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Coral Bleaching


Published in : White Bianco Weiss, A Swiss Wrimos Multilingual Anthology

Eds. Sabrina Haslimeier and Viktor Steiner, Swiss Wrimos 2016

Pulse: 1-2 beats a minute. Blood pressure: 40/20. Reactions slowed, bordering to catatonic with occasional bouts of narcolepsy. Does that sound professional? If not, no problem. I’ve still got some years of training ahead of me before I can strut about in my white lab coat, stethoscope draped around my neck like some chieftain’s torque, my signature unreadable, the diagnoses pouring forth from my learned lips incomprehensible except to the initiated. At present, I’m still mostly emptying bedpans. Earns me a few bucks that I invest in my ascent to medical divinity. But I’m digressing. The patient. She’s not just numbers, or a diagnosis, for her name is Li. If things had been different, she might have been my girlfriend.

   Still, the gods in white don’t have a clue what is the matter with her. Chronic fatigue syndrome. Encephalomyopathy. Immune dysfunction syndrome. Lupus erythematodes. Non-neoplastic Warburg manifestation. They juggle these diagnoses and diseases, sounding very important and very professional. But most of the diseases don’t quite fit the case. That much I can tell even though I’m only in my first clinical year.

   Just now, I hover at the very edge of the planetary pulk that gyrates around the senior consultant on his rounds in what might be called the lost cases ward. The higher up the medical hierarchy one climbs, the closer one gets to orbit the head physician. Me, as the Pluto of the lot, I get to see only a wall of white lab coats. As a member of the lowest cast, I’m level with a speck of dirt on the linoleum floor. Well, actually I’m positioned a few micrometres below that because they might notice the speck for hygienic reasons. I’m virtually invisible and thus in the best position to observe the celestial bodies of the hospital constellation gyrate. I lean against the wall, merging with its pattern, so nobody notices I’m being left behind when the avalanche in white finally rolls out of the room, having accomplished nothing. Finally, I get to see the cause of the medical monologue I had to endure.

   Li’s lying there, motionless and pale, in a bed of hospital linen, a tiny puppet swaddled in white, her coal black hair matted and spread out as if she were swimming in a tub of milk. Her lids are closed, the skin of her hands that rest on the bedspread is so translucent that I think I can see the blood flowing through the veins beneath. Only that it flows very slowly now, barely moved by a heart that beats about once a minute. Like Snow White in her coma after eating the poisoned apple. I push off the wall and approach her bed, brush a strand of hair from her forehead and tuck it behind her ear. It’ll escape again, I know. She’s so pretty, in a doll kind of way. But what is prettiness good for if you lie in bed as limp and motionless as a wilted flower? In my fairy tale book, the poisoned princess Snow White had full red lips. Chang Li Min also has red lips, the only colour left in her. Her lips beckon to me as a forbidden candy would.

   Should I really? I look around, listen to the hospital’s version of silence. Only muffled sounds drift around this mausoleum of the living dead. The steady beep once every minute reminds me that the sleeping princess in front of me is still alive. Barely so. A lettuce is more responsive than her. I peck a furtive kiss on her lips. No reaction. I didn’t expect one. I lick my lips. There’s a sickly sweet taste to them. As if she’d just bitten into Snow White’s signature apple. I tug a little at her bed cover, fluff up her pillow. Doing so, I realize I’ve got my fairy tale princesses mixed up. It was Sleeping Beauty who was woken by a kiss of Prince Charming. Snow White, shaken rather than stirred from her apple-induced coma, had coughed the poisoned chunk back up, no prince whatsoever involved. Well, neither kissing nor shaking makes Li react.

