscent of algae turfs found on coral reefs. The commandos were thought to be able to break down and metabolize the algae and Cyanobacteria, rich sources of lipids and proteins, and during the day they appeared to receive the benefit of the oxygen and glucose released by the algae. Far from being harmless nudists, they could run and fight from sunrise to sunset without ever tiring.
The Ukrainians also transmitted appalling video recordings of the little green men speaking and showing intelligent behavior in addition to falling upon men, women, and children and devouring them. Like guerillas, they took weapons from fallen Ukrainian soldiers and staged hit-and-run raids to terrorize civilians, frustrate any effort to organize resistance or an evacuation, and steal trucks, locomotives, construction equipment, and anything else that could be moved out of Ukraine or into one of the fortified cities. When necessary they fought as soldiers, probing enemy positions, massing their numbers to achieve local superiority in firepower, and coordinating with artillery, armor, and air units to seize critical sites such as military installations and airports with combined arms tactics. Perhaps most disturbingly, little green men killed on the battlefield rose as running dead that would not attack living green men, not even when caged with them and left to starve, raising the possibility that the Soviets have a biological IFF to prevent attack by the undead. That little green men have not been seen since 2014 may be because, as the Ukrainians learned from examining their fallen, they were prone to developing sepsis and type 2 diabetes as a result of the glucose released by the algae in their skin.
After the fortifications were finished and the cities emptied of undesirables, the Ukrainian electric grid was powered down in an orderly fashion outside of Odessa, Kharkov, and Kiev. Overnight, Ukraine gradually lit up again as candles and lanterns were knocked over, starting fires that burned for days and consumed entire towns. Confronted with satellite imagery of this and footage that the CIA publicly affirmed had been obtained in realtime from Soviet security camera feeds showing Ukrainians being shot as they approached the border, the adults in their heads and the children in their hearts so they alone would rise and attack other refugees, the Soviets claimed this was a matter of internal security. When even delegates from the Non-Aligned bloc began referring to “the Ukrainian genocide”, the Soviet delegation walked out of the United Nations.
Astonishingly, within a matter of weeks trains were moving on Ukraine’s rails again and a trickle of coal was coming out of its mines to feed the massive coking plant outside Donetsk. By the summer of 2015, satellite imagery revealed planted fields, the steel mills in the eastern part of the country back in operation, and enormous work gangs plowing under entire villages and grading for new highways and railroads. When the Red Army’s annual Great October Socialist Revolution Parade included no Ukrainian units to represent one of the four founding Republics of the USSR, Western analysts concluded that the Ukrainian SSR had been made the subject of an experiment, and apparently a successful one. Most of Ukraine’s work force no longer require homes, rest, or wages, though large numbers of cattle cars on the rails out of season and mass arrests of Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, addicts, and political dissidents suggest they still must be fed.
At last, the Soviets have their New Man.
Analysis of rail traffic patterns revealed that when the usual suspects had all been rounded up, the Soviets turned to their restive frontier provinces, the Armenian and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republics, to feed their Ukrainian workforce. Undesirables and minority populations from across Eastern Europe, most visibly Roma and Bosniaks, began to be deported in the summer of 2016.
Shipments to Ukraine from China via the Dzungarian Gate began in October, 2016, and were seen as an “October Surprise” meant to spotlight the weakness of President Romney, who was working to diplomatically isolate the Soviet Union. The administration of President Xi, normally sensitive to the most trivial slights, was silent in regard to the widely reported rumor that the first train carried only specially selected political prisoners, some held since the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square.
In 2017, the Indian government passed a “three strikes” law granting judges the additional sentence of exile in the case of recidivists imprisoned at least twice for a violent crime, a legally vague standard which quickly came to be defined down to include nuisance crimes as “violence against the fabric of society,” allowing the law to be used against anyone with a record of antisocial behavior. By the end of the year, activist judges were proudly using the law to cleanse their communities of undesirables, which in some areas meant Muslims, in others meant Buddhists, in the countryside meant the landless and indebted farmers, in slums meant squatters and activists, in wealthy areas meant beggars and petty criminals, and everywhere meant women committing crimes against their family’s honor (typically sex out of wedlock, including being the victim of rape). Prime Minister Modi has been coy with the foreign press about where, exactly, the exiles are exiled to, but the Indian press and internet take for granted that they are “fed to the hungry ghosts”.
