Imaginary Numbers

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Revelations

Krugersdorp, South Africa


At the triage desk of the Krugersdorp Hospitaal, Marius was faced with a true dilemma of identity.

Naam, meneer?” the nurse asked again, then rephrased in English, “Your name, sir?” In his pocket, through the denim jeans soaked with blood, Marius could feel the rectangular bite of the credit card he had stolen from Dr. Borgiac. He had been financing his way out of Switzerland by fraudulently using the professor’s identity, yet, here he was facing a girl asking directly about his name. If he answered “Dr. Charles William Borgiac” as he had been doing for the last month, he could use the credit card to pay for the hospital charges. If he answered truthfully, he would be giving up the charade permanently. The money was not the issue really. He had enough Swiss Franc to cover the hospital bill which would only be a fraction when converted to Rand. The real issue was his own future, in other words, taking responsibility for his actions.

Meneer, are you okey? Do you need some water?” He looked her in the eye, and in her countenance he saw himself reflected. She diverted her eyes coyly.

My naam is Marius van Niekerk,” he admitted. She wrote it down, thanked him and asked him for next of kin. He shook his head.

An orderly came with a wheelchair and sat him in it. The nurse gave him a shot of morphine, while the orderly raised his leg, and adjusted the wheelchair. The nurse checked the bandage on his leg, and said a room number to the orderly. The man’s long black arms shone under the fluorescent lights, and he placed a hand on Marius’ shoulder.

Sah, you lucky to survive. Animal attacks is bad. Most people look worse than you. You lucky.” The orderly pushed him down a long hallway towards the emergency. “Last week a girl was bit by a snake, and today we have two other animal attacks. I dunno what iz happening. These animals…” The effects of the morphine coursed through his veins spreading warmth along its way. The pain faded to a distant distraction, and the motion of rolling through the hallway became mesmerizing. He closed his eyes and his head felt heavy. The orderly was still talking about animals, about how nature seemed to be rebelling against civilization, and how something unusual was afoot. Marius came to a complete stop and opened his eyes, he watched the orderly open the doors manually, and saw a room divided with curtains. The sounds inside were unfamiliar, blurred, and mixed a variety of voices with klinking metal against metal and rhythmic mechanical beeping. There was a cacophony of activity behind a pair of closed curtains. His vision fell to the floor: linoleum tiles sliding beneath him. He was floating over the ground, and beneath the curtains, many feet stuck out, rotating around a patient on a gurney.

When he looked up, the world blurred from a moment, light piercing his dilated pupils like a sunlight spear falling through a tiny window above the metal bed.

“Can you get up, Sah? Or must I help you?” Marius regarded the tall black man with a shaved head. He had a hairlip and cauliflower ears. He seemed like a Saharan, maybe a Nigerian, definitely not a South African man. But most of these details were lost in the fog of Marius’ mind. He saw only a man wanting something, but what that was, he could not understand.

Sah?”

“Yes?”

“Let me help you up.” And he placed his hands under Marius’ armpits. “You a heavy man. A strong man,” he said with effort as he lifted Marius onto the lowered bed. “The doctors are coming soon. Just wait.” Then he pulled the curtains around the bed, obscuring the outer world and leaving Marius only with the spiralling interior world inside his own mind.

When Marius closed his eyes, he heard only the professor’s voice narrating his thoughts. But the professor was speaking Afrikaans. Bubbles of unintelligent speech popped, and he wondered what the meerkats were doing. He felt a numbness creeping up his injured leg, heard a persistent grating sound, perhaps telephoned straight into his ear through a can with a string attached to it. Then there was a release of pressure around his leg. No pain, just pressure. Inside his head, the professor faded away, and the interior monologue became a folk song from his youth. A song the kids used to sing about Sarie Marais, who laid an egg under a bridge. They were lyrics the children altered to piss off the adults. He recognized, among the chorus of voices, his own as a child. It sounded like a recording made on a gramophone, and it echoed around his head. His own childlike voice had started talking now, asking him if he was happy. “Wat het jy gedoen?” it asked, demanding an answer to his naughty actions in the same way his father might have done. Marius, instinctively and almost childishly, defended himself. He told the boy that he was only trying to be good, that it wasn’t his fault, that maybe it was all part of God’s plan, that he hadn’t known it would turn out this way. He was warm, and worn down, like a rusting piece of metal left in the sun.