   Still, my analogy with Snow White and the poisoned fruit isn’t that far off. Li Min grew up in Xian, China, one of the cities with the worst pollution on Earth. Her bloodwork shows elevated levels of all sorts of toxins: pesticides, aromatic hydrocarbons, traces of solvents, heavy metals, you name it, she’s got it inside her. Her blood counts as hazardous waste, her bones excite the Geiger. But still, the deities in white reason, the environmental pollutants cannot have caused her current condition, for she has lived, studied and loved, unfortunately not me, as a Math exchange student here in relatively clean Switzerland, with all these pollutants inside her. Why should she have broken down under the chemical burden only now?


   That indeed had been frightening to watch. Especially after her fulminant start in my life. She had been dragged to our flat by my mate Hanno, the physicist, or maybe it had been the other way around, you couldn’t tell the way Mathematics intermingled with Physics when the two virtually tumbled through the door, barely making it to his room before they had stripped and started their interdisciplinary workout for real, leaving a trail of discarded clothes like, well, Hansel and Gretel had. She and Hanno had rocked the walls of our common flat so the rest of us had to listen to the groans and shrieks. Until, well, until it happened, what is it now, four weeks ago? Already four weeks?

   The day after some rigorous academic exchange of bodily fluids, Li had come down with a fever, and then she had slowed down, literally. As if she’d taken an overdose of sleeping pills. She had stayed in bed, hardly ate, became incommunicative, non-reactive. When her breathing slackened to a whisper, Hanno had panicked and we took Li Min to the hospital. Carried her, in fact, for she was too far gone already to do anything on her own. The gods in white then applied every imaginable test in their arsenal to her blood and cerebrospinal fluid: bacterial culture, antibody testing, haemagglutinin, ELISA, PCR, ran her through CT, X-Ray, MRI. They found the toxic residues, but no signs of infection. No clue as to what had turned her into a vegetable, unable to eat if not fed with a tube through her nose and moving as little as a hibernating sloth.

   Nowadays, Hanno barely ever puts in an appearance at Li Min’s hospital bed and I’ve got her mostly to myself. I can watch her as long as my chores allow, I can change her urine bag, shake up her pillows, comb her hair. She’s all mine now. Does she even know that I’m here to care for her? Most probably not. Her brain waves are as sluggish as her heart. She can’t form more than a thought a day, I suppose.

   I pull myself away from watching her, as the tableau never changes. Hasn’t, for the last three weeks. I look at my watch. Gosh, already seven. My shift is over, all I’m left with is an evening of cramming medical knowledge into my head. With a last glance at the still figure in her bed of white I close the door silently, go to my locker, peel out of my scrubs and pack my bag with the infectious diseases books that will be my company for the night. So much for the private life of a medical student. What woman wants to share her boyfriend with such nasty competition as Ebola, Cholera and Tuberculosis?

Back at home, as soon as I open the door I realize I won’t be uploading pathogens into my head tonight, for the TV is blaring the title song of Star Wars amidst the hoots of my two flatmates. Gosh, I’ve forgotten. It is our monthly SciFi marathon night - including much of tomorrow. We will watch all six Star Wars movies, until our brains explode in a fiery cloud of debris like a planet blown up by a Death Star. Tradition dictates that I take part in our flat procedurals. Resignedly, I dump the books and their infectious content on floor of my room, stack them next to piles of books that form the landscape of stalagmites I call home.

   I don my Jedi cowl, a worn brown bath-robe, and hook my toy lightsaber to my belt. It was once extendable, but after an enthusiastic bout against the Dark Lord aka Hanno, the telescopic part is now stuck inside the handle. Rather symbolic for my love life. I slink over to the kitchen to fuel up, where Josh, the marine biologist, greets me with that dangerous glint of a Star Wars addict in his eyes and two shockingly blue fleshy tentacles dangling off his head: “May The Force be with you, Master Matt.”

   I grumble an answer and grab two bottles of coke and one of rum. I’ll need the caffeine and ethanol to survive the cosmic endurance race that awaits me. Josh swings back his head-tendrils and tops up a monstrous laboratory beaker that dwarves even the biggest Venti bucket Starbucks has on offer, then he wraps his arm around my shoulders and steers me to our common room.

