To the Last Drop
by Fumiki Takahashi
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Alexander Fleming didn’t set out to discover penicillin. It was, in the true sense of the words, the fruit of chance. The Scottish scientist, while cleaning up some petri dishes, noticed that one culture of bacteria was contaminated with green mold. The bacteria immediately surrounding it had been destroyed. Looking at the sample under a microscope, he reasoned that some substance secreted by the mold had prevented the bacteria from growing.
Ten years later, penicillin was put to practical use. The population growth that had reached its peak since the Industrial Revolution accelerated by leaps and bounds with that breakthrough in medicine. It was said to be the biggest discovery of the twentieth century on that planet.
In a noisy classroom where the instructor had finished his lecture, Yaki Mu, a bactericidal engineering student, remained deep in thought, his chin resting upon his hand. He looked up when his girlfriend Ursula started talking to him.
“Yaki, are you still scared?”
“Scared?” Yaki sounded irritated. “No, not really. By the time we start our military service, the doktors will have also evolved and become resistant to any bacteria. Our professor said so. Humanity is already beginning to control even coincidence.”
Ursula sucked in her lightly freckled cheeks and wrinkled up her nose. It was no use being frightened. After all, Yaki and Ursula were both going to Earth, also known as the Cocoon, after graduating from college.
“I can’t wait for this semester to be over!” Yaki said. “When we’re done with our finals, let’s put on adapters and go to Titan or somewhere. We should be able to get loans for that, right? Besides, you must give birth to a couple more kids before military service.”
“Well, I’m already exempted from military service. Because I’ve already had six babies.”
“Six? I thought you’d had only three.”
“Oh, I had triplets the first time and twins the last time.”
Yaki must have looked disappointed. Ursula wrapped her arms around his shoulders, as if to say she was going to have his child, too. A girl, if at all possible. Yaki would go into military service with no prospect of ever returning home. Even so, the thought of Ursula giving him a daughter cheered him.
* * *
Three years passed. With the doktors, auto-immune maximizing bots scattered in his blood vessels greater than 0.8 mm, Yaki Mu was on board a shuttle as a private second class in the Third Company, the Return to Earth Division. In the end, Ursula had given birth to a baby boy, and that was the last time Yaki had become a father. He was somewhat disappointed that he had only sired a “seed,” but it no longer mattered.
As the shuttle took off, Yaki felt his body getting lighter, and then it shifted into cruise mode. Before Yaki’s seat belt became loose, Corporal Tom Mills floated through the middle of the ship.
“As soon as we finish our descent, we’ll head for the South Pole via South America. If you can’t join the battalion, you need to switch to the transfer system on your own. You’ll be dead if you bump into giant germs in latitude less than seventy degrees.
“There’s nothing you rookies can do. Rumor has it that you can kill them by splashing your sperm on them. So you may even jerk off before they attack you and melt you like ice cream. Maybe Martian girls will get knocked up if they watch you doing that. What’s the matter? You’re supposed to be laughing now.”
No one in the unit was laughing. A seasoned soldier who had made it back home to Mars twice already, the corporal hailed from a distinguished family, as evident from his relatively long surname. He was supposed to have high-quality doktors embedded in him, unlike privates like Yaki and his comrades, and the unit would surely give priority to rescuing him.
Perhaps noticing his men’s frosty gazes, the corporal chose his victim among the fresh recruits and rattled on. “Hey you, did you brush your teeth? The bacteria in your mouth may betray you, right? Hey, breathe out! You stink! Open your mouth and I’ll disinfect it...”
He kept up the tradition of hazing new recruits, and that recruit ended up being forced to suck the urinal-deodorizer balls the corporal had thrown inside the shuttle. The corporal was laughing his head off, seeing his subordinate almost on the verge of tears, trying to swallow the yellow balls drifting weightless.
“This unit will be annihilated,” mumbled Sol Ng, who was sitting next to Yaki. Although he had graduated at the top of his class at the Department of Toxicology, he would march into the jaws of death because of his low social status. However, his family name wasn’t shorter than Yaki’s.
“Hey, Yaki, how many kids did you leave behind?” he asked out of the blue. As Yaki had no reason to lie, he answered honestly that he had fathered only one child, a boy at that.
“Is that so? I’ve got no kids.”
“Really? Don’t you like girls, Sol?”
“Well, just my luck, or lack thereof. There was a girl I liked. But the thing is, I’d always been in love with the same girl.”
“But she sounds terrible. Any girl wouldn’t mind giving birth at least once. How long have you been in love with her? Since you were ten?”
