A team of microbiologists is out to colonize a new planet after humanity destroyed life on Earth. They’ve carefully chosen a set of microbes that will be needed to terraform the new planet and make it liveable for humanity. Will these microbes be enough to give humanity a second chance?
Read below the flash fiction story “A Second Hope” by Morgan Feeney, 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 Second Hope
Hanstelt Arken is the first to wake. The chime that woke her echoes for a little while, but then the ship is silent. Her team will wake soon.
Her reflection is skewed by the curved steel ship’s walls – she looks as though she has been ill, not sleeping. She smooths down the lapels on her jumpsuit and swallows.
The unmanned drones will be coming soon, bringing back the first samples from Terra Two. Soil, water, atmosphere – physical things that they can measure, some solid proof that their new home will be habitable.
Hanstelt walks to the lab, one hand kept firmly on the wall as she goes. She only stumbles once.
She thumbs on the screen in the lab and checks the logs. The stores have kept their temperature all the while that they’ve been in transit, all the years that Hanstelt and her team have slept. All of the microbes that they’ve bought from Terra are safe and stocked here, snug in little orange-lidded vials.
These microbes will be able to grow on Terra Two, if the conditions are suitable. If they haven’t come this far on a fool’s hope. If they haven’t come so far to die in the dark of space. “O brave new world,” Hanstelt says, and the echoes of her voice come back strangely.
No one else on the ship is awake, but Hanstelt can’t help but think that she hears other echoes, footfalls, voices. Ghosts of the people she’d left behind on Terra, or the lingering effects of her cryo-sleep, perhaps. She thumbs her way through the catalogue of microbes until their names chase away the ghosts. Anabaena, Bacillus, Chlorella…they’ve brought bacteria to breathe life onto Terra Two, everything that they’ll need to live.
They’ll have the microbes to make medicines, the yeasts to make bread and beer, the cultures to make cheese. All the biological potential from their old Earth is locked in these cryo-cabinets. Hanstelt hopes they won’t make the same mistakes on Terra Two.
Tomorrow, she’ll wake Iona and Charity, the soil and water microbiology team leaders. Tomorrow, they’ll begin. They’ll have data from the drones – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, temperature – everything they need to know. They’ll decide which lichens to seed the planet with, which algae, which spores will survive the conditions there and help adapt Terra Two for human life.
The lab is not loud with the hum of the cryo-cabinets, the soft whirring of various machines, clicks and chimes that make Hanstelt jump. But there is no-one there – no-one awake on the ship.
She goes back to her task, opens the first cryo-cabinet and begins an inventory, cross-checking each vial against its entry in the database. She chose most of these strains herself, helped by Iona and Charity –they spent late nights worrying if they’d chosen correctly, if these microbes would be enough to give humanity a second chance, a second Earth.
She’s in the third cryo-cabinet when it happens. All of the stocks have been correct, everything from the different Anabaena species she’d chosen for fresh-and salt-water, the ones that she hoped would flourish on Terra Two, fix carbon and nitrogen, and help make it habitable – through to the different Lactobacillus species, the ones that she’d chosen so that they’d be able to make kimchi and sauerkraut and pickles, sourdough and sour lambic beers. But in the third cabinet, there’s a missing box.
Hanstelt feels like her heart has stopped. The ghostly noises that have been echoing in the lab are louder, harder, closer. She feels that someone is behind her – she turns and there is no one – she turns back and the box is still missing.
She checks the catalogue. It should have been an entire box of Streptomyces, all the species that she’d chosen to colonize the soil of their new world – to break down decaying plants, to live sweetly on plant roots, and to grow in the labs making the medicines that they’ll need on their new world. Streptomycin, chloramphenicol, nystatin – she’d told Commander Delft that they didn’t need to bring a medicine cabinet, that they’d be able to make their own medicines.
And yet – and yet. No one else on the ship should be awake yet, but someone is, someone must be, someone who’s taken a box of microbes that they’ll need to save lives in the coming years. They’re irreplaceable– they can’t exactly go back to Earth for more.
“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t.”
ⓒ FEMS/the author
Dr. Morgan Feeney is a microbiologist currently teaching at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (hopefully convincing her students that microbes are the most important things on this planet!). She has worked with Escherichia coli and Streptomyces coelicolor and has a particular fondness for applied and environmental microbiology, elegant bacterial genetics, and the history of science.