He was delirious. His lips were trembling. “It hurts, then it eases. My left leg is numb, but my right foot is burning. I’m hot and cold at the same time… and it’s wonderful.”
His hushed words passed through a microphone to the loudspeakers in the observation room. He wasn’t calling me Dr Hanna anymore, or talking to anyone in particular. He was just letting it out. The pane of reinforced glass between us made a cruel picture of his suffering. The mold would soon be sprouting from his body. Flush with fever, he tossed and turned on the bedsheet. His brow, chest and lower arms were wet with sweat and sebum. Spores were already forcing their way out through the cutaneous glands. His eyes opened wide, then snapped shut. Fists clenched in the soft padding of the leather straps, his contorted body tensed up, went limp and bent double. His breaths were short and shallow. He spoke softly:
“My breathing speeds up and then slows down again. It’s strange, the change always comes at just the right time. And I have this strange feeling…”
His words ebbed away. The high-sensitivity microphone picked up no further sound from his mouth. His lips kept twitching.
“It’s articulating itself,” I muttered, without giving the words a second thought. The stop-clock below the observation window had been running for thirty-four hours. He wouldn’t live much longer. His body temperature was erratic, the warmth unevenly distributed. The fungus was spreading, and there was nothing I could do about it. I’d only been at the facility for a few days. No one before me had figured it out, and nor would I. What would happen now? Broad swathes of southern Africa were already under quarantine. We still didn’t really know how it had started. People on the shores of Lake Malawi had just started dying one day, and anyone who tried to help died too. So did those who didn’t. People who locked themselves up died. People who stayed behind died. Many of those who fled died. Everyone died. Scientists, rescue teams, military personnel – they all came to help, and died.
Airborne drones sailed over the Zambezi, over rivers, roads and villages. Land drones on long, thin legs limbered over homes and gardens, forests and farmsteads. These headless dogs gave me the creeps. The drones filmed footage of dead bodies with serene facial expressions, frozen in time. Now and then a smile. Oftentimes, under the halo that formed around every corpse after a few hours, a picture of kindness.
It turned out this halo was a novel fungus that worked its way into the brain, colonizing the frontal and temporal lobes before spreading through the bloodstream. A short time later, stipes would start sprouting on the skin, from the eyes and mouth, growing through shirts, skirts and trousers. The stipes would then bloom with new spores that would then repeat the whole cycle in the next host.
These shocking images of shrouded corpses took up all our attention, so at first we didn’t even notice the rotting animals. Birds and mammals didn’t last long, minutes to a few hours at most. Reptiles and insects were spared. The hills to the east of Lake Malawi were strewn with clumps of white down. The mold was highly reflective and remained pure white, untainted, growing thicker and thicker until it completely obscured the creature below. No one knew how this fungus had evolved. It came out of nowhere: aspergillus gloriosus.
Nine months had passed since the first case. Each day seemed to last a hundred years, while weeks went by at the bat of an eyelid. Our facility had been constructed just three months ago, between the quarantine zone and the rest of the world. The international community had built it in response to collective anxiety. The facility and medical research station was like a spearhead at the end of a long corridor that passed through the buffer zone between the death strip and the world outside. We drew lots to decide which scientists would be sent from which research stations. When I drew the short straw for the solo shift my start date was still months away. I never thought I’d even get here.
Last week, though, a drone finally dropped me at the end of the tunnel, on the down-ramp to the decontamination chamber. My memory of that moment has faded, like a photograph from a bygone era. I walked along the tunnel, which rose through the subsoil and back up to the surface on a gentle incline. From there it ascended into the trees over several kilometres before passing through the canopy and emerging into the open, where it met the fourth floor of the facility. When I reached the entrance I turned and looked back. The forest retreated in waves. Through diminishing shades of blue I could just make out a mountainous landscape on the horizon. Looking down the tube of the ascending tunnel was like looking down the barrel of a gun – with me as the projectile. In the airlock I took off my hazmat suit and left the world behind. Later that day I walked down the many corridors from my own quarters to the observation room, where patients from the segregated wing of the facility were brought to die. The first few times I stood right up against the glass. I suppose I hoped I might notice something that no-one else had.
