Contribution to the online magazine Texted in 2016. It is a short story connected to a longer piece for later publication.
This one, though, is specifically focused on eco-horror and existential anxiety.
Keith watches closely as the plant’s tissue opens and its cell walls are broken for the bacterial agents to enter. Keith is behind a screen, pressing his forehead against it. He watches a robot arm do the job. The robot lowers the plant into the liquid containing the experimental genome. Keith scratches his arm. He has been anxious about these procedures for a while. He has been dreaming of a field lately – of him in this field. In the dream, he is conducting various, uncommon investigations. There is something about the grass but the dream does not reveal it. Keith has woken more than once with an image of green sticking to different parts of his body. This has happened since Keith disconnected himself from his phylum.
Leaving the room next to the laboratory, Keith wanders restlessly about. He does not want to admit it to himself but he does not know what to do. The life at the upper levels of the building toward the late hours always fills with people like Keith – anxiously wandering about, dozing off here and there, always alone like single cell entities in a stirred environment. By stirring their bodies among each other, they hope to calm the upset situations of their own nervous systems. Cracking his fingers continuously, Keith waits in front of a coffee machine to get a tea. In the minute, he is wondering whether he chooses to be here to be alone or whether he would like to join a social activity. There is definitely some kind of exercise, fitness class, a reading group going on. But this is not what he wants. Judith left many hours ago. She for now seems to be the only person Keith would like to make contact with, even though recently he has been avoiding her as well. Keith scratches his arm again. He wonders if there is a psychiatrist in at this hour. He takes an elevator down to see if there are any open consultations.
Getting out on the floor of the psychiatrists’ sector, Keith scans the surfaces of the walls of the offices. They all signal empty except one. Keith has not been in this one before. He gently, almost inaudibly, knocks the door to an immediate response for him to enter. As Keith enters the office, he sees a skinny female with thin, dark hair and a dark blue suit. She is gazing up from her screen for a moment, signalling for Keith to sit down.
‘Feeling anxious today, Keith?’
‘Yes, anxious again.’
The thin face, dark brown eyes under bushy eyebrows look up again for just a second: ‘Your medication is already ready for you but first I have to ask you some questions, okay?’
‘I understand you are often alone, do you see other people?’
‘”Not many”…’ The screen lights up her pale face as the psychiatrist types in Keith’s journal.
‘You have mentioned previously something about a split, a displacement of some sort. Can you elaborate on this?’
Keith gets uneasy from this question. This was from before he took out his gel-lens to avoid his phylum. Keith clears his throat with no luck: ‘Yes, this is some time ago of course. I feel much better now.’
‘Still feeling split, I see.’
Keith is annoyed. He had hoped not to talk about this at all: ‘Yes, I guess. But it is much better now.’
‘”Much better…” I see,’ while typing the psychiatrist talks into the screen, almost as if she talks directly to the screen, ‘so you cut off your lens some time ago? What is your primary connection now, then?’
Another surprise question, what happened to the standards? Did Keith end up on some special cases list?
‘Yes. Well. I have been connected…I guess. I am talking to my colleagues, or at least one.’
‘I am talking about your primary connection, Keith, not who you’re chatting with. If you don’t use your lens, and by the way, this is very rare. I am being curious here, Keith, and you have a chance to talk to a professional, rare one for you again,’ the brown eyes narrow as they move closer to the screen, ‘My name is Keel.’
Keith’s sweaty face frowns up to the person in front of him.
Keel smiles at a pencil on her desk while she seemingly talks to it while saying: ‘Don’t worry, I’m just curious.’
‘The pencil is…?’
‘For writing, what did you think?’
‘It’s a crop.’
‘A crop?’ Keel stops typing, still looking at the pencil.
‘I work in the crops section, agriculture. There’s a specific type of grass that I’m monitoring. There’s a mutation in the cell, a microbe-coating. I’m monitoring its development.’
‘How does that connect you, is it the phylum?’
‘Yes, no, no it isn’t. I’m monitoring the genomes development. It is spreading so to speak, between plants and…across species.’
Keel’s raises her eyebrows to the hairline: ‘Well, of course we get affected – internally as well. This is normal. Are you thinking about something else?’
‘Your…your pencil…can I have it?’
‘Sure, you may have it, if it can help you.’ Keith grabs the pencil and holds on to it tightly. He did not know why he asked for it. He does not even remember how to use it.
As Keith leaves the psychiatry-area with a fresh tube of pills and a new appointment with Keel, he thinks to himself: ‘This stuff doesn’t make sense…what about all those questions?’ Keith looks at his appointment note. He is going to meet Keel for a talk next week. While he is thinking about the last time he spoke to someone like this, he starts to remember something he saw in the microscope the other day. He looks at the pencil, thinking: ‘Maybe I should start to write things down.’
