Imaginary Numbers

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Patient Zero

The whitewashed walls of the abattoir gleamed under the flickering bolts of lightning. The professor parked the pickup truck under a dead tree, but left the lights on, casting two bright spotlights onto the warehouse door.

“This is it,” Vivienne said and smiled an encouraging smile at the professor. Then she stepped out, opening the door to a rushing noise of dust scraping across the metal of the car.

She walked up to the door, but it was locked. She shrugged, and the professor tried lifting it to no avail.

“Let’s walk around!” he suggested, and they followed the perimeter of the building. Every door they tried was locked, but at the back, Vivienne noticed a small window high against the wall. She pointed to it, and the professor formed a step below it with his fingers intertwined. He boosted her up, and to her surprise, the window opened. She slid in on her stomach and flipped into the building. It was dark inside.

Against the edge of the wall, she sensed movement. Something crashed onto the floor.

The professor banged loudly against the door, and it gave her a sense of where she should go. She felt her way there, stepping into a soft muddy texture that stuck to her shoes. She used the edge of a table to guide her towards the door.

When it opened, the professor stepped inside, and used his cell phone screen as a torch. Vivienne felt for a light switch, but it didn’t work.

A sudden wind slammed the door shut, and inside on the other side of the room, they heard a sound of something moving.

“Vivienne?” the professor whispered in fear. He shone his light back and forth, illuminating the hard contours of a variety of lab equipment. The wind whistled through the open window, and a lightning bolt threw a square of whiteness onto a human form across the room.

“Who’s there?” the professor asked, but no one responded.

He put his back against the wall and heard a scurrying sound.

“Professor, bring the light,” Vivienne demanded.

“There’s someone here, Vivienne,” he said, trying desperately to penetrate the darkness with his eyes. “Marius?” he asked, but again there was no answer.

“Professor, I think I found the fuse box.” There was a click and a buzzing sound of electricity returning to the building. “Try the light now,” Vivienne said, her voice coming closer slowly. The professor slid his hand against the wall and flicked the switch.

Fluorescent lights flickered on, revealing a glossy oil all over the floor, and against the warehouse door, a body in a wheelchair, unrecognizable except for its immense frame and bulky form, which could only belong to the professor’s proxy agent.

“Marius!” he said, and closed his eyes. The image of the rotting man, red and blackened skin peeling off his bones remained frozen in his mind. Marius’ blue eyes were staring at them like icy cold orbs, the cavity of his nose exposed and leaking a viscous black liquid.

Vivienne pulled a blanket off the cot in the fuse room and covered the charred, necrotic corpse with it.

“It’s okay now, William,” she said. “It looks like we found him, but now what do we do?”

Outside, the wind whipped the shell of the building, and after a few moments to recover, the professor began to inspect the lab. He checked the microscope, which was zoomed tightly onto the brackish residue of protein and arsenic melted together indiscriminately. There are some labeled test tubes, which was the source of a malignant odour. The professor found a number of plastic cages with piles of yellow goo inside. He wanted to investigate further, but had no desire to touch any of the biological experiments without gloves, which, despite a thorough search, they couldn’t find. He also spied his own credit card on a small side table.

“Look at this, William.” Vivienne was holding a camcorder on a tripod. “I think he was recording something.”

“Interesting. Shall we watch?”

She rewound it for a few minutes, and when she pressed play, the image of a very handsome man stared into the camera.

“Hello there, world!” he said charismatically. “Today we test the serum.” He held up a vial and shook it for the viewer. “There you have it, a virus after my own design. Of course,” he smiled, “I added a little spice to it. What is life without a bit of flavour?”

The camera cut to a shots of the lab from the table. Marius wheeled himself across the screen, a bunch of stuff in his lap.

“Why is he in a wheelchair?” the professor asked.

“Okay world. This is the first live test of the solution that will rid the world forever of these beasts. I have here the first meerkat,” he said and pulled the camera closer. It shots the little animal up close.

“Poor little thing,” Vivienne and Marius both said. The professor looked at her, then they listened to Marius’ soliloquy. “I do feel bad for it. I made this one, you know.” He paused and petted it gently. “The more time I spend with him, the more I think that this one is the first one. The original meerkat. My first,” he said. The animal nuzzled his hand. “Unfortunately, sacrifices have to be made for the greater good.”

