A rogue researcher far out at sea has second thoughts about her mission at the last minute. The mission – upregulation of microbially-produced sulfur aerosols – can help counter the greenhouse effect. But is the science there yet? And what could be the unintended consequences?
Read below the flash fiction story “Mutiny” by Gavin Douglas, winner of the #FEMSmicroBlog Writing Competition on “How Microbiology will Change our Future”.
Read on this link: all shortlisted stories.
Listen to the Microbes and Us podcast episode with Gavin Douglas on Science in Fiction.
Liz sat on the bow of the ship, gazing at the calm waves. There were few clouds today, and but for the ship itself, all she could see were shades of blue. It was easy to forget the crisis on days like this. She momentarily considered returning to the stern but rejected the impulse: she needed to learn to be still on these voyages.
So far, it had been a struggle. Zephyr had left port two days ago, and Liz had been unable to relax ever since. She had envisioned that this journey would be a time for constructive contemplation, but instead her mind kept returning to the same anxious thoughts. Was this who she was? What if it went wrong? Normally she would force herself to go for a jog when such thoughts arose, but there was no escape on the boat. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply: one way or another, it would all be over soon.
“Dr. Bashar?” A voice from behind startled her. She turned to see Chris, the crew’s youngest member.
She gave her best confident expression.
“What’s up?” she replied.
“Dr. Murray says that this is the spot.”
“Here?” Liz’s stomach churned. They were supposed to still be a day away.
“That’s what he said! Apparently the sensors picked up a bunch of them. The algae and bacteria.”
Liz looked out at the waves. Was it possible that thewater was murkier here?
“I better go talk to him,” she said and made her way back to the cabin. She tried to ignore the panicked thoughts that arose as she stepped over the lines draped along the starboard side. Down below she found Dr. Benjamin Murray hunched over his monitor.
He looked up as she approached. “Liz – we can do it here!”.
“But what about the target region?” she asked.
“Trust me, this is better! This area is highly concentrated. It’s the perfect place to start our run.”
Liz looked at the monitor. Ben wasn’t wrong: the concentration in this area was higher than the planned spot anyway. They were far enough from shore to evade detection; there was no good reason not to start.
“Okay,” she conceded. “I’ll need a while to get things prepared though.”
Ben looked confused. “What do you mean? Everything’s ready to go.”
“Just some last-minute checks. This is our first run after all: we want it to go smoothly, right?”
Ben nodded reluctantly. “Okay, but it would be great to begin within the hour.”
“Of course,” said Liz. “I’ll get started right away.”
She tried to control her breathing as she made her way to the rear cabin. She managed to maintain her composure until she closed the cabin door and then collapsed against the curved wall, her eyes clenched shut. What if it worked too well? Yes, dimethyl sulfide might save humanity. The microbially-produced aerosols really might reverse the greenhouse effect. Block out just enough of the sun’s heat to give humans the time they needed. But what if it worked too well? What if Europe was saved while Southeast Asia experienced an ice age?
Liz took a few long breaths and steadied herself. She turned her attention to the numerous unmarked canisters strapped to the wall. Here it was: the compound that she had dedicated so much of her life to, the aerosol driver. It stressed ocean microbes in just the right way, causing them to enormously upregulate their dimethyl sulfide production. By releasing these canisters in the wake of the Zephyr, she, and the fleet of scientists and activists on this mission, would substantially increase the sulfuric aerosol levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Enough that they should see a pause in the uptick in global temperature, at least according to their models.
Liz closed her eyes again. Sure, maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe the sulfuric aerosols would exacerbate international tensions. Maybe it would make the climate crisis worse. But what was the alternative? She looked through the cabin porthole: the water was still deceptively calm, and it was hard to believe there were many DMSP producers nearby. But there was no doubt: the microbes were out there, and so was the reality of the crisis. Liz felt her resolve return. Yes, it might be irresponsible to start this run, but perhaps doing nothing would be worse. She unstrapped a cannister and opened the cabin door.
ⓒ FEMS/the author
About the author of this story
Gavin Douglas is a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University investigating the ecological and evolutionary factors that drive strain diversity in the honey bee gut microbiome. He enjoys writing short stories as a hobby and one day hopes to write a science-themed novel.