Now another man lay dying, and there was nothing I could do about it. ZeuS was recording his final hours. The polymer doors slid open; I stepped out into the corridor and they shut sharply behind me. Jurek, who’d manned the station before me, had sprayed some kind of floral-scented spray all over the place. I couldn’t get rid of it. I decontaminated the facility metre by metre, room by room. I turned the ventilation right up, but the fragrance of wild-flower meadows kept wafting through corridors, emanating from the thermoset plastics and the natural rubber flooring. Even the stainless-steel smelled of flowers. It was a nice enough smell, but strange somehow. I wanted to flush it out.
I put my hair up and switched my earphones and microphone on.
“Are you watching, Jurek?”
“Just a minute,” I heard Jurek’s voice in my ears, then the tapping of his keyboard. He sighed and cleared his throat. “Hey Hanna. Yep, I’ve been watching the whole time. I’m just writing this damn report. How are you?”
“I’m okay. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to take your shift ’til next week, but I know it can’t be helped.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m really sorry, Hanna. My wife…”
“…I know! I’m just kidding,” I interrupted. “I’m glad to be here, really. It’s magical. Diabolical, but magical.”
“Oh right, okay!” Jurek breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s diabolical alright. I found it really weird – more than quarantine. Everything’s so clean and sterile. And that sense of dread below and behind you. It’s compulsive.” Jurek cleared his throat. “I reckon Mr. Kambala will be dead in about seven hours.”
“Oh, that’s his name?”
“Yep. Geraldo Kambala. Quiet type. Technician at a fish farm about fifty kilometers downstream. He looked after the control system. Ordinary guy, quite reserved. No introvert, just quiet. Not much of a digital footprint either: a few holiday snaps, children, grandparents. He liked football, had a wife and two kids. All dead.” He snorted darkly. “The mold’s eating him alive. The poor guy’s dissolving.”
“It’s killing him,” I said absent-mindedly as I struggled to get my bearings. I still hadn’t figured out the corridors, though I liked the way they looked; the walls, the floor, the ceiling lights. They were nice, understated. Not too white, not too grey, not too brown. I pulled up short at a fork in the corridor. “Sorry Jurek, could you repeat that? I’m still finding my way around here.”
“Oh, nothing. Take a left if you’re heading out to the platform,” said Jurek.
“Thanks,” I said. It was strange to hear Jurek without being able to see him, without those clear, bright eyes, that thick skin. He seemed so vulnerable somehow.
“Have you listened to any of the last words, or read the transcripts?” asked Jurek.
“I watched some of the films. Muddled at first, then cryptic – but by the end they start making sense.”
“I couldn’t stop watching,” said Jurek.
“Yeah, obscure but somehow lucid.”
“And so final,’ he said.
“Yes and no,” I said. “It’s like they’re in flux before they die… a weird sort of intermediate state, a twilight between life and death. Then they have this moment of clarity.”
“Like they’re high,” said Jurek.
“Yeah, maybe, though it seems real. Like it’s inside. We were doing some tests with psilocybin before I left.”
“Uh-huh?!” Jurek blustered, “So that’s what you guys were up to while I was out there!”
“If only!” I laughed, “No, those parts of the brain looked very different in these tests. Anyway, we scanned for neural activity and took control images for comparison. We were hoping this fungus might have been similar to psychoactive mushrooms. Unfortunately it’s not. When gloriosus activates the frontal lobe, it doesn’t look like there’s any neurotransmitter docked there at all, whereas there was in the other tests. The direction isn’t right for activation; the synapses react the other way around. It actually looks like something’s getting in, something that wasn’t there before… I don’t know how to put it. From outside? The Outside? I don’t know.”
“When did you do these tests?” asked Jurek, “I didn’t hear about them.”