When he opened his eyes, he realised that the doctors had been working on his leg, and that perhaps he had spoken his muttered defense out loud. He grimaced and closed his eyes again, this time witnessing the animals he had made inhabiting a prehistoric world. They were happy there, because there were no humans. He swallowed hard, his throat sandpaper. His thoughts were gradually becoming clearer, less narcotic, and he was able to consider the grave implication of his creatures for a brief moment before the cloudy nebula of morphine drew his consciousness away from reality towards a rainbow of butterflies migrating across the sun.

When he woke up, it was hours later and he was in a different room. His left arm was connected to a series of tubes, bags, and pumps hanging from a metal hook. In the corner of the room, a TV was on, providing flashes of light and an ambient noise of advertisements. He was still surrounded by curtains, and it felt like he woke up with a mild hangover. He looked down at his leg, which was covered by a blanket, despite the hot temperature inside the building. It was sore, and the pain caused a simultaneous pounding in his thigh and in his head.

Alone with just himself, he decided it was better to go back to sleep than wonder aimlessly about his role in what happened to Tannie Noepie.

* * *

Later, during his brief visit by a doctor, he tried his best to make conversation. The Chinese man was a visiting surgeon, and something of a rarity so far in-land. His English was excellent. The man seemed permanently jovial, and his bedside manner allowed Marius to open up to him.

As he changed the dressing on Marius’ leg, they talked about animals, and tea.

“Yes,” the doctor said, “since I’ve been here, I’ve come to like rooibos tea. Of course, it’s better without milk. And to be honest, I do miss a good cup of oolong.”

Oolong?

“Indeed. It is a Chinese black tea.”

“Well,” Marius said, “Africa must be very different. Was it difficult to get here?”

“Oh no, no. There is a direct flight from Hong Kong. These days Chinese businessmen are investing heavily in Africa.” There was a pause, and Marius flinched as the blood encrusted dressing was removed. “However, I did need to get a lot of inoculations. Africa has many diseases unfamiliar to us Asians. That’s why they have had so much trouble fighting animal extinctions, in fact. If it weren’t for the animals’ immune systems, they could easily drop a few rhinos in Indonesia to breed. Or vice-versa.”

“Pardon?”

“I mean, animals build up resistances to the illnesses in their environment, if you place a new virus in an ecosystem, it will destroy most living things, since they would never have come across it. They have no immunity, so they can’t fight it.”

“What kind of virus?”

“For example, when westerners came to the New World, they brought with them small pox, which is a virus unknown to humans in the Americas in the seventeenth century. Although the Europeans had superior weapons, it was the infected blankets they traded that did much more damage to the natives. The mortality rate from the variola virus in North America was eighty- to ninety-percent.”

“Interesting.”

“Well, I’m happy that you have such a keen interest in science.”

“Actually, I used to live in Geneva. I walked past the monument for the eradication of small pox daily.”

“Oh! Are you a diplomat, then?” Tightening his lips, Marius hesitated.

“I’m an actor.”

“I see.”

When the doctor left, Marius closed his eyes, and dove deeply into his memory, recalling one of the first nanotechnology conferences he had attended as the professor. The theme of his presentation was on engineering a measles virus to fight tumors. Since it was one of his first presentations, he never took the time to study the material. Instead he learned his lines by rote, simply memorizing the words themselves.

Behind the curtain surrounding his bed, he tried to fit together the monologue piecemeal, pronouncing the difficult words slowly in the Italian accent of Dr. Borgiac.

For this reason, attenuated measles viruses are potent and selective oncolytic agents showing impressive antitumor activity in mouse xenograft models. The viruses can be engineered to enhance their tumor specificity, increase their antitumor potency, and facilitate noninvasive in vivo monitoring of their spread.” The diagrams and microscope videos replayed in his mind. A needle injecting the DNA into a virus. The double helix re-assembling inside the nucleus of a tiny pathogen. Extracting the long fibrous DNA protein strands by sifting and shaking, and mixing various chemicals. Slowly, the more he put himself in character, the more the information was coming back to him. He could visualize himself in a white coat stirring a solution, and placing a test tube into the centrifuge. He remembered the Q&A session, in which he struggled to recite the correct answers to the prepared questions. All the various shards of memory floated across his consciousness and fitted together in a stain glass window of processes and multi-syllabic terms that define the method for engineering a virus.

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