He replaced the camera on the table where Vivienne found it, and injected the animal. “You see,” he continued, “these meerkats are the perfect animal for it, in fact. In nature, they are one of only a handful of truly altruistic species.” He spun himself around on the wheelchair, and rolled a bit closer to the camera. “One of the clan will always stand guard, positioning himself on two legs while the rest sleep or eat. That one sentinel will stand watch, and if he sees danger he will attack, no matter how big the animal is. The little guy will do this just to give his family some time to escape. They are unique like that. Not a lot of animals will do that kind of thing, you know.” He rolled back and proceeded to the next cage. When unlocked it, hanging his hand inside, the meerkat licked his fingers. “In some ways,” Marius waxed philosophically, “I wish I was more like them. In my life, I’ve always been looking out just for myself. But these little guys have changed my mind about so many things. Had I been more altruistic…” he paused, staring beyond the lens of the camera. “Sorry,” he said. “I guess, it just makes me realise things. As a species, it might be good for us to be more like these. I mean, I wish I was more like this little guy.” Then he picked up the needle, and explained how he is using a stronger dosage each time.

“Double the last,” he explained as he refilled the needle with a serum. “The last trial was a failure, but I’m certain that this is the way forward.” He placed the needle on his lap and wheeled himself forward. “I haven’t made any changes to the formula, but I’m just going to up the dosage.” He stared into the camera, and raised one eyebrow. “If this doesn’t work, then I’ll try making the serum more concentrated.” Then he flexed his arms as he spun himself around, balancing on his wheels. He was showing off for the camera.

“Ouch,” he yelped, his face betraying his shock. “O liewe Vader!” he said in Afrikaans, then in a terrible panic, he shut off the camera abruptly.

The professor was covering his mouth with his hand when Vivienne looked at him.

“He infected himself,” he said. “Marius is patient zero.”

“I feel bad for him, professor. I think he was genuinely trying to help.”

“The disease spread from him to the clay creatures, to the environment beyond. But that begs two questions: Why are we not affected yet? And how can we stop it?”

He jumped into action immediately, scraping some of the ooze from the floor onto a microscope slide, and placing it on the tray.

“Vivienne, maybe I can stop this. If only I can find out the source of his virus. He must have used something that was around.” The professor was talking to himself, grabbing a number of test tubes, swabbing them, and continuing in a dizzying display of scientific activity. “Everything here has degraded past the point of any use…” He was frantic. “I know I can fix this! ...Wish I had some gloves. Vivienne, you haven’t seen gloves anywhere, have you?” She didn’t reply, and he simply continued his rush.

When he picked up the vial, he noticed that the tips of his fingers had started to turn black.

“Oh no. This is not good.”

Vivienne approached and took his hand. She felt the blackened tip of his middle finger. “Professor,” she said, looking deep into him.

“I suppose it was only a matter of time,” he frowned. “Which makes finding a cure all the more important.” He withdrew his hand and looked into the microscope.

“I don’t understand. It must be here somewhere. Some clue I am missing.”

Vivienne pulled the blanket off Marius and stared into his exposed eyeballs. Why would he do this? she thought. Maybe he was trying to correct his past mistakes. Maybe this was all because he could not simply be himself, but instead he had to merge himself with the identity of the professor, causing an imperfect mutated outcome to something that had potential to truly help the world.

“It all seems so random…” the professor said to himself. “As if he just created the RNA haphazardly.”

Vivienne hoped to understand the man’s motivation, but his eyes gave her nothing. She replayed his speech about the meerkat again and again in her mind. Did he actually stumble across a universal truth there? When he wishes to be more like an altruistic meerkat, did he come to a conclusion that had changed his heart? She wondered if every action Marius had ever committed was simply to be noticed by those around him. Was he plagued by recognition? Is this what caused his downfall? The downfall of every living thing around him? If he was patient zero, she thought, was he simply a pawn in a world spinning beneath him, spiralling out of his control? She felt sorry for him. She understood him. Somehow they were alike, both searching for a true identity, both trying to be good in their own ways, but the ultimate outcome of his hubris led to this. She looked around and saw a tiny yellow meerkat scurrying in the corner of the building.

“Come here,” she said, and picked up the animal. It had a little glass paw on its front leg. “Poor little thing. Are you sick?” She held it tightly, then showed the professor.

“Sorry, Vivienne,” he said tersely, “I must find a cure. I cannot waver.” He was preoccupied, and didn’t even look up when she placed the creature into his carry-on bag. Outside a bolt of lightning tore up the sky, turning the window into a pane of whiteness.

“I can see the code…” the professor said. “Vivienne,” he said, engrossed with the RNA strips magnified in the viewfinder of the microscope, “would you hand me a pad of paper and a pencil, please?”

