In a future where multiple environmental crises are happening simultaneously, humans must augment their bodies and immune systems with external colonies of microbes in order to survive. Those who grow up in this new world of visible symbiosis have vastly different perspectives and priorities than the previous generations, and less attachment to the concept of individualism, or even the concept of being purely “human”…
Read below the flash fiction story “Not I, But We” by Jessica Mikenas, 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.
Not I, But We
They saved humanity when they started paying attention to the sloths.
“We have always been symbionts,” proclaims the scientist on the national broadcast. “The relationship with the bacteria that live inside our gut is mutualistic. This next partnership will be the same.” Her voice is honey-warm as she smiles into the camera: Her job is not to educate so much as it is to convince the remaining public to shuffle into local pop-up hospitals with the same resigned determination once reserved for the DMV.
Sloths, she explains, house colonies of microbes in their fur. Apparently, what seems like simple green slime is the reason they are serenely outliving eighty-six percent of mammals, whose warm-blooded bodies succumb the fastest, leaving their corpses littered across the continent like discarded laundry. The cocktail of algae, fungi, and cyanobacteria fabricated by the Environmental Crisis Response Department will act as an exterior immune system for humans—one equipped to deal with the radioactive dust storms, the UV light that blisters skin within minutes, the poisonous ash still drifting from the sky.
“With this, we could go outside,” the scientist tells them, her voice beatific. “We can have our lives back.”
Georgie doesn’t remember much from that time, when even indoors it was a struggle to breathe. What she does remember is kicking her legs back and forth as she sits atop a cold metal table, her hazard-suit unzipped and folded down around her waist like splayed petals. Gloved hands brushing a thin layer of green sludge onto the sallow flesh of her arms, the nurse’s voice murmuring above her. Most vivid in her memory is falling asleep that night, the air cool against her skin, dreaming of floating in a vast and empty lake.
Within two years, a start-up begins selling algae in blindingly fluorescent shades, pinks and teals and oranges, for personalizing your microbiome’s aesthetics as well as its utility. Georgie herself cultivates a strain that gleams in veins of shining gold between the blues, greens, and browns of her second skin, the envy of her high school’s underground trading ring. Her whole class shone and sparkled, wearing tank tops and respirator masks, while half the teachers were still confined inside the plasticky, protective suits that shielded them from the altered atmosphere. Youth adapted best. Many born before the Crises developed severe allergies to the mixtures, no matter how many times they were individually refined.
“I’m so sorry,” one of her college professors addressed them once, mournfully. “You didn’t ask to be born into a world this empty.”
But she’s never been alone, Georgie thinks. Not since she was six, her chrysalis peeled back, while the future was painted onto her skin. The previous generation clings to their memories of a world that no longer exists, as though they can salvage the society that was before. Meanwhile, their children slip out of the sealed, recycled-air homes, second skins bioluminescing blue-green under a sky incandescent with stars. As her skin glimmers in response, Georgie wonders about the glowing, monstrous fish from the biology textbooks, whether they even notice the apocalypse so many miles above.
The unauthorized assembly starts at noon, when only those fully encased in rich microbial coating can stand direct sunlight. The visiting speaker is radiant with purpose, here at the third stop on their tour of what scattered universities remain.
“It’s self-aggrandizing to say we are communities. Currently, our brains are still one separate component of the system,” they lecture. “One mind out of millions. But we aren’t the ones afraid of stagnation.” They remove their shirt, to a few jesting catcalls, but Georgie’s awareness of the crowd fades as they turn, displaying whirling colors and textures, smooth bubbles of algae running into ruffled plates of lichen. The tiny fruiting body of a mushroom nestles along the protruding ridge of their scapula, and she can see the puckered red scars where fungal hyphae enter the speaker’s skin along their spine. They remove their respirator and breathe deeply, without coughing, and when they next speak Georgie glimpses the green shimmer that coats their tongue and throat.
“We can be more—truly communal systems.” They stretch out their hands, palms facing upwards in supplication. “Together.”
Georgie closes her eyes, and imagines floating in the lake. Of sinking into the cold mud, stretching up into every wave, her body melting away until she becomes some vast, unrecognizable thing, full of light.
She is first to step forward, placing her hands in theirs, holding fast.
ⓒ FEMS/the author
Jessica Mikenas is a graduate student at New Mexico State University, currently researching the connections between biological soil crusts, the greater soil microbiome, and rangeland plant health. A creative writing enthusiast since childhood, she enjoys exploring the intersection of science and art. After five years working with biological soil crusts on the Colorado Plateau, she finds dedicating years of your life to a single subject can reveal profound beauty within the often-overlooked.