“Just before you left. No, wait – it was the day you left. It was a spontaneous thing. I knew I was about to spend two days in decontamination, so that’s when I did the analysis and the write-up. I just forgot to mention it. Why would I? Nothing to report.”
“The outside, the outside…” whispered Jurek.
“I know. I really can’t describe it any better than that.”
“Probably just a side-effect. An anomaly.” Jurek took a deep breath. “When I first noticed the muttering, right at the beginning – I was the first one here – I turned the microphones on in the ward and I could hear this murmur. I thought they were praying or groaning. The whispering created this bizarre buzz in the main chamber, so I sent a drone in – you know, one of those headless dogs that freak you out – and turned its microphone on. At first I kind of laughed because what they were saying sounded so absurd, but then I got a fright like I was falling off a cliff. For a long time I sat in the office in the tower, freaked out, hollowed out. I couldn’t think straight. I was just looking out over the treetops, and then it was like I got it – a moment of clarity – and then it was gone, and ever since then I listen in and look out for the hook, but I can never seem to catch it. How many films are there now anyway?”
“About six hundred,” I said.
“All of them, then.”
“Yep, all of them,” I said. Jurek’s fingers were tapping away at the keyboard, looking for the right words. “Just a side-effect, you think?” I repeated what he’d said.
“Yeah, a parting gift,” Jurek speculated.
“Or a reunion,” I added.
After a gentle curve in the corridor I was walking towards the platform. The glass doors slid open and I felt the outside air on my cheeks. The westerly wind meant no spores would be carried over. Just to be safe, propellers at the far end of the platform were blowing stray particulate matter back into the woods.
“How are things in Berlin, Jurek?” I asked. There was just the sound of the wind; no animal calls to echo through the woods.
“Clean and tidy. Sterile. Like a lab,” said Jurek.
“No-one knows what to do, Hanna. We’ll talk tomorrow,” said Jurek.
“Sure, smell ya later,” I said.
“Oh, the air freshener?! Sorry!” Jurek’s reassuring laughter was full of kindness as the connection broke off.
I walked across the platform and turned to face the facility, its windows and membranes, and façade like an operating theatre. The covered concrete floor was comparatively soft, but still impenetrable. It also happened to be the roof of the main chamber. Hundreds of people were dying down there, being filmed and monitored by ZeuS, treated remotely by medics from all over the world. Drones wandered between them like lost spirits recording their cries.
I walked up to the glass parapet and looked out over the forest as it sank deeper into the Earth’s shadow. Wind swept the tops of the trees as though incidentally. Underleaves flashed silver like a shoal of fish in a net. Rustling foliage and the echo of a fallen branch. The forest seemed still, but there was something else, a search for expression; the way the wind shone through the leaves spoke to me.
“Hanna, the wind’s about to change,” said ZeuS.
“Maybe I’m just imagining it…” I thought, and went inside.
Geraldo Kambala lay dead behind the glass partition. White noise from the speakers filled the void. A light downy substance shimmered like a halo around his body. Amen. Mr. Kambala’s noble features were delicately delineated under a pale shroud: the veiled contours of his cheeks, an expression of dignity. His arched brow was lucid, but his deep eye sockets held a question. The new spores sat on the stipes of the mold like dandelion seeds waiting in the wind.
A grey robotic arm emerged from the wall and glided past Mr. Kambala’s body. It stopped, turned and jerked arbitrarily, then passed back over his body, illuminating every plane and depression inside it: bones, muscles, organs, nerves – and the foreign body. It was all shown on screen, in yellow, green, red, blue and purple. After I’d left him, Mr. Kambala had lain there decomposing for another eight-and-a-half hours. I listened to his last words again:
“Yes, I understand it now. The outside is untouched. It is clear and empty… anything that cannot keep still… my resistance, which is hot to the touch, longs for it, as the outside longs for it also… Now I understand what it is… it wants to get out, but cannot. It withers when it meets resistance… and now it has found a way out without forcing its way… like a reflection of the barrier, entangled with the outside… it burns with longing at the touch… both clear and empty, forever teetering on the brink.”