In the morning, Keith sees that someone prepared his microscope for him with a sample. Apart from this, his office looks untouched with the two screens on the desk next to the electron microscope standing tall on the left of the desk. The room is very small. All surfaces are white except for the floor, which is in grey vinyl. It is lit from the ceiling and always very bright. Keith feels cold sweat in his armpits – his heart is pounding. He swallows a lump in his throat and approaches his desk. He throws his jacket on the floor next to the desk and stares into the computer screen for a few minutes, constantly eyeing the sample behind the green glass in the compartment of the electron microscope. Hesitantly he moves closer to the compartment. Keith gazes at the grass from the bottom where the cut is. His eyes follow along the slim stem with a single leaf coming out. The sample is young. Keith takes a deep breath as his eyes run up to the head of the plant. Keith looks quickly at the image on the screen: ellipsoid, with six small flagella pointing out. He loosens his tie, unties a button on his shirt, and drinks some water from a purifier from yesterday. The taste is metallic. Some of the water spills in his crotch making him curse. He looks at the second screen. The numbers are already running in.
Keith’s heavy breathing intertwines with the rhythm of the machine. Small drops of sweat run from his head, over his face and fall off from the tip of his nose. The composite genome of the grass is stuck in his head, though he is trying to expel it with physical exhaustion. The composition as well as his previous arousal has turned into a complex for him. He does not know what to tell others. As he is spinning away on the exercise bike, he is starring without focus on the blank wall. The others on the row have tuned themselves into their lenses, Keith has not, he only has the wall in front of him and his confused emotions to keep his thoughts occupied. This means Keith can too hear the breathing and machinic spinning of the others in the entire room. He turns his head to the right and looks down the row. Concentrated eyes focussing on images that no one else can see. All of them each connected to their own phylum. Some might be in converging phylums, it is hard to see from the outside. Everyone is having the same sweaty face, nodding rhythmically. Keith looks back at the wall, imagining the tissue, the green spit from the plant’s leaves. He imagines the composite body entering his body, multiplying in it. The differences in each cell are hard to see but they are all different, all moving, all working. Keith does not know why he is attracted to the grass in itself. When he thinks of what he scans through the microscope – the horror of the molecules. Osmosis perverted.
The genes transfer as they transform, it has always been like this. When several people are in a room, they mutate into each other’s bodies on a microbial level, breathing, traveling microbes. It has always been like this. Now, however, Keith feels as if he is not used to it, somehow he feels estranged to the fact that he is a container of other bodies. This makes Keith feel anxious, he knows this, it has been like this as long as he remembers. Keith ponders his own touch to the handles of the exercise bike. The longing of being in the middle of the flow, not touching. Longing for the invisible core, the hard nut on the inside which feels like a physical object but is not. Keith tightens his grip. He starts to feel dizzy from the moisture in the room, the hot air.
‘Hi there.’ Judith has been standing next to Keith for a few seconds waiting for him to notice. Since he has not, she decides to say, which makes Keith jump: ‘Wow, didn’t mean to do that, are you
‘Yes. Sorry, a bit deep in the phylum today.’
‘Thought you cut off?’
‘Did. Well, the other one.’
‘Sure…did you see a psychiatrist yesterday?’
‘How do you know?’
‘You told me yourself, remember? You said you needed another meeting to get clearer. I guess, you needed more pills as well.’
‘Yes, sure, I got them.’
‘What is it? Not the right ones?’
‘It was a new one, she asked me new questions. I’m starting to worry, really worry about my life.’
‘What is there to worry about? Do you want to change floor? There are some positions closer to my department and then we could hang out more.’
‘What about outside?’
‘Well, you can go outside too. Go scouting, field work?’ Judith starts to look worried as well. Keith usually keeps these things to himself, so she has never had to talk about them before. ‘Why do you worry? You are probably going to change place soon.’
‘I worry that I will die.’
Judith stares at Keith for several seconds with open mouth before she asks: ‘Why?’
‘It gets more and more stuck to my mind. It sticks to everything I think about.’
‘Change your work, Keith, I mean it.’
‘It’s worse when I don’t work, Judith. I fear that the molecules glue together and nothing becomes movable. I feel the inseparability, this is the crystalized surface as it mutates. It is not only the grass…’ Keith falls off the exercise-bike and lies flat on the floor, Judith rushes to help him sit up. After a while, he whispers: ‘The layer, there is a layer, it has not stopped… This is why I need to go out, to see for myself.’