Hanno’s lounging on our flat’s sagging sofa, all in black, as behoves his role of bad guy. He’s taken off his Darth Vader helmet to facilitate popcorn uptake. Upended in his lap, it doubles as bowl for his cinema chow. Hanno waves at me absently in way of greeting as he can’t even tear his gaze away from the screen. His face is covered by artificial scar tissue that would hide even the strongest signs of concern, had he shown any. How he can be so indifferent to Li’s current state? Some care more for their sex doll. A good thing he’s studying physics, the science of inanimate things. I flop down next to Darth Hanno just as the Empire Strikes Back. Josh leans over the backrest. One of his tentacles slides past my neck, rubbery-cold like some dead body part from the formalin vats in the autopsy suite. A shiver runs down my spine, I twist out of the way.

   “Sorry”, he mutters and primly throws back the appendices like a girl would her tresses.

   The beers my flat mates have already consumed during their initial rapture of A New Hope has loosened their tongues, and they start to movie-bash. On screen, Han and Leia exit the Falcon with only oxygen masks on their faces, which causes Hanno’s first outburst. “Hey, that asteroid’s so tiny it would never, ever capture an atmosphere or a Nano-Joule of heat. If this were real, they’d freeze to death the instant they leave the Falcon!”

   Josh shakes his head so his tentacles dance. “But it would have been a pity to wrap them in space suits. No sex appeal.”

   By the time the Jedi are Returning we’ve changed to higher percentages. Our levels of blood ethanol are high enough so we can tolerate even the Prequel movies. They’re so perfect they make me feel slightly sick about my gills, had I had any. Give me the grime of the original series any time!

In the early hours we invariably end up discussing The Force.

   “It’s some kind of gravitational field. It has to be, as you can use it to move mass.” That’s Hanno the physicist’s slightly slurred take on things.

   To this, I must object. “You can’t attach The Force to something physical like a field. It’s metaphysical, it’s in us and around us and everywhere.”

   “Nope. Listen to the teachings of Master Lucas, you two.” Josh. “It’s the midi-chlorians. Tiny symbionts inhabiting all living cells of beings who are strong in The Force.”

   “Crap. Midi-chlorians, that’s George Lucas opening a biology textbook and amalgamating the terms mitochondria and chloroplasts. Sounds cool, but that’s about it. As I said: The Force is metaphysical.”

   ”But there must be a physical basis.” Josh’s not ready to give in, yet.

   “I admit that mitochondria and chloroplasts are organelles in the cells of higher organisms…”

   “You’ve already lost me there”, throws in Hanno.

   I ignore him. The sub-cellular level isn’t his battlefield. “… but they’re not infused with an kind of special power.”

   “It might be a magnetic field…”

   Josh also ignores Hanno. This is between us, the life sciences.   

   “Mitochondria and chloroplasts are not just organelles, they’re intracellular symbionts. And the mitochondria act as their host cells’ power plants.”

   “Yeah, but what they do is chemically burning glucose with oxygen, providing our cells with energy. It’s called cellular respiration. You can’t lift a spaceship from afar with respiration.”

   When he says - “Have you ever tried?” - I know I have won the duel.


   The next day is hell. My eyelids feel like puff pastry, my hands are shaking and my head is ready to explode like a Death Star. I should have known, for I’m one of those rare specimens of male Homo sapiens who have forgotten to raise their hand when evolution meted out helpings of alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme. I just can’t take that amount of booze, should have stuck to my books. A raid of our flat’s drug cabinet that I keep well-stocked yields aspirine and the betablocker Propanolol, the staple student diet against test anxiety. I pop a few pills, wash them down with a day’s helping of coffee and stagger to work.

   After having barely survived my shift, despite all the dope, I pop in at Li’s. No change. Fact is, you can drop in at her any time, day and night, today or tomorrow, and she hasn’t moved. Any visible change is the nurses’ doing. Or that stubborn lock of hair that has a life of its own. Li herself, she hasn’t even got the energy to bat an eyelid. Josh catches me at the locker room, minus head tentacles this time. Now, though, it’s the whole of him that bounces up and down as if he were made of rubber. “The Margulis lecture is on now. You need to come!”

