Millennium Microbial
By: Jim Bates

Karen settled into her seat, waved good–bye to her husband and opened her company issued computer. Millennium Microbial liked to called it a Data Tablet, but Karen and everyone else called it a laptop because that's what it was.

Her boss Jerry Finkelstein had sent his personal transport carrier to their apartment complex to pick up Karen on her day off after emailing her with a message to come in, or, as he'd put it, "Suffer the consequences." The consequences being having a day (at least) removed from her forty year predetermined Life Line. She'd already lost thirty–seven days and didn't want to lose more. Not like her husband who was at one–hundred and seventy–seven lost days and counting. Sure Quinn was a quiet man, an engineer by profession, but he was also somewhat of a free–thinker, something she loved about him. But it was also a character trait that got him into trouble in the rigid thinking twenty–third century, hence the large number of docked days.

Karen turned her attention to her laptop. She knew exactly what was on Finkelstein's mind. He wanted an update on the project she and the other two members of her team had been working on. As she brought up her records, a shudder went through the normally unflappable young project leader. Her team had been studying the possibility of improving the nutritional value of the world's dwindling food supply. They'd been running a series of tests for two months and had the preliminary results and they weren't good. The process they tested was going to be prohibitively costly and no manufacturing company in their right mind would go for it. With that being the case, people would have to make do with more chemically produced nutritional supplements and get used to taking more injections of the body's much needed proteins. It was the only way.

Distressed to have to present such dire results to her boss, Karen closed her computer and looked out upon the gray and ashen land that was now planet Earth, the end result of two hundred years of global warming. Desolate brown landscapes, non–descript concrete structures to live and work in and a dusty atmosphere making daytime seem like perpetual twilight, all combined to make the outside world endlessly depressing.

She sighed and focused her attention. The transport carrier parked in the tunnel underneath Millennium Microbial and Karen exited and made her way to the entrance. Two security guards checked her for banned electronics and a reader scanned her index fingerprint. When the guards acknowledged she was safe to enter they let her in through massive steel doors. The inside of the building was a brightly lit but stark interior of whitewashed walls wide hallways and black tile. No color anywhere. She took the elevator to the fifth floor and made her way to her cubicle where her co–worker and friend Jen popped her head over the partition.

"Hey, there. Did you hear about the meeting? Finkelstein wants all of us, me, you and Randy, to attend." Jen pointed the empty cubicle where their other team member's work station was located.

Karen nodded. "Yeah, I heard about it. He called me in on my day off."

"I heard and it sucks. You could use a break," Jen lowered her voice and shook her head. There was no love from either of them toward their demanding boss. She switched gears and asked, "Do you know what it's about?"

"I'm pretty sure he wants an update on our project."

"So soon? We've only had two months to work on it."

"Yeah, but you know him. He expects miracles and doesn't care about scientific method or process at all. Just results." She grimaced, "What a jerk."

Jen whispered, "Yeah, I know. He's the absolute worst." She was paranoid about anyone overhearing their conversation and with good reason. The company was ripe with employees who would do anything to get ahead, and it made for more stress in an already stressful work environment.

At twenty–six years old Karen and Jen were the same age. They had worked together at Millennium Microbial for five years, the entire time they'd been employed by the bio–engineer company.

Karen checked the clock on the wall. "We should get going."

Jen pointed behind her. "Randy's in the break room. I'll go get him." Of the three of them, he would be considered the quiet one, almost to the point of being withdrawn. He was a brilliant microbiologist, though.

"Sounds good," Karen said. "I'll come with you. Just let me grab my laptop, it's got my re–cap on it."

Five minutes later they walked in Jerry Finkelstein's office. He took one look at the three of them and checked his ornate watch. With no preliminary greeting, he barked, "Let's get started." He didn't even offer for them to sit down.

Not surprised by his rudeness, Karen, as team leader got right to point, opening her laptop. "I'm assuming you want an update?"

Her boss sat back and smirked. He was a short, squat man with a thin goatee. He looked like a potato, one of the few vegetables that still existed in the world. "Yeah, I do," he challenged her. "Give me your best shot."

Inwardly, Karen grimaced. God, she hated the man. 'Give me your best shot.' Everything was a game to him. In fact, sometimes Karen got the distinct feeling he wanted them to fail, especially her and Jen. He had a bad attitude toward women in general and the two of them in particular and seemed to delight in finding ways of making them prove their worth as competent scientists. This project was one of them.

"Okay," she started her summary, "here's where we're at."

The essence of her presentation was that their research into splitting microbial DNA and trying to genetically engineer a different stain of food was a failure. The plants they developed all died.

But at least they'd learned something, as Karen pointed out in conclusion, "We know what doesn't work. Now we can focus on looking in a different direction."

Finkelstein leapt to his feet and screamed. "I don't want to go in different direction! I wanted this to work and now you're telling me it doesn't. We've already invested a lot of money into this project. What you're telling me is unacceptable." He shook his head as he thrust a finger at Randy. "What about you, Mr. Hotshot. You got anything better than this?"

Randy looked sheepishly at Karen. She felt a sudden clutch in her stomach and knew immediately something bad was going to happen. "Well, to be honest, I do." Damn, Karen thought to herself. He's going to turn on us.

"No, God damn it!" She yelled.

"Good," Finkelstein said to Randy. "And you," he pointed at Karen. "You shut up." Karen clamped her lips together as he flicked his fingers at her and Jen, like shooing a couple of flies away. "I want you of here. Both of you. Now!"

They did as they were told but not before Karen and Jen both shot hard stares at Randy on the way out. He avoided their looks of disgust but at least had the decency to blush.

"What was that all about?" Jen whispered once they were outside the office and the door was closed.

"I guess our former teammate is going off on his own. Remember how we talked about trying to genetically engineer a complete DNA helix like they did back in the twenty–first century? I think that's what he's going to talk to Finkelstein about."

"We both know that won't work," Jen said.

"I know. I guess old Randy just wants to try and get on Finkelstein's good side."

Jen coughed out a derisive laugh, "Good luck with that. We both know he doesn't have one."

"Randy doesn't know that, I guess. You know, I always thought there was something funny about him."

"Well, you were right." She pointed toward the closed door to emphasize her point. "That's for sure."

The two of them walked back to their cubicles, talking intently. "We could get started on our own research right away, you know," Jen said. "You've got those last findings, right?"

"Yeah, the ones that suggest working with that DNA strand?"

"We can investigate that one protein strand on the fifteenth chromosome."

"Yeah," Karen said, thinking. Then she made her decision. "To hell with Randy and Finkelstein, let's do it. Let's prove both of them wrong." She set her laptop on her desk and took out her phone, catching Jen's eye. "Give me a second. I'm going to call my husband. It could be a long night."

Jen replied, almost thinking out loud, "It could be a long few months. If we don't get this worked out..." she let her words trail off.

"Yeah, I know," Karen said. "If we don't come up with a solution to increase the world's food supply..."

"We're dead," Jen said, finishing Karen's thought and cutting her finger across her throat.

"Yeah. Very dead," Karen agreed. They were one of the few select scientists that knew the world's food supply could only last another twenty–five years at most. Then it would be a long and slow death by starvation of fifteen million people along with the chaos that was sure to accompany it.

The possibility was too horrific to contemplate for long. They had a huge job ahead, but they had confidence in themselves. They looked at each other and solemnly clasped hands in solidarity. We can do this.

Then Karen called her husband. "Hey, Quinn, I wanted you to know I'll be home late. Something's come up at work." She listened and then said, looking at her friend and giving her the universal A–Ok sign, "No, we've got it covered. It' not a problem. Me and Jen can handle it."

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