Nothing to Worry About
“I’ll go and tend to the roses!” Gerald hitched up the rusty wheelbarrow and pushed it along the wooden path.
He was headed for the bushes opposite the huge pit that evoked the shape of a pond. Swerving from side to side, he was careful not to step too heavy on any grass or flower seeds that he and his wife Melinda had tediously planted yesterday in the glaring sun. The yellow ball had not lost any of its power since then; the heat had lingered overnight, as its loyal echo and now its rays were piercing the air again with full force. Gerald wiped quite a few drops of sweat off his forehead, wetting his tattered gardening gloves.
“You sure you want to do it now? In this burning heat?” Melinda shouted back from what Gerald assumed to be somewhere behind the porch. The brilliant scientist she was, she couldn’t stop her questioning and doubting.
Her inquiring mind had brought them to this place: a research station (alias: a wooden house) in the Far South. It was one of the traditional ones from the old times. Along with it came a spacious garden, solitude in the idyllic sunset crisscrossed by willow and acacia tops, and the occasional bottle from a port wine stack that they liked to open on those rare evenings when the breeze still had a light and airy ring to it. But with this place to call home also came a contract that he was about to comply with, while she decided to revolt against it.
The last days had been anything but easy for both of them. At least her shouted inquiry showed that she still cared, although she knew as well as he did that there was no waiting for a cooler day anyway.
“Yes, yes,” Gerald shouted back across the empty lake. “Nothing to worry about.”
He brought his wheelbarrow to a halt on the other side of the former pond, in front of the first small rose bush in a row of ten. A few inches high, and about a dozen thorns and three light pink blossoms strong, the bush was among the most highly developed ones of the batch. Following him via a drone’s camera through the garden, the committee had selected this one for the trial.
Gerald slipped off his regular gloves and tried to put on a pair of extra-resistant ones they had given him, but his hands were shaking too much. It was happening again. He pressed his palms together to counteract his revolting nerves, which were firing up in the heat and the pressure of the situation, and released a thin but fierce stream of air through his tense lips.
Nothing to worry about, he thought, letting his gaze drift from one bush to the next, managing to pull his gloves further up until they met with the protective suit he was already wearing.
But with this place to call home also came a contract that he was about to comply with, while she decided to revolt against it.
The fabric covered his limbs and torso like a second skin. They had assured him that the fine fibers were the strongest ever made, perfectly suited for the task.
After his hands had calmed down again and the unnerving tremble had come to a halt, he put on the last piece of secure clothing: the beekeeper’s hat and veil. Looking somewhat like a deep-sea diver, he felt like an explorer venturing into the unknown, hopefully into the promising kind of it. If someone told him maybe ten or twenty years ago that he would end up carrying out one of the most crucial moves in a biological research program, he would have probably laughed and bought them another can of beer. But here he was, a gym teacher deprived of his natural air-conditioned habitat, thrown into this picturesque countryside to help his wife save the world. Although now she wasn’t even interested in this step that could well deserve some Armstrongish cheering.
Swallowing his frustration, he lifted a small, dark green box from the barrow.
A neatly dressed woman, with a black and red uniform and hair tied back tightly, had emerged from a beige all-wheel electric two days ago and delivered the parcel. The logo on the driver’s door read UniTex Growth, the same company that sent Melinda and him down here almost a year ago. The company had cared for their food and water supply before Gerald and his wife managed to set up the filter machine, the greenhouse, and the lab. Now, six months in the real game, the company’s few human employees only made the long way to deliver the confidential steps of the program.
“Just… ah, forget it,” he heard Melinda’s voice rise and fade. A pair of secateurs rattled from afar.
Was she really not coming to witness it?
Gerald slipped off his regular gloves and tried to put on a pair of extra-resistant ones they had given him, but his hands were shaking too much.
For the past six months, they both spent many hours in VR meetings with botanists, entomologists, AI specialists, and UniTex managers. He had watched all of them working on what seemed to be the best solution: a fluid that was able to imitate pollen. One meeting a week, they discussed the challenges and the majority of the program’s thinkers kept emphasizing the benefits.
Melinda was not among those. She adamantly insisted that the fluid’s design was so complex it would require at least one thousand carefully matched subjects for proper testing. Mathematical calculations were not enough by far to weigh the risks and chances of a serum as toxic as the one they had developed to counteract the extinction of them all. He could even hear her exact wording in his head now. One thousand subjects … Being one of the highest trained botanical engineers statewide, she was ingrained with a certain kind of responsibility. Her concern was understandable, but in the end, she was only a working bee in the program like him, like the pollination fluid would be upon its completion. He believed in strategies, and at least UniTex had given them one to make the best out of their life after they had been driven out of what used to be known as “Aircon City.” They were even promised a share of the house after the program was done with. It was the best prospect they had in view of everything that had been happening since the wipe—the best he could think of at that time.
The people in power ignored her concerns and the program continued. Melinda became a passive spectator like him and a rare guest in their shared bed at night, wandering off to her moonlit office in lack of sleep, he assumed. All he could do was watch the things unfold, a worker bee bought to perform, not to think.
Seven days ago, they had learned the committee’s decision on who would perform the actual procedure, the real-life test. Theoretically, Melinda would have been the better option, aware of all and even the inventor of some of the minute functions of the organic and hardware compartments involved in the process. Practically, he had proven to have the calmer nerves, the better focus, the more loyal mind. The end of the trial in sight, he had not dared to tell the advisory board about his growing tremor.
Then, he found the letter. Three days ago. When Melinda was out on her regular tour of inspection and left her jacket unattended on the porch, he snatched her key from one of its pockets and sneaked into her office. He rummaged from drawer to drawer for what made the same rustling papery sound he had heard the nights before when she left her side of the bed, careful but unsuccessful not to wake him. He found it unlocked, the paper wrinkled but folded.