   “Margulis who?”

   Josh rolls his eyes and drags me along. “Lynn Margulis is the scientist who proposed the endosymbiontic theory.”

   I still have no idea what he’s talking about.

   “Oh, come on. She was the first to postulate the origin of cell organelles as endosymbionts. Chloroplasts. Mitochondrias. Are you thick in your head or what? The real deal midi-chlorians!”

   So he hasn’t given up on his theory of The Force after all. He drags me along, and I follow without much resistance. I’m not up to studying, anyway.


   At the auditorium a huge crowd has gathered. This Margulis professor must indeed be a luminary. We try to squeeze our way through the throng, mostly white headed, crammed tight in the 600-seat auditorium. We find a free spot of wall at the back that we can lean against. I’d rather just slump to the ground and have a nap, but Josh keeps me awake. “They first dismissed her theory as crap. But in the end, they had to admit she was right. Look at them! Many of them distinguished professors have opposed Margulis. And now they pay her tribute. Serves them right.”


   My head nods forward in the twilight, but again my attempt to doze off is cut short by Josh, who’s bubbling with enthusiasm. “With James Lovelock she’s proposed the Gaia theory – the whole planet Earth as one giant organism. If there is someone who one can inspire us SF nerds, it is her.” I resign myself to sit out this lecture. Well, stand out, rather.

   At first I think it’s one of the elderly ladies who come for the cheap coffee at the University cafeteria. But when she starts to talk, I realize this must be Margulis. “Earth as we know it is the product symbiosis, ladies and gentlemen.”

   As she talks, her left index finger tips her cheek, then her ear, while she gestures with her other hand. Her voice reminds me of my late grandmother telling fairy tales. Margulis, too, has one to tell: The primitive cells that existed on Earth 2 billion years ago were just bags of fluid with a little DNA. One day, a fateful event occurred. One of these cells ate a bacterium, but the bacterium refused to be digested. Instead, it lived on, even divided inside the cell. But rather than giving its host cell a bad bout of indigestion, the stubborn food came to an understanding with its host. From then on, the two coexisted in symbiosis, living happily ever after in a kind of host-and-domesticated-indoor-pet-relationship. Margulis, of course, expressed this in much more scientific terminology. “These bacteria brought along improved metabolic pathways. The cyanobacteria’s hospitality gift was photosynthesis, the ability to harness the sun’s power and turn it into food, glucose. Once domesticated, they became the chloroplasts of today’s plants. The spirochaete bacteria that later became our mitochondria, however, were able to unlock all the energy stored in food. Instead of releasing just 2 ATP, the energy currency of the cell, through the ancient process of glycolysis, these bacteria were able to squeeze 38 ATP out of just one molecule of glucose. The only thing they needed to accomplish this was oxygen.”

   Nothing new here, that’s first year medical exam stuff. I yawn, which earns me a painful jolt of Josh’s elbow. I make an effort to listen some more.

   “Evolution’s not a story of bloody competition for survival, but one of networking, of symbiosis.” To make a point, Margulis presents a film, showing a sea slug munching seagrass leaves. It slurps out what is inside, juice, chloroplasts and all. “The slug digests everything but the chloroplasts, transports them to the fleshy appendages on its back where these organelles continue with photosynthesis, profiting the slug who can now live off sunlight like a plant, and completely forgo eating. A present-day example of symbiosis being forged”, says Margulis, “It is still happening today, not only in some distant past.”

   With this, the lecture ends, and Margulis takes questions from the audience. An arm next to me shoots up. Josh. God, Josh, no! All eyes swivel in our direction. I want to vanish into the ground.