“You understand?” asked ZeuS.
“Yes,” I thought to myself.
“Can you explain it?” asked the AI.
“It’s like a body that’s never moved forward in space-time, that’s never been caught up in the existence of causalities… But the thing that moves in doesn’t originate in space-time. It has no being – though it doesn’t not exist – and so it immediately elapses in being, and being itself undergoes a…”
“Hmm,” said ZeuS.
I laughed. “Exactly.”
The robotic arm hung motionless over the man.
“The scan is finished,” said ZeuS. “Xia Yuan is in the laboratory analysing the data. Would you like to speak to her?”
“Yes please.” There was a hum as the call was connected. “Hi Xia.”
“Hi Hanna.” I heard Xia put a cup down on a wooden table. “Any news?”
“Yes and no,” she said.
I switched the screen on and Xia appeared on the glazed partition to the observation room. A stool emerged from the floor. I leant up against it and the seat pushed me up a little further. Xia had her dark hair in plaits. She was wearing her narrow glasses and her head was tilted to one side. Her lips formed a smile. Not a good sign.
“What’s up?” I said.
“There’s nothing new on Mr. Kambala, so no change there. He was just slightly warmer, but at 37.1°C his body temperature was always a little high. That explains the slower spread of the fungus; it was nothing to do with his immune system. The deviation was proportionate, but the spores are broader and the stipes a little longer.” She nodded several times. Hard chin, soft brow.
“Broader and longer,” I repeated.
“Yes, only very slightly, but enough to be more than just a coincidence. At any rate, the increase is too uniform. ZeuS is sure of that. But this also means it’ll be easier to filter the spores,” said Xia, without smiling. Her lips stiffened.
“It’s learning to fly,” I said, “It wants to spread out and go further. Anything that holds it back is just a barrier.”
“Stop it,” said Xia, “You’re freaking me out. This is good news. We need some good news for a change.” She didn’t believe the good news. If she did she’d have been playing with her hair, not nervously pressing her fingers together. “Would you like someone new in observation?” she asked.
“A child maybe?”
Xia hesitated. “Maybe not?”
“Maybe not,” I agreed.
The sound of Xia’s breathing brushed the back of my neck. It reminded me of a thin curtain in the wind, the whisper of a paternal voice. The robotic arm withdrew to its position behind a panel in the wall. A cover extended from below the bed to enclose the corpse. The carriage set off and conveyed the dead man out through the door. Good night, Geraldo.
“I’ll take a look and send you some of the more interesting cases,” said Xia, “But no kids, okay?”
Xia smiled, picked her coffee up and disappeared off screen.
“ZeuS, can I go outside?” I asked.
“Terrace or tunnel?”
“Easterly wind, I’m afraid.”
“With proper procedure it would take around ninety minutes to get to the exit.”
“Okay.” It was too late for a walk in the buffer zone.
The image of Xia’s place was no longer showing on the screen. Geraldo Kambala and his plexiglass coffin were gone. I stood up. The stool sank into the floor. The doors slid open, but only fully disappeared into the walls after I’d turned around. Barely audible, an artificial breeze was blowing up and down the corridors. I wandered left and noticed that the soles of my shoes were leaving impressions in the rubber flooring. I kept going. Looking back I saw my footsteps disappear. As I stepped into the elevator, the imprints faded from the floor, like I was coming out of a trance. I took the elevator all the way to the archive in the tower. As soon as I stepped out into the vestibule I noticed that there was no smell of flowers any more. The air was fresh and clear. The floral fragrance was gone. So suddenly?
A door led from the lobby to the office space in the tower. I’d rarely used it. Normally I worked in the observation room, or preferably the kitchen. But right now I wanted to be able to see as far as possible. The office windows were as wide as cinema screens and the view over the treetops stretched all the way to the horizon. It was darkening by the minute.
