Short story: Constantine

12-09-2022

They were colleagues, friends and leading figures. Two microbiologists envisioned overcoming the global energy crisis by developing the next generation of electricity-producing bacteria, also called Microbial Fuel Cells. But what went wrong, and what happened to Constantine?

Read below the flash fiction story “Constatine” by Daniel Thomas Lopez, second place in the #FEMSmicroBlog Writing Competition on “How Microbiology will Change our Future”.

Read on this link: all shortlisted stories.

 

Constantine

Dear Alex,

After more than 25 years of friendship, it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that this is the last time you will hear from me.

It has been nearly two weeks that I am waiting for a public statement from your side, hoping you would at least express remorse and sorrow – not that it would help much by now, though. But I give up. My soul aches each time I hear about Constantine and at the moment there is nothing else.

Constantine, poor Constantine!

Yesterday night I was wondering: Where did things start to go wrong? Was it after the Nobel prize? The balls, the headlines, the interviews… and the money. You constantly joked about it: ‘I could get used to all this luxury’. Was it around that time that the idealistic Alex started to fade?

My treasured memories of our early years in college, messing around in the lab, have come to my mind as well these days. Do you remember that speech Professor Plei used to give every term?

‘Science is not only a powerful tool to transform our society,’ Plei used to preach, ‘but it is also a tool to create tools. And isn’t Microbiology among the finest examples to demonstrate the power of Science? How many tools essential in human history are linked to a microorganism? Hundreds of bacterial and fungal species involved in food production, the large-scale production of recombinant human insulin, plastic-eating bacteria or the automatisation of the PCR technique. Do you need a tool? Turn to a microbe’.

That’s exactly what you and I did, right? We had the determination of solving the global energy crisis with microbes. The proof of concept was there – Microbial Fuel Cells. So, we envisioned how to upgrade the reactions to become so much more efficient and faster than the initial design.

It took us years, of course, but once we stabilised the MFC-Shell systems to store and channel the power surge, our dream turned into reality. Gosh, those were exhilarating years witnessing how the shells were scaled to fit into phones, fridges, cars, airplanes!

I remember the constantly updated graphs showing global reductions in the consumption of fossil fuels and the drop in world conflicts that were about controlling those resources! Afterwards came the recognition, the institutes with our names and the Filonitia kilowattium merchandise!

I still keep my plush Filo; Alice loves to cuddle it when she comes to visit. She was here on Saturday. She was playing next to me when she realised that I was staring at the TV, crying.

Beautiful Constantine.

Alice pointed at the screen and then looked back at me, babbling, like asking what was going on.

I’ve sometimes wondered if you were honest with me about Suhold. I was so offended when they approached me, insinuating that they could offer me more money if that was ever the issue. I totally lost my temper! I told you about it and we seemed to be on the same page: never. NEVER.

And yet, three years later, your name again in all those posts and headlines (different ones this time).

I didn’t want to believe the media. I convinced myself that it was fake news or that maybe you had been fooled. But when we finally talked, you were so calm, so persuaded.

‘It will be for a good cause’.

Really, Alex?

Did you really believe that? Or was it merely the statement that the Suhold CEO implanted in your brain?

Tell me, do you believe that today? Coupling MFC-Shell systems with a weapon’s mechanism. What a good noble cause! Duplicating, triplicating! the power of conventional weapons!

Didn’t you see it coming, honestly? Weren’t bombs already destructive enough?

Ethics is part of our and every scientist’s duty. You and I had made our future brighter but now you contributed to making it dark again.

I wish one day you will realise and you will never forget that. And you never forget the 843,215 men, women and children that lived in the city of Constantine.

Goodbye,

M.

FEMS/the author

 

About the author of this story

Daniel Thomas Lopez carried out his Veterinary studies and PhD at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain. He worked with microbes for almost a decade and was an active member of JISEM, the Young Researchers Group of the Spanish Society for Microbiology. Currently, Daniel is a project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), where he applies his scientific expertise to design impactful training activities. He has recently picked up creative writing in his free time, an activity he developed during his youth.

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