“Well, I don’t quite remember... I must’ve been no more than five.” Sol looked like he was about to cry. He had loved her all his life, but it was an unrequited love. In this regard, Ursula had been very good to Yaki.
For a month before they reached the Hohmann transfer orbit and received strategic supplies, Yaki and Sol talked to each other often. They carried on a trite conversation over Sol’s unrequited love of the last twenty-one years, discussing how he could have done things differently. Peco, who had left behind seven “seeds” while failing to produce a single girl, joined in their chatter. The days flew by and before long it was time for the descent to the Cocoon.
* * *
In May of the two hundred and fifty-sixth year of the Marslia period, the VAT 1332 Yaki had boarded began its descent toward Earth. The ship went dropping down to an altitude of thirteen thousand meters, slipping through a narrow gap opened up by the bombardment from the Sam Hoyer satellite. When sunlight rained on the dimly lit Cocoon, the germs at the landing site would die, exposing the green surface.
It would take three hours for the clouds of bacteria under the atmosphere to fill the gap and cover Earth with darkness once again. During that time, the soldiers would have to wipe out Yggdrasils, world trees that spouted spores, in an area of fifty kilometers square. If they failed to do so, then the thirty-fourth regression operation would collapse, and the unit would be forced to abandon the twenty-odd platoons and retreat temporarily to Mars.
If the operation succeeded, as originally planned, they would travel on foot from the landing site in South America to Antarctica, where there were the fewest germs. After trudging through the forest in the mold sea bloated with underground water and reaching Antarctica, they would set up a colony for sterilization. If they managed to build the solar charging system Solarizer, it would mean that the three-decade-old regression operation had taken the first step toward success.
While sprinkling ignition agents on the second Yggdrasil, black mold invaded the right side of Sol’s mask. It expanded rapidly, causing half his head to become like an overripe melon. While transplanting doktors to himself and feeling the sediments in his blood being blown away, Yaki heard Sol say, “Tell her I love her” — just before he died.
Eighteen hours passed since the effects began to appear, and Yaki Mu continued his march. Not far from the forest in the mold sea, he was about to cross the cliffs of the Rio Grande Strait. He still had plenty of cartridges, but he was seized with a terrible thirst. From time to time he touched a picture in his chest pocket. It was a picture of Borata, the brown-skinned girl with black eyes whom Sol had loved all his life.
In the forest in the mold sea, some soldiers fell in the dense poisonous mist. Ben Goy, a private first class who prided himself on being robust, also had his lungs damaged and died, his body twisted like a warped bow. Only three members of the ten-man platoon were left. Breathing in the poisonous mist emitted by the stinky balls, they too would join their fallen comrades one after another.
“Hey, penicillin heads! See the Machu Picchu Base over there? Major General Mills will be the first one to arrive!” Corporate Mills shouted in false cheer, pointing toward a fungus-covered mound, the ruins of a building that the humans who had once occupied this planet had constructed on the edge of the sea. Yaki’s mission was to recapture that base.
The endlessly high mountains stood up against the sky. Adventurers who had been swallowed by the waves and the carcasses of large creatures such as orcas and whales lay on the seabed, and the remains left behind by former occupants cast thin shadows on the edge of the continent.
* * *
“So, what is discovery, exactly? Would it have been better if such a thing had never been discovered?”
Yaki Mu sipped hot water while his shoulders received a weak gleam of sunlight falling on the recaptured Antarctic. The water was made by straining stinky balls and mold trees blooming in the mold sea. The doktors were concentrated in his thorax. The water tasted okay going down, but the stink of mold lingered afterward.
The midnight sun was ending, and the endless night of the polar winter would arrive in half a year. Before that, Yaki would have to traverse up to, at least, Isla Riesco.
“What is discovery?” Yaki mumbled again. If Fleming hadn’t discovered penicillin in the first place, the bacteria would have never gotten so strong. As the bacteria that couldn’t be killed wreaked havoc on Earth, Mars had become the only refuge for humanity. Then women gave birth as a means to restore the population in the harsh environment on Mars while men fought. “Just like sperms,” Yaki thought.
Yaki occasionally flipped through the sterilization textbook he had brought from Mars, because he had nothing else to do on Earth. He had spent several months alone in the Antarctic base, defending the colony while waiting for reinforcements, which might join him in half a year or might never arrive.
Even though he burned off the bacteria that kept attacking the base in a seemingly mindless manner, every time he read his textbook, he couldn’t help feeling that Fleming shouldn’t have inadvertently discovered penicillin. The whole thing wouldn’t have happened if that green mold hadn’t gotten into the petri dish. Every time that thought crossed his mind, Yaki patted Borata’s picture, which he kept in his chest pocket. He could no longer recall Ursula’s face.