For an unknowable period of time, 93952^8 rode a 26.7 degree Celsius, 96% humidity vortex of air in a shower stall of Housing Module 18 at Axion Oil & Gas Corporation’s site 5211B in ANWAR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope.
93952^8, a 0.1-micrometer drop of jelly enclosed in a plasma membrane, knew none of that. It could not realize it shared the shower stall with Tim Pierson, a 41-year-old drilling engineer from Oklahoma City. It didn’t understand that Tim Pierson was about to catch a Cessna to Fairbanks. It didn’t care that Tim Pierson would then fly on to join his wife at a gymnastics meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where their 14-year-old daughter Audrey was competing. Moreover, 93952^8 did not appreciate the consequences of a warm updraft of air sweeping it in to Tim Pierson’s right nostril.
93952^8 had two eons of experience with enervating cold, far less with these levels of humidity and heat. Hardiness and adaptability were about to be put to the test as it tumbled past epithelial cells that lined the nasal passage like microscopic brickwork flailing lethal, whip-like cilia that 93952^8 barely evaded. Internally, a chemical alarm went off. Immobilizing goo sprayed from a dozen directions, and 93952^8 fired back with its own munitions. Hundreds of Tim Pierson’s protective phagocytes exploded. 93952^8 snuggled against one of the dead cells and then penetrated it, devouring it from inside. As 93952^8 ate, it swelled. At the point it seemed it too would explode, a dark line bisected its jelly. 93952^8 split into two. Four. Eight…
Dulce topped off Akil’s coffee.
“What time does he get in?”
“Eleven-fifteen. I teach a dance class, come home, get some sleep, then meet him at Newark. We’ll take the train, then catch a Lyft uptown.”
“Give him a hug from me.”
Dulce moved between the tables of Mike’s Rincón like a 22-year-old dancer, springing from the balls of her feet, suppressing the urge to break in to some bachata. She did not play at her job and put focus into overseeing that Rogelio’s mangú was topped by an egg over easy, that Lili Cruz got Half-and-Half with her Constant Comment, and that the batata with Mr. Jerry’s bacalao was fried crispy. But today, three time zones away, Mateo was pulling her focus. He and Danh would have shut down their restaurant by midnight, and then Mateo would have sped home, slept, and headed to Sea-Tac in pre-dawn darkness. Now at cruising altitude in a middle seat, he would be sipping coffee and thinking about her. And she was dreaming about wrapping around him like a Passiflora, about being spoon-fed tres leches in bed at the Saint Nicholas Inn.
“¿Y qué clase de locura es ese?” asked Lili, looking up at CNN.
“—the oil and gas giant was performing tests inside Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a cause of much controversy and protest. Axion’s headquarters in Houston, Texas, reports they received emergency phone calls from the Alaska test site at approximately 3 a.m. Central Time describing a mysterious illness striking the approximately eighty-person exploratory team--”
“I heard half ‘em dead,” said Mr. Jerry.
“Horrible,” said Dulce, taking his plate.
The kitchen was crowded now. Tommy and Elena had arrived, and Raf and Mike were at the stoves. Mike’s huge bulk bent over a cast iron skillet of frying plantain; he flashed Dulce a grin. “¿Te vas a escuela?”
Dulce hung up her apron. “Claro. Tengo una clase de modern dance.”
“Muy bien. Tengan cuidado ¿me oyes?”
Mike leaned down so his daughter could give him a kiss. Swinging her jacket, Dulce stepped out of the back door of Mike’s Rincón in to the October morning.
He sat between a sleeping businessman and a Seattleite who had actually eaten at Ho Chi Migo. “Those crepes. Those crepes were amazing,” the woman said, eyes wide behind steel cat eye frames.
“Oh, the banh xeo. We put our own little spin on them with the shrimp-chili-mango filling.”
“So good I wrote you guys a Yelp.”
“Thank you! You look kind of familiar. Maybe I saw you from the kitchen.”
His phone chirped a text notification:
He deleted it and texted Dulce:
The businessman groaned and fidgeted in his sleep, and Cat Eyes was busy with her phone, so he took out a pencil and opened his cuaderno to a self-portrait as a winged dragon with a scraggly goatee and John Lennon glasses mounted by a bikini-clad woman holding aloft a fiery sword.
“That’s interesting,” said Cat Eyes.
“If it bothers you, I’ll work on something else. You don’t have to call the TSA…”
“You’re good. Jessica.”
From ice-bound dormancy to full function at 40 degrees Celsius, 93952^8 and its descendants adapted with remarkable speed. Tim Pierson’s lumbering 37.2 trillion-cell organism couldn’t match the challenge. Shock troops blasted a brew of cytotoxins and invasins, withering Pierson’s olfactory nerves; dissolving his gleaming, white connective tissue barricade, the dura mater; almost instantly consuming the delicate arachnoid and pia maters that sheathed his brain. Pierson fought back, his defensive microglia pumping cytokines, chemokines, and nitrous oxide, but gradually he was laid open to the invaders who divided, divided again, and then settled down to eat.