Dear Dr. Melinda Cliff, he read, voicelessly moving his lips. We are happy to accept you as a profile researcher in our working group for afforestation in the Northwest. And further down: Please respond within one week whether you will take on this responsibility. Signed by the head manager of Sphere Research.
The letter was dated two days prior to when she had told him of her acceptance in the UniTex program. UniTex’s letter had come with their first check of five thousand dollars, a voucher for a new IT suite, and a supportive role for him. He remembered the day exactly: how she cheerfully kissed his cheeks and promised him an all right, even meaningful life in the South. She had never mentioned the other possibility.
When Melinda was out on her regular tour of inspection and left her jacket unattended on the porch, he snatched her key from one of its pockets and sneaked into her office.
Now, pressed in his suit like a vacuum-packed chicken, estranged from the love of his life because of an unspoken debate and a committee’s decision to put loyalty over expertise and risk over unanimity, he wished he had found the courage to tell her of his finding, to ask her why she had hidden the first letter, why she was longing for it now. They could have turned their backs on the dry lands and lived in the shades of ancient trees, where the winds carried fresh air on their backs more frequently, where the temperatures were said to drop at night, where they could have continued to trust each other. Why did she choose a mission that she probably already knew back then she would not follow through?
“You sure you don’t want to witness this?” he tried once more, looking for a sign from Melinda—whether of assurance, sympathy, or even anger, he didn’t know.
When silence was the answer, he tried to focus on the trial blossom and knelt down in the dust-dry grass.
He took the box and let its cover slide back into the barrow. Everything seemed in place, just as the VR tutorials had foretold it. The items looked almost identical to the virtual models, only the pink seemed more glaring, maybe because of the sun, maybe because of his buzzing head. With a thorough exhale, he took the remote control from the box and placed it on his thighs. Then, with two fingers of his right hand, he grabbed the pair of pincers which had been placed next to the control in a perfectly punched shape. No other pair would have fit. They had trained them in recognizing such miniscule details. After all, who could guarantee that the delivery person had really been from UniTex? The driver could have hijacked the car earlier on the road, numbed the actual official, put on her uniform, and replaced the authorized objects. In a sensitive case as this, every option had to be treated as a most probable situation.
He still longed for Melinda by his side. A second pair of eyes would be helpful, no matter their disagreement in all of this. The few times they had spoken since the committee’s decision, they had discussed irrelevant things: the next crops they would plant, proteins they would grow. They danced around the procedure as if it were the toxic component itself, as if the mere mention of it would cut the last thin thread that still tied them to their romantic past, their fading former life, in which he had instructed midlife-crisis-ridden bankers on bench presses and she had run spotless tests in a cooled lab.
Gerald made a few test pinches into the air, trying to compose himself through the relentlessly practiced act. He was alone in this. She was too. Then, he lifted the small, carbon bee-shaped object with the pincers from its synthetic bedding.
He looked at it with an intense stare. The object that he had observed in several simulations now appeared way too small and innocent, considering that its abdomen was filled with this incredible fluid. This little gadget should fill in for a whole lost species and restore the flora and fauna that had covered the lands before the devastating drought. A sudden shiver gripped his hand. Now it was too late to return this unwanted gift. It was too late.
Emptying his lungs by counting to eight, he pressed the ends of the pincers against the chosen blossom, opened his grip, and withdrew his hand. The bee was almost weightless, a perfect allusion to its organic ancestor.
This was it. He had done it. He had proven his focus, proven himself worthy in a field he had not believed he could wade into, even to his ankles. He had calmed his nerves, told them to remain steady when it mattered, and done it. For a few more seconds, the tiny object on the petal kept drawing him into a trance of excitement, self-assurance, and bliss. Soon, billions of them would save the world, and he would have enabled them to do so.
“It’s set!” he shouted across the dip, his eyes searching for Melinda with her thumbs up, smiling from ear to ear because he had done something she found important, something that mattered.
But that was wishful thinking. He could not see much from his position among the bushes anyways. He attempted to get a better view by stretching his upper body and forgot about the control in his lap. Smoothly, it slid from his overalls, right onto the secateurs—and beeped.
In shock, Gerald reached for it, but it was too late. Without further warning, the carbon bee began to hum, carbon wings flapping, carbon stinger tangling.
It took off from the blossom and, like a bee under attack, sprinted for Gerald’s upper arm. It injected the liquid into his veins, breaking the suit without any difficulty. He was not even close to reacting quickly enough to lift his now heavily trembling hand and knock the synthetic clone away.
Had she been right …
Within a second, he fell backward, his head crashing onto the dirt path, motionless.
Paralyzed, he heard the hum move across the lake. Melinda …
The revitalizing fluid had one major drawback that Melinda had emphasized again and again: it could be highly toxic for the one species it was made to save. More test runs would have been required.
Workshop Alumni 2018
Lisa Schantl is the founder and editor-in-chief of Tint Journal and an assistant at treffpunkt sprachen at the University of Graz, where she also researches translingual literature. In addition, she freelances as cultural organizer and translator. She holds a master’s degree in English and American studies, as well as bachelor’s degrees in the same field and philosophy. Her writings and translations have appeared in Asymptote, manuskripte, PubLab, The Hopper, The Normal Review, UniVerse, Versopolis, and more. She has received various grants and scholarships, most recently the Kunstraum Steiermark scholarship for 2023–24.
William Henry Fox Talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot (England, 1800-1877) was a scientist and photography pioneer. In 1834, he produced his first “photogenic drawings,” and, in the following year, his first camera negative.