A scientist travels to a distant planet in search of a microbial product that can save her people. There, she encounters new bugs, tastes strange fruit, navigates a different society and makes a new friend who shares her hopes.
Read below the flash fiction story “A Culture of Hope” by Jen and L.D. Nguyen, shortlisted in the top ten stories for the #FEMSmicroBlog Writing Competition on “How Microbiology will Change our Future”.
Read on this link: all shortlisted stories.
A Culture of Hope
after Ursula Le Guin
Hjarkth nibbled on her bite of eul. Despite the fruit’s repugnant, blue, egg-shaped appearance, its green yolk running across her plate, it tasted like hope.
“What do you think, Professor?” said one of Hjarkth’s diplomat hosts, her golden eyes flickering.
“Quite unlike any fruit from my home planet,” said Hjarkth. “But that’s why I’m here.” Every day, hundreds of people from Hjarkth’s home world died from brain pox. Her search for a cure had brought her to this little-known planet of Urevth, home to a bacterium producing the only compound known to reverse the disease.
“So this bacterium you seek, lives inside of euls?” asked the lone male diplomat, his purple eyes bright and curious.
“Yes,” said Hjarkth. “I hope to culture it in Dr. Meraven’s lab and bring isolates back home.”
The table fell silent. “I speak for all of us when I say Dr. Meraven is a curious personality,” the male diplomat raised at last, gazing around at his colleagues.
“Hard to speak for everyone on subjective matters like this, no?” Hjarkth posed, unsure how to respond.
“Not for him,” said a woman. “Male people on Urevth can read minds.”
“That’s why we prefer men not to be diplomats,” half-joked another. Her male colleague razored her with a glare before returning warmly to Hjarkth:
“I can see your mind is full of hope. Good luck. We don’t see many intergalactic visitors here on Urevth. May you find what you are looking for.”
Dr. Meraven’s lab was fully stacked with the egg-shaped fruits, thickening the air with the salty stench of ripening crop. Meraven stood in the center of it all, shifting the piles of fruit that occluded access to various pieces of lab equipment. When Meraven walked over to greet her, Hjarkth was struck by their white eyes. Since arriving on Urevth, she had noticed that only children had white eyes, yet Meraven was well into their 40s. A sheen of purple in their irises—a characteristic of Urevthian males—was apparent once the distance closed between them. Suddenly she grasped why Meraven’s colleagues had found it difficult to categorize their peers and felt a pang of sympathy.
“Nice to meet you, Dr. Meraven. I am A.K. Hjarkth. Thanks for hosting my research here on Urevth.”
Meraven smiled. “So you are the reason why the government has dumped so much eul in my laboratory.”
“Thank you for accommodating it.”
“You and I have somewhat similar goals.”
“Are you using microbes to biosynthesize a cure too?”
“Not for a disease per se. I am trying to biosynthesize a hormone to inhibit my gender transition. Males in Urevthian society are not permitted in certain scientific fields for fear that male mind-reading abilities might expose technical secrets. My wish is to stabilize my non-binary form, so that I may continue the work that I love.”
I’m in good hands, thought Hjarkth, to work with someone who would give up such power in the name of science. “Pleased to work beside you.”
As the weeks passed, Hjarkth worked in Meraven’s lab to isolate bacteria from eul. When she successfully cultured the fruit bacteria on dishes of lab agar, Meraven applauded her, their face lit with a smile so bright it seemed to pale the color of their eyes.
When Hjarkth successfully cultured the bacterium again, but this time in a chamber that mimicked the environment of her home planet, she thought: are my tinted goggles tricking me, or are their eyes looking whiter?
On the last day of her visit, packed with a case of bacterial stocks, Hjarkth cried as she shook Meraven’s hand. “Thanks to you there is hope for my planet.” She peered at their face. “I hope you find your goal.”
“My neutralizing hormones have been higher while you have been here.” Meraven smiled. “It seems you are good for me.”
“And you for my people.” She gave Meraven’s hand a warm squeeze and departed.
Meraven watched Hjarkth’s receding figure and then looked at their hand in the fading evening light. Without touching anything else, they returned to their lab and pressed it onto a petri dish of agar. They swabbed Hjarkth’s work areas—her pipettes, her pens, her lab coat—and placed the swabs in various culture media. They placed some of those tubes in the atmospheric chamber modelling Hjarkth’s home planet.
That night, Meraven locked up the lab, excited by the prospect of what might be there when they returned in the morning.
ⓒ FEMS/the author
Jen and L.D. Nguyen are sisters with a fondness and fascination for the natural world. Jen is a microbiologist who studies how bacteria respond to environmental change. L.D. is a writer who explores gender and is currently working on a collection of poems inspired by plant and insect reproduction. This short story is their first collaboration!