The wing’s fore glowed, lit by the rising sun. Mateo and Jessica reclined in their seats, gazing past the businessman through the small window at the violet and gold clouds.
Text notification cheeped.
He held out his phone to Jessica. “Look at that. I keep getting that.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” Mateo turned back to the window. The businessman’s head was turned toward him, face waxen, eyes transfixed, the pupil of one gray iris dilated.
Mateo softly asked him, “Excuse me, are you--”
Mateo’s glasses flew off as some hectic force collided with his face. The narrow, three-seat row turned pink and red. His nose was a geyser of rich, dark claret, and the businessman was flailing and cavorting in his seat, his bobbing head wearing a full beard of strawberry milk shake-colored foam. Jessica stood, screamed, and stumbled in to the aisle as flight attendants hurried from both ends of the plane.
All four walls and the ceiling of Dulce’s tiny bedroom were covered with worn out dance shoes, music video stills, programs, posters, postcards from the Dominican Republic, and photos of school, dance, family, and Mateo. Dulce and Mateo mugging, goofing, smirking, locked in an embrace…
She packed her bag and then spent over two hours trying to decide what to wear. She wasn’t sure if they’d just cuddle for the night at the hotel or go to dinner and a club. And the weather was so weird, warm, sticky, more like August than October. She put on a short, sleeveless, black lace dress with black gladiator sandals. Checking her phone again, the scary “Alaska Outbreak” story appeared in the headlines. Half-listening, she sorted through her make up case until she found the right shade of lipstick, Bloodlust.
Now the furrowed brow was Travis Chang’s as he listened to “Dr. Peter Harmon, CDC epidemi--”
“--believe we have found the organism involved, but we haven’t identified it. These bacteria are un--”
“Some new bacteria can just appear out of thin--?"
“--permafrost thaws in vast areas of the arctic. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses that have been locked in ice for thousands, even millions--Some organisms may only have been dormant, and in warming temperatures could be--”
She finger-combed out hair into a wild fro and then opted to wear it up.
Spraying Les étoiles on her pulse points, putting on the antique crystal earrings Mateo had given her three birthdays ago, and tossing her phone in her purse, she missed the footage of endless mud, black rivers, and gray skies; the aerial shots of Axion’s lifeless housing modules, rigs, and trailers; the narration stating that eighty-six Axion employees were confirmed dead; and the chyron repeating that the hunt was on to locate an unidentified Axion employee last sighted onboard a Cessna eight-seater to Seattle.
93952^47 and all descendants of 93952^8 shared the characteristics of life: cellular organization, reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, heredity, response to stimuli; growth and change; and evolution. Their only intention, insofar as they had intentions, was survival. Killing was incidental. There had been no aim to kill the mastodon on that windswept Arctic plateau; the gigantic herbivore’s solitary death was the outcome of the microbes’ need for food overriding their need for shelter. Twelve thousand, three hundred, fifty-seven years later, the same faulty processes would lethally impact Tim Pierson. By excessive exploitation of him as a food source, the germs destroyed him as their host. Tim Pierson was a husk slumped in the seat of Compass Airlines Flight 2677, his remaining brain matter oozing from his nose. 93952^47 could have perished with Tim Pierson. Instead, an evolutionarily more advantageous path was taken, and the progeny left Tim Pierson the same way their ancestor had entered him. By air.
Mateo lay on a cot at the rear of the plane holding Jessica’s hand. He wasn’t sure what was worse, the maddening pain in his face or the shouts and screaming from the other passengers.
“I’m calling out and calling out, and none of my calls are going through,” said Jessica, her face wet with sweat and tears. “We are landed. Why the fuck can’t I call out?”
“Keep texting. Dulce is answering my texts.” His voice, adenoid and muffled, boomed in his head, amplifying the pneumatic drill inside his skull. He shifted, froze a moment, and then reached inside a pants pocket. “Look. What do you think?” He held a small velvet box up to her, and she opened it. The ring gleamed in the dark.
“Oh, Mateo, she’s going to love it.”
“Yeah. Do me a favor.” He laid the ring on his chest. “Take a picture of it.”
The line snaking to the ticket counter through belt barriers felt like no airport line Dulce had ever experienced. A dozen security officers and Compass officials stood at the margins. A man behind her in line who began yelling, “You KNOW what’s happening!” was quickly led away. Everyone else focused on their phones, following news feeds reporting that Compass Flight 2677 was being held on the tarmac at O’Hare Airport.
Dulce turned to a woman with a left half sleeve tiger tattoo and Brunswick delicately etched on her right wrist. “Who are you waiting for?”
“My wife.” She glanced at Dulce’s little black dress. “You had other plans for tonight. Didn’t we all. Who are you waiting for?”
The woman winced. “Any of his family with you?”
“No, just me. My family is his family.”
At the counter, Dulce faced another Black woman, a Compass employee wearing a blazer, pin, and a slight smile that was pleasant yet impenetrable, conveying absolutely nothing.