In contrast, President Duterte of the Philippines has openly boasted of sending shiploads of criminals and addicts to be “fed to the damned”, and the counterrevolutionaries of the Arab Winter have been using Russian hulls to ship political prisoners out of Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. President Sisi of Egypt is apparently turning a blind eye to human cargos transiting the Suez Canal to preserve his own government’s access to Ukraine. Two months after President Erdogan of Turkey granted overflight privileges to international air traffic in and out of the Ukrainian SSR and began refusing to cooperate with NATO efforts to stop human trafficking through the Bosporus, an outbreak in Greek Cyprus finally ended the problem of divided rule over that island; mass arrests of Kurds began in eastern Turkey a few weeks later. Rumors that Israeli Arabs are being disappeared aboard white helicopters with UN markings that deliver them to cargo ships in international waters are believed to be false; rumors that Prime Minister Netanyahu has instructed the IDF to look the other way as Fatah secures the Gaza Strip, importing concrete for reconstruction and exporting Hamas supporters, are believed to be true. That the secret police of more than twenty nations around the world find it useful to park a certain aircraft in a publicly visible spot at their country’s largest airport so everyone knows when people are being disappeared is known to be true.
To make matters worse, by 2016 apps were appearing on the dark web allowing residents of many cities, lately even including some in Western Europe and North America, to disappear anyone they wish. This was initially a boutique option discreetly offered to the wealthy by corrupt intelligence and domestic security agents who were already performing this service for political ends, but fees that started out in six or seven figures came down very quickly after human traffickers and organized criminal gangs learned the undead will eat meat that has been frozen and took the service downmarket by using refrigerated shipping containers to capture economies of scale. In Lagos, kidnapping a wealthy or socially prominent person reportedly costs less than $10,000 if they have no armed bodyguards and there is no requirement that they be delivered to Ukraine alive and healthy enough to comprehend their fate, while the price for disappearing an ordinary citizen is figured by weight if the abduction is DIY and the victim is delivered alive to a certain address. In West Berlin, such places reportedly began operating in 2017 as “pop-up shops” thought to be funded by the KGB, as they charge nothing for their services; after more than a year of disappearances and the sudden resolution of a great many lawsuits, probate cases, and long standing disputes between next door neighbors, the city’s social fabric is fraying.
Even the world’s pettiest tyrants now have a final solution to their problems. Someone in line for the throne or tenure before you? Suspect one of your generals or confidantes or children of disloyalty? Wife or business partner you’d like to be rid of? Got an honest reporter or an internet troll damaging your brand? Trouble with the Muslim Brotherhood or Greenpeace? Fed up with immigrants, ethnic minorities, indigenous tribes, the homeless, or your political opposition? Overcrowded prisons? Overcrowded slums? Overcrowded country? Josef Stalin supposedly said of troublemakers in the Soviet Union of his day, “No man, no problem.” Vladimir Putin’s maxim might well be, “No mass grave, no problem.”
The real mystery of the Ukrainian SSR is not how such a place could exist, but how such a place could remain a functioning part of the Soviet economy. Estimated annual Ukrainian coal, steel, and wheat production quickly rebounded from lows in 2014 and could return to 2013 levels in the foreseeable future. While some argue that ghouls retain enough mental acuity and memories of their lost lives to be conditioned to resume the jobs they had when living simply by rewarding them with food, in light of the Redemption of the Dead program active in the 1970s and ’80s and the engineered microbiome of the so-called running dead, the possibility cannot be discounted that the Soviets have developed an effective, mass produced technology to control the risen while reawakening enough of their minds to allow them to set goals, work towards them in a coordinated fashion, and use tools and machinery to work more efficiently.
In principle, there is no obvious obstacle to engineering the undead to supply additional ATP to the brain, rather than the muscles, allowing it to be fully reactivated and perhaps restoring an individual ghoul to full conscious awareness. Even more disturbingly, because we now know all microbial communities, not just black band disease, self-assemble as bacteria in the environment compete to fill functional niches such as phototrophy, sulfur reduction and oxidation, and synthesizing required amino acids and vitamins (Vellend 2010, Burke 2011, reviewed by Nemergut et al. 2013), researchers in the field of synthetic biology have suggested that the inherent flexibility of bacterial communities could be exploited to customize new variant populations of undead with different characteristics.