“ZeuS, weather please,” I said. A satellite image of the clouds appeared on the windows indicating the course of the approaching weather front. The storm had off-loaded its rain between the coast and the city. They’d have thunder and lightning in a few hours” time.
I picked up a tablet, lowered myself into an armchair and swiped through the cases Xia had selected for me.
“ZeuS, what do you think?” I asked the AI.
“I would shrug if I could,” said ZeuS.
“That’s what I thought.”
Pages zipped across the screen: reports, pictures, animations, videos. I saw pained faces, collapsed chests, contorted legs. Expressions of grief and gladness. I watched spores working their way into bodies, establishing themselves in the bloodstream and the lungs, nestling into the cerebral cortex and spreading through the body. But there was always something missing; it was impossible to know exactly what was happening. However deep we went into the material, there was always a new level with new questions leading to new discoveries, and so on and so forth all the time. I looked away and stared at my hand for several minutes. I could read what was going on there. I picked up the tablet again: bodies and faces like code without a key. I listened to some more recordings of patients’ last words. The obscure sounds arranged themselves into an ineffable message that seemed to be on the tip of my tongue, while all the data – the temperatures, case numbers and immune reactions – just became a confused mass, an occult language in a demonic conspiracy. Diagrams of all the medical data lit up like alchemical symbols on a magical portal. Again I looked at my hand. Lightning struck the horizon where I supposed the city must have been. I’d already been sitting in the armchair for two hours. I looked down at my finger. There was no question. Of course. How could it be otherwise?
“ZeuS, power up the CT scanner please,” I said.
“Powered up,” said ZeuS.
“No, not the one in the quarantine wing. For me,” I said.
“Standard procedure?” asked ZeuS.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” I said.
I walked to the elevator, took it down to the lab, then had a hard time following the corridor because it was way too straight. It’s not easy to make a straight line. How much effort went into this one? I had to dream of the woods to get a grip, to regain control of my body. Gradually my legs started moving in sync again.
When I got to the CT room I lay down on the machine and shut my eyes. The ultrasound and spectrogram motors started chattering. Before I could even breathe out, the machine turned clockwise and quickly but smoothly glided through a membrane into the airlock on the other side of the station, the quarantine zone. The rattle of servos filled the empty room. I sat up, turned on the bed and put my feet on solid ground. I was now in quarantine, looking into the lab through the reinforced glass. A bed rolled in, its plexiglass cover still open. It came to a stop with a click of the electric motor.
“I’m sorry, Hanna,” said ZeuS.
“Yeah,” I said.
My brain scan lit up the monitors on the safe side of the facility. Currents and fields pulsated on the image of my cerebral cortex. The CT scan pictured stipes and spores in a variety of colors. The spores would soon be released into the cerebrum; I would die; the fungal secretion would pass out through my eyes, ears and mouth, through my sweat glands – through every opening in my body. It would grow, it would wait on the wind and ultimately it would move on.
Xia came online, I immediately heard her sobbing. Her nature was palpable in the trembling of her shoulders, tales from her childhood rolled down her cheeks, she was full of love and fully capable of conveying this through her fingertips.
“Don’t cry,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said Xia.
We barely spoke. She cried, fumbled for words. Her hair down now, she waved goodbye as though we’d meet again. I’d got onto the bed and was being conveyed down the aisles of the observation room. In a few hours the waking delirium would set in. I could smell wild-flower meadows again.
“We’ve moved the perimeter back a hundred kilometres,” came the report from Jurek. “The facility is now sealed off.”
“Do you feel anything yet?” asked Jurek.
“Yes. It’s like movement, as though I’m melting through layers of stone to get free. It’s more astonishing by the second. Really, it’s incredible.” I paused. “And what do you do now?”
“Remote observation. We watch and act like there’s still something we can do. ZeuS will have to take it from here.”
“I’ll do what I can,” said ZeuS.