“Your name, please?”
“Dulce Renee Valdez.”
“Ms. Valdez, who are you here to meet?”
“My husband, Mateo Sotomayor."
Three minutes later, Dulce was walking down a long, windowless, fluorescent-lit corridor. She heard footsteps running to catch up to her. Hand in hand, she and Brunswick entered the auditorium.
He was alone now. He didn’t know where Dulce had gone, but he surrounded by an odor that summoned a vision: his mother. He was standing on tiptoes to reach her crimson smile and her Butterfly cologne. Then he was at the port in Veracruz, walking hand-in-hand with his grandfather, assailed by diesel and fresh and rotting fish. Now at his mother’s bedside at University Hospital, inhaling the odor of sweat, ammonia, and disinfectant. Mike Valdez holding him tightly as he breathed his odor of chiclé and Newports. Pork and yucca, cebolla y plátanos tantalizing him at the table of the Valdez family, but being too grief-stricken to eat. Skateboarding in an abandoned parking lot with Dulce Valdez and her aroma of Bubblicious and baby powder. Chopping fresh coconut in the kitchen of Mike’s Rincón. And then, a presence that highjacked all of his senses. Five tons of flesh caged in ice for twelve thousand, three hundred, fifty-seven years corrupting in warm, humid air. Fermentation and rot, liquefaction, putrefaction. A dizzying descent in to darkness. And then: nothing.
The room felt like a January day. A blue-clad attendant at the door handed her a clipboard with forms, a pen and marker, and a sheet of cardstock where she was instructed to write Mateo’s name. Past that attendant and along the wall stood more airline employees dressed in blue, holding clipboards and boxes of Kleenex. Beyond them, there was a white cloth-covered table with pitchers of water and a coffee and tea station. Finally, there was an area enclosed by blue partitions. The carpet was a blue hounds’ tooth, and blue draperies hanging from the high ceiling rustled slightly with blasting air conditioning. Goosebumps rose on Dulce’s bare arms.
Rows of chairs spaced approximately two yards apart faced a podium. Families, couples, and individuals chose to evenly space themselves out around the room. When the room filled, the double doors shut, and a Compass employee with a maternal air took the podium. The woman gently explained that Compass Flight 2677 from Seattle to Newark International remained in lockdown on the tarmac of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport due to an infectious illness onboard. Health professionals had boarded the plane, and everything possible was being done to care for their loved ones. The Compass staff here in this room had information on their family members, and these staff would sit down and share all known information with them.
It began like a slow detonation. Sometimes a long exhalation. Sometimes a sharp intake of breath. Then the screams. A man shouting “NO” over and over. A woman keening. An entire family erupting in sobs. Calls for EMTs who hurried from behind the partitions to Brunswick, who had hit the floor in a dead faint. Now a blue-suited Compass employee sat down beside Dulce, a white man close to retirement age with tired blue eyes. Without even hearing his slow, careful exegesis, she knew. The ice broke under her chair. She was falling. Freezing black water rushed up to meet her.
The temperature at Axion site 5211B was strikingly similar to that of Newark International Airport Conference Room 26: 17.6 degrees Celsius versus 17.3 degrees Celsius. 5211B did have far higher humidity at 68%, which was only logical. 5211B was active again, now with pathologists, forensic scientists, epidemiologists, and lab technicians sweating in HAZMAT suits as they slogged in the mud between Quonset huts. It was far safer analyze bodies and specimens on site than to transport them back to the CDC.
The mud again revealed the mastodon carcass that Axion employees had attempted to hide. Pathologists sought usable tissue samples in the rotting hulk, and then construction workers with a backhoe tried to bury it a third time, but two meters down struck black water. The remains were covered with quicklime and giant sheets of white plastic to limit exposure to the balmy, mosquito-laden air; however, quicklime and white tarps would not purge the microorganisms inhabiting the housing, air, and soil of 5211B and embedding the upholstery and carpeting of Compass Flight 2677, which still sat on the tarmac at O’Hare.
Staphylococci Anwarellia, the newly named progeny of 93952^8, had survived the mastodon, the ancient horse, and the giant short-faced bear; had outflanked and outmaneuvered extinction, and now were swarming in the mud splattering satellite phones, safety goggles, and landing gear.
The collective lives of every species one day end. The only question is duration: years, centuries, millennia, eons? There was no way of knowing how much time Anwarellia would have for their second chance. The bacteria had no understanding of the interplay between vanished glaciers, warming mud, heating skies, boots, earthmovers, and airplanes in their reemergence, but they ventured blindly on, driven by happenstance and hunger, by a mesh of genetic material in the cytoplasm of each of them, and by the will to survive.
-- L.N. Lewis has been writing since childhood in various genres: fiction, poetry, stage plays, screenplays, journalism, and essays. July 2018, online magazine Black Youth Project just published her essay “Three Arrests, One Strangulation, and $2” (retitled “The ‘Positive Outcome’ of the Starbucks Arrests…”). She lives in Detroit and is currently at work on a novel.