Thought experiments point to the possibility of engineering a variant population of hemovores by increasing the population of Cyanobacteria in the undead microbiome and adding halophilic pathogens such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, as the need for iron and salt should encourage the drinking of blood (Song et al. 2014); or a variant population that is strong but not fast by excluding spinal nerve cells from the ATP economy (Mee et al. 2014); or a variant population of undead able to heal themselves by taking the parts they need from others (Fiore et al. 2016); or a variant that acts normally upon a target population, such as women, children, or people who never had the chickenpox, while infecting all others with a calcifying photosynthetic bacterial consortium that petrifies the skin, turning bones into glass and sealing people inside monuments to their own last agonies (Hays et al. 2017); or a variant capable of jumping the species barrier and fusing laboratory animals together (Tiptree 2018). Vampires, mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, medusas, chimeras and Rat Kings — it seems now that no nightmare dredged up from fiction or legend is out of reach, except possibly Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion skeletons.
Indeed, prokaryotic metabolic diversity is such a deep well to draw on that it’s difficult not to imagine legendary monsters being grounded in the scientific knowledge we now possess. After all, if human artifice can create such creatures from a naturally occurring pathogenic consortium, then Mother Nature may well have gotten there first. We may not be contemplating the creation, but rather the recreation of horrors that lurk in our storybooks because they once lurked in the woods. And perhaps we would be wise to consider that fairy tales tell us also of witches, warlocks, demons, and gods — immortals who command the undead — in light of rumors coming out of Soviet bloc countries, where the phrase “invited to supper” has taken on a sinister cast after gadflies ranging from Boris Nemtsov, a respected statesman, to the feminist punk band Pussy Riot are said to have been invited to meals with high Soviet officials at which they, themselves, were the main course.
The manifest evil of Putin’s regime, indeed Putin’s flaunting of wickedness before those who once stood as the world’s moral guardians, has led many to speculate that the Soviet premier no longer fears death because he is already risen. The European response to the Ukrainian genocide and the resurgent Soviet threat has been “more Europe”, leading to the historic 2016 vote for Brunion, or the full integration of Great Britain into the European Union. In America, the response since the historic 2016 vote for Trump has been a chaotic foreign policy, the only consistent aspect of which seems to be the president’s need to distract Americans from his political failures and broken promises at home, and a faltering of the United States’ leadership in the War on the Dead, which was swept up in the Trump administration’s so-called “War on Science” and has been largely defunded to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. In the wake of the withdrawal of federal garrisons from several majority-minority redoubts where support for Trump has been dropping from a low base for the last two years, even many Democrats have noted Trump’s pattern of accusing his opponents of his own sins, such as calling Ted Cruz a liar and Hillary Rodham crooked. Such is the loss of faith in the leader of the Democratic Party that senior Democratic Senators have wondered aloud for the cameras if there could be some truth in the right-wing conspiracy theory that Trump is cooperating with Putin to carry on a “Potemkin Cold War” to manipulate public opinion on both sides of the Iron Curtain and gain access to Soviet immortality tech, be it real or imagined.
Republicans broadly reject the possibility that Trump is merely a useful idiot, and it is taken for granted on the far right, even among some white nationalists who have been won over by Trump, that the president is using back channel links to Moscow and Peking to lay the foundation of a tyrannical world government that will rise in the wake of a global outbreak. Citing the president’s ever-present spray-on tan, unreleased tax returns and medical records, praising of the Soviet premier above all other dictators for whom he has professed admiration, general penchant for secrecy, the administrative measures taken to defund and depopulate offices charged with overseeing undead research, and the ongoing effort that started with the most famous failure from the president’s first week on the job to craft a constitutionally viable ban on emigration, the consensus on the right is that Trump was turned by the Soviets well before the election. Having begun Trump’s term in office describing him as a mole, a jumped-up zombie, a Fifth Columnist, a product of Soviet social engineering hacks, a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States, and obviously guilty of high treason simply for having participated in the election, conservative commentators and bloggers have recently followed the lead of Christian conservatives — who for their part started out calling Trump an apostate follower of the heretical prosperity gospel — and begun to describe President Trump as an (conspicuously not “the”) Antichrist.
The tales of evil wizards and monsters our ancestors handed down to us now demand reassessment. If there’s a kernel of truth to be found at the heart of such legends, if the old stories spring from the depths of our collective memory rather than the heights of imagination, then we are here because our ancestors fought living nightmares with cannons and muskets, swords and arrows, knives and slings, or if all else failed, clubs and rocks. And more often than not, they won. Our stories, our science, our civilization, our very presence on Earth is proof of their victories, and if we wish our stories, science, civilization, and presence on Earth to go on, then we must pick up the torch and bring light to the darkness — and surely also the pitchfork to contend with its indigenous fauna.
Part 1 • 1968-1978: The Lost Decade
Part 2 • 1979-1989: The New Normal
Part 3 • 1990-2003: The False Spring
Part 5 • References