The bed rolled quietly through the corridors. Echoes of patients’ cries faded away several floors below me, but the core cut through. We crossed a glazed gangway. I looked over to the platform. It was dark over the forest. The rain was playing on the leaves, its patter quivered in the air.
“The rain’s passing over me,” I said.
“Yes,” said Jurek.
“I know where it’s come from,” I said, “the ocean from which this rainwater evaporated.”
“It’ll pass,” said Jurek. He hesitated. “You’re the ninth from just one team, and the fourth this quarter.”
“So it’s picking up.”
“And going further,” said Jurek.
“So now what?”
“The masts for the spore readings are almost ready. I reported back on that two hours ago, just after you…” Jurek hesitated.
“…after I moved to the other side,” I finished his sentence for him.
“Yep. The priority now is the masts. Then the Cairo protocol comes into force, and if it goes on like this for the next thirty days…” said Jurek.
“Which it will,” I said.
“Well, then…” Jurek paused. We didn’t have to say it.
“It’s such a shame,”
“It really is.”
“But also because it’s so incredible,” I said.
“You’d recommend it?” Jurek laughed.
“In moderation,” I joked.
Jurek broke out in resounding laughter. It caught his tears. A memory from his youth was tugging at his shoulders, bearing down on him. His agitation, sympathy and unease were all expressed in the gesture of his hands, which had momentarily risen to cover his face.
“Can I stay with you?” asked Jurek, letting his hands drop.
“Sure,” I said.
“Anyone I should contact?”
“Better not,” I said.
With a click, the bed came to a stop in the observation room where Mr. Kambala had been just a few hours ago. I was already full of energy, becoming flux. There was too much going on for me to say what I was feeling. Jurek kept talking. He was telling me about his wife and daughter. It was his way of dealing with the awkwardness of the situation. The energy was forcing its way out in waves, passing through my skin, my eyes and my mouth, like emancipation and gratification, penetration and extraction – like love. I opened my eyes wide and let them snap shut again. Jurek paused for a moment, then went on talking. I wasn’t listening. I was losing all sense of time. I spoke to him, though I barely knew what I was saying:
“Like when the inside comes into being, an inside in the process of becoming… it’s passing right through me. It’s the self… but also the non-self, the un-self. It’s finding itself, without standing out or coming… finding itself on the outside, where it’s completely different, like it doesn’t even exist… no being, no becoming, more like retrospection. And it’s only when the outside has rushed into you that it comes into being… in that moment, when the outside flows in and the inside gets out, they pass each other, enticing and longing… and in this moment of surrender – almost a kiss – the gentle breath from the lips of the being-in-itself touches the leaving-of-the-self… and for all the closeness – a closeness that can never be – they pass each other by. And for me? It’s like I’m finally taking off this outer casing, becoming aware of it… and at the same time seeing and grasping and looking at it from the inside… and then there’s an encounter in my eyes after all… and the knowledge that becoming is just a place.”
Inside and outside embraced in my eyes, their lips met in a parting reunion. I heard Jurek for the last time:
The barriers disintegrated; the inside got out and the outside rushed in; and, yes, that was it, it was there, it was so.
— Leszek Stalewski is a German writer of Polish origin, and studied German Literature at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Since 2010, he has been professionally involved in the production of contemporary art and works as production assistant, art handler and framer at the Venice Biennial, Goethe-Insitute-Washington-DC and Hamburger Bahnhof, among others. His first publication appeared in the magazine “Sprache im technischen Zeitalter” #225 in 2018. He also collaborates with and writes for artists and a text of his is currently featured in an exhibition in the Staedtische Galerie Wolfsburg.
— Jonathan Blower is a British translator with over ten years’ experience translating German texts on the visual arts. He studied architectural history and German at Edinburgh and Cambridge. His translations of art historical works include Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, Harald Szeemann’s Selected Writings and Julius Schlosser’s Art and Curiosity Cabinets. He is currently translating a work on visions and revelations in the visual art of the Middle Ages.