   Josh, unimpressed, puts his question forward: “You showed us how endosymbiotic relationships are forged. But they can also be broken. In coral bleaching the symbiotic zooxanthellae leave their hosts, the coral polyps, who then turn white and eventually die.” I groan. Josh’s pet subject. “Shouldn’t that be a warning sign that pollution and global warming are hurting Gaia so much that the partnership between host and endosymbionts breaks down?”

   Margulis’ reply comes rather clipped. “You have to make a clear distinction here. Coral symbiosis hasn’t become compulsory yet. Depending on the conditions, zooxanthellae may choose to join up with coral polyps or to leave them, as they’re still able to live independantly.”

“But the polyps die!” Josh interjects. She ignores him as if she hadn’t heard.

   “True endosymbionts and their host cells have become so interconnected they cannot separate. Take mitochondria. They kept some genetic material of their own, the crucial genes for respiration, but everything else they delegated to the nucleus of the host cell.”

   “But you agree that human behaviour is responsible for coral bleaching?”

   “Oh yes, I agree. But that little bit of human-caused global fever will not wipe out the planet wide ecosystem that is Gaia. Life will adapt to the new situation. Humans probably won’t. There is no scientific reason to think that we are going to survive as a species forever.”

   “How can you be sure Gaia will prevail with all those gaps in its living communities?”

   “You’re probably not aware that more than 99.99 percent of the species that ever existed on Earth have become extinct, but the living planetary patina has continued for more than three billion years.”

   I feel Josh bristle beside me. He’s not one to give up so easily. “So you say it doesn’t matter whether we pollute and overheat our home planet or not?”

   A murmur runs through the white-headed audience. Here is someone to challenge the former science rebel. Margulis accepts the gauntlet with the grace of someone who has been put through this herself. “Why do people think the Earth is going to die and they have to save it? That's ridiculous. If you rid the Earth of flowering plants, for example, people would die, period. But the Earth was without flowering plants for almost all of its history.”

I can feel Josh slump beside me. Imagine him toppling his idol from the pedestal he has erected for her in his mind. And she even tops it: “Neither flowering plants nor humans nor corals matter to Gaia as a whole. Life will prevail because it is resilient.” She makes a pause for effect: “Gaia is one tough bitch, you know.” Turmoil in the audience. I grab Josh’s arm and drag him off before he can make things worse. He’s muttering and lamenting, but he’ll survive this blow.


   I drop Josh off at home with a beer to calm his nerves and then flee to the quiet night-time hospital and into Li’s tomb, with thoughts of mitochondria, midi-chlorians, chloroplasts and endosymbionts churning in my head. Thoughts fuelled by oxidative respiration of glucose, courtesy of the mitochondrial endosymbionts in the neurons of my brain. I’d be more like an amoeba if not for them. Or a vegetable like Li. One look at her and thoughts wash over me like a maverick wave. Could it be? I bend over her still form, wait and listen for her next breath. It’s disconcerting how long I have to wait. I pull a chair close and sit down. If I want to know whether my fledgling hypothesis checks out, I will have to go about this more systematically.

   So I take my notepad and start measuring, calculating. Respiration rate: 19 fold lower than normal. Reflex reaction time: Equally slowed. Heart, metabolic, cell division rate: all of them lowered by a factor of 19. Each result feels like a nail hammered into Snow White’s coffin. Oxidative respiration of glucose, courtesy of mitochondria, yields 38 ATP energy portions. Glycolysis done by the host cell yields only 2 ATP, 19 times less. As if Li’s mitochondria had gone on strike. Or left a sinking ship, just like Josh’s zooxanthellae left their coral polyps. The high levels of lactic acid in Li’s blood the head physician called “non-neoplastic Warburg manifestation”, are a clear sign of Li’s cells having to resort to the process of glycolysis to generate a bit of energy – like the primitive cells before incorporating their endosymbiontic pet mitochondria. It can’t be, can it? Margulis dismissed it. But still… I feel hot and at unease, as if I were coming down with a fever. I pop another Aspirin. No time now to tackle a cold. I’m also too tired to go home to crack down, so I crawl under the covers with Li and snuggle close. Her body feels so limp and cold and waxy, a bit like Josh’s tentacles. Or a sex doll. I shiver. I know I shouldn’t do this, trespassing on her personal space. In the legal sense, this might even count as patient violation. I just hope the night nurse skips this room. I wrap my limbs around Li’s body and rest my chin on her head. Poor Li.