The only answer he heard was the ripping, grinding voice of the wind as the back door opened.

“Vivienne!” he yelled. The blanket blew off Marius, revealing his degraded remains. Dr. Borgiac stepped towards the door, and there, standing in the liminal space of the frame, he watched Vivienne walk into the darkness.

For the first time, he noticed that he was sweating profusely, his neck was stiff, and despite the corpse of his friend, he had no desire to leave the building. He watched her walk into the void. Sand bit at his face, and the dark ceiling of the sky was illuminated by silver flashes leaping from cloud to cloud.

He was stuck in the doorframe. Then with a deep inhale of dusty, decaying air and a summoned determination, he stepped out into the gloomy landscape.

His entire body stung. He coughed, his eyes burned, and his fingertips were overheating. He touched the scar on his face: a raised seared X, that felt every particle of sand colliding with it in painful precision.

The air was dense, disgusting, and felt charged. A static energy tugged every one of his hairs in a different direction. He felt like he was being raised off the ground. Gravity itself was resigning from its trusty post. He looked into the void and half expected to see ghosts emerge. Forces pulled him in all directions and when he looked back, he had lost the building. Is that way the way back? he wondered. The wind was a vortex, swallowing all points of reference.

Above him, beside him, below him was only decay. He was lost in a landscape of death.

Where was Vivienne?

He shouted her name, but it was as if his very being was enveloped by the void. He looked at his fingers, and noticed that the necrosis had started creeping across his hand, up his forearm. He was vanishing into the blackness surrounding him.

“Vivienne!” he yelled. He had no idea which way was forwards and which back. The darkness had become an abyss, absorbing all life, and he felt himself draining away. His energy was waning, a fever took hold, and his fatigue spread into his limbs.

He dropped to his knees.

It was a worthy try, he thought. We almost did it. He considered Marius, and decided that he couldn’t be held accountable. He was a Frankenstein monster unleashed into the world with the tools of science laid out in front of him. In some ways, he thought, I am to blame for all of this. The wind gouged at the pores of his skin. It blew his fedora off his head.

As he searched the void for the girl that fell from the sky, he considered all the things he wished he had told her. He wished that he had kissed her in the cavern, wished he wasn’t such a coward. He wanted to tell her that his heart overflowed with love for her, and that it was this love that had made him strong enough to brave the darkness.

Suddenly, there was a bright flash as a lightning bolt burst a few meters away from him. The white beam persisted longer than normal, and inside it, like a perfect photo negative, was the silhouette of a girl. She was holding her hands up to the sky, reaching towards the clouds. The professor squinted his eyes, but he clearly saw the figure vanish through the white rip in the darkness. Then suddenly a blast of force erupted from the spot where she had stood a moment ago, and knocked him off his feet. It felt warm.

“Vivienne!” he shouted again, but the rumbling thunder masked his voice. In the heavens, where the bolt originated, a whizz of electrical activity sparked back and forth. A flare of white light danced across the burnt surface of the sky, and the clouds themselves carried this energy radially away from the pinprick in the middle.

Then at the source, there was an air-burst explosion, that dispersed the dark clouds, leaving a circular opening of blue sky.

The winds slowed, and through the dust, the professor could see the impenetrable blanket high above him slowly lighten, from black to grey, to blue-ish white. Although still heavy, the clouds were once again natural. Then he noticed the abattoir behind him.

The professor stood and shouted as loud as he could, “Vivienne!” But she was nowhere to be found. On his way back to the building, it began to snow.

It was a steady feathery snow that fell slowly. The professor held out his rotting blackened hand to catch a giant snowflake. It did not feel cold. It landed on his hand and melted warmly, exorcizing the decay from his skin. His hand returned to its former self, and when Dr. William Borgiac looked up at the sky, he felt like the snowflake was a farewell from the girl he met not so long ago.

“Goodbye, Vivienne,” he says. “And thank you.” Large snowflakes settled on the ground around him, returning life to the dead grass, and when they landed on his face, the swelling in his welted scar retreated, vanishing into his skin without a trace.

The dead tree shielding the pickup truck instantly bore tiny orange flowers that looked like earthly corral, and the sky lightened, clouds drifting apart leisurely, revealing a warm sun above. His skin tingled, and it felt like he had gotten a mild sunburn.

All around him he could hear the chirruping of insects, and from the branches of the tree, tweeting of birds. Everywhere around him, life returned, spreading a warm feeling on the breeze, as if spring had made a welcome surprise visit.

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