Co-Winner - Life on Mars!
| Waiting to be Free
Co-winner Writer's Cramp 2015-08-25
She'd never seen anything like it. Peering into her binary microscope, Dr. Lucia Pérez watched in wonder and awe as the bacterium Perseverance had recovered from Martian sub-soil three decades ago began to wave its flagella and scoot around in the droplet of water on the slide.
"Yes!" she yelled, giving a fist pump. "We've got one!"
The workers in the Fort Detrick Biocontainment Facility, watching displays throughout the lab, clapped and cheered. They had managed to bring one ancient microbe out of encapsulation, that strange state of suspended animation that allowed bacteria to survive heat and cold and time. On Earth, encapsulated bacteria could survive for eons in lava flows and in Antarctic ice. Millenia after the last Martian surface water had disappeared, these tiny motes had survived unknown ages of heat and cold.
Yet now, they had returned, perhaps the greatest scientific discovery of the century: life on Mars.
Outside the Facility, the crowd of protesters swelled and spilled along the road leading to the fenced and heavily-guarded compound. Yells of "No Alien Monsters!" and "Earth for Earthlings!" echoed off the walls. Signs in various creative spellings--"Keep Earth Pure!", "Death to Marshan Bugs!", "Send them home","Kill Em Before they Excape!", "Kill the Scientist Traitors"--waved for attention.
Dr. David Simmerson, the Facility Director, had an eye both on the biomonitor and the public TV feed. The increasing size, energy, and violence of the crowd did not concern him. As a military installation, one of only a dozen Bio-Security Level Four sites in America, the facility was secure. It was heavily built, heavily guarded, and heavily sealed. The air was filtered. The water supply was filtered. Every toilet flush was treated and sanitized. Despite the fears and claims of the anti-science zealots and conspiracy theorists blathering on TV and in the street, nothing dangerous could escape.
"The clear and present danger in this situation," a TV evangelist's strident comment on a talk show drew the director's attention, "is that these bacteria do not belong here, they are not of this earth, and if they escape they have the potential to infect and destroy every living creature on the planet. God kept these things a billion miles from Earth for a reason: to protect us from them. This research must stop immediately, the Martian bacteria killed and destroyed and burnt to atoms."
It's only about 40 million miles, Simmerson thought idly, and the chances are that if a Martian bacterium encountered something as foreign as an Earth organism, it would shrivel and die.
A yell from the lab drew his attention back to the microscope display. The bacterium, now fully restored from its million-year encapsulation and evidently well-nourished by its artificial nutrient bath, had started to split into two. It appeared to be proceeding exactly in the pattern of any other earthly bacterium, except...
"Dios, this thing is fast!" said Dr. Pérez. "Normally, bacterial fission takes up to twenty minutes, but look at this sucker go!". Even as the fascinated scientists watched, the fission ended, and two tiny bacteria were swimming around. "That was a complete fission in seventy seconds! Highest reproduction rate I've ever seen."
Roughly a minute later, there were four, then eight.
"Pérez," ordered Simmerson, "start the antibiotic tests." She separated the bacterial culture into ten parts, plated them in Petri dishes, and passed them to to other workers. These tests would determine the effectiveness of the most common antibiotics against the Martian organisms.
Antibiotics can begin working immediately, but it would take at least an hour for the results to be certain. While the scientists waited, observed changes, and kept records, the crowd outside the fort grew larger, and began pressing against the fence. A ring of soldiers gathered inside the perimeter, preparing high-pressure water hoses to disperse the protestors. A BLS-4 site was built to both contain and defend.
Soon the results for the antibiotics started appearing on Simmerson's monitor. Amoxicyllin - negative. Doxycycline - negative. Cephalexin - negative....
As the list grew, so did his apprehension. Nothing seemed to be killing the Martian bugs. They continued to thrive and reproduce. Rapidly. Could the doom-sayers be right?
...Vancomycin - negative. That one brought a chill. The most powerful antibiotic in the world's arsenal against disease, yet it had no effect.
"Okay, folks, let's move on to the animal tests. Everything's set. Move to the closed containment units. Let's be really careful here." A dozen strains of genetically pure laboratory mice were placed in bio-secure containers and injected with small amounts of the rapidly reproducing Martian microorganisms.
Results began showing on the lab monitors. BALB/c mice, 100% mortality. A/J mice, 90% mortality and the rest are ailing. CD1 strain, 100% respiratory failure pending mortality...
"Enough. Abort all tests. Destroy test subjects. Sterilize samples." The orders were crisp, precise, confident. There were protocols in place to handle dangerous biomass; they would be swiftly and carefully followed.
Everything went into crucibles at 600C, to be charred to ash, which was then destroyed in acid baths. The acid was neutralized with a base, and the result--basically water and various salts--filtered . The solids were encased in epoxy for burial. The liquid was saturated with ultraviolet radiation and released.
The Martian bacteria had encapsulated at the first hint of dryness and heat. They had survived millennia of searing heat and vicious cold. They could wait a little longer to be free.