   In the morning I leave Li to rush over to the library as soon as it opens, grab everything they stock on mitochondria, then haul it back to our flat. As there is no space left on the floor of my room, I drop the books on the sofa, atop some of Darth Hanno’s leftover popcorn, and start reading “Advances in Mitochondrial Medicine”. Nothing about Margulis here. I learn mitochondria can move about inside their host cells as they please. Might they even choose to leave their cells for good? Soon my brain buzzes with mitochondrial diseases and “iatrogenic mitochondriopathies”. A very scholarly way of expressing that some drug your doctor gave you killed your mitochondria and left you flopping about like some shapeless amoeba. One drug listed in this chapter burns right through my brain. Propanolol. But I’ve taken Propanolol yesterday, and I’m still okay.

   “What are you doing?” Hanno barks and topples my pile of mito-books. “Wasn’t there a rule about limiting study stuff to our own rooms?”

Acts like he owns the place. The Darth persona must have rubbed off.

   I ignore his gruffalo manners and cut right to the heart. “Can you tell me what drugs Li Min took, aside from Propanolol?” My finger rests on the list of mitotoxic medications.

   “Shouldn’t you leave it to the medical professionals at the hospital to treat Li, not try to play doctor yourself?”

   How dare he! I am a medical doctor. Well, will be. I bite back my retort.   

“Tell me, please.”

   “Well… the usual. Aspirine… Contraceptives, naturally.”

I urge him on. He hesitates for a moment. “She had to take something against, well, the itch down there…, you know…” He turns red all over. Shagging Li to the flat’s static capacity was okay with him, but naming involved anatomical parts seems beyond him. Exasperated, I offer to supplement his fragmentary description: “You mean she had a fungal infection of the vagina. What did she take against it?”

He goes to fetch an assortment of drug-boxes from his room, dumps them into my lap. “Here, you’re the doc. Keep them. She won’t need them any more, I guess.” Sounds like he’s about to exorcise Li from his life. His decision. She’s got me now.

   Turns out she took antifungal drugs. Myxothiazol. Ketoconazole. Feature both on my list of mitochondrial killers. Bingo. But still only circumstantial evidence. I need to make sure my theory stands up to trial, so

   I leave Hanno standing in our living room, stupefied, and rush off to the hospital.

   She’s still there. Haven’t expected otherwise. I grab a biopsy needle, wipe Li’s arm, that fragile, limp limb, and plunge the syringe deep into her flesh. I wonder whether she can feel the pain. Whether I should have given her a pain-killer. I quickly peck a kiss on her lips to apologize for having stuck a needle into her, then dash off to the lab to analyze her muscle tissue. She won’t miss me. I prepare Li’s muscle cells on a microscope slide and pop it underneath the lens. There they sit, a bundle of striped spindles, ripped from their home. I add a drop of methylene blue. Like a multi-eyed monster in some extraterrestrial tavern, their many cell-nuclei stare back at me. I turn the revolving nose piece, increase magnification to 200 times, 400 times. But where are they, the little power plants, her pet mitochondria? Every muscle cell should sport at least 2000 of them. But they’ve made themselves scarce, these little divas. There are only two possibilities: either mitochondria can’t be seen by light microscopy, or there aren’t any left to see in Li’s cells. I need to know, so I take the sample to Josh’s lab.

   Without his blue head-tentacles and in his white lab coat, he looks rather like a professor to be.

   “I need your help, Josh. Is there a way to make mitochondria visible? I tried, but all I can see is the nuclei.”

   He sticks his hands into his lab coat pockets and I’m treated to a lecture. “My dear Matt. Mitochondria don’t put up enough contrast to be seen in light microscopy. I thought you’d know. That’s why I work with zooxanthellae. Well visible and shiny. If they’re still at home, that is.” He points at a poster on the wall. Pale coral fingers reach out into the clear azure water, white and abandoned by their pets. He scrutinizes my face. “Why the sudden interest in mitochondria? Have I won you over for my midi-chlorian theory of The Force?”

   I shrug this off. “This isn’t the time for theories, Josh. It’s Li. I think she’s got something like, well, like your corals. The bleaching issue.”

His eyes narrow to slits. “Why do I have the impression that your interest in Li Min is becoming an obsession?”

I don’t want to go down that road with him. ”Mere medical interest. So, the mitochondria?”

   He shrugs. “Can only be seen by electron microscopy.”

   “Yeah, so let’s do EM.”

   “No way. That’ll blow our student’s budgets.”

   Josh must have seen the disappointment in my face. “There’s still Google”, he says, slumping into his chair and wheeling it over to his work station, labcoat fluttering behind him like swan’s wings. “The omniscient Google, more powerful even than The Force, and always with us.” His fingers dance over the keyboard, conjuring the mighty online djinn.

   “There!” he says triumphantly. “There’s a microscopic stain called mito-tracker that makes mitochondria glow in fluorescence microscopy.”

   Now, knowing what to look for, Josh tracks down a colleague who provides me with the fluorescent stain, then decamps for home, letting me use his lab.

   I slide Li’s biopsy sample under the objective lens and marvel. Sheer poetry of a microscope, much better than what I’m used to at the hospital, up to 800 times! But just as Josh and Google pointed out, I will not see the mitochondria like this, so I add mito-tracker, switch to fluorescence microscopy. Lights off. The microscope slide should now light up like a swinger party of glow worms in a balmy summer night. Yellowish green, luciferin. Glow, little ones, glow!

   Nil. Only blackness meets my eyes. They’re gone. Not a single one left. Time in Li’s body has been turned back to how things were 2 billion years ago. I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, for I know there isn’t any hope for her. Or is there?

   There might be. Maybe, like in coral bleaching, the symbionts can be restored to their host cells if conditions are made right again. Maybe mitochondria can even be donated by a fellow cell, much like an organ, a heart or lung, can be transplanted, just on a cellular level. So, I wipe the inside of my mouth with a Qtip and add a smear of my own cells to Li’s muscle sample. The mito-tracker stains my cells all right. The sample looks like Europe by night viewed from Earth orbit. I stare at the illuminated map, tell my cells to donate their precious organelles to Li’s cells. But then, hardly visible at first, the lights flicker and die, one after the other. The microscope field slowly but steadily turns dark once again. Whatever is affecting Li, whatever caused her mitochondria to abandon ship and plunge to certain death, it’s contagious! It spreads to other cells, to another organism. To my cells. To me. I turn ice cold inside. My lungs constrict and I gasp for air as if a giant hand squeezed my thorax. I try to get up. I have to warn them. Josh. Hanno, Margulis, the head physician, hell, the world! Anyone. Everyone. Will they believe me? Or dismiss my findings as crap as they have done with the endosymbiontic theory? I struggle to lift myself off the lab chair. My legs don’t obey me. I try to push myself upright with my arms. They buckle under me. My body’s suddenly so heavy I feel like Atlas shouldering the whole world. I fail. Slump back onto the chair, slowly slide off it and crumple on the floor, my body pressing down on me, a lump of flesh and fat. I feel like Jabba the Hutt, like a stranded whale. I’m unable… to… lift… my… fin… ger…… an…… eye…… lid…… I…… can……… not……… even………… ut…………… ter……………. a…………… sing…………… le……………… sound……………… tell………………… them…………………… warn…………………… them…………………… it’s ……………………… spread……………………